Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Mark Jancovich, American Horror from 1951


Mark Jancovich, American Horror from 1951

BAAS Pamphlet No. 28 (First Published 1994)

ISBN: 1 85331 149 9
  1. Chronology
  2. The Genre of Horror: General Theoretical Approaches
  3. Alienations: Outsiders in the 1950s
  4. The Emergence of Contemporary Horror
    i. Family Horrorsii. Apocalyptic Horroriii. Body/Horror
  5. Horror in the 1980s
    i. The Slasher Movie and the Serial Killerii. The Science Fiction/Horror Film in the 1980siii. Contemporary Horror Fiction by Women
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Notes
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1. Chronology

The Thing (dir. Christian Nyby).
The Day the Earth Stood Still (dir. Robert Wise).

It Came from Outer Space (dir. Jack Arnold).

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (dir. Jack Arnold).
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Jack Finney (London: Sphere, 1978) This version is slightly rewritten to update the text.
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson (London: Corgi, 1956).
Them! (dir. Gordon Douglas).

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (dir. Don Siegel).
The Shrinking Man (republished as The Incredible Shrinking Man), Richard Matheson (London: Sphere, 1956)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (dir. Jack Arnold).

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (London: Robinson, 1959).
Psycho, Robert Bloch (New York: Tor, 1959

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock).
The House of Usher (dir. Roger Corman).

The Premature Burial (dir. Roger Corman).
The Pit and the Pendulum (dir. Roger Corman).

The Haunted Palace (dir. Roger Corman).
The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock).

The Masque of the Red Death (dir Roger Corman).
The Tomb of Ligeia (dir. Roger Corman).

Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin (London: Pan, 1967)

Night of the Living Dead (dir. George Romero).
Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski).

The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton (New York: Dell, 1969).

The Omega Man (dir. Boris Sagal).

The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin).

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper).

Shivers or They Came From Within (dir. David Cronenberg).
Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg).
A Boy and His Dog (dir. L. Q. Jones).

The Omen (dir. Richard Dormer).
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice (London: Futura, 1977)

The Shining, Stephen King (London: New English Library, 1977).
Rabid (dir. David Cronenberg).
The Hills Have Eyes (dir. Wes Craven).
Damnation Alley (dir. Jack Smight).

The Stand, Stephen King (London: New English Library, 1978). Recently republished in an unabridged version.
Halloween (dir. John Carpenter).
Dawn of the Dead (dir. George Romero).
The Eyes of Laura Mars (dir. Irvin Kershner).

Alien (dir. Ridley Scott).
The Brood (dir. David Cronenberg).

The Vampire Tapestry, Suzy McKee Charnas (New York: Tor, 1980).
Friday the 13th
(dir. Sean S. Cunningham).

An American Werewolf in London (dir. John Landis).
The Howling (dir. Joe Dante).

Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg).
The Thing (dir. John Carpenter).

Familiar Spirit, Lisa Tuttle (New York: Tor, 1983)

The Terminator (dir. James Cameron).

The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice (London, Futura, 1985).
Day of the Dead (dir. George Romero).

Aliens (dir. James Cameron).
The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg).
Nest of Nightmares, Lisa Tuttle (London: Sphere, 1986).
The Stepfather (dir. Joseph Ruben).

Queen of the Damned, Anne Rice (London: Futura, 1988).
Women of Darkness, Kathryn Ptacek (New York: Tor, 1988)

The Silence of Lambs, Thomas Harris (London: William Heinemann, 1989).
Sunglasses After Dark, Nancy A. Collins (London: Futura, 1989).
The Abyss (dir. James Cameron).

Skin of the Soul, Lisa Tuttle, ed. (London: Women’s Press, 1990).
Tempter, Nancy A. Collins (London: Futura, 1990)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (dir. James Cameron).

In the Blood, Nancy A. Collins (London: New English Library, 1992)

2. The Genre of Horror: General Theoretical Approaches

From the early days of the Gothic novel, there have been moral panics in response to the horror genre. In 1797, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s novel, The Monk, provoked outrage, and sections of the text had to be removed in response to a threat of legal action. In the 1950s, there were campaigns in Britain and America which sought to ban American horror comics,[1] and in the 1980s, there were campaigns against so-called ‘video nasties’.[2] There was no clear definition of the term ‘video nasty’, but it was generally agreed that it referred to examples of horror and pornography. These two genres are often associated with one another, and they are frequently referred to in medical terms. They are referred to as ‘sick’ and ‘perverted’ forms which corrupt and contaminate the minds of their audience and the social body as a whole. These descriptions, and the attitudes on which they are based, are not limited to a small group of moral or cultural guardians. They have acquired the status of ‘obviousness’ and ‘commonsense’, and are shared by people with widely different political sympathies.

This situation has produced severe problems. Not only has it often been used to justify legislation which extends far beyond the realms of these genres themselves, but the supposed obviousness of these genres’ undesirability has meant that there has been little real investigation of their forms or effects.[3] In the case of horror, criticism either relies on assumptions about its undesirability, or else it tends to ignore claims about the representation of sex and violence altogether.[4]

This latter problem is related to a more general problem in the study of contemporary popular culture. Critics have either tended to define popular culture positively or negatively. On the one hand, it has been defined as a positive force which satisfies existing interests and desires, or even acts to positively enrich people’s lives by informing and educating them. On the other hand, it has been seen as a form of domination. Mass culture theory and much contemporary post-structural criticism—despite their differences—share a tendency to see popular culture as an ideological form which reproduces relations of power and subordination.[5]

In the case of horror, most post-structural critics have claimed that the genre is founded upon a patriarchal fear of female sexuality. Within horror, it is argued, female sexuality is defined as monstrous, and the narrative works to repress or contain the threat to patriarchy which it poses. However, while critics such as Stephen Neale and Barbara Creed both arrive at this same conclusion, it is worth noting that they do so on the basis of different, and even contradictory, evidence. According to Neale, the monster is usually male, but he argues that as women are usually the primary object of its actions:

it could well be maintained that it is women’s sexuality, that which renders them desirable—but also threatening—to men, which constitutes the real problem that the horror film exists to explore, and which constitutes also and ultimately that which is really monstrous.[6]

According to this argument, the monster acts to punish those women who are sexually active, and the only women who survive are those who agree to accept the authority of the patriarchal male hero.

Other critics (e.g. Barbara Creed) claim that the monster is usually female, and that it is often a maternal figure who threatens to devour males.[7] According to this argument, horror narratives operate in relation to a patriarchal fear of the mother which originates in the Oedipus complex when patriarchal culture requires the male child to separate himself from the mother (and repress his desire for her) in order to identify with the positions of mastery and dominance associated with masculinity.

As a result, despite their differences, both these critics assert that horror is an inherently patriarchal genre which is ‘primarily produced and consumed by men’.[8] This kind of analysis of popular culture has been criticized by such figures in cultural studies as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and David Money. Though this work originated in Britain, its theoretical claims are not restricted to the British context, and have become very influential with the American academy.[9] These critics claim that mass culture theory and post-structural psychoanalysis ignore—or even deny—the active historical struggles which compose popular culture in favour of the abstract analysis of ‘epochs’, or even transhistorical conceptions of ‘culture’. They agree that popular culture is not simply a positive force which satisfies existing interests and desires, but they also stress that it is not simply a form of domination either. Instead they claim that it is neither an expression of dominant or subordinate groups within society, but rather a site of struggle between these groups.

Drawing on the work of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci,[10] and the Russian linguist, V. N. Volosinov,[11] they argue that different social groups are in a continual process of dialogue and struggle. Each group is concerned to justify their own interests and aspirations in order to win the right to social leadership. (Gramsci’s term ‘hegemony’ means leadership.) But this leadership can only be won by a specific social group if it is able to address the interests and aspirations of other groups and present itself as the group best able to satisfy them. If they ignore the interests and aspirations of other groups, they will soon lose legitimacy.

Culture is therefore seen as a realm within which different groups not only challenge other groups, but also attempt to incorporate them. They seek to answer certain interests and aspirations, but only within terms that do not challenge their own. However, the interests and aspirations of certain social groups necessarily contradict one another. As Marx argued, for example, the interest of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are inevitably opposed to one another. The bourgeoisie can only exist on the basis of the exploitation of the proletariat. For this reason, social hegemony can never be finally secured and won. No hegemonic formation can ever resolve all social conflicts. It will have to be reorganized continually to address new challenges. It will never be a fixed structure, but must change and develop historically.

These processes of dialogue and struggle are also identified in the linguistic forms of texts—or utterances as Volosinov refers to them. It is argued that while members of a society may share a common linguistic system, their differing social and economic positions mean that they will interpret linguistic signs in different ways: that which defines ‘freedom’ for one social group may be seen as ‘oppression’ by another. As Volosinov puts it, ‘differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes an arena of class struggle.’ It is this struggle which gives signs their ‘vitality and dynamism and the capacity for further development.’[12] For this reason, while the meanings of individual texts or utterances are always defined in relation to other utterances, it is also the case that each text or utterance redefines language and ideology, rather than simply reproducing existing structures. Each text or utterance is a historical development.

If the ‘multi-accentuality of the sign’ means that no utterance is ever simply a reproduction of an existing ideological system, it also means that different social groups will interpret texts in different ways. For Money and others, one problem with Post-structural criticism has been that it has tended to rely on conceptions about ‘The Audience’, rather than socially specific audiences, and has thereby failed to acknowledge that texts do not necessarily have the same effect on all readers or viewers. Certainly texts do have ‘preferred readings’, but for a number of reasons actual audiences may produce very different readings from that which the text itself seeks to initiate. In his work on audiences, Money identifies three aspects which affect audiences’ interpretations. He points out that the audience may not share the ideological positions of the text, and may therefore qualify or even reject that position. However, he also stresses that interpretation does not simply involve the acceptance or rejection of the texts’ ideological position. It also involves the relevance/irrelevance and competence/incompetence of different types of materials for different audiences. In his discussion of these latter aspects of interpretation, Money draws on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, and his study of the ways in which cultural competences and dispositions are differentially distributed within societies.[13] The issue of the relevance/irrelevance of certain types of material concerns the reasons different audiences select material and identify those materials as ‘their sort of thing’ or not. The issue of the competence/incompetence of certain types of materials, on the other hand, concerns the competence or cultural knowledge necessary to make sense of specific types of material. Just as the understanding of modernist poetry or abstract art requires specific competences on the part of the audience, so does the understanding of popular forms such as Soap Opera, Kung Fu movies, or horror.

This kind of work is particularly important to the study of horror for two main reasons. First, it suggests that the horror genre cannot be simply seen as a patriarchal form, but that it can be used differently by different groups. It is not always—or even usually—female sexuality which is defined as monstrous. Different groups will represent the monstrous in different ways and representations will develop historically. Second, it also suggests that horror texts do not have a specific effect on their audience, but can generate different responses from different audiences. The moral panics which have surrounded horror over the years are based on the assumption that certain representations have certain effects. For example, some have claimed that horror creates anti-social or aggressive behaviour, while others have suggested that it reproduces the negative attitudes to women in patriarchal society.

The following study will not try to identify a fixed structure which underpins the horror genre and defines it. Instead it will examine the ways in which the genre has developed historically since World War II. If it overstresses the radical or progressive aspects of the genre, it does so as a corrective to other work which overemphasizes its reactionary or conservative elements. It also concentrates on popular and non-canonical texts. Too much work on horror, particular in work on literature, discusses the genre in terms of a small group of relatively legitimate texts, such as the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, at the expense of more popular texts.

3. Alienations: Outsiders in the 1950s

The modern American horror genre which emerged in the period after World War II grew out of along tradition of American horror, but it also represented a development away from elements of that tradition. Unlike the canon of British literature which has marginalized or excluded horror fiction, the American literary tradition has been dominated by writers working in the horror tradition from the outset. Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first professional writer, was primarily an author of horror fiction, and the American Renaissance was dominated by writers of horror and horrific fantasy.[14] Edgar Allan Poe is the most obvious example, but such writers as Hawthorne and Melville also wrote fiction which draws upon the horror genre. Nor was horror a marginal interest for them. Most of their major works used elements of the horror genre. All of Hawthorne’s major novels and many of his short stories draw upon the horror genre, as does Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick (1851). Since the American Renaissance, there has been a long and enduring tradition of horror within canonical American literature which includes examples such as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1899). All of this fiction was produced within the context of a far more general and popular interest in horror, and the first half of the 20th century witnessed a profusion of popular literature and film. Magazines such as Weird Tales published the horror writing of Lovecraft and others, while filmmakers such as James Whale and Tod Browning at Universal and Val Lewton at RKO produced a series of popular horror films, most of which are now regarded as classics of American cinema.

The horror fiction of the post war period was certainly dependent on this previous work, but it began to free itself from a dependence on the Gothic elements of the earlier period, and tended to place its horrors firmly within the context of the modern world. This change is particularly evident in the 1950s science fiction/horror film where the threat comes not from the past or the actions of a lone individual, but is associated with the process of social development and modernization. The threat emerges from within modern American society, or else is an alien threat which comes from those realms (such as outer space) which American society is beginning to explore and colonize. The threat also tends to be presented as a collective force rather than an individual monster, and it presents the possibility of global destruction, not just the destruction of an individual or small group.

These texts have frequently been attacked for being deeply authoritarian. It is argued that the monster is presented as inherently evil, a force which must be repressed and destroyed by the forces of order. It is also claimed that they associate the monster with Russian communism, and so justify American society and its institutions.[15] These texts are identified as Cold War narratives which legitimate American militarism and xenophobia. An alternative interpretation is possible though. These narratives can be shown to be as much concerned with developments within American society as with the threat of a Russian invasion, and to be specifically anti-authoritarian.

The science fiction/horror narratives of the 1950s emerged from a social and cultural context which had been transformed during the war and its immediate aftermath. During the war, there was a consolidation of the corporate or ‘Fordist’ modes of social organization which had begun to develop with the New Deal era of the 1930s. This use of the term ‘Fordism’ is not restricted to the types of labour processes often associated with Henry Ford, but it refers instead to a particular organization of social, political, and economic life. The depression had lead many to argue that capitalist economic relations had to be managed to prevent social, economic and cultural crises.

The Fordist system developed a bureaucratic rationality in which experts drawn from the state, corporations and organized labour collaborated to regulate social life. This system increased state powers as the state rejected laissez faire capitalism in favour of greater intervention in the management of the economy. New fiscal and monetary policies were employed, and the state took greater responsibility for social welfare. Corporations, on the other hand, began to apply the techniques of scientific management to a growing range of activities. They not only regulated the labour process, but also personal relations, training, product design, pricing strategies, and the planned obsolescence of equipment and product. They were also more concerned to regulate the process of consumption through the use of a series of techniques such as advertising. [16]

Fordism was therefore a centrally ordered system in which an elite of experts used technical-scientific rationality in an attempt to regulate a whole series of social, economic and cultural activities. It has both been praised as a rational and non-ideological system which was not motivated by special interests,[17] and attacked as a destructive form of domination and control which has been variously referred to as ‘the Power Elite’, ‘the Technocratic Society’, and ‘Mass Society’.[18] It is this latter type of criticism which can be identified in many 1950s science fiction/horror texts. If many aliens were identified as Russians, it was through a more general association with scientific-technical rationality which also meant that they were frequently associated with the highest levels of the American establishment as well.

In The Thing From Another World (1951), for example, the alien being is, in a sense, the catalyst for a more general struggle between its American characters. While the leading scientist, Carrington, wants to preserve it for study, the military group recognizes it as a threat. In fact, the thing is identified with the scientist for whom it represents the ideal of scientific­technical rationality. Carrington’s admiration for the thing is confirmed when he discovers that the alien reproduces asexually, and produces offspring who lack individual qualities. As Lukacs claims, the application of scientific-technical rationality to the labour process (and by extension to society as a whole) redefines the individual qualities of human beings as ‘mere sources of error when contrasted with these abstract special laws functioning according to rational principles.’[19] Scientific-technical rationality is only concerned with the quality of the workers’ output, and attempts to convert individual workers into mere interchangable components within a system which is regulated by experts. For Carrington, individuality, sexual desire and emotion are defined as a threat to rational processes. They must be contained or ideally eliminated. As the alien species lacks these features, he claims that it is ‘superior in every way’ to human beings.

The fact that the alien species is made up of duplicates also means that it is not interactive, but is directed by a single unitary purpose. By contrast the military group are represented as an interactive community. It is not made up of experts, but of low-ranking and practical people who are constantly at odds with the orders of their superiors, and with the military hierarchy itself. Carrington, on the other hand, is identified with the highest levels of the scientific establishment, the government, and even the military. For example, he is even identified as a primary figure in the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atol. These divisions and distinctions are also dealt with through the film’s verbal styles. While Carrington takes positions of authority from which he delivers speeches to others, the military group use a style of talking which is common to films associated with its producer, Howard Hawks: overlapping dialogue. This is an interactive mode of speech in which ideas and authority do not originate in the expert, but from the group as a whole. Every member of the group has an equal right to speak, and they each add to, and complete, one another’s ideas. Authority does not reside in a single individual, but in the group as a whole. Arguably, therefore, the establishment—particularly the scientific establishment but also the military establishment are presented negatively. They are associated with the thing in a number of ways, specially around the issue of scientific-technical rationality. The military unit or group, on the other hand, the ‘men on the ground’, are presented positively exactly because they are identified as a community of practical workers rather than rational experts.

These issues are also related to issues of gender. It is often argued that, within contemporary culture, the irrational and the interactive are associated with femininity, while rationality and authority are associated with masculinity. For this reason, it is worth noting that the female, Nikki, is unproblematically accepted into the military group as an equal, and that it is her use of domestic knowledge that lays the foundation for the plan which will eventually destroy the alien. The use of domestic knowledge in conjunction with scientific knowledge of electricity eventually triumphs, and in this and other ways, the film acts to break down the hierarchical distinctions between the masculine and the feminine, and the rational and the irrational, distinctions which are necessary for the authority of technicalscientific rationality. For this reason, while the alien’s monstrousness is related to its reproductive system, it is identified with masculinity not femininity. It is associated with the masculine both physically and through its hyper-rational lack of emotion. Thus, it is not female sexuality which is the problem, but a ‘male’ system of reproduction which has eliminated the need for recourse to the female. It is also the case that while the alien may be associated with the Russians, it is additionally linked with the highest levels of the American establishment, and the threat which that establishment poses to the interactive group, or democratic community.

There is a great deal of argument over the interpretation of the novel and the film of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1954 and 1956, respectively). They have been seen as both anti-communist, and anti-McCarthyite. Such apparently contradictory readings are possible because their concern with the spread of conformity within American society was shared by both the left and the right during the period. The right claimed that the social relations associated with Fordism threatened American individualism, and were indistinguishable from communism. The left, on the other hand, argued that McCarthyism and Fordism both sought to repress or exclude dissent.

While Jack Finney, the author of the novel, has denied that he intended either interpretation, his book (even more than the film) concerns the impact of the media, technology and new forms of social organization upon American communities. The novel concerns a local doctor, Miles, who discovers that the people of his home town, Santa Mira, are being replaced by alien duplicates. These duplicates are the same as the original humans in every way with the exception that they lack emotion. As in The Thing, it is the alien’s rationality and lack of emotion which is monstrous, and this is also linked to its asexual method of reproduction. In the course of the narrative, the leading characters learn that it is their desires and emotions which distinguish them as human, and that need to be preserved.

These differences between the human and the alien are not immediately apparent though. In fact, the novel stresses the difficulty of distinguishing between the two. The problem is that the humans themselves have been conditioned into standardized and rationalized forms of behaviour by American society itself. It is emphasized that the pods are only speeding up a process which would happen anyway, a process which is identified with the media, technology, and existing structures of authority. Within the book, people’s behaviour is shown to be conditioned by cliches from books and films. Technological systems of communication, such as the telephone networks, are associated with the pods. The drive towards efficiency within American society is presented as breaking down the relationships between people and imposing an order which is ‘utterly brainless’ and ‘inhumanly perfect’.[20] The bureaucratic military authorities have become unimaginative and define people such as Miles as things to be controlled and not citizens to whom they are accountable. Miles’s claims do not have authority within the social hierarchy, and he is defined as irrational by all the authorities.

Ironically, rational methods are completely incapable of dealing with, or even identifying, the menace. The pods’ duplication of people is so perfect that it can only be detected by those who have had a close personal relationship with the victim, and even then, there is nothing tangible which can be identified. There is simply something missing in their interpersonal relations, something that can only be identified at the level of ‘feelings’ and ‘intuition’. It is therefore significant that it is usually those with least authority who identify the menace such as children and women, while the authorities dismiss these fears as a product of mass hysteria. People’s feelings are defined as untrustworthy by the authorities who offer rational explanations which are not only shown to be wrong, but dangerously misguided. In fact, the rationality of the authorities associates them with the pods, and it is frequently the figures of authority who are the first to be duplicated.

In this way, the pods are not simply associated with communism, but with the structures of American society itself, and as in The Thing, it is not female sexuality which is the problem but the repression of those features usually associated with the feminine. The novel also identifies gender roles as a product of conditioned behaviour. Not only is it Becky who comes up with the plan which enables her and Miles to escape the pods, but it also relies, at least in part, on her realization that the forms of behaviour associated with men and women are not fixed and determined, but socially constructed through cultural images such as films and literature. In fact, rather than presenting humanity and personality as being founded upon a fixed presence, the novel identifies them with absence, desire, and interaction. These features are also related to the novel’s narrative which does not work towards closure and completion. Instead it emphasizes the unreliability of Miles’s narration, and suggests that it is not only impossible to rationalize and resolve everything, but also undesirable.

However, aliens were not always presented unsympathetically during the 1950s. In many cases, they were seen to be misunderstood by American society which was in turn envisaged as harsh and unsympathetic. In this way the alien was used to criticize definitions of normality prevalent within America in the 1950s. The best known examples of this type of film were those directed by Jack Arnold in the early 1950s. In It Came From Outer Space (1953), for example, an alien craft crashlands on earth and the towns people start being replaced by replicas who seem to lack emotion?[21] The aliens are not presented as evil however. It is revealed that no-one has been harmed, and that the aliens have only disguised themselves so that they can repair their damaged craft. They are afraid that, if humans see them as they really are, they will be misunderstood, feared, and persecuted. In fact, the aliens are presented as entirely justified in these fears. These issues are related to a more general criticism of small town America in the film through an association with the leading male character. He is not originally from the town, and is himself the focus of the town people’s suspicion and jealously.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954),[22] on the other hand, concerns a group of scientists who go on an expedition into the Amazon in the search for fossils and encounter the Gill-Man, a living example of animal life’s prehistoric attempts to make the transition from the water to the land. The Gill-Man reacts violently to the humans’ intrusion into his habitat which is linked with issues of colonization. Not only are the scientists exploring areas which humans have never visited before, they also believe that the knowledge which they hope to acquire will help humans to colonize other worlds.

Their intrusion is also associated with issues of masculinity. The lagoon in which the creature lives is womb-like in its shape, and the water in general is identified with the source of life. By contrast, the male scientists enter it with spear guns and cameras in a way that is associated with phallic aggression, masculine control, and goal-oriented behaviour. Their relationship with the water is very different to that of the creature and the lone female on the expedition, Kay. These latter two exist in harmony with the water, and derive pleasure from it. In fact, while the creature is drawn to the women, and conflicts with the males over her, its attraction to her is not associated with dominance or aggression, but a fascination and affection which is stimulated when it sees Kay swimming in the lagoon. In this sequence, the two are associated with one another as the creature swims along and mirrors her movements. The creature’s attraction to her is therefore different to that of the males. It is based upon a recognition of its similarity to her and is clearly distinguished from the acquisitive Mark who also competes for Kay with her boyfriend, David. Kay also shares a bond with the creature. Despite her tendency to scream each time it appears, she is also fascinated with it, and seeks to protect and defend it from the male ‘heroes’ throughout the narrative.

Like most 1950s horror films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was made primarily for a teenage audience which largely identified with the tragic, alienated creature who existed outside the, middle-class definitions of normality held by their elders. In fact, the film gives the creature a tragic dignity, and portrays its world as a fabulous romantic realm. If the film’s ending appears to present the triumph of masculinity, the emphasis does not fall on the establishment of the heterosexual couple, but on the tragic destruction of the creature, a point which is reinforced by Kay’s manifest sorrow. In fact, the final image is not of the human couple, but the dead body of the creature disappearing into the depths of the lagoon.

Jack Arnold also directed the film version of Richard Matheson’s classic science fiction/horror novel, The Shrinking Man (1956) (filmed and republished as The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957). Like much of Matheson’s fiction, this novel concerns a man who is displaced from his usual relationship to the world. Through a freak combination of factors, Scott Carey finds himself gradually shrinking, and as he does so, the ‘normal’ world becomes strange and terrifying. He begins to feel intimidated by his wife, and eventually finds himself trapped in the cellar of his house, battling against an everyday house spider which now appears to him as a giant monster. These reversals enable the novel to investigate aspects of ‘normal’ middle-class American masculinity, and to illustrate that monstrousness is not a quality which is inherent within a particular being, but something which is ascribed to it by another being.

This position can also be clearly seen in Matheson’s classic vampire novel, I Am Legend (1954), in which the leading character, Richard Neville, is the last human left alive after a plague of vampires has taken over the world. Neville trys to hold onto his definitions of normality, and spends his time in a futile attempt to destroy the vampires. At the end of the novel though, it becomes clear that to the vampires’ culture, Neville is as much a monster as they were to his own culture, and the novel thereby illustrates that definitions of the monstrous are always socially constructed, while it also investigates the limitations and problems associated with Neville’s concepts of normality. These are presented as both profoundly unimaginative and brutally repressive, particularly in relation to issues of gender. Neville not only fears active female sexuality, but continually directs his sadistic experiments against female vampires, while pathetically holding on to an idealized memory of his aptly named wife, Virginia.

If these narratives work to relativize American definitions of ‘normality’, the works of the late 1950s and the early 1960s go further in their criticism of American society. They present American institutions as destructive in both personal and global terms.

4. The Emergence of Contemporary Horror

I Family Horrors

The release of Psycho in 1960 is seen by many as a significant break in the development of the horror genre. Such critics as Robin Wood argue that Psycho starts a critical trend which identifies the monster with the fundamental institutions of American society, rather than with foreign forces.[23] For Wood, the horror has previously taken place outside America, or else was the result of an invasion by external forces. At this stage, American institutions were seen as the solution to the horrors, not the problem. Psycho is said to change this situation. According to Wood, the film identifies the American nuclear family as the source of the threat. It is not ‘abnormal’ or foreign elements which are the problem, but American definitions of ‘normality’.

In Psycho, the monster appears to be a ‘normal’ American teenager, Norman Bates, whose personality is split. On the surface, he appears to be a shy young male, but when sexually excited, another personality takes over which murders the object of his desire. Norman sees this other personality as an entirely separate being, which he calls ‘mother’, and she is the product of a disturbed mental state which derives from his family background. For Wood, Psycho is therefore a critique of the institution which he sees as fundamental to American society, the patriarchal family.

There are problems with Wood’s position though. First, as Barbara Creed and others have argued, Norman is not the product of a patriarchal family, but a family which lacks a father and which is dominated by the mother.[24] For these critics, the film does not present ‘normal’ family life as the problem, but the lack of a patriarchal presence which would sever the bond between mother and child, and allow Norman to develop ‘normally’. Rather than a critique of the patriarchal family, they see Psycho as an endorsement of patriarchal ideology. This argument overstates the case somewhat. All the families within the film are presented as destructive and corrupt, even the patriarchal families. At the beginning of the film, Marion Crane, Norman’s first victim within the film, steals money from a business man who is buying a house for his daughter. This business man is also presented as a domineering and destructive influence. He is buying the house in an attempt to maintain his control over his daughter after her forthcoming wedding. His sexual advances to Marion also highlight the hypocrisy of his family values. None the less, the arguments of Creed and others do require, at the very least, a qualification of Wood’s position.

It is also important that the nature of the supposed break is not overemphasized. As we have already seen, American institutions have always been precarious within horror. They are frequently identified with the horrors in various ways. If there were not some fault or problems with them in the first place, there would be no convincing threat.

The focus on Psycho as a distinctive case also needs to be questioned. Psycho was not unique at this time in its depiction of the family. Similar concerns can also be identified in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House which was published in 1959, the year before Psycho’s release in 1960, and also in Roger Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, the first of which was also released in 1960.

The Haunting of Hill House concerns a young woman, Eleanor, who has spent her life looking after her sick mother. She not only feels that she has been dominated by her mother and never had a life of her own, but like Norman, this situation has lead to a series of psychological problems. When her mother dies, Eleanor feels liberated, but she also suffers from feelings of guilt. (She believes that she may have been responsible for her mother’s death.) More significantly, her sense of identity is insecure. Longing for freedom, she heads off to join a research team who are investigating a possible haunting at Hill House. But when she reaches Hill House and finds that she is the first to arrive, her fantasies of freedom soon give way to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and vulnerability. When Theodora, another member of the team, arrives, Eleanor immediately attaches herself to Theodora, only to finally feel trapped and smothered by this relationship. Eleanor finds it impossible to find a stable sense of identity, and she swings between fears of being engulfed or abandoned by others. This situation intensifies to the point of madness as Eleanor is drawn to the house, and eventually commits suicide so that she will not have to leave it.

Despite the fact that this novel, like Psycho, concerns the psychological damage done to a child by a domineering mother, it has often been praised as an account of the problems women have in establishing a stable sense of identity. Judie Newman, for example, uses Nancy Chodorow’s work on the relationship between mothers and daughters.[25] She argues that unlike the male child which separates itself from the mother and identifies with the father, the female child rarely achieves the same sense of separateness from the mother, but continues to identify with her. As a result, the female child does not experience itself as a separate entity to the same degree as the male. This situation leads to a less secure sense of identity which can be seen in a variety of ways within the novel. Not only does Eleanor continually imitate others in her search for an identity—a strategy which is fraught with contradictions and doomed to failure—she also finds that she has internalized the attitudes of her mother and others, and is continually unsure whether the thoughts she has are her own or derived from others. This problem is also related to her relationship with the house. While she is there, a series of events seem to revolve around her. Eleanor believes that the house is addressing her, but it is also possible that these events are a projection of her own unconscious desires—there is the suggestion that she may have telekinetic powers. Finally, at the end of the novel, when she commits suicide, Eleanor’s last feelings are of panic. She is unsure whether her suicide is her own choice or whether some other force is compelling and controlling her.

A preoccupation with the relationship between madness, identity and the family can also be identified in Roger Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. The first of these, The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), contains many of the elements of later films. Despite these films’ use of Poe, it is worth remembering that any reinterpretation must be understood in terms of the specific period within which they are produced. One not only has to recognize that the turn to Poe’s fiction in the late 1950s has as much to do with the concerns of the period as it does with those of the original texts, but also that any reinterpretation will alter these originals, if only by concentrating on some features rather than others. In fact, Corman’s films depart from Poe’s originals significantly. For example, in contrast to the plot of the original Poe story, Corman’s film concerns a young man who comes to the house of Usher to collect his fiancee, Madeline Usher, and take her back to Boston with him. This detail not only changes the function of this character within the story, but also introduces issues of generational conflict which are entirely absent from Poe’s original tale. In the house of Usher, the young man encounters Roderick Usher who is obsessed with the evil of the Usher family line, and fears that he and Madeline are tainted with that evil. He feels oppressed by the past and the film is filled with images of confinement and claustrophobia. The action barely moves outside the self-contained world of the house which contains not only bedrooms and dining rooms, but chapels and crypts.

The film makes much of the house’s enclosed spaces and underground corridors within which Roderick eventually buries Madeline alive. He wants to prevent her from having children and continuing the family line. The preoccupation with premature burial is a continuing theme through the later Poe films, and like these later films, it is linked to a fear of catatonia. Catatonia is a condition in which the person has all the outward appearances of death, but is still alive. Later films, such as The Premature Burial (1961), emphasize the fear of being rendered helpless; unable to move or communicate, but still conscious of the surrounding world and able to feel pain.

The film not only stresses these external threats to identity. The most terrifying threat is presented as internal. Roderick’s main fear is that he and Madeline will go mad; that forces within their own make-up will erupt and render them helpless. The preoccupation with catatonia has some of these connotations, but his fear of madness is more explicit. He fears that even his own consciousness is unstable, and that it may be erased by more powerful forces within his own psychological make-up over which his conscious self has no control. The same preoccupation recurs in later adaptations of Poe by Corman. In The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the leading character is eventually possessed by the personality of his father, a cruel member of the Spanish inquisition, and in The Haunted Palace (1963) (really a version of H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘Charles Dexter Ward’), the leading character is possessed by the personality of one of his ancestors.

This concern with the family and with the instability of identity links all three films and was to become one of the central problems within contemporary horror. It cannot simply be explained as the innovation of Psycho, or its director Alfred Hitchcock. It was part of a more general cultural process. In the early 1950s, in texts such as The Thing and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, the consciousness and desire of individuals were presented as that which was threatening to rational control, as that which it must repress or deny. The rational system had to discipline their desires and discourage people from thinking for themselves. But as American society developed during the 1950s, American industry attempted to control consumption according to rational principles through the use of advertising and other techniques. Rather than repressing or denying desires, it attempted to stimulate specific desires.

As this process developed, it became increasingly commonplace for people to claim that consciousness and desire were now integrated within the system of rational control, rather than threats to it. This situation led to a profound sense of instability as people became uncertain which thoughts and desires were their own, and which were the products of the system of control. The boundaries between the inside and the outside, the self and the system of control became blurred and obscure, and their faith in their ability to resist was questioned.

In fact, while theorists of mass society and culture had claimed that the development of rational control would increasingly lead to a population which was complacent and uncritical,[26] it might be more accurately argued that it led to an increasingly paranoid population who felt that they had less and less control over their own lives, and were more and more suspicious of the authorities that sought to control them. Unfortunately, these conditions also gave them less and less confidence in their ability to change this situation.

During the 1960s, this situation was largely responsible for the shift from secure to paranoid horror which has been identified by Andrew Tudor.[27] According to Tudor, prior to the 1960s, secure horror had maintained a series of relatively unproblematic distinctions between self and other; there was some sense of faith in authority and in the possibility of effective action; and hence, a general tendency to resolve narrative conflicts. In the 1960s though, these features started to disappear, and paranoid horror emerged from a blurring of distinctions between the self and other; a loss of faith in authorities and the possibilities of effective action; and hence, gave rise to horror narratives in which conflicts and problems are rarely resolved, but seem to move inexorably towards complete social or personal breakdown or apocalypse.

For Tudor, family horror must be understood in this context; not as a concern with the family in itself, but as part of a more general crisis of confidence in American institutions. In fact, an examination of family horror after 1960 calls into question Wood’s assumption that the family is the fundamental institution of American society.[28] Most of these family horror texts clearly present the family as only one element in a more general series of institutions and processes which penetrate and shape one another.

Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary’s Baby (1967), for example, is as much concerned with the media and other forms of authority as it is with the family. The novel centres on a young woman, Rosemary, who moves into a new apartment with her husband. There she becomes the focus of a Satanic conspiracy which uses her as a vessel for the birth of the Anti­Christ. Though it is often seen as an example of family horror, this novel clearly presents the family as part of a much broader series of processes. Rosemary’s desire for a family, and her image of family life, is constructed through a series of different institutions, from the Catholic church of her past, to the vast array of consumer images which permeate her world. The novel is filled with references to the media and media events, and these are shown to not only define the terms of fashionable conversation, but also the modes of appropriate behaviour. Rosemary arranges her apartment according to the advice of popular magazines, and her sexual and moral behaviour are learned through a variety of sources, such as Time magazine and The Kinsey Report.

Nor is it the case that the Satanists challenge her behaviour or beliefs. On the contrary, they rely upon them, and they are themselves as at least as brutal, callous and unthinking as the beings which they are out to destroy. Furthermore, when they finally do arrive at the house where the main characters have been defending themselves against the zombies, they indiscriminately shoot the last survivor of the group.

It is within this context that the family horror aspects of the film work. Just as the social order around them is in crisis, redundant, and riddled with conflicts, so are the relationships between those within the house. Rather than coming together as a coherent group with a shared sense of community, they fight amongst themselves. The situation does not bring out the best in them, but only the worst. In fact, few of them are actually killed as a result of the zombies outside. They are either killed by one another, or as a result of their own incompetence. Even those characters who are killed by a zombie have a familial relationship with the zombie in question. One woman is killed by her own daughter, and another by her brother. For Wood, for example, this highlights the eruption of conflicts and resentments within the family, which is more generally presented as a brutal and oppressive institution.

II Apocalyptic Horror

The film’s use of the zombie as a monster is also significant in this regard. Prior to Night of the Living Dead, the zombie was a very minor horror monster, but since 1968, it has become one of the major figures in contemporary horror. Its importance is due to its lack of consciousness or conscious motivation, and this is linked to issues of rational control, particularly consumerism. This link is merely hinted at in the original film, but the sequel makes it far more explicit. This follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978), is set in a shopping mall to which the zombies are drawn by a mindless compulsion which has its roots in the consumer behaviour of their earlier existence as living human beings. This mindlessly compulsive behaviour and lack of conscious motivation is that which links the zombie with other contemporary monsters, but it also links it with the people within the house in Night of the Living Dead. These human beings are largely presented as stereotypical or stock characters who lack self-consciousness or imagination. Even in the midst of the siege, they rely on television to give them information about their situation and the appropriate responses to that situation.

Michael Crichton’s novel, The Andromeda Strain (1969), is another example of apocalyptic horror, and it too concerns a satellite which returns to earth and brings with it a plague that threatens human existence. The main story concerns the attempt by a group of scientists—the Wildfire team—to prevent it from destroying the world. Unlike Night of the Living Dead though, the problem is not the internal crisis of the system, but that it is too ordered. The satellite does not bring back a plague by mere accident, but has been sent into space with the explicit aim of discovering plagues for use by the military. If the family is one of the central institutions within contemporary horror, the military is the other. It has come to represent the most destructive aspects of the state for two reasons.

First, it deals with forces of incredible destructive potential such as nuclear and biological weapons, and minor errors can have dramatic effects. In fact, The Andromeda Strain goes further. It suggests that rational systems of control have an inherent tendency to crisis. They are inflexible and rigid, and are unable to account for every eventuality. Personal idiosyncrasies, and minor malfunctions create unpredictable havoc within the novel, which also emphasizes that any system will inevitably create its own blindspots. Every system of procedures will inevitably exclude certain options. The novel is a virtual catalogue of blindspots which result in missed opportunities, and one blindspot in particular nearly results in the destruction of the entire world. The research station has been built on the assumption that any plague can be destroyed by intense heat, and it has been fitted with a nuclear device which is programmed to detonate if the plague escapes. No-one has predicted that the plague may actually thrive on energy, and that such an explosion might create the perfect conditions for its almost limitless reproduction.

Second, the military is seen as threatening in contemporary horror by reason of its specific relationship to the population. For reasons of national security, the population has been increasingly denied knowledge of military actions and procedures since World War II. This situation is made clear in the opening of the novel where the military use a rather crude method to detect the satellite for fear of arousing public suspicion about their activities. The novel is filled with such cases. Not only was the actual mission of the satellite kept secret, but the laboratories where the Wildfire team work are disguised as an agricultural research station. Rather than acting in the interests of the population, the novel presents the military as a rational system of control which imposes itself upon them, and which is quite willing to accept the deaths of millions of Americans as part of its rational calculations. The population exist merely to be ordered and controlled.

Like most apocalyptic horror texts, Night of the Living Dead and The Andromeda Strain do not resolve all the problems at the end of the narrative. At the end of the first, it remains unclear whether the posse will actually succeed in destroying the zombies, but even if it does, all the main characters are dead and the posse hardly represent the promise of a positive or appealing future. In the second, the plague does not destroy humanity, but it continues to have unpredictable effects on human activities. As the final line of the novel states, future developments are ‘out of our hands’.[29]

These open endings are partly the result of the loss of confidence in effective action and in authorities which Tudor identified in contemporary horror. If authorities are often the source of the problem, they cannot also be the solution. In contemporary horror, attempts to resolve the situation often fail, or only make matters worse. But there is another aspect which frequently makes narrative resolutions unsatisfying. In a social world which is increasingly seen as a nightmare of regulation and control, it can be pleasurable to witness that world destroy itself.

The Omen (1976), for example, is an apocalyptic horror film which was part of the 1970s preoccupation with demonic forces. It concerns a family who come to realize that their adopted son is, in fact, the Antichrist. Again the issue of apocalypse is linked to the American state: the family in which the Antichrist is raised is that of the American ambassador to London. The film revolves around the father’s acquisition of the knowledge necessary to kill his demonic son, Damian. At the end of the film though, he fails in his task. He is shot as he tries to kill his son, and we are left with a final image which suggests that Damian has been adopted by the American President himself.

While this is the nominal plot, and the father is the nominal hero, it is probably more accurate to read the film’s plot as being concerned with the inexorable rise to power of the young Damian. The father’s death is only the last in a series of grisly deaths which are inflicted on anyone who attempts to organize against Damian. The film also presents these deaths with such relish that Robin Wood has suggested that the film’s real pleasure is that of watching Damian systematically destroying contemporary society. As Wood puts it: ‘The Omen would make no sense in a society that was not prepared to enjoy and surreptitiously endorse the working out of its own destruction.’[30]

It is this desire to be rid of the existing social world which can also be identified in a sub-genre of apocalyptic horror—the post-apocalypse film. In films such as The Omega Man (1971), A Boy and His Dog (1975), Damnation Alley (1977), and the Mad Max trilogy, there is a clear pleasure in the post-apocalypse world where there may be horrors, but where one is freed from the more mundane forms of control and constraint which distinguish contemporary society. It also allows for the possibility of starting society over again, but getting things right this time. In fact, this is often the explicit narrative problem of post-apocalyptic narratives, and it is one which preoccupies Stephen King’s epic post­apocalyptic novel, The Stand (1978).

As in many of these narratives, a plague which has been developed by the military is accidentally released, and proceeds to kill 99.9% of the population. The majority of the novel then concerns the conflict between the survivors as they come together in two distinct groups and struggle to define the nature of a future society. As Stephen King writes in an attempt to explain the pleasure which he experienced in the writing of the novel: ‘Much of the compulsion I felt while writing The Stand obviously came from envisioning an entire entrenched societal process destroyed at a stroke. I felt a bit like Alexander, lifting his sword over the Gordian knot and growling, “Fuck untying it. I’ve got a better way.”[31]Despite this pleasure, he also notes: ‘My own lesson in writing The Stand was that cutting the Gordian Knot simply destroys the riddle instead of solving it, and the book’s last line is an admission that the riddle still remains.’[32] The riddle is: how can human beings develop ways of living together which are satisfying and fulfilling to all? Destroying existing society may get rid of specific forces which control and oppress people, but it does not, of itself, offer a solution to that riddle.

III Body/Horror

The preoccupation with plagues within apocalyptic horror is also related to another aspect of contemporary horror which is often referred to as ‘body/horror’. The texts which are grouped together under this heading are primarily concerned with processes of bodily transformation. The body is either engulfed by some larger process, or else moves towards fragmentation and collapse. These processes can have apocalyptic implications. In certain films, the whole of society is overtaken by their effects. But the focus of concern is mainly upon their impact on an individual and their sense of identity. In this way, these films also concern the instability of identity, though they concentrate mainly upon the sense of bodily identity, rather than consciousness. Their most significant moments are those in which an individual watches their own body change. The sense of identity is also challenged by the loss of any clear sense of an inside or an outside to the body. The threat is not clearly external, but erupts from within the body itself. Despite this, it is usually the result of certain forms of rational control associated with medicine, science, and even the media.

The figure most clearly associated with this aspect of horror is the Canadian film director, David Cronenberg, who has not only worked within Hollywood, but had considerable influence upon the development of American horror. In his first major film, Shivers (a.k.a. They Came From Within, 1975), he reworks Romero’s Night of the Living Dead so that the plague is a scientifically generated organism which penetrates the body and turns its victims into pleasure-driven zombies who pass on the organism through sexual contact. Despite its similarities to Romero’s film, Shivers is far more interested in the processes of biological transformation, and it uses new special effects techniques to depict them.

His next film, Rabid (1977), is very similar, but on a much larger scale. It concerns a young women who undergoes a radical new type of surgery as doctors try to save her life. Unfortunately, this surgery gives rise to a strange bodily mutation. The woman develops a phallic spike in one of her armpits, and finds that she can only feed through the use of this spike, which stabs those she embraces, and sucks their blood. As it does so, it also passes on a new strain of rabies which quickly converts its victim into a cannibalistic zombie who passes the plague on to its victims. Soon the plague of rabies is spreading out of control. Despite the larger scope of this film, it is actually more intimate than Shivers. The film is mainly interested in the working of the disease, and its effect upon the young woman as she finds herself unable to control her bodily processes.

Cronenberg’s films have often come under attack for supposedly displaying a profoundly conservative fear of the body and female sexuality in particular; and they are often interpreted as a conservative reaction to the sexual revolution.[33] Barbara Creed, for example, has argued that the sub-genre as a whole `reveals a fascination with the maternal body—its inner and outer appearance, its functions, its awesome powers.’[34] Cronenberg’s visual style in particular is claimed to be deeply voyeuristic, and to view the body with a horrified, distanced, and controlling gaze. This kind of criticism tends to miss the sense of pleasure with which Cronenberg treats his subjects. He has often stated his sympathy and admiration for the bodily processes with which he deals. Furthermore, while these processes are related to issues of sexuality, they are clearly connected to issues of rational control. The development of bourgeois society came to define the body as an inalienable form of private property which guaranteed individuals a sense of self; but as society was increasingly organized according to rational principles, the body came to be an object of rational control. It is regulated by a whole series of institutions, and as Christopher Lasch has argued in relation to the development of medical institutions, these institutions do not simply act to improve peoples’ lives, but ‘increase patients’ dependence on machines and medical experts who operate these “life-support systems.”‘[35]

These institutions not only alienate and objectify the body, they make it increasingly difficult to distinguish the body from systems of control. Forms such as spare-part surgery, reproductive technology, and genesplicing make it increasingly clear that the body is no longer a private sphere, but is increasingly penetrated by a whole series of processes. If these films are concerned with sexuality, it is within this context. Sexual contact also blurs distinctions between the inside and the outside of the body, and between the self and others. Not only is this the case, but as Shivers and Videodrome (1982) make clear, sexuality is no longer a threat to the system of control, but integrated into it and stimulated by it.

Videodrome is one of Cronenberg’s most analysed films. It concerns the head of a pornographic cable channel who spends his time in an attempt to track down a specific piece of sado-masochistic pornography of which he can only discover brief snippets. This televisual image turns out to be part of a plot, and has been used to programme him. It affects his consciousness through his body. In one particularly famous sequence, his body develops an opening into which he is encouraged to insert video cassette. His body has become an object programmed and controlled by the pornographic media, and the sexual imagery has been used to make his body more receptive to its subliminal stimulations.

The influence of Cronenberg’s body/horror films, and the special effects techniques which they pioneered, have been huge. In the late 1970s and 1980s, a series of werewolf films were made which used special effects to show the transformation sequences in extraordinary detail. But despite their relative success, their influence was limited. The dual personality theme of the werewolf narrative did not really develop the body/ horror subgenre, and the films tended to rely on references back to classic werewolf films such as The Wolf Man (1941) and others.

Alien (1979), on the other hand, used body/horror special effects and concerns in a way that was both highly popular and deeply influential. The film concerns a group of workers on a space cargo vessel who are ordered to investigate what appears to be a distress signal from an alien planet. They find a giant space ship, the insides of which are organic in appearance, and contain a huge chamber filled with alien eggs. One crew member, Kane, is attacked or ‘contaminated’ by something from within one of the eggs, which wraps itself around his face, and cannot be removed. Eventually, it comes off, but later, Kane starts to cough and convulse. His chest heaves, and an alien being suddenly bursts from inside him before escaping into the ship. From then on, the film presents a fairly straightforward situation in which the crew are killed off one by one. Finally, Ripley. the last survivor, manages to destroy the creature which has now transformed itself into something much bigger and nastier than the thing that emerged from Kane’s chest.

There is considerable discussion of this film from a variety of perspectives,[36] but it is the alien species which really distinguishes the film, and was its main influence. It is presented as a kind of biological machine which dominates other species and uses them as a vessel for its own reproduction. In this way, the threat is made both external and internal. The most famous and best remembered sequence is the one in which Kane `gives birth’ to the alien, and it is this aspect which recurs again and again in later science fiction/horror films. As Barbara Creed has claimed, many 1980s science fiction/horror films concern the conversion of the bodv into a kind of womb from which a new, alien life-form is born.[37]

The film also sets up a series of associations between the corporate/ military authorities and the alien. It becomes clear that the authorities have known about the alien species from the start, and that they are exploiting the crew, using them to test the destructive capabilities of the alien which they hope to use as a form of biological weapon. The representatives of these authorities are the ship’s computer and tile science officer. Ashe, who turns out to be an android. Not only do they share the aliens cold-blooded attitude towards the crew. but also its ambiguous nature. They all complicate distinctions between organic life and machines in various ways, and act to dominate and control the crew. But if many have praised Alien as a radical horror film. it is also related to developments in the 1980s which are often seen as highly conservative, particularly the stalker or slasher film and the re-emergence of the science fiction/horror film. It is these developments which will be the subject of the next chapter.

5. Horror in the 1980s

I The Slasher Movie and the Serial Killer

If the developments of the 1960s and 1970s achieved a measure of critical recognition, and were identified in some quarters as potentially radical, the developments of the late 1970s and 1980s have provoked widespread hostility from critics and reviewers. The ‘video nasties’ caused a moral panic in both Britain and America, though no clear definition of the term was ever produced. Instead these moral panics largely relied on arguments about the Slasher movie, a subgenre which emerged in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s and provoked considerable hostility. For many critics such as Wood, the dasher movie represented a reactionary turn in contemporary horror.[38] Rather than presenting the monster as a product of American social life, it is claimed that they present the monster as ‘the essence of pure evil’, an inexplicable destructive force which assaults American social life, but does not imply any criticism of its institutions.[39]

It is the attitude towards women that is believed to be present in these films which is considered their most worrying feature however. Slasher movies concern a serial killer who tracks down a group of teenagers, killing them off one by one in various grisly ways, and it is usually argued that its attacks are primarily directed against women. Even when the number of men killed is equal to the number of women, it is pointed out that it is the killing of women on which these films concentrate.[40] The men are either dispatched quickly, or else their deaths are not seen at all. It is also claimed that the killer’s primary target is the women, and that the men are simply killed as a means to this end.

The ways in which the killings are presented are claimed to make this situation even more worrying. One of these films’ most distinctive stylistic features is the use of the subjective camera shot from the killer’s point of view, and this is reputed to create an identification between the audience and the killer, by placing the audience in the position of the killer rather than its victim.[41] It is also claimed that the women who are killed have usually been engaged in sexual activity just before their deaths, and that their slaughter is presented as a justified punishment for their overt sexuality. Female sexuality is claimed to be threatening to patriarchal culture, so that these films act to contain it by presenting the sexually active women who are killed as merely ‘getting what they deserve’. Robin Wood, for example, has argued that these films are a conservative reaction against the women’s movement in which ‘the women who are terrorized and slaughtered are those who resist definition within the virgin/wife/ mother framework.’[42] It is also claimed, in support of this argument, that the women who do survive these films are usually presented as virgins. They are sexually innocent and do not display a threatening female sexuality.

There are a number of problems with these arguments though. First, the objection that the killers are presented as almost inhuman personifications of evil tends to miss the point. Their lack of conscious motivation and their apparently relentless and compulsive types of behaviour not only links them with other monsters in contemporary horror such as the shark in Jaws (1975) and the creature in Alien, but it is that which makes them both terrifying and fascinating. Critics such as Wood and Newman compare these serial killers with those in films such as Psycho and novels such as The Silence of Lambs (1988) where the killer’s family background is explicitly presented,[43] but even in these cases, the killers are interesting specifically because these explanations are insufficient and do not help people in dealing with them. These figures captivate their audiences because they are driven by relentless and compulsive types of behaviour over which they have no conscious control. The tendencies to refer to these figures as ‘killing machines’ is therefore highly appropriate. They lack subjectivity and seem to act like programmed automatons. The fears associated with these serial killers are similar to those discussed in relation to other forms of contemporary horror. They are fears that human identity is being erased by forms of rationalized behaviour.

Second, not only do these killers lack consciousness, they also lack all forms of personality. This lack is emphasized by their use of masks. The killer rarely has a human face. For this reason, it is difficult to see how the audience is supposed to identify with them, despite the use of the subjective camera shot. It is difficult to identify with something which is specifically defined by its lack of an identity. This problem is highlighted by Carol J. Clover who points out that the subjective camera shot is used in a variety of different films, such as Jaws and The Birds (1963), where the point of view is that of animals such as the shark or the birds. As a result, she questions claims about the effect of these techniques and argues ‘either that the viewer’s identificatory powers are unbelievably elastic or the point-of-view shots can sometimes be pro forma.’[44] In fact, in many dasher movies, the subjective camera shot does not necessarily imply the presence of any being at all, but only its potential presence. There are a whole series of sequences in which it is used to suggest a character’s fear that they are being watched, or their vulnerability.

These problems have led some critics to claim that the use of the subjective camera shot is not used to create an identification with the character of the killer, but with the position of the killer.[45] It is used to make us identify with the killer’s gaze and the aggression with which it is associated. One problem with this argument is that even if this were the intention, it may not actually work in this way. In 1946, George Montgomery used the subjective camera shot in his film, The Lady in the Lake, in an attempt to approximate the first person narrations used by Raymond Chandler in his original novel. The film is very interesting, but it fails in its use of the subjective camera shot. It not only denies the audience any sense of interiority to the character from whose point of view the action is presented, but as a result, it may also have alienated the audience from that character’s position. Denied any real access to the character, the gaze itself may become an image from which the audience feel distanced and detached.

A similar problem is also emphasized in John Carpenter’s script for The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), a script which he wrote around the same time as his deeply influential dasher movie, Halloween (1978). In this film, a woman finds that she has telepathic powers which link her with a serial killer. When he kills, she is denied her own sight, but is forced to watch the killings through the killer’s eyes, an experience which is presented as terrible and disabling. She is forced to see that which she does not want to see, and is rendered powerless and helpless both by its imposition upon her and by her inability to prevent the carnage which she witnesses. In this way, she can be seen to occupy a very similar position to that of the audience in a dasher film. The technique may work at times specifically to elicit the feeling of helplessness before the image of the gaze which Laura Mars experiences in Carpenter’s narration, rather than an identification with that gaze.

There are also problems with the claims about the attitudes towards women in such films. It may be true that women are the primary targets of the killer, but this need not necessarily imply that the films suggest that the killings are a justified punishment for female sexuality. As Tudor argues in relation to Halloween, the most discussed of the dasher movies, ‘all three women are appealingly characterized—there is no sense that their activities are inappropriate or immoral. They are frivolous, perhaps, but hardly figures who can be seen as inviting their terrible fates.’[46] In fact, their sexual activity is not presented as threatening to men at all. It is presented as normal teenage behaviour, and something which the males expect of them. By contrast, it is the surviving female, Laurie, who is presented as threatening to men. Her friends are constantly joking that she has ‘scared another one away’. The males are intimidated by her intelligence, seriousness, and independence, and it is these qualities that distinguish her in the film, not her virginity. She is clearly interested in men sexually, but is not prepared to accept the role of sexual plaything which the other girls put up with. They are clearly irritated by the males’ treatment of them, but accept it as ‘normal’. Nor does she disapprove of extra-marital sex, and even denies she is a virgin.

In fact, it is masculinity, not femininity, which is the problem within these films. As Tudor argues, ‘however restricted our understanding of the psychotic’s motivation … we are left with the feeling that threatening psychosis is sexual in some way and that male aggression and misogyny are significant elements within it.’[47] The problem of masculinity is also registered in other ways. First, there is a distinct absence of positive or effective male figures within these films. It is the female characters themselves who fight the killer. If male characters do appear, they are usually entirely ineffective. The psychologist in Halloween, for example, spends most of the time in the wrong places, and when he finally does track the killer down he is no more effective than Laurie. While Laurie has spent a considerable amount of time in hand to hand combat with the killer, the psychologist is too scared to approach him. Instead he nervously shoots at him, but proves no more effective in killing him.

This absence of these male characters is part of the more general crisis of confidence in authority in American society, a crisis which can also be detected in other aspects. These films frequently present ‘normal’ everyday life as inherently fragile and unstable. It masks uncontrollably destructive forces which constantly threaten to erupt from within, without apparent explanation. For this reason, these films rarely reach a definitive resolution. Not only is the killer often virtually indestructible, but even when it is killed, the ending is rarely a happy one. It usually depicts the female survivor suffering a virtual breakdown as the result of her experience. She may have survived, but she is only left with a sense of the insecurity and fragility of existence.

It is this loss of faith in authority which displaces traditional male authority figures from the role of the hero, and leads to the emergence of the female hero. This situation does not mean that these films are necessarily feminist texts, but time and again, they are presented as the only figures with the resources to combat and defeat him. In fact as Carol Clover claims while these films may involve some form of identification with the killer at the start, this situation is reversed by the end of the film so that the female hero becomes the main point of identification. More significantly, this reversal also coincides with her appropriation of the gaze. It is often claimed that the ‘active, investigating gaze’ is defined as male within popular cinema, but this claim is inappropriate to the dasher film where, as Clover argues:

The gaze becomes, at least for a while, female. More to the point, the female exercise of scopic control results not in her annihilation, in the manner of classic cinema, but in her triumph; indeed her triumph depends on her assumption of the gaze.[48]

In fact, it is her appropriation of the gaze which distinguishes her. As we have seen, the distinguishing feature of female heroes in films such as Halloween is not their sexual innocence but their seriousness, intelligence and independence.

In the process, she not only appropriates the traditionally male gaze, but also traditionally male forms of action and heroism. For this reason, as Carol Clover claims, they challenge traditional associations between sex and gender. They do not present women’s roles as being determined by their biology, and they enable them to perform activities usually restricted to males. But though these women perform traditionally male activities, this does not mean that these films privilege masculinity as is often claimed. These women are valued, but not because they act like men. Women do not have to become like men to become successful and positive. As Carol Clover points out, it is not masculinity which is privileged, but ‘masculinity in conjunction with a female body—indeed, as the term victim-hero contemplates, masculinity in conjunction with femininity.’[49] Male authority remains the problem, and it is the female who refuses her role as victim and rejects the positions of powerlessness associated with femininity who is the hero. Masculine attributes such as aggression, violence, and self-assertion are only positive when they have been reappropriated by those who are usually victims of them.

II The Science Fiction/Horror Film in the 1980s

Many of these developments can also be identified in the science fiction/ horror films of the 1980s which became one of the most popular and influential aspects of the genre. In this context, the work of the writer/ director James Cameron and his ex-wife, producer Gale Anne Hurd, are exemplary. Their films, particularly The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), are almost summations of contemporary horror. They contain strong female leads; an interest in the family; concerns about scientific­technical rationality and the military; killing machines which lack conscious motivation; and forms of body/horror. In The Terminator, a cyborg killer is sent to present day Los Angeles from the future in order to kill a young woman, Sarah Conner. This cyborg killer, the terminator of the title, is related to the serial killer of the dasher movie both by its actions, and by the film’s use of the subjective camera shot from the terminator’s point of view. In The Terminator though, it is made quite explicit that the fear evoked by the serial killer is a fear of mindless, compulsive, rationalized behaviour. The terminator is half human, and half machine. If most serial killers use masks to hide their human faces, the terminator uses human flesh to hide its mechanized, robotic body.

Not only is the terminator quite literally a killing machine, it is also an extension of scientific-technical rationality and American militarization. The terminator is a product of the American missile systems. In the future, the American defense network computers come to see all human life as a threat and attempt to exterminate humanity. If earlier forms of rationalization had defined the individual qualities of the worker as a source of error that had to be eliminated, the machines of the future come to define humanity itself as a source of error that has to be eliminated; a source of error that can now be replaced by machines. None the less, the film suggests that this redefinition is only a logical extension of current forms of rationalization. The roots of the nightmarish future lie in the mechanized modem cities of contemporary America.

Within the film these modern cities are dominated by machines. They regulate people’s work and leisure activities, and the terminator is able to use communications systems such as telephones, telephone books, and answering machines to identify Sarah. The implications of this situation are suggested by the identification number which Kyle, the guerrilla fighter from the future, has imprinted into his flesh, a mark which Constance Penley aptly identifies as ‘the ubiquitous bar code stamped on today’s consumer items.’[50] Not only are people identified through these machines, they are also identified with them. Sarah’s flatmate, Ginger, is never separated from her walkman; and the only feature which seems to distinguish Sarah’s unseen boyfriend is the Porsche which he owns.

Within this world, it is difficult to distinguish the human from the machine, the organic from the inorganic. If the terminator is a machine which wears human flesh to disguise itself, human beings are frequently encased within mechanical constructions. It is also a world in which people act in ways that are almost robotic. They are caught up in compulsive, repetitive forms of behaviour. In such a world, the terminator does not seem too out of place. It can calculate and predict the appropriate forms of behaviour and pass for human. In Terminator 2 (1991), these implications are made even more explicit. The humans are often more insensitive and unthinking than the reprogrammed cyborg sent back to protect John Conner, Sarah’s son. This cyborg learns the human emotions and values with which most of the humans within the film have lost contact. As a consequence, Sarah recognizes that ‘in an insane world’ such as the present, the terminator will make a better, more caring father for her son, John, than any man she has known.

Despite the difficulty of distinguishing the human from the machine, the film does not suggest that distinctions between the two are impossible, or even undesirable, or that humanity and its machines have become replicas of one another. If this were the case, humans would not pose a threat to the machines, and there would be no reason to fear the machines or the possibility of human extinction. The process of rationalization suppresses the individual qualities of the worker in favour of abstract measurements of quantity. It seeks to standardize workers and make them interchangable with one another. By contrast, The Terminator associates humanity with those very features suppressed by rationalization, particularly sexual desire and interaction. For example, it is Kyle’s desire for Sarah that distinguishes him from the terminator. Rather than defining humanity according to a fixed presence, it is associated with absence; desire is based upon the fact that one’s self is incomplete by itself and needs to interact with others.

These issues are addressed through the film’s preoccupation with reproduction. The terminator is a product of an asexual process of mechanical reproduction in which human flesh is mass produced as standardized product. It is a product of a monological, rational order, and can never attain an interactive relationship with others of its kind. They are all replicas of one another, and merely follow the programming of the computer systems which produced them. It is only through reprogramming and interaction with humans that the cyborg in Terminator 2 is able to be ‘humanized’. By contrast, Sarah, the terminator’s target in the original film, is dangerous to the machines specifically because of her reproductive capabilities. The film stresses that human reproduction, unlike mechanical reproduction, is based on interaction. The child is a product of two human beings and can learn to differentiate itself from its parents through a process of interaction.

In The Terminator, the process of rationalized, mechanical reproduction is associated with excessive masculinity through the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Aliens, it is associated with a mechanized femininity. The alien mother is a giant reproductive machine. But even in Aliens, there is an association with masculinity and the military. The alien species is identified as the ‘ideal’ soldier, a pure killing machine which is not distracted from its functioning by individual features or desires. This alien species, like the military/corporate state of the humans, is a colonial power. It penetrates other species and transforms them into a vessel for its own reproduction, just as the humans place ‘atmosphere processing plants’ on alien planets in order to create the conditions necessary for colonization. By converting the human body into a mere vessel for their own reproduction, the aliens are also related to patriarchy which has traditionally defined women as a mere vessel for the reproduction of the male seed. It is for this reason that it is a woman who is not only the aliens’ main adversary, but the figure with the resources required to resist them. She rejects rationalization and mechanical reproduction which define human beings, and particularly women, as objects or vessels to be used and controlled. She also highlights the active female component in human reproduction which male forms of authority deny or repress. She stands for interaction in opposition to rationalized order. Within these films, it is women, not men, who represent that which is truly human.

This presentation of women does not operate to confirm women in the tradition role of mothers. While Constance Penley claims that these films confine women to the role of mothers,[51] Barbara Creed claims that in Aliens, Ripley is not really a woman at all.[52] She argues that Ripley undergoes the male passage through the Oedipus complex in the film. By destroying the alien mothers’ genitals with a phallic gun, Ripley is construed as separating herself from the maternal, and identifying with masculine positions within culture. Both Penley and Creed’s claims sound credible, but both ignore aspects of female heroes such as Sarah and Ripley. While these female characters are associated with the maternal, they also perform activities which are usually associated with masculinity. When Ripley aims that phallic gun at the mother’s genitals, she is also engaged in the maternal protection of a surrogate daughter. These female heroes are distinguished by their hybridity. They erase distinctions between masculine and feminine activities in similar ways to the female heroes in the Slasher film, and transform the meaning of maternity and violent action through the course of the films.

In The Terminator, Sarah is not an image of self-sacrificing motherhood, but the source of her son’s strength and authority. Everything he is comes from her, and she is the myth that holds the resistance of the future together. Despite the film’s mythic elements—John Conner has the same initials as Jesus Christ, and his conception is an impossible, almost immaculate one—Sarah is not presented as a virgin mother like the Madonna. It is Kyle, John’s father, who is the virgin. If Sarah does become a myth for the future, the film does not present the audience with the myth of Sarah, but Sarah herself. The film allows the audience to watch a process of mythologization which is not imposed upon Sarah by men, but is engineered by Sarah as she narrates her story to John.

Most of these features remain central to Terminator 2, though it both extends and limits features of the original film. While Sarah starts off as a victim in the original film, but slowly comes to recognize her own potential, she is both stronger and more peripheral in the sequel. Defined as insane by society, she is presented as the only sane person in an insane world as she straggles to halt humanity’s drive towards self-destruction. The newly acquired star status of Schwarzenegger tends to undermine her centrality however, as does the mission of the new terminator. This time, it is the young John, not Sarah who is the terminator’s target. For example, while it is clear that Sarah is capable of defeating the new terminator at the end of the film, it is Schwarzenegger who ultimately saves the day. For once, the contemporary female hero does not save herself in the last instance, but is saved by a ‘male’ hero.

None the less, male authority figures are still problems within the film, as is shown by way in which the new terminator continually disguises itself as a Los Angeles Police officer, to say nothing of the way in which psychiatrists, SWAT teams, scientists, and company managements are presented. Not only does the film carefully distance Schwarzenegger from positions of authority and place his character in the ‘feminized’ position of John’s self-sacrificing and nurturing protector (in contrast to Sarah’s masculinized authoritative female), it also needs to destroy him at the end. Not only is he a potential threat to the future of humanity—he is destroyed so that no trace of the future will remain—but also to Sarah and John’s independence. The film cannot completely separate him from associations with male authority, but it resists the suggestion that John and Sarah will come to rely on him.

A similar problem emerges in relation to Sarah. She has acquired combat skills and become a tough, female warrior, but the film has to resist the suggestion that women have to become like men to achieve success. She must be separated from associations with male authority and domination, and this is achieved in two main ways. First, she is continually haunted by dreams of the nuclear annihilation which she knows is coming. Her actions are placed in opposition to the destructive forms of violence and domination which will cause human self-destruction. Her use of violent action is a resistance against the dominance of scientific-technical rationality and American militarization. Second, she learns to distinguish herself from forms of male authority through the course of the narrative. She discovers the name of the scientist who will develop the technology responsible for the machines of the future, and she decides to change the future by killing him. In the attempt, she becomes the mirror image of the terminator in the first film, and as a result, she finds that she is finally unable to kill the scientist. Instead she collapses into an almost cataleptic state. It is only as she is coaxed out of this state by John that she is finally able to interact with her son. Obsessed by the future, she has lost contact with her feelings for her son, and her ability to interact with him. She has become authoritarian as she tries to train him for his future role, and she has defined their personal feelings as secondary to his future mission. This behaviour has caused John pain earlier in the film, particularly after he has tried to save her from the mental institution in which the authorities have imprisoned her. By rejecting the role of the terminator, she dissociates herself from masculine positions, and rediscovers the importance of human feeling and interaction.

If Sarah, John, and the terminator do form a kind of family group during the film, it is one which is clearly distinguished from the ‘normal’, patriarchal family of middle class America. There is no clear authority figure—certainly no patriarch—and they are placed in clear distinction to the ‘normal’, middle class, suburban family who act as John’s foster parents at the beginning of the film. If Sarah, John, and the terminator compose an ideal family group, it is one which is made up of a mother whom society has defined as insane, a son who is a juvenile delinquent, and a father who is a robot.

III Contemporary Horror Fiction by Women

These developments may not be inherently radical, but they are related to the development of feminist horror fiction. Gale Anne Hurd often talks of her work in terms of feminism, and has worked to encourage women within Hollywood. In literature too, women writers such as Lisa Tuttle have begun to write self-consciously feminist horror fiction. Horror has always been an important area of women’s writing from Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, though the Brontes and Charlotte Gilman Perkins, to contemporary writers such as Angela Carter and Joyce Carole Oates (whose work not only may be read as horror, but who also publishes horror under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith.) Recently, however, there has been a proliferation of popular women horror writers, some of whom write as feminists and some of whom do not. Unfortunately this is one of the least appreciated aspects of both contemporary horror, and women’s writing. Little work has been done on this area, despite the fact that it is a vital area of popular women’s writing. Ironically, certain aspects of feminism have been partly responsible for this lack of recognition. Feminist approaches to horror have tended to dismiss the genre too quickly as an inherently patriarchal genre which is primarily produced and consumed by men. As a result, they have tended to ignore its interest and appeal to women writers and female audiences.

For many reasons, women’s horror fiction has been much more productive in America than in Britain. Most of it is not even available in this country except on import from the States. One problem is produced by the shape of the British market. Women’s horror does not conform to the rather limited definition of horror in Britain, and is often excluded from the image of women’s writing perpetuated by feminist publishing houses and critics. Women’s Press have begun to publish some women’s horror writers. Lisa Tuttle has produced a collection of horror written by women, Skin of the Soul (1990), and they have also released Melanie Tern’s Blood Moon (1992) and Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry (1980). But even these books are hard to find. They are often unavailable in either the horror or women’s fiction sections of bookshops. In fact, assumptions about the horror genre often lead publishers and bookshops to reclassify women’s horror as either Gothic romance, dark fantasy, or thriller fiction. As Lisa Tuttle has argued: ‘It has almost become a circular self-fulfilling argument: horror is written by men, so if it’s written by women, it isn’t horror.’[53] But if, as a result, men seem to dominate the field of horror novels, the situation in the magazines is quite different. As the horror writer Kathryn Ptacek has claimed in relation to horror fiction, ‘when it comes to the short story, women write and publish as regularly as men.’[54]

The forms of women’s horror are as various as those of male horror writing, but there are certain specific tendencies which can be discerned within them. One of these is a particular fascination with the figure of the vampire, a horror monster that has largely vanished from male writing. But even within this area, there is immense variety. The most popular of these writers is Anne Rice, whose vampire novels, ‘the Vampire Chronicles’—Interview with the Vampire (1976), The Vampire Lestat (1985), and Queen of the Damned (1988)—are some of the few examples of women’s horror to have gained mainstream popular success outside of cult readerships. Their main characters are usually male vampires, but they are presented as sympathetic and attractive figures whose narratives run parallel to the course of human history. These novels have become particularly popular within the gay community,[55] though their relation to women’s fiction is more ambiguous. They do share many features with the historical romance, such as a profound fascination with the details of their romanticized and exotic historical situations, and with different forms of desire. These forms of desire are not primarily sexual, though they may have a sexual aspect, but are often a desire to overcome a feeling of isolation and vulnerability through a close emotional bond with another, and in this way, they have much in common with the dynamics of the romance.

Suzy McKee Charnas’s novel, The Vampire Tapestry,[56] is also about a male vampire, though he is very different from Rice’s vampires. First, he is a lone vampire and is not related to a larger vampire community. Second, the novel is set in the present and gives few details of his existence in previous periods of history. Finally, the novel’s attitude to him is much more ambiguous. He is not a particularly romantic figure. He views humans as cattle, and preys upon them in unpleasant ways. In Rice’s novels, there is a romantic and appealingly sexual aspect to the vampires’ acts, but in Charnas’s novel, the vampire’s attacks are brutal violations, and are likened to sexual assaults such as rape. The vampire does become a progressively sympathetic figure, but only as he himself is victimized by a group of Satanists who encage and abuse him. During this period, he begins to develop his first positive relationships with humans. He is befriended by young boy who helps him, and this friendship is the start of a process which begins to transform him. As he begins to interact with humans, his perception of himself and his actions gradually changes. The two significant characters in this process are a female psychiatrist with whom he has his first sexual encounter with a human, and a male Satanist who wants to sacrifice the vampire in the belief that this act will give him immense power. These two figures become the positive and negative figures within the book. It is by comparing himself to them that the vampire examines himself. One teaches him the value of interaction, while the other represents the evils of power and victimization.

Nancy Collins’s vampire novels differ in various ways, though they are linked by narrative details and figures, particularly the figure of ‘Sir Morgan’. Her first and third novels, Sunglasses After Dark (1989) and In the Blood (1992), are centred on a female vampire, Sonja Blue, who is a complex and relatively sympathetic figure. Her second novel, Tempter (1990), on the other hand, concerns a male vampire—the tempter of the title—who is thoroughly depraved and demonic. In this second novel in particular, the use of the vampire raises issues of gender and race. The vampire was once human, and is the product of a depraved and exploitative family background. Cursed by the slaves whose labour built the family’s empire, the empire and the family collapse, and the vampire—their last representative—is destroyed by two females who represent those he has exploited. One is the reincarnation of the wife whom he abused, and the other of his daughter. As a slave owner, he had raped and abused a slave who was his wife’s maid and companion before selling her to a whorehouse to break the bond between her and his wife. His daughter was a product of that rape.

The larger part of the novel does not take place in the Slave South, however, but in contemporary New Orleans where the vampire tries to reassert his dominance. The women who are the reincarnations of his wife and daughter know nothing of their history—one is a young yuppie, and the other is a member of the city’s poor black populatio—and the story is at least as much about the way in which they discover their power as it is about the vampire. In fact, it is the dilemmas of the young yuppie, Charlie, which are the major focus of the novel, and her character makes it particularly clear that in this novel the threat is not merely external but internal too. Not only is the main feature of the vampire that he is a tempter or trickster who compels people to perform his will by playing upon their own anxieties and desires, but Charlie is a woman who is constantly attracted to men who abuse her. This problem is related to her previous incarnation, Eugenie, whose romantic attachment to her abusive husband resulted in her own death. Both incarnations have internalized male power to such an extent that they have actually learned to desire their own degradation. Charlie’s situation also highlights the fact that the problems of male power are not restricted to males of the Slave South, but also a feature of contemporary America. As a result, Charlie’s story is not just a confrontation with the vampire, but with her own self-destructive sexuality. In the end, she not only destroys the vampire, but also breaks out of the cycle of abusive relationships which have dominated her past. The victory is not total though. The threat of ‘temptation’ continues, and must be constantly confronted.

These issues link Tempter with a large body of women’s horror writing which concerns the problems faced by women within the family in general, and within their relationships with men in particular. Traditionally women have been taught to subjugate their own identities to their husbands and families, and this situation leads many women to experience the family as a place of confinement. Changes in the job market, and the development of feminism since the 1960s, have changed this situation to some extent. Women are now encouraged to realize their own potential, and develop social roles outside the domestic sphere of the family home. These developments do not mean that traditional social roles have vanished though, and frequently women find that a conflict develops between the demands of their traditional social roles, and their newly acquired expectations. Their newfound independence can often conflict with the demands and expectations of families and lovers. Consequently, while the family can still be seen as a realm of restriction and confinement, independence can also be feared as a form of insecurity and isolation.

It is this kind of dilemma which concerns Lisa Tuttle in her novel, Familiar Spirit (1983). It concerns a young woman, Sarah, who feels trapped in her relationship with her lover, Brian. In this case though, it is not Brian himself who is the problem. Brian is anything but a domineering male. Instead, the problem is inside Sarah’s own personality itself. She finds she cannot help subjugating herself to Brian, and she fears her feelings of emotional and sexual dependency upon him. When she leaves Brian things do not improve though. She feels vulnerable and isolated, and these feelings are made worse when Brian starts seeing someone else almost immediately after Sarah has left him. Suddenly, she feels abandoned and betrayed. Like Charlie in Collins’s Tempter, Sarah has internalized the paradigms of male power. She cannot help subordinating herself to a man within a relationship, and she feels worthless when she is outside a relationship. These issues of internalized male authority are also dealt with through the novel’s horror elements. When Sarah leaves Brian, she rents a house which is possessed by a male spirit, Jade. Much of the book is about Jade’s fight to subjugate her, and to take possession of her. Not only does this situation highlight the instability of identity through a concentration on consciousness, but also through her relationship to her own body. As Jade possesses her, she becomes a mere spectator in relation to it. She watches her body act without any control over its actions. It becomes alien to her.

This concern with the alienation of women from their own bodies is common to a number of Lisa Tuttle’s stories, and those of other women horror writers. In ‘Bug House’ (published in Lisa Tuttle, Nest of Nightmares, 1986), for example, the implications are made overt through an association with issues of rape and childbearing. Women’s bodies are frequently defined as either the property of others, or as objects which exist for the gratification of males or children. This attitude towards women’s bodies is common in many aspects of contemporary culture, but it is deeply enshrined in the ideology of the family. In the family, the wife is usually defined as the figure who exists to look after the husband and children, and biologically to reproduce the male line. In ‘Bug House’, a young women is raped by a man who impregnates her with his seed. This act has two effects. First, it converts her into a host for the insects which will issue from his seed, feed upon her body as they grow, and eventually kill her as they hatch. Second, it renders her body incapable of independent movement. She cannot even feel it. Her body ceases to be her own in any meaningful sense, but becomes something strange and alien which confines her, and which she can only experience as a spectator.

These issues are dealt with in other ways by other women writers. In Kit Reed’s ‘Baby’ (published in Kathryn Ptacek, ed., Women of Darkness, 1988), a child is presented as a vampire-like creature which needs to be constantly fed, and these needs not only come to dominate the female character in the story, but also threatens to destroy her. In Melanie Tern’s ‘Lightening Rod’ (published in Skin of the Soul, 1990), a woman’s body is literally scarred by the tensions in her family. She is a wife and mother who tries to protect her family from pain by absorbing the pain into herself. This role becomes so central to her sense of identity that she cannot bear the idea of her daughter taking over this role from her.

In fact, within these narratives, it is women’s investment in their positions of subjugation and subordination which is their most disturbing feature. Frequently, the leading female finally resigns herself to the forces that threaten to oppress her, and surrenders to those forces. The ultimate horror, within this fiction, is that male power may be so pervasive that these female characters not only desire their subordination, but have lost their power to resist it as a consequence.

6. Conclusion

Horror is usually discussed as a conservative, dangerous and rather abhorrent genre of popular fiction. In response, this brief study has examined its various radical aspects and potentials. The claim most often directed against horror is that it is somehow ‘sick’; that its preoccupation with violence and sexuality are excessive and politically reprehensible. As has been pointed out, one of the ironies of this situation are the startling similarities between left-wing and right-wing critics of the genre. It is continually claimed that horror causes antisocial or aggressive behaviour usually directed against women. The genre is supposed to revolve around ‘violence against women’ and is said to both satisfy and encourage ‘unhealthy’, sadistic attitudes within the audience. If women are seen as the primary victims in horror, it is also claimed that the monstrous is also directly associated with female sexuality and reproductive capabilities. The genre is supposed to encourage negative images of women in two ways: by presenting their degradation as both exciting and pleasurable; and by presenting women as ‘abnormal’, frightening and monstrous. Women are supposedly presented as both the victims (who are not only responsible for their fate, but also enjoy it), and as the monster; that which must be contained or repressed.

This study has challenged such responses in two main ways. First, it has contested the claim that any genre has such a fixed and unitary political position. It is certainly true that certain books and films may exhibit the feature criticized above, but genres develop historically according to a process of debate and struggle. They are used and appropriated by different groups with different political interests. As a result, their concerns will not only change and develop, but different films from any particular period will take different position with regard to any specific issues or problems. Second, it is perhaps even more important to stress that those attacking the genre usually rely on highly simplistic and even inaccurate theories about the ‘effects’ of texts upon their audiences. Such positions present these ‘effects’ in direct and almost mechanical terms, and pay almost no attention to the conditions within which the consumption of texts take place. As many studies have shown, the process of consumption is far more complex than the ‘effects’ tradition has acknowledged.

Rather than presenting the genre as a unitary object with a fixed structure or system of structuration, the present study has therefore concentrated on the different ways in which it has developed in America since 1951. It has discussed the ways in which it has dealt with the process of rationalization, or the development of rational control; its critique of American institutions, particularly the family and the military; and its questioning of concepts of ‘normality’. In the process, it has also shown how changing modes of social organization have created a crisis of identity in relation to both our sense of ourselves as conscious beings, and the integrity of our bodies. While these issues are frequently related to issues of gender and sexuality, the study has examined the ways in which horror texts have often questioned forms of male power, and so given greater and greater centrality to female characters, particularly in the role of the hero. It is for this reason that horror has not only been such an important and enduring area of women’s writing in general, but for radical women writers in particular.

It would be wrong to simply reverse the position of critics of the genre by claiming that horror is not a conservative genre, but a radical one. None the less, its concern with issues of power and victimization has meant that it has always had a strong tendency towards radicalism. But radicalism itself, like the genre, is not a fixed position: what is radical in one period many appear conservative in the next. It is constantly developing and changing, as will the horror genre, at least in the foreseeable future.

7. Bibliography

There are a variety of general books on horror many of which contain material on American horror in the post-war period. One useful resource is The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural(Viking Penguin, 1986), which is edited by Jack Sullivan. It contains sections on a variety, of books, films, authors and directors, as well as essays on various aspects of the genre. Also useful is David Punter’s The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day(Longmans, 1980), which mainly concentrates on canonical literature and dissociates itself from the term ‘horror’ through the use of the more literary and legitimate term ‘gothic’ . It has a good chapter on the horror film, and contains other useful material. James Twitchell’s Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror(Oxford University Press, 1985) is more focussed on popular forms of horror, but tends to be rather reductive, interpreting them in terms of the three classic monsters of the 19th century: the vampire, the werewolf, and Frankenstein’s monster. More recently, there have been two general studies of the genre—Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: Or Paradoxes of the Heart(Routledge, 1990) and Joseph Grixti’s The Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural Contexts of Horror Fiction (Routledge, 1989), both highly disappointing. Carroll’s book is repetitive, and adds little to the study of the genre. Grixti is not very concerned with the study of actual texts, and is somewhat unconvincing when he is. Grixti’s major contribution is that he provides an introduction to the various different studies of the ‘effects’ of horror fiction. One of the best, and certainly one of the most enjoyable introductions to the genre is Stephen King’s Danse Macabre(Futura, 1982). While it is not always entirely convincing, it is certainly the most readable introduction available. My own introduction, Horror (Batsford, 1992) is also available.

There are a number of different books on the horror film many of which are useful. R. H. W. Dillard’s Horror Films (Monarch 1976), Ivan Butler’s Horror in the Cinema (Warner, 1970) and Carlos Clarens’s An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (Putnam, 1967) are all important, though they mainly concentrate on the period prior to 1970s. Charles Derry’s Dark Dreams: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film (Barnes, 1977) makes more space for the period after 1960, but for a truly comprehensive study of contemporary films one should consult Kim Newman’s excellent book, Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of the Horror Movie From 1968 (Bloomsbury, 1988).

These earlier books are good introductions to general trends, but they are not primarily concerned with a theoretical analysis of the genre. Andrew Tudor does a very good job of combining these two approaches in his book, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie (Blackwells, 1989), and more straightforwardly theoretical approaches can be found in Pam Cook’s The Cinema Book (BFI, 1985); Stephen Neale, Genre (BFI, 1980); and Barbara Creed, The Monstrous­ Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1993). A particularly useful and challenging study is Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (London: BFI, 1992). This is an excellent and important book.

Theoretical discussions of specific films, themes and subgenres can also be found in a variety of collections, such as James Donald, Fantasy and the Cinema (BFI, 1989), Gregory A. Waller, American Horror: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (University of Illinois Press, 1987), Barry K. Grant, ed., Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (Scarecrow, 1984), and Robin Wood and Richard Lippe, eds., American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (Festival of Festivals, 1979). Robin Wood’s, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, 1986) also includes important essays.

There are also several useful studies of specific areas. For example, Peter Biskind’s Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (Pluto, 1983) has several good studies of 1950s horror films, and there is a considerable amount of work on body/horror. Piers Handling’s The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg (General, 1983) is a good collection, and Tania Modleski’s ‘The Terrors of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory’ (in Tania Modleski, ed., Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Culture, Indiana University Press, 1986) also discusses the work of David Cronenberg. Barbara Creed’s ‘From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism’ (in Screen, Vo1.28, No.2, 1987) discusses a variety of body/horror texts, including James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd’s Aliens. Peter Boss’s ‘Vile Bodies and Bad Medicine’ (Screen Vo1.27, No. 1, 1986, pp.14-22) also contains a useful discussion of body/horror.

A wealth of material exists on the dasher film including Kim Newman’s ‘Time After Time’ (in Fear, No. 12, 1989), Stephen Neale’s ‘Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look’ (in Barry K. Grant, ed., Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, Scarecrow, 1984), Vera Dika’s, ‘The Stalker Film, 1978-1981’ (in Gregory A. Waller, ed., American Horror: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film, University of Illinois Press, 1987), and most significant of all, Carol J. Clover’s ‘Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film’ (in James Donald, ed., Fantasy and the Cinema, BFI, 1986). Finally, Constance Penley discusses The Terminator in her essay, ‘Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia’ (in James Donald, ed., Fantasy and the Cinema, BFI, 1989). It is also worth consulting The Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound for discussions of individual films. It is also worth looking out for an edition of The Velvet Light Trap, which is dedicated to the horror film and includes my long essay on The Terminator, ‘Modernity and Subjectivity in The Terminator: The Machine as Monster in Contemporary American Culture’.

There is far less work on popular horror literature. Everett Franklin Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vols. I & II (Scribners, 1982) contains useful discussions of some of the main writers in the field, as does Darrell Schweitzer’s Discovering Modern Horror Fiction, Vols. I & II (Starmont 1985). Brian Docherty, American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King, (Macmillan, 1990) contains some very good individual essays. Douglas E. Winter’s Faces of Fear: Encounter with the Creators of Modern Horror (Pan, 1990) is a fairly useful, though uncritical, collection of interviews, but there are almost no women writers mentioned within it. As a remedy to this absence, it is worth consulting Kathryn Ptacek’s ‘Introduction’ to her collection Women of Darkness (Tor, 1988), and Lisa Tuttle’s ‘Introduction’ to her own collection, Skin of the Soul, (Women’s Press, 1990).

8. Notes

  1. Martin Barker, A Haunt of Fears: The Strange Case of the British Horror Comics Campaign, Pluto, 1984. Back
  2. Martin Barker, ed., The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media, Pluto, 1984. Back
  3. For studies of pornography which are exceptions to this general tendency, see Linda Williams, Hard-Core: Power; Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible, Pandora, 1990; and Andrew Ross, ‘The Popularity of Pornography’, in No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Routledge, 1989. Back
  4. See, for example, Ivan Butler, Horror in the Cinema, Warner, 1970; and R. H. W. Dillard, Horror Films, Monarch, 1976. Back
  5. See, for example, on mass culture theory, Dwight MacDonald, ‘Masscult and Midcult’, in Against the American Grain, Victor Gollancz, 1963; and on post-structuralism, Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, Blackwells, 1983; Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, Methuen, 1977; Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, BFI, 1985; Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, 1988; and Stephen Neale, Genre, BFI, 1980. Back
  6. Stephen Neale, Genre, BFI, 1980, p.61. Back
  7. Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’, in James Donald, ed., Fantasy and the Cinema, BFI, 1989. Back
  8. Clare Hanson, ‘Stephen King: Powers of Horror’, in Brian Docherty, ed., American Horror- Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King, Macmillan, 1990, p.152. Back
  9. See, for example, Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford, 1977; Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture, Verso, 1980; Raymond Williams, Culture, Fontana, 1981; Stuart Hall, ‘Deconstructing the Popular’, in Raphael Samuel, ed., People’s History and Socialist Theory, Routledge, 1981; David Money, ‘Changing Paradigms in Audience Studies’, in Ellen Seiter et al., eds., Remote Control: Television, Audiences and Cultural Power, Routledge, 1989; David Money, The Nationwide Audience: Structure and Decoding, BFI, 1980; David Money, Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure, Comedia, 1986; Mark Jancovich, ‘David Money and Audience Studies’, in Martin Barker and Anne Beezer, eds., Reading into Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1992; and for an account of Cultural Studies in America, see Patrick Brantlinger, Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America, Routledge, 1990. Back
  10. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971. Back
  11. V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Seminar, 1973. Back
  12. Ibid., p.23. Back
  13. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trs. Richard Nice, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984; and Raymond Williams and Nicholas Garnham, ‘Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of Culture: An Introduction’, in Richard Collins et al., eds., Media, Culture and Society, Sage, 1986. Back
  14. See, for example, Mark Jancovich, Horror, Batsford, 1992. Back
  15. See, for example, Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Columbia, 1986; and Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, Pluto, 1983. Back
  16. See, for example, David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwells, 1989. Back
  17. See for example, Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology, Collier-Macmillan, 1965; The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, Heinemann, 1974. Back
  18. See C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite: On the Ruling Groups in the United States, Oxford, 1956; Dwight MacDonald, ‘Masscult and Midcult’, in Against the American Grain, op. cit.; Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Beacon, 1964. Back
  19. Georg Lukacs, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, Merlin, 1971, p.89. Back
  20. Jack Finney, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Sphere, 1978, p.39. Back
  21. See Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing. Back
  22. See Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing. Back
  23. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Back
  24. Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine’. Back
  25. Judie Newman, ‘Shirley Jackson and the Reproduction of Mothering: The Haunting of Hill House’, in Brian Docherty, American Horror Fiction. Back
  26. Dwight MacDonald, ‘Masscult and Midcult’. Back
  27. Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie, Blackwells, 1989. Back
  28. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Back
  29. Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain, Dell, 1969, p.291. Back
  30. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Back
  31. Stephen King, Danse Macabre, Futura, 1982, p.449. Back
  32. Ibid., p.451. Back
  33. Robin Wood, ‘David Cronenberg: A Dissenting View’, in Piers Handling, ed., The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, General, 1983. Back
  34. Barbara Creed, ‘From Here to Modernity’, in Screen, Vol. 28, No.2, 1987, pp.57. Back
  35. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self. Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, W. W. Norton, 1979, p.42. See also Peter Boss, ‘Vile Bodies and Bad Medicine’, Screen, Vo1.27, No. 1, 1986. Back
  36. See, for example, Annette Kuhn, Alien Zone, Verso, 1990; and James Donald, ed., Fantasy and the Cinema. Back
  37. Barbara Creed, ‘From Here to Modernity’. Back
  38. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Back
  39. Robin Wood, Ibid.; Kim Newman, ‘Time After Time’ in Fear No.12 1989. Back
  40. Vera Dika, ‘The Stalker Film, 1978-81’, in Gregory A. Waller, ed., American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film, University of Illinois Press, 1987. Back
  41. See, Robin Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan; and Stephen Neale, ‘Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look’, in Barry K. Grant, ed., Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, Scarecrow, 1984. Back
  42. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, p.197. Back
  43. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan; and Kim Newman, ‘Time After Time’. Back
  44. Carol J. Clover, ‘Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film’, in James Donald, ed., Fantasy aced the Cinema, p.113. Back
  45. Vera Dika, ‘The Stalker Film, 1978-81’. Back
  46. Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists, p.202. Back
  47. Ibid., p.203. Back
  48. Carol J. Clover, ‘Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film’, pp.124-25. Back
  49. Ibid., p.126. Back
  50. Constance Penley, ‘Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia’, in James Donald, ed., Fantasy and the Cinema, BFI, 1989, p.199. Back
  51. Ibid. Back
  52. Barbara Creed, ‘From Here to Modernity’. Back
  53. Lisa Tuttle, ‘Introduction’, in Skin of the Soul, Women’s Press, 1990, p.3. Back
  54. Kathryn Ptacek, ‘Introduction’, in Women of Darkness, Tor, 1988, p.ix. Back
  55. For a discussion of Anne Rice, see Richard Dyer, ‘Children of the Night: Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism’, in Susannah Radstone, ed., Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender, and Popular Fiction, Lawrance and Wishart, 1988. Back
  56. Anne Cranny-Francis, ‘De-Fanging the Vampire: S. M. Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry as Subversive Horror Fiction’, in Brian Docherty, American Horror Fiction. Back

Top of the Page

Shirley Foster, American Women Travellers to Europe in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

BAAS Pamphlet No. 27 (First Published 1994)

ISBN: 1 85331 148 0
  1. Women Travellers in Europe
  2. Perceptive Tourists: Hawthorne, Stowe and Alcott
    i. Sophia Hawthorneii. Harriet Beecher Stoweiii. Louisa May Alcott
  3. Disciples of the Foreign: Fuller and Wharton
    i. Margaret Fullerii. Edith Wharton
  4. Guide to Further Reading
  5. Notes
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.

1. Women Travellers in Europe

In 1878, Fanny Kemble (Butler), by now a well-seasoned Transatlantic traveller, remarked:

‘A trip’, as it is now called, to Europe or America, is one of the commonest of experiences … But when I first went to America [in 1832], steam had not shortened the passage of that formidable barrier between world and world … Few men, and hardly any women, undertook it as a mere matter of pleasure or curiosity.[1]

As she indicates, passage between the New and Old Worlds increased dramatically through the nineteenth century—it has been estimated that annual numbers of visitors grew from a few thousand from either side of the Atlantic at the beginning of the century to nearly a hundred thousand at the end. But it was still relatively unusual for women to make the journey, especially in the early part of the period. It was even more unusual for them to travel alone. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sophia Hawthorne, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Julia Ward Howe were all accompanied by their husbands; Emma Willard took her children with her; Edith Wharton, having been initially introduced to Europe under the parental wing, subsequently travelled there with Teddy Wharton or close friends. Unmarried women like Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller could go only when invited to join friends as ‘companions’.

The restrictions of propriety here were compounded by the nature of the venture itself. Practical problems—a matter of concern to all Transatlantic voyagers at this time—were notably acute for women. First, there were the perils and tribulations of the crossing. Although the introduction of steam on the Transatlantic route in 1838 revolutionized travel between Britain and the United States by reducing the length of the passage from about five weeks to about ten days, the trip could still be fairly gruelling, especially for women of delicate constitutions. Not all were as tough as Harriet Martineau who, sailing to the States in 1834, had herself lashed to a binnacle on deck during a violent storm in order to enjoy the dramatic scene. Alcott, who sailed on the first screw mail packet of the Cunard line in July 1865, a nine-day journey, remarks that she was “not very sick, but uncomfortable all the way … I was heartily glad to set my feet on the solid earth, and thought I’d never go to sea again”.[2]

Stowe admits wryly that visions of a sea voyage “as the fulfilment of all our dreams of poetry and romance, the realization of our highest conceptions of free, joyous existence”[3] soon get sharply punctured by actuality. Women also felt particularly keenly the lack of privacy on board: even the Ladles’ Cabin or a shared berth with another of the same sex did not preclude the annoyance of uncongenial company. Danger was always incipient, too, especially in winter; Fuller’s fears and premonitions of disaster, even though she had the shortest ever passage of just under eleven days on the S.S.Cambria in 1846, proved tragically justified on her return journey four years later, when she, her husband, and their baby son were drowned off Long Island, New York.

On arrival at her destination the female traveller’s troubles were by no means over. Most American tourists went to England first, and though they encountered few problems here, things could get harder when they moved on to the Continent. Thomas Cook’s European tours did not start until the 1870s, so before this guides and couriers had to be individually arranged for dealing with transportation, accommodation, routing, finances, and translation of unknown foreign tongues. All this was much more difficult for a woman on her own, particularly in the remoter regions of Europe. Bandits were a dying species in mid­century Italy (much to the disappointment of some romantically­minded female tourists), but other Continental hazards included crossing the Alps, particularly via the treacherous Simplon and Mont Cenis passes, and problems with customs officials, quite apart from the possibility of being caught up in political unrest. Unaccompanied females in Europe, too, were still exposed to the threat of molestation—unwelcome attentions from fellow passengers, for example—in contrast to the proven situation in the States where a woman travelling on her own was perfectly safe.

Despite all these difficulties and trials, the eagerness of nineteenth-century American women travellers to undertake the trip’ across the Atlantic—a project that had often been dreamed about for years before—embodies a common national response. For Americans, the Old World was the goal of longings and anticipations, a place of pre-existent familiarity, known through literature and art, and constructed in advance through the romantic imagination which came prepared to discover what it had already formulated and often idealised. It was both the site of forgotten origins and a land of magic and mystery, representing something which the States could never replicate. As Fuller expresses it, “our position toward Europe, as to literature and the arts, is still that of a colony, and one feels the same joy here that is experienced by the colonist in returning to the parent home”.[4]

For the American visitor, Europe’ was not a monolithic sphere, and Britain and the Continent had distinctive meanings. The former elicited feelings both of belonging and estrangement; to most Americans, Britain was “our old home” (significantly, a large proportion of nineteenth-century tourists were from the Eastern seaboard, descendants of the original colonists), embodying all the tensions and ambiguities inherent in the mother-child relationship. It, too, could be preconceptualised through the aesthetic imagination—in this case, the literary rather than the visual—but it also signified institutions and values which the New World had ostensibly eschewed and which to confront directly could be disturbing: class hierarchies, a powerful established church, an economically divisive social system. National as well as personal self-definition was challenged here, even while the pull was irresistible. Cecilia Beaux, an American painter who studied in Paris, defines this almost unwilled attraction, in describing her first visit to England at the turn of the century:

Upon the dual origin [French and English] which was the birthright Nature had awarded me, France had absorbed and fixed a pursuing lover, but one who remembered the keen onset of an unexpected emotion felt on her approach during a night of fog on her other parent shore. Hidden by night, and a heavy veil besides, the name if not the sight of England had sounded—one of those oracular messages straight from the sources of destiny that pierce and settle in the heart and are never withdrawn from it …
[Later] I knew myself to be a plant whose roots were expanding in a deep warm soil, its own, but never felt before.[5]

Continental Europe, attracting the New World traveller mainly from an aesthetic viewpoint, could be apprehended more easily: its seductive beauties, though awakening the senses and enlarging horizons, offered gratification without commitment, and did not necessarily call up questions of personal heritage and identity. This is not to say that all its facets could be easily accommodated. Culturally, exposure to art which often expressed a more sensual and passionate civilization than that of the homeland, could be difficult for the Protestant mind to deal with. Socially, a more rigid class system with its accompanying gap between rich and poor was both fascinating and disturbing to those brought up on avowedly democratic principles. Politically, for those Americans who were enough concerned (and many, as Fuller complains, seem not to have been), the revolutionary movements of mid and later nineteenth-century Europe invited a new look at the meaning and operation of republicanism. All these potentially disturbing encounters, though, could also provide a psychological re-charging, an experience of new selfhood and new parameters of identity.

An important question for this study is the extent to which the European experience was of particular relevance to women travellers. Did Europe speak’ in any specific manner to the female American consciousness? All release from the normality of the home environment and exposure to a different world which travel enables has a special significance for women, and this was especially true in the nineteenth century when the public/private, active/passive dualities of their lives were so all-encompassing. It is notable, for example, that several of these travellers, already irked by the restrictions of domestic and family duties, express the wish that they had been born men and thus able to enjoy the freedom which maleness confers. More specifically, American women travellers responded to Europe in certain gender-characteristic ways. If, culturally and socially, exposure to an older and more sensually-oriented civilisation was liberating, it was also deeply disturbing for those accustomed to think of themselves as guardians of morality and embodiments of self-sacrifice and restraint. Their reactions to the richness of European art, including the portrayals of their own sex, are especially revealing in their often uneasy juxtaposition of emotional engagement and moralising judgment. At the same time, they often display an admirable independence of spirit, refusing to accept (male) authorized opinion or to validate an aesthetic which traditionally had excluded female expression.

Gender is also a factor in the particular objects of observation. As might be expected, the women pay close attention to domestic concerns and aspects of social or institutional life relevant to their sex. Sometimes this is related to the prime purpose of the visit. Dorothea Dix, who went to Europe between 1854 and 1857 to investigate asylums, for instance, took special note of how women were treated in them. Emma Willard, founder of the Troy Female Seminary and a pioneer in women’s education, visited Europe in 1830 partly to investigate English girls’ schools and to talk to leading English educational reformers so as to see what was being done for her own sex on the other side of the Atlantic. Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe, both deeply involved in the abolition movement, lectured widely throughout Britain to promote their campaign, and in so doing ascertained attitudes not only towards the slaves but also towards themselves as women acting prominently in the public sphere normally prioritised by men. In a number of cases, too, there was a strong and sympathetic interest in the plight of prostitutes and their treatment by a male-centred value system.

Other American women whose visit to Europe was less directly gender or ideologically related, were aroused by current events which drew them into new roles. The revolutionary activity occurring throughout the Continent in the mid-1840s and then again in Italy at the end of the next decade, with its emphasis on freedom from patriarchal tyranny, may have reminded them of their own subordinate and depressed status and encouraged their active engagement in the protests: many foreign women, including Americans, in Florence and other Italian cities in the late 1850s, for instance, worked in various ways to help Garibaldi and his supporters. The most well-known activist on behalf of Italian independence is of course Margaret Fuller, who became deeply involved in the Roman uprisings of 1848-9. Nearly sixty years later, Edith Wharton’s similarly ardent championship of French resistance to German hostilities parallels her own efforts to free herself from the sexual and social restraints of her homeland, so inimical to her personal and creative expansion.

Physically and psychologically, American women travellers also discovered in Europe new possibilities for self-expansion. Often subjected to hardships and difficult conditions with which they were unacquainted at home, they showed unexpected resilience and fortitude, prepared to overlook discomforts in their enthusiasm for the foreign. They also frequently experienced a heightened sense of individuality, as psychically—and sexually, in the case of Fuller—European travel awakened in them an awareness of a new sphere promising greater self-fulfilment. But exposure to the foreign could be disorienting as well: for women, whose sense of nationality is perhaps always more equivocal and precarious than men’s, leaving the homeland could be both liberating and threatening. This ambiguity is articulated clearly by Julia Ward Howe’s niece, Margaret Chanter, brought up in Rome where her mother’s first husband, Thomas Crawford, had been one of the well-known ex-patriot sculptors living in the city. She expresses the feelings of alienation as well as of enrichment which result from becoming a semi-permanent Old World resident:

A childhood and youth passed happily in Rome had quite unfitted me for appreciating the merits of America; I saw the United States with foreign and unfriendly eyes. This is common to all or nearly all children of American parents brought up in Europe … their own country will never be quite their home, they will be guests and strangers, if eventually they come to live in it.[6]

In her recognition of the dangers as well as the blessings of a selfhood created and maintained from living in “the richer intellectual soil of Europe”,[7] Chanter reminds us of that other “wretched exotic”,[8] Edith Wharton, who was to become her close friend. Both women were in some ways bi-national beings, belonging nowhere and with no real patriotic allegiances—“the characteristic of what we used to call the denatured American’”.[9] If their sense of alienation was acuter than most visitors’, it nevertheless represents similar feelings of unease underlying almost all American response to Europe.

In discussing these women travellers, claims of gender distinctiveness in response and representation can only be tentative. In some cases, the significance of gender is subsumed by that of genre. Commentaries such as Hawthorne’s (letters subsequently organised into publishable form), Fuller’s (pieces commissioned for newspaper reproduction) or Wharton’s (carefully written travel texts designed to inform as well as entertain) are consciously entering an essentially male literary arena and are therefore to some extent assuming a voice of masculine authenticity. Conversely, when the foreign experiences are re-presented in the peculiarly female modes of diaries and journals (and when these have escaped destructive editing) we can justifiably look for a more feminine voice, expressing itself in the sphere of private communication rather than of public statement. The evidence of difference’ in women’s travel writing is in itself problematic, as recent critics in this area have shown.[10] Moreover, the authors are often speaking as much as travellers as women, and they may have difficulty in negotiating between the two modes. Nevertheless, their works not only make an important contribution to the body of nineteenth-century Anglo-American travel literature, but they do give another, female, dimension to our knowledge of Transatlantic attitudes in this period, a dimension which until recently has largely been ignored.

In treating the topic of American female travellers, this study focuses primarily on the subjects and methods of textual representation. While the women themselves are historically important, the main purpose is to examine what and how they wrote about their European experiences. For this reason, background and biographical material has been kept to a minimum; additional information can be found in the works cited in the guide to further reading. They have been grouped according to the general nature of their response to Europe. The first three, Hawthorne, Stowe, and Alcott, are in many respects representative mid-century American tourists, who regarded Europe essentially as a cultural and environmental treasure-house with whose riches they had long hoped to become acquainted. Sharing similar backgrounds (all were New Englanders), they reacted to the Old World largely along lines laid down by American travellers before them, although at the same time they articulate their own individuality in their works. The other pair, Fuller and Wharton, although historically half a century apart, are representative of those American visitors who not only wanted to enjoy the riches of Europe but who also sought immersion in its social and political life. For them, encountering the Old World became an ideological and spiritual commitment, involving active engagement. It also involved a process of re-identification, challenging their sense of nationality and selfhood and leading them to present this new personality in their texts.

2. Perceptive Tourists

i. Sophia Hawthorne

Sophia Hawthorne in many ways represents the typical mid-nineteenth century American tourist, following well-trodden paths and predictable in her responses. One difference, of course, is that she was for some time a temporary European resident rather than simply a traveller or vacationer. She and her children accompanied Nathaniel across the Atlantic when he was appointed by Franklin Pierce to the consulship at Liverpool in 1853, and for four years the family lived in England, in Liverpool and then in Leamington. Mrs Hawthorne and her two daughters spent the winter of 1855-6 in Lisbon; in January 1858, they all left for an extended Continental tour covering France, Switzerland and Italy and including a year’s residence in Rome and Florence. They returned to England for one more year, before going back to the States in 1860. Her observations on her foreign experiences, Notes in England and Italy (1869), deal with a trip made to northern England and Scotland in the summer of 1857, and the long Continental visit begun the following year. Narrating an itinerary laid down by generations of American travellers before her, she makes her own contribution to a body of literature to which her husband, among many others, had already added. But whereas his Our Old Home (1863) and his English, French, and Italian Notebooks are relatively well-known, her work, modestly disclaimed in her Preface as never intended for publication “but [written] solely for my own reference, and for a means of recalling to my friends what had especially interested me abroad”,[11] has fallen into almost total obscurity. And yet she is often a more enthusiastic and engaged observer than Hawthorne himself; her eye for social oddities and absurdity—the “Oriental languor”[12] of English cricketers, for instance—and her highly personal response to European art contrast with his laconic, frequently uneasy, reaction to foreign difference’.

Sophia Hawthorne was admirably equipped to apprehend and comment on Europe. She grew up in a cultivated and intellectually stimulating environment, one of the Peabody family whose talents were especially notable on the female side: her mother was a schoolteacher and translator, and her two sisters both became well-known educators and philanthropists in the Boston area. Despite little formal education, she learnt Latin, Greek and Hebrew, was competent in French, German and Italian, and read widely in history. She was also an accomplished painter and sculptress, and, had it not been for ill-health, might have gone earlier to Europe to study art. With such a background, she was ready to respond eagerly to an opportunity which she regarded as the fulfilment of a life-time’s dream—as she records in her first Journal entry in Rome, she feels sheer delight in writing down “the illustrious names of what I have all my life so much desired to see!” (198)

As for so many other American visitors to Europe, anticipation and foreknowledge predisposed her to a romanticised view. For her

Every atom [of Britain] is a jewel. History and poetry transmute into precious stones every particle of its dust … noble deeds and creations of genius make it fairy-land. (189)

Even more, like almost all passionate pilgrims’ to Europe, she turned to Italy as the apotheosis of her dreams, with Rome the culmination of her voyaging. After four months in the Eternal City, on the point of departure for Florence, she expresses “an extraordinary and unexpected regret at leaving Rome” (295), declaring that she would have been “almost inconsolable” had she not known that they were to return, “so potent and profound is the hold this city of the soul’ has upon the mind” (296). Its immense power and classical associations, which purge it of its history of criminality and corruption, irresistibly capture her imagination, the sight of its distant towers and pinnacles on their way back from Florence representing for her a homecoming.

Hawthorne’s romanticising response reconstructs a pre-conceptualised environment in which scenery is mediated through the lens of an aesthetic idealism. Central here is the notion of the picturesque. The archetypal English village, which she found so attractive, encapsulates this visionary landscape: “clusters of ancient cottages, gathered lovingly about a pretty church, which was often a gem of beauty” (86). The intrusion of intransigent reality upon such perfection—such as some “very ugly, small, manufacturing towns” (7) near Leeds—is an affront to her visual sense. Her search for the picturesque finds its fullest satisfaction in Scotland where, once she has got used to the notion that the countryside here is not so “delicately nurtured and polished” (170) as in England, nor bears “marks of the untiring hand of man, polishing and garnishing at every point” (147), the grandeur of the romantic Highland scenery elicits some of her most rhapsodic prose:

I was content with the sublime forms without any drapery … Naked and awful they stood—Michelangelic forms, even as gods, conversing with the skies. (170)

Hawthorne’s appreciation is also dependent on literary and artistic association. The gardens round Peterborough Cathedral are like “some wonderful Arcadia” (79); Newstead Abbey is hallowed by its connections with Byron; and throughout Scotland echoes of Scott continually enrich her enjoyment of this “peculiarly enchanted” realm (181). Her apprehension of Italy’s natural glories is even more dependent on such framing. Scenery is familiarised by reference to Turner’s paintings or Byron’s poetry; at the same time, it has a fairy-tale quality, like the “dreamland” (318) of the snow-crested Apennines, or the “magical beauty” (342) of the view of Florence seen from the surrounding hills. Elsewhere, her employment of metaphors of Edenic paradise, magic, and mystery reinforce her imaginative formulation of the Old World’s otherness.

Hawthorne’s interpretation of European art and artefacts in terms of a cultural tradition lacking in the New World is common to many Americans of the time. Clinging to a past which she wishes to see preserved (she deplores the modern addition of a hunting lodge at Bolton Abbey, for instance), she seeks immersion in an earlier age of dedicated craftsmanship in which creation was an act of devotion, as evidenced by the old pews of York Minster or the frescoes in Santa Maria Novella in Florence:

[The] inspiration of the old masters was from within, a sacred, revered flame; and with it they painted love and prayer and praise and sorrow with inevitable power, however strange and hard their lines and shapes. (438)

Here, of course, Hawthorne is judging according to spiritual, as much as to aesthetic, criteria. The influence of her Puritan background and of her own deep piety can be seen in much of her art criticism. She fails to be moved by Vasari’s or Bronzino’s works because the artists were clearly not devout men, and she attacks the same evident lack of spirituality in English Pre-Raphaelite painting. Her New England nurtured sensibilities are offended by Titian’s Venuses (in contrast to the “maidenly modesty” [350] of the Venus de Medici) which she finds “positively disagreeable … nay, really indecent” (353) and proof that Titian had no acquaintance with innocence and purity. Similarly, she “thoroughly detest[s]” his portrayal of Mary Magdalen, “a very large woman, quite nude”, because of her uncompromising sensuality:

Such a woman  would be incapable of repentance. She is coarse and earthly in every fibre of her frame, and in every recess of her mind. It is a pity that such a woman should be painted so well. I have no doubt it is a portrait, and I am sorry that Titian knew such a person and contemplated her so minutely. It seems to show a depraved taste and nature. (392)

Such disapproval is related to her (predictably) equally distrustful reaction to the excesses of Roman Catholicism in Italy, a familiar attitude of Protestant visitors to the Continent.

It would, however, be wrong to suggest that Hawthorne’s responses are simply those of the well-instructed, orthodoxly receptive tourist. If on the whole she found what she expected to find, her reactions are often not only refreshingly personal but also distinctively gender-oriented. Somewhat surprisingly, she does not devote much attention to social conditions in Europe, especially the signs of domestic suffering or deprivation noted by many nineteenth-century American women visitors.[13] Some of her observations in this respect seem curiously disingenuous, as for instance her amazement that anyone could consent to live in the industrial squalor of northern England; and in Italy, she, unlike Margaret Fuller, makes no attempt to link the sufferings of the Italians under Austrian rule with those of the slaves (or women) oppressed by patriarchal tyranny at home. But in substance and quality, some of her representations do suggest a more obviously female style.

Hawthorne’s description of the pillars and vaulting of Lincoln Cathedral as “numberless fountains, each reaching a different height, full of flowers, saints, and all kind of cunning devices, crystallized in mid-air by the wand of a magician, dripping solid splendour on every side” (41) may be considered an example of this kind of discourse. So may her expression of preference for Gothic over classical architecture:

a crystallized poet,  as it were, of endless variety, of scintillating fancy—soaring in “immortal curves,” baffling geometric conclusions, setting known, established rules at defiance, wild beyond reach of recognised art, flaming like fire, glowing like flowers and rainbows, soaring like birds, struggling for freedom, like the soul, never satisfied. (83)

Emotional and unrestrained, this contrasts with the more objective and controlled language of the male-dominated travel literature of the period. In its disordered and irrational coherence, it is also suggestive of a female voice’ or ecriture feminine as described by Helene Cixous—“Write! and your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood, rising, insurrectionary dough kneading itself, with sonorous, perfumed ingredients, a lively combination of flying colors and rivers plunging into the sea we feed”.[14]

Hawthorne also speaks as woman when she projects her own feelings on to the scenes or objects before her. When she looks at a quilt embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots, she imagines the latter’s sad thoughts as she worked it. In portrayals of the Madonna she sees maternal emotions of grief or anxiety: in one of Perugino’s Pietas, Mary’s sorrow is the “grief of all the bereaved mothers since Eve … Her grief is deeper than tears now, and she asks for no sympathy and wishes to hear no word” (380). Similarly, suspending moralistic judgment, she empathises with Guido’s Beatrice Cenci as an image of hopeless desolation:

Never from any human countenance looked out such ruin of hope, joy, and life … a wild, endless despair hovers over [her] … She is a spotless lily of Eden, trailed over by a serpent and unable to understand the desecration, yet struck with a fatal blight. (213)

Not only is there suggested identification with a fallen woman here, but also covert recognition of the devastating effect on women of double sexual standards.

Hawthorne never wholly rejects the voice of national and cultural conditioning and it would be foolish to seek a highly original view of Europe in her work. But she is a sensitive as well as enthusiastic commentator, enough attuned to the spirit of place to recognise wistfully that ultimately the American visitor will always remain a stranger in the Old World:

I wish I could seize something elusive and unsatisfactory in the divine loveliness of this Italy, so as to express what I always feel when I look upon it. There is a dream-like quality in my enjoyment … It is like the ghost of a very precious reality. It is something that has been, even while it is now that I have a sense of it. (467)

For her, as for so many other Americans, this enchanting other is tantalisingly resistant to possession.

ii. Harriet Beecher Stowe

When Harriet Beecher Stowe went to Europe for the first time in 1853 she was already famous as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a vigorous abolitionist campaigner. The trip was in fact initiated by British emancipationists who invited her and her husband to their country, during which visit the couple attended and addressed anti-slavery meetings in Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Leeds, and London. Travelling as a public figure in her own right, unlike Sophia Hawthorne, Stowe was feted wherever she went—often to the point of exhaustion—and was introduced to many of the equally famous figures of the day, including Lord Shaftesbury, Dickens, Thackeray, Mrs Gaskell, and Gladstone. Much of her time, naturally enough, was devoted to stirring up sympathy for her cause and she was anxious to record the progress of anti-slavery activity in Britain.[15] But she was also an eager tourist, determined to see all the requiredsights; and it is as a lively and entertaining example of nostalgic­romantic American travel writing that her account of this visit, Sunny Memories in Foreign Lands (1854) is most notable. As she explains, this was a truly sunny’ visit, and she is determined to show it as such, in contrast to the frequent “illiberal criticisms”[16] made on each other’s countries by travellers from both sides of the Atlantic.

Stowe, like Sophia Hawthorne (whom she met in Europe, returning at the end of her third and last trip in June 1860on the same ship as the Hawthornes), was in many ways a typical mid-century tourist. She came from a cultivated and religious New England family which believed in female education (her sister Catherine kept a school in Hartford, Connecticut, at which Stowe was both pupil and teacher), and which promoted active Christianity (her father and brothers were ministers, and she herself married a Professor of Biblical Literature). Her upbringing encouraged her to look on the Old World as the Promised Land, a part of her heritage to which she was irresistibly drawn with “a kind of thrill and pulsation of kindred” (I,18).Her appetite for European travel was probably partly stimulated by her study of French and Italian, begun when she was seventeen; certainly it had grown into a deep longing by 1836 when, only a few months after her marriage, her husband, Calvin, went to Europe on business:

Only think of  all you expect to see: the great libraries and beautiful paintings, fine churches … My dear, I wish I were a man in your place; if I wouldn’t have a grand time![17]

When she herself was finally enabled to go, seventeen years and seven children later, her anticipation still centred on a pre­constructed ideal:

If I live till spring I shall hope to see Shakespeare’s grave and Milton’s mulberry tree, and the good land of my fathers,—old, old England! May that day come! (L&L, 178)

When this ideal became reality, Stowe responded to it according to the literary and artistic preconceptions which her early acquaintance with the works of writers such as Byron, Scott and Mme de Stael had created. Scotland, which she visited soon after her arrival in the British Isles, is, as for so many Americans, already “dear” to her from her acquaintance with Scottish ballads, “the songs of Burns” and “the enchantments of Scott” (I, 41).

Stratford, of course, is seen through the ghost of Shakespeare, while later, on the Continent, Byron brings Chillon to life and Naples “recalled to my mind so vividly Milton’s description of the infernal regions that I could not but believe that he had drawn the imagery from this source” (L&L, 231).Even while fully aware how the literary imagination reconstructs an accommodating environment—at Glamis, for example, she comments slyly that “the materials which the past gives to the novelist or poet in these old countries” turns ancient castles into “standing romances, made to the author’s hands” (I, 94)—it is a strategy of familiarisation in which she herself takes great delight.

Stowe’s enthusiasm for the picturesque and romantic aspects of landscape, natural and man-made, also echoes contemporary responses. She relishes “the wild, poetic beauty” (I, 61)of the ruins of Bothwell Castle and the way in which “the pointed arches, the clinging wreaths of ivy, the shadowy pines, and yew trees” of ruined Dryburgh, Scott’s burial place, make “the whole air … wild, and dreamlike, and picturesque” (I, 140-1).Typical, too, is her emphasis on the visionary, elusive quality of such beauty. At Heidelberg Castle, the flower-covered fragments seem “inexpressibly beautiful” and haunt her like a “strange dream of joy” (II, 314).Venice, a city which she visited on her second European trip in 1856, belies all the normal experiences of travellers, for whom the unknown rapidly becomes familiar, by remaining “all romance from beginning to end, and never ceas[ing] to seem strange and picturesque” (L&L, 231).

Stowe’s apprehension of the artistic treasures of Europe is in many ways equally predictable. She enters the “dreamland … the lotus-eater’s paradise” (II, 158) which the Paris art world opens up for her (she was too busy to go to galleries in Britain), conscious, like so many of her compatriots, of the paucity of tradition and culture in her homeland. She grasps at the riches with the voracious appetite of “one who has starved all a life, in vain imaginings of what art might be” (II, 159).Her responses are, however, like Hawthorne’s, coloured by her moral and spiritual assumptions. For her, art must draw on Nature, but only in its beautiful and elevating aspects; mere sensuousness is distasteful to her, as evidenced in her attack on Titian’s nude Venuses (“[he] did not seem able to paint innocence and purity, and apparently had no acquaintance with those states of being” [II, 389]). Similarly, she is moved by religious painting only where there is evidence of a truly pious and devoted spirit: Murillo’s work fails to affect her because despite the seriousness of his subject “there is no earnestness of religious feeling expressed” (II, 164), and Corregio’s Nativity is “profanity” because it “make[s] the most solemn mystery of religion a mere tributary to the exhibition of a trick of art” (II, 344). And of course her Protestant principles are particularly offended by what she considers the idolatry of Romanist art.

Stowe is, however, no mere copybook tourist, following guidelines already laid down and echoing received opinion. Her lively and iconoclastic side—perhaps inherited from her strong-minded aunt by whom she was partly brought up—is physically manifested by her behaviour in the Swiss Alps. Here, though earlier on her trip she had been so exhausted by social and professional engagements that she often had to retire to bed, she suddenly sprang to life in an almost “celestial” (II, 288) environment. Silencing their guide’s objections and astonishing her husband (in his interpolated journal entry at this point he comments that “one would almost think her incapable of fatigue” [II, 299]), she walked the nine miles from the Jungfrau snowfield to Grindelwald, scrambled down to see blocks of glacier ice at first-hand, and alone climbed a peak in order to drink in the beauty of “those strange old cloudy mountains, the Eiger, the Wetterhorn, the Schrecken” (II, 295). She also climbed Vesuvius on a subsequent European visit. Such activities are instances of that common nineteenth-century phenomenon—the remarkable emergence of female energies in new, often demanding, surroundings, largely free from the the restrictions of convention and propriety. Stowe exhibits this independence in some of her artistic evaluations. Like Sophia Hawthorne, she often judges from a gendered rather than an aesthetic viewpoint. Raphael’s Madonna di San Sisto, in the Dresden gallery, for example, fascinates her because it speaks to her own maternity:

There was a conflict of emotion in that mother’s face, and shadowed mysteriously in the child’s, of which I queried, Was it fear? was it sorrow? was it adoration and faith? was it a presage of the hour when a sword should pierce through her own soul? (II, 343-4)

Stowe also resists cultural authoritarianism, refusing to accept unquestioningly all canonical evaluations. She rejects the idolatry surrounding the old masters (“Why, I wish to know, should none but old masters be thought any thing of? … I must confess, I have some partialities towards young masters” [II, 278-9]), and stoutly defends her liking for the Princess Charlotte monument in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, despite being told that it is in questionable taste. While eager to experience all the treasures of the Old World, she is ready to challenge what she finds personally unappealing.

Indeed, Stowe does not always take tourism too seriously. Her ironic self-awareness recognises when she is most being the American abroad’, mocking both her own romantic enthusiasms and the circumstances which have evoked them. Her account of an expedition to see the supposed bones of the eleven thousand virgins, slaughtered for refusing to yield up their chastity, in St Ursula’s church in Cologne becomes, in her telling, a miniature farce. She often deliberately punctures the atmosphere she has built up. Her poetic description of a moonlight visit to Melrose Abbey, for instance, is brought to an abrupt halt when she laughingly confesses that they were forced to depart hurriedly by wind and rain. Even in the midst of rhapsodising over the beauties of Alpine scenery, she reminds herself—and us—that “two or three hours’ ride in the hot sun, on a mule’s back, indisposes one to make much of the grandest scenes” (II, 252), while with admirable honesty she deflates the seeming triumph of their ascent to the Mont St Bernard hospice:

As we drove up nearer I saw the little porch in front of it crowded with gentlemen smoking cigars, and gazing on our approach just as any set of loafers do from the porch of a fashionable hotel. This was quite a new idea of the matter to me. We had been flattering ourselves on performing an incredible adventure; and lo, and behold, all the world were there waiting for us. (II, 262)

Partly because of her dedication to the cause of the oppressed in her homeland, and partly because, like all these women tourists, she could never completely separate the physical environment from the people who lived in it, Stowe placed observation of social conditions high on her European agenda. In the parts of Sunny Memories dealing with Britain, she notes the state of health of the rural poor, the morale of servants, and excellent welfare schemes such as the Aberdeen industrial schools and Lord Shaftesbury’s lodging houses for the homeless. She is also appalled by the ubiquitous gin-shops, “flaming and flaring from the most conspicuous positions, with plate-glass windows and dazzling lights, thronged with men, and women, and children, drinking destruction”. (I, 271)

Stowe’s social awareness is not, however, instanced merely by personal attention to suffering or deprivation; in fact she focuses less on such matters than Fuller, for instance, perhaps because in her semi-official tour of Britain she was not shown the worst conditions. For another reason, too, she tended to take a more theoretic or even optimistic view of social circumstances. She was well aware that much of the cultural richness which she so much admired in the Old World was founded on a hierarchical system of inequality quite at odds with American democratic principles. Thus at Warwick Castle, she is both captivated by the romantic “scene of magnificent beauty” (I, 225) which the ivy-covered “perfect specimen of the feudal ages” (I, 238) presents, and uneasy about the exclusive wealth and privilege which it symbolises. Not wholly convinced by the claim that there is no lower class resentment towards such establishments, she tries to validate her own aesthetic pleasure with philanthropic justification:

The influence of these estates on the community cannot but be in many respects beneficial, and should go some way to qualify the prejudice with which republicans are apt to contemplate anything aristocratic … With such reflections the lover of the picturesque may comfort himself, hoping that he is not sinning against the useful in his admiration of the beautiful. (I, 239)

More significantly, Stowe was also aware that much of the anti­slavery support in Britain came from the wealthy and advantaged echelons of society who might be considered as much oppressors of the working classes as, in the United States, white Southerners were of the black slaves. Hence she was anxious to undermine accusations of abolitionist hypocrisy and to show that privilege and beneficence can go hand-in-hand. Her well­intentioned strategy got herself into particular trouble in Scotland. Some of the strongest support for her cause—as well as much hospitality—came from the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, powerful Scottish landowners, and Stowe spends a whole chapter of Sunny Memories in refuting “those ridiculous stories” (I, 301) about the Duchess “turning her tenants out into the snow, and ordering the cottages to be set on fire over their heads because they would not go out” (I, 302). The reference is of course to the Highland clearances which occurred earlier that century, and, as George Shepperson points out,’[18] Stowe’s championing of the Sutherlands’ humanitarian schemes as “an almost sublime instance of the benevolent employment of superior wealth and power in shortening the struggles of advancing civilization” (I, 313) caused deep offence to many Scots for whom memories of the clearances were still very bitter. The insult was considered even greater since, at the time of writing this, Stowe had not actually visited the Sutherlands’ Scottish estates. On her second European visit, Stowe was entertained by the Sutherlands at Dunrobin Castle, and what she saw here gave her no reason to change her mind, as she writes to her husband:

I see evidently happiness and prosperity all through the line of this estate. I see the duke giving his thought and time, and spending the whole income of this estate in improvement upon it … I observe well-clothed people, thriving lands, healthy children, fine school-houses, and all that. (L&L, 218-9)

It is easy to accuse Stowe of wilful myopia here, but her comments do show an attempt to come to terms with a social system which, as she well knew, was hardly compatible with an abolitionist stance—indeed, plantation paternalism was one of the specious arguments used by the pro-slavery faction. This particular confrontation is, moreover, symptomatic of the more general dilemma facing nineteenth-century American visitors to the Old World. Caught between democratic impulses and a romantic love of tradition, Stowe both cherished Europe and experienced it as the site of conditions and beliefs with which her republican spirit was not wholly at ease. As with Twain after her, reverence and mockery are very close bedfellows in her responses. Ultimately, though, her love for a Europe of history and aesthetic beauty predominate; the note of nostalgia in a letter written at the end of her last visit to Europe perhaps articulates her deepest feeling:

It must be true, we can’t have it otherwise … Our Southern Italy trip was a glory; it was a rose—a nightingale—all, in short, that one ever dreams, but alas! it is over. (L&L, 237)

iii. Louisa May Alcott

Independent and high spirited from childhood, as well as physically extremely active (in an age of long skirts, she was a keen runner) Louisa May Alcott was torn between the conflicting impulses faced by so many women of her generation: on the one hand, she longed for freedom and the chance for self-expansion which she could have enjoyed as a man; on the other hand, a strongly developed sense of self-denial and duty towards others made her distrustful of anything that could be construed as self-indulgence. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a leading spirit in the newly-formed Transcendentalist movement of the 1840s, and his influence, together with that of the equally high-minded friends who visited the Alcott household in Concord (including Emerson and Margaret Fuller) not only provided her with intellectual stimulation but may also have inspired her desire to broaden her geographical and social horizons. Certainly her father must have talked about his trip to England in 1842, and she undoubtedly heard about the Hawthornes’ European experiences, after they returned to America in 1860 and resettled in Concord as the Alcotts’ neighbours.

After a spell as a hospital nurse in Washington, DC in December 1862 was abruptly curtailed by an attack of typhoid, Alcott returned home to continue her resolute struggle to help ameliorate the family’s ever-worsening financial situation caused by Bronson’s utopian schemes. But though she was occupied with teaching, sewing and writing, travel to Europe remained the focus of her ambitions. Disappointed in the non-fruition of her first opportunity (a friend of her sister’s asked her to go abroad as a companion, “but as I spoke neither French nor German she didn’t think I’d do” [19]), she eagerly acceded to a proposal which came soon afterwards to go as the nurse-companion to Anna Weld, the invalid daughter of a wealthy ship-owner, who wanted to try the German bath cures. The party sailed on 19th July 1865, landing in Liverpool on the 29th, and then followed a fairly conventional route through England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and France, finally arriving in Nice where they temporarily settled. The meeting in Vevey with Ladislaw Wisniewski, a young Pole on whom the character of Laurie in Little Women is partly based, added to the interest of the tour, but once in Nice Alcott found attendance on the sick girl increasingly wearisome and frustrating. In May 1866, therefore, she decided to leave the Welds and travel on her own to Paris and then London; her sense of release made her, as she says, “as happy as a freed bird” (149). An independent traveller at last, she had an especially “free and jolly time” (150) in London, meeting many well-known people such as Frances Cobbe, Barbara Bodichon, and Mazzini.

In April 1870, she made her second European trip with her sister, May, and May’s friend, Alice Bartlett. This time, she spent longer in northern France, as well as revisiting Vevey. Then, despite the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, she went on to Italy, calling at Lake Como, Lugano, Milan, Parma, Pisa, Bologna, Florence and Rome, where like Fuller she experienced almost non-stop rain for two months. She returned to the United States in May 1871, travelling via Germany and Belgium to London where she saw old friends and places. This was to be her last visit abroad: though later she often expressed the wish to return to Europe, she always felt herself constrained by family duties and her own ill-health.

As a visitor to Europe, Alcott was unequivocally the American tourist, motivated purely by a long-standing and self-pleasing desire—as she writes in her journal on her first trans-Atlantic crossing, “I could not realize that my long-desired dream was coming true” (142). At the same time, Europe for her was less obviously than for most of the other travellers in this study the focal point of a romantic or ideological idealism. This is perhaps best indicated by the fact that she never apparently wished to authenticate her foreign experiences in specific travel texts, in contrast to the other women, all of whom initially or subsequently planned on publication. Alcott used some of her European material in semi-fictional articles for the Independent, later gathered together as Shawl Straps, the second volume of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag (1872),[20] but her direct personal impressions are contained only in journal entries and letters, collected and published after her death by her first biographer, Ednah Cheney. Alcott’s observations are thus informal and piecemeal, with no organizing theoretic or structural principle behind them, though at the same time they have an immediacy lacking in more formal modes of representation.

It is also worth noting that Alcott’s commentary was subject to the same kind of protective editing as was Fuller’s. As comparison with the recently published new edition of her journals makes clear, Cheney not only tidied up’ her grammar, spelling and punctuation, but reverted to anonymisation or omission wherever she felt Alcott’s material was too personal for public gaze. In particular, she leaves out all direct reference to Alcott’s troubles with Anna Weld. Cancelled remarks such as the following are indicators of Alcott’s increasing frustration at having to look after a querulous invalid instead of being able to make the most of her hard-earned visit to Europe:

I tried my best to suit & serve her but dont think I did so very well, yet many would have done still worse I fancy, for hers is a very hard case to manage & needs the patience & wisdom of an angel …
Dull days here, often homesick & very tired of doing nothing pleasant or interesting …
I decided to go home in May… I’m tired of it & as she is not going to travel my time is too valuable to be spent fussing over cushions & carrying shawls.[21]

All this of course gives a portrait of a much more hard-headed Alcott than Cheney offers.

Like all her compatriots, Alcott discovered’ Europe through cultural pre-familiarity and aesthetic preconceptions. Knowledge of the foreign has already been established through art and literature. In London in 1865, walking through the parks and the well-known streets and seeing Westminster Abbey, she feels “as if I’d got into a novel while going about in the places I’d read so much of “ (143). Scenes in Cologne and Heidelberg are like something out of a cherished picture book, while in Rome, “[I] felt as if I hadbeen there before and knew all about it” (211). Alcott also seizes on the romantic aspects of the Old World: Heidelberg is “a charming old place” and the sight of “the quaint stone images of knights, saints, monsters, and angels” at the Castle, by the light of the rising moon, “completed the enchantment of the scene” (144); Freiburg is “the most romantic place we have been in” (145); and Dinan, with its narrow streets, overhanging gables, and carved porches, set in a valley full of blooming fruit trees, windmills, and a ruined castle, is “the quaintest, prettiest, most romantic town I ever saw” (179). The visual attractions of scenery increase for her the more it conforms to notions of the picturesque: the required elements include castles, towers and walls standing out against a marine background (Nice); a ruined church beside an old ivy-clad mill (Lahou); and a ruined chateau with ivy-covered towers and a resident ghost (Dinan). The glories of Gothic architecture are part of this aestheticized environment, encapsulated by the cathedral at Le Mans which is “like a dream in stone” and which Alcott describes in natural imagery reminiscent of Sophia Hawthorne’s representation of Lincoln Cathedral:

Anything more lovely and divine I never saw, for the arches, so light and graceful, seemed to soar up one above the other like the natural curves of trees or the spray of a great fountain. (190)

Alcott’s romantic enthusiasms became so intense that at one point during her travels she had a dream in which the family house at Concord was transformed into “ great, gray stone castle, with towers and arches and lawns and bridges, very fine and antique” (203) and she herself had become a ghost, haunting its precincts.

Alcott’s supreme delight in visiting “the long-desired Italy” which she found “as lovely as we hoped” (208) is also familiar. Again, the emphasis is on the country’s pictorial qualities as well as on the sense of rebirth it awakens (at Isola Bella, “we felt like butterflies after a frost” [209]). Her detailed description of the journey to Lago di Como, for instance, not only indicates her eye for detail but effectively traces her physical progress in relation to her mounting feelings of expectation and exhilaration:

… the slow winding up, up, up out of the valley toward the sun, which came slowly over the great hills, rising as we never saw it rising before … Little by little we wound through a great gorge, and then the sun came dazzling between these grand hills, showing us a new world … a never-to-be forgotten place, and a fit gateway to Italy … when we came to Lago Maggiore lying in the moonlight we could only sigh for happiness, and love and look and look. (208-9)

Like Stowe, however, Alcott frequently breaks out of the conventional tourist mould. Though Europe is for her the site of realised expectation, it is also a place which is both unsettlingly and delightfully strange. One of her most frequently (over-) used terms of evaluation is “queer”, articulating her feeling of enjoyable disorientation: at Freiburg she sees many “queer costumes” (145); Nice is a “queer old city” full of a “queer set” of people (148); and “the queer sights and sounds” at Morlaix include “funny children … in little wooden shoes like boats” and “funny hats” (177). This othering’ of the foreign as odd or absurd is of course to some extent a defensive strategy, a common feature of much travel discourse in which the observer seeks a means of coming to terms with an alien culture or value-system. So Alcott turns the extraordinary coach-ride from Lamballe to Dinan into a kind of comic set-piece, caricaturing the “queer ramshackle thing like an insane carryall” (178) with the passengers’ trunks perilously roped on top, driven by a reckless hunchback, and containing, as well as themselves, a tipsy Frenchman who quotes poetry and tries to flirt with Alice. The French family staying at their lodgings in Dinan are also reproduced as comic types—the bossy mother, the innocent daughter about to be married point during her travels she had a dream in which the family to a man whom she has seen only twice and who turns out house at Concord was transformed into “a great, gray stone to be a pompous, self-important little soldier, and the vain castle, with towers and arches and lawns and bridges, very fine son of twenty-two, who, under the misconception that he can speak English, fancies himself as May’s lover. Reporting on the wedding itself, which took place while they were there, Alcott further indulges in mockery, highlighting the groom’s discomfiture when the carriage breaks down, referring to the mother as “ma”, and describing everyone at the dinner “gabbing and gabbling as only French folk can” (184). Alcott’s amusement at these and other ridiculous occurrences in France (“their ways amuse us mightily” [182], “a church wedding is a very funny thing” [184]) is founded on a desire to assert superiority through ethnic stereotyping, though it is all ostensibly very good-humoured.

Alcott can, nevertheless, be the actor in her own comedy. Like Stowe, she sees the often absurd gap between the guide-book tourist and the situation of the real traveller. She turns her satirical eye on herself and her companions, motionless in silly little bath-chairs harnessed to obstinate donkeys; and she caricatures the incident in which the romance of a visit to a ruined castle is turned into ignominious retreat from a fierce sow and her twelve piglets. Even a trip into the hills above Vevey which is spoilt by bad weather becomes an opportunity for self-mockery: she depicts the party trudging round under umbrellas, “getting mushrooms, flowers, and colds … [and] sitting on rustic seats to enjoy the belle vue, which consisted of fog” (206).

Perhaps because of the more intimate nature of the diary and letter forms, Alcott’s apprehension of Europe is never aggrandised by hyperbole or conventional rhetoric. In fact, as she herself admits, her eye for the absurd always interposes to prevent too serious and reverential an approach to the foreign. So at a splendid Fete Dieu procession in Tours, she notes how a “very fat and fine priest, who walked with his eyes upon his book and sung like a pious bumblebee, suddenly destroyed the effect by rapping a boy over the head with his gold prayer-book” (192-3). In the case of art and historical artefacts, like Stowe she refuses to accept canonical judgments unquestioningly. So at the chateau at Chenonceaux, though she admires many of the paintings, she has no time for “a picture of Diane, a tall simpering woman in a tunic, with hounds, stag, cupids, and other rubbish round her” (194), and she refuses to be impressed by the generally-admired masterpieces:

The Guidos, etc, I don’t care for so much as they were all grimy and convulsive, and I prefer pictures of people who really lived, to these impossible Venuses and repulsive saints, —bad taste, but I can’t help it. (194)

While in Rome, she goes often to the Capitol “to spend the AM with the Roman emperors and other great men” (212), but her assessment of their appearances is deliberately iconoclastic:

M. Aurelius as a boy was fine; Cicero looked very like W Phillips; Agrippina in her chair was charming; but the other ladies, with hair a la sponge, were ugly; Nero & Co a set of brutes and bad men. (212-3)

A crowd of poor people receiving a royal gift of bread and money, with the splendid snow-covered hills in the distance, is to her, she adds, a far finer sight.

Insofar as it is possible to judge from her brief and somewhat fragmentary commentary, Alcott was not a profound observer of Europe and its ethos. Yet she was clearly deeply affected by her travel there, as her continuing wistful yearning towards it in her later letters and journal entries reveals. As her biographer suggests, her experiences also probably gave her a more objective perspective on her own background, put to good use in Little Women begun a year or so after her first trip abroad and published in October 1868.[22] Her enthusiasm for what she encountered, plus her determination to take it as far as possible on her own terms, too, further exemplifies the position of the nineteenth-century female tourist, eager for foreign experience yet keenly aware how, for a woman burdened with family responsibilities, the chance to travel and really be herself’ was a rare privilege. With more opportunity, indeed, Alcott might have proved herself one of the most vivid and entertaining travel writers of the period.

3. Disciples of the Foreign

i. Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller’s response to Europe, perhaps more than was the case with any other of the women discussed here, was determined by temperament and upbringing. Like the other New Englanders, she was the product of a high-minded, cultured, and morally earnest ethos which both encouraged its women and created in them deep self-unease; like Alcott in particular, she suffered from a sense of divided selfhood. Given a masculine education (that is, classical and literary) by her father, Timothy, who purportedly was disappointed that his first-born was not a son, she was encouraged to develop intellectual independence. As she herself says, the patriarchal model of excellence was always before her—“the all-accomplished man, him of the many talents, wide resources, clear sight, and omnipotent will”.[23] At the same time, she lacked an outlet for her imaginative, passionate side, which she calls the “natural” one (1, 13); only in secret, in the garden or in the little upstairs bookroom where the view of distant hills imbued her with fanciful longings, “glorious … hopes that swelled my heart” (1, 23), could she indulge her fantasies. Conflictual though they were, both these aspects of her development contributed to her deep-rooted desire to visit Europe: her study of Latin, French, and Italian, her concentration on classical history, especially Roman, and her enthusiasm for Goethe (whose biography she wanted to write) aroused her interest in civilizations richer than America’s and made her feel increasingly that “my not going abroad is an insuperable defect in the technical part of my education” (I1, 11); her romantic idealism created discontent with an often uncongenial home environment, carrying “my almost hopeless gaze to the distance” (1, 105). Her adolescent friendship with a visiting Englishwoman, Ellen Kilshaw, provided further impetus, taking her “into that atmosphere of European life to which I had before been tending” (1, 47).

Fuller’s ideological views, as well as her mental and literary training, influenced her subsequent reaction to Europe. Teacher and leading intellectual figure in Boston, she, together with Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, was one of the pioneers of the Transcendental movement, championing its rejection of a constraining past and its belief in the spiritual worth of the individual. From 1839 to 1842 she was editor of its journal, The Dial. An ardent feminist as well, she protested about the disadvantages suffered by her sex in her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845)—enlarged from an earlier Dial article, “The Great Lawsuit”—arguing for greater opportunities and freedoms for women, some of which she herself had enjoyed. She asserts that “we would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man … What Woman needs is … as a soul to live freely and unimpeded”.[24] This challenge to orthodoxy and promotion of female self-expansion was to lead her to take important personal and political steps in Europe; it also predisposed her towards the cause of all who suffered from injustice or tyranny. In Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she links women and slaves as victims of the same unlawful bondage; and while she was working as a journalist in New York, writing for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, she turned her attention to prisons, city charities, and prostitutes. She went abroad, therefore, ready to sympathise—even identify—with all oppressed peoples, perhaps seeing in their struggles an image of her own efforts to achieve genuine self-identity.

The disappointment expressed in her journal for 1833—“All hopes of travelling I have dismissed”[25]—may refer to a half­promised European trip based on her father’s hopes of an ambassadorship from John Quincy Adams which failed to materialise. A second projected visit m 1835, when Fuller’s new friend, Harriet Martineau, invited her to return to England with her, was also doomed to failure: the sudden death of Timothy Fuller and the ensuing family responsibilities prevented her taking up the offer. But her ambitions were finally realized when she was invited to accompany her friends Mr and Mrs Marcus Spring and their young son to Europe in August 1846. She had also been commissioned by her employer, Horace Greeley, to write articles on her experiences for his paper, the letters for which subsequently made up a large part of her posthumously published travel memoirs, At Home and Abroad (1856). The partly professional motive for her visit, combined with her already radical outlook, meant that Fuller took a more than merely self-pleasing interest in the foreign. As Blanchard points out, there had been a shift from her earlier idealistic notion of Europe as a site of personal enrichment—now she was travelling as a journalist, as well as a tourist and a literary pilgrim.[26] Moreover, she was visiting Europe at a time of considerable political unrest and growing nationalistic revolt against repressive regimes. The Old World was thus not only a place for cultural self-expansion but also an arena for engagement of a more political and social nature.

Some of Fuller’s responses, especially in Britain, to which the party went first, replicate the literary-romantic sentiments of other nineteenth-century American visitors, using Romantic artistic ideals as a measure of evaluation. Chester, with its arched gateways, ramparts mantled in ivy, old houses, and ruined cathedral seems to her “a tout-ensemble highly romantic in itself, and charming … to Transatlantic eyes”;[27] Edinburgh Castle, especially impressive in misty moonlight, recalls the atmosphere of one of John Martin’s illustrations to Paradise Lost; echoes of Scott increase the pleasure of visiting Perth, Loch Katrine, and Melrose. Her response to natural landscape, too, is predicated on notions of sublimity and the picturesque: she finds the Lake District scenery, filtered through the poetry of Wordsworth, “wild and noble” (HA, 134), and the pass of Glencoe is “sublime with purple shadows with bright lights between” (HA, 158). Her description of Ben Lomond, on which, having lost her companions, she had to spend the night alone, is particularly self­consciously aesthetic’: despite cold and some apprehensiveness, she extols the “beauty and grandeur such as imagination never painted” (III, 87), and denotes the view from the top “a noble vision, that satisfied the eye and stirred the imagination in all its secret pulses” (HA, 153).

Even amidst these aesthetic and natural glories, however, Fuller was as much, if not more, concerned with aspects of society. She found the social and cultural opportunities highly stimulating, meeting among others Wordsworth, De Quincey, Carlyle, and Mazzini (the last of whom was a major influence on her later involvement with the cause of Italian freedom). She was also, in contrast, deeply disturbed by the signs of human suffering and deprivation. In Manchester she notes the gin­palaces and the evidence of widespread prostitution; in Sheffield she pities “the sooty servitors” (HA, 165) working the furnaces; in London she is appalled by the gulf between its cultural and financial wealth and its dark underside of “misery, squalid, agonising, ruffianly, which stares one in the face in every street” (HA, 170). Her strongest sense of outrage occurs in Scotland where she is most acutely distressed by her own powerlessness to alleviate the suffering. To her, Glasgow “more resembles an Inferno than any other [city] we have yet visited” (HA, 159), and is “the very saddest place I saw in the United Kingdoms … so frightfully cold and dark, her crowded population so sullenly miserable”.[28] In particular, she is shocked by the plight of the prostitutes and the “unimaginable horrors to which are there subjected this most wretched portion of the victims of civilization”.[29] In Edinburgh, too, she deplores the “lower degrees [of poverty], where generation after generation has been crushed into the mud and where air and light cannot penetrate”.[30] Blanchard detects a certain hollowness or superficiality in some of Fuller’s critical observations, noting her abrupt shifts from social indignation to effusive praise of scenery and suggesting that this may have been imposed upon her by the diary form.[31] But it is hard to see other than genuine shock and outrage in these descriptions of conditions so much worse than anything she had previously encountered.

After leaving Britain, the party moved on to France, where Fuller had the chance to explore further the cultural and institutional aspects of an older civilization. In Paris she went to art galleries, participated in the intellectual and literary coteries—meeting, among others, George Sand and the Polish ex-patriot poet and radical, Adam Mickiewicz—and visited evening schools for working men, a children’s hospital, and a refuge for prostitutes. She found the city rich and stimulating, a “great focus of civilized life” (III, 107) and a place “where ignorance ceases to be a pain, because there we find such means daily to lessen it” (HA, 214). But her thoughts were increasingly turning towards Italy, for her, as for almost all nineteenth-century travellers, the real goal of her visit. She had already acquainted herself with its treasures through the writings of Goethe, Forsyth, and Mme de Stael, and her interest in its art history had stimulated her to read about Raphael and Michaelangelo. Above all, it was the country whose “shores … I had looked forward [to] all my life” (HA,217). Most importantly, she expected Italy to satisfy that side of her nature hitherto suppressed, regarding it as a site for new emotional enrichment and expansion—“Once I was almost all intellect; now I am almost all feeling … I feel all Italy glowing beneath the Saxon crust” (II,247). At last, having left Paris on 25 February 1847, the party proceeded by way of Lyons, Avignon and Marseilles—her overriding anticipation of Italy preventing her from noting much about them—to Genoa, from where they went straight to Naples. Immediately she experienced the fulfilment of her conviction that “in Italy, I shall find myself more at home” (III, 121): this was “my Italy … [I] found all familiar, except the sense of enchantment, of sweet exhilaration, this scene conveys” (HA, 217-8).

As in Britain, Fuller responded to the natural and artistic environment in the terms of a pre-familiarised passionate pilgrim’. Her first impressions of Naples make “the then typical tourist’s distinction between eternal Italy and the degraded contemporary Italian”,[32] so that Baiae is divine, and Sorrento is “beyond picture”, in contrast to the “begging, vermin-haunted, image­kissing Lazzarone” (HA, 218-9). Venice is a kind of fairy land, “a dream of enchantment [in which] art and life are one” (III, 142), and her intoxication with its art is complemented by a new sense of wholeness as she drifts down its canals in a gondola. The wild flowers in the Abruzzi encapsulate the utter beauty of the Italian spring, inspiring the fancy that the “gods themselves walk on earth here” (HA, 426). The Italian lakes, too, perfectly living up to their depiction by poets, and artists such as Turner, are “visions of beauty that daily entrance the eyes and heart” (HA, 238).

Much more, however, Fuller became engaged with Italy’s people rather than with its artefacts and scenery. Writing to Charming from Rome, she makes clear her changed attitude:

I write not to you about these countries, of the famous people I see, of magnificent shows and places … Art is not important to me now … I take interest in the state of the people, their manners, the state of the race in them. (III, 132)

Bell Chevigny has analysed this change in terms of a move from an early position of idealism, from which Fuller viewed life according to universal and timeless values and took only an incidental and abstract interest in society, to one of radical realism, from which she focussed on specific historical and material conditions and the social revisions they demanded. Only after finally separating herself from her American roots could this radicalism fully express itself[33] So Bologna attracted her because of its proliferation of female professors and artists and its educational institutions in which “the intellect of woman has been cherished” (III, 135). In Milan, the number of interesting radicals to be met was far more important to her than the lack of tourist sights’. Even the Renaissance masterpieces in Florence affected her less than she had anticipated, and the highlight of her visit there was her introduction to the city’s intellectual community by her friend, the Marchioness Constanza Arconati Visconti.

But Rome was the central focus of her attention: it was the city of her soul, “something really transcendent, both spirit and body” (III, 141), which called her so strongly that she decided to leave the Springs in Venice in mid 1847 and go back alone to it. Of course it was also the home of her lover and future husband,[34] the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, whom she had met during her first sojourn in the city, and this in itself was a powerful reason for her return. Nevertheless, her commitment to it and its people was political and ideological as much as personal and emotional. Increasingly, she came to regard herself as a’Insider’, as she writes to her brother, Richard—“I am now truly happy here really in Rome, so quiet and familiar; no longer, like the mob, a staring, sight-seeing stranger, riding about finely dressed in a coach to see the Muses and the Sibyls.[35] Caught up in the Romans’ efforts to overthrow Austrian domination, and believing that they valued her sympathy, she saw herself as personally involved in the struggle:

I am deeply interested in this public drama and wish to see it played out. Methinks I have my part therein, either as actor or historian. (III, 174)

The public drama she refers to is of course the series of revolutionary uprisings occurring throughout Italy in 1848, in an attempt to shake off Austrian domination. In Rome, these culminated in the Pope’s flight from the city, and the election of a Constituent Assembly and declaration of the Roman Republic, in February 1849. This republican triumph was, however, short­lived: the new French President, Louis Napoleon, diplomatically bent on reinforcing Catholic supremacy in Europe, in April sent an expeditionary force to Rome, commanded by General Oudinot, ostensibly to restore order but in reality to suppress the revolutionary activity; after a two months’ serge, the French finally gained entry to the city and the Republic fell in June.[36] In this stirring period, Fuller became both actor and historian: at the end of April, she was appointed to take charge of a Roman emergency hospital by her friend the Princess Belgioioso; she also resolved to write a history of the events in Italy and Rome, to be completed on her return to the United States.

Fuller’s identification with the Roman cause inevitably colours her writing. Her Tribune letters detail the progress of events and present a penetrating analysis of the political situation, seen through the eyes of one who was a far from disinterested but still discerning observer. Even her response to natural beauty is directed by her republican idealism: rejoicing in a fine Roman spring at last, after three months of rain, she declares that “Nature seems in sympathy with the great events that are transpiring,—with the emotions which are swelling the hearts of men” (HA, 303). Though, however, this ideological engagement developed from her political and social radicalism, as well as from her involvement with Ossoli, the degree of passionate feeling which characterises her accounts is noteworthy. Her intensity of sympathy for Rome, on the knife edge between triumph and annihilation, produces some of her most heightened expression:

City of the soul! yes, it is that; the very dust magnetizes you, and thousand spells have been chaining you in every careless, every murmuring moment. Yes! Rome, however seen, thou must still be adored … Swelling domes, rooks softly tinted with yellow moss! what deep meaning, what deep repose, in your faintly seen outlines! (HA, 336, 389)

Such an outpouring, both deeply emotional and self-consciously rhetorical, suggests, as Blanchard points out, that ultimately Fuller was concerned less with the fulfilment of republican ideals than with the threatened destruction of such pure beauty.[37] In its exuberance and impulsiveness, the deliberate antithesis of a cooler or more logically-structured style, it may also be considered feminine’, illustrating theories of gendered language (female: instinctual and unrestrained; male: rational and consequential). Chevigny postulates that such gendered writing may have been dictated by Fuller’s need to prove herself a woman even while engaging in male intellectual pursuits.[38] Though there may be some truth in this, passages like the above seem as much an immediate as a literary response to circumstances with which Fuller was so intimately connected. If partly conditioned by reader expectation, as well as by a culturally-imbibed Romanticism, she also articulates here the passionate, emotionally susceptible side of her nature.

It is significant that Fuller’s commitment to Italy and to Rome required spiritual as well as physical separation from the country of her birth. Like Edith Wharton sixty years later, Fuller could apprehend and claim Europe only through a denial of her Americanness. Symbolically casting herself as a returned prodigal—“Italy receives me as a long-lost child, and I feel myself at home here” (III, 147), she tells her old friend, Caroline Sturgis—she takes on a new national identity, relocating her native land as a site of alienation and estrangement. Reminders of it become anathema to her: in 1847, she writes from Rome, “I suffer more than ever from that which is peculiarly American or English. I should like to cease from hearing the language for a time” (III, 150). Nearly two years later, in perhaps her final rejection of a purely Emersonian self-reliance, she describes her sense of loss of individual personality, replaced by an alliance with an older tradition:

The spirits of dead men crowd me in the most apparently solitary places. I have no genius at all, I am all the time too full of sympathy.[39]

This process of negotiating a newly positioned selfhood involves not only self-exile but also a sharply critical attitude towards her own country. In Fuller’s changed vision, Americans become the alien others’, dull and unseeing, who cannot abandon themselves to “the spirit of the place” (HA, 220) and who, even after “many years’ sojourn, betray entire ignorance f Italian literature and Italian life, beyond what is attainable in a month’s passage through the thoroughfares” (III, 157). She also constantly reverts to the contrast between the United States and Italy, between a country spoiled by prosperity, soiled by the crime of slavery and unconcerned with true heroism, and one glorying in a spirit of idealism and deeds of brotherhood. Americans are criticised, too, for betraying their own republican ideals and failing to support the Italians’ fight for freedom.

Fuller’s eventual decision to return to America in July 1850 was made partly for the sake of her young son, who had suffered considerably in strife-torn Italy, and partly to see her family again. The tragedy of her death, when her ship went down off the coast of Massachusetts and she, her son, and Ossoli were drowned makes it impossible to know how long she would have retained her devotion to Italy from four thousand miles away. But it is doubtful if she would have ever re-negotiated an entry back into her own country and society. In rejecting her representative Americanness and transforming her alien’ positron into subject status, she became a traveller who really could not go home again.

ii. Edith Wharton

In June 1903, having just returned from Europe, Edith Wharton wrote to her friend Sara Norton, “we are none of us Americans, we don’t think or feel as the Americans do, we are the wretched exotics produced in an European glass-house, the most deplacé & useless class on earth”.[40] A generation younger than the other women discussed here, Wharton was one of that restless band of Americans, early introduced to the Old World and for ever after torn between two cultures. With her girlish taste “formed by the spectacle of Rome and Paris”,[41] both of which, travelling with her parents, she had seen by the age of six, she was henceforth destined never to feel fully at ease either in her homeland or in the land of her adoption. If her two extended pre-marital sojourns in Europe awoke in her at least one passion she could subsequently share with her husband, Teddy, they also established her chronic sense of rootlessness and ambiguous identity, which she mock-humorously describes as “the curse of having been brought up there [Europe], & having it ineradically [sic] in one’s blood!”[42] That she in fact longed to be a full member of a civilisation which she judged wholly superior to her own is clear n a later wistful comment to Sara Norton that “France continues to be magnificent, & one envies the people who have a real patrie”.[43]

Like Fuller’s before her, Wharton’s relationship with Europe was more profound than that of the other women discussed in this study. Convinced that she, unlike most of her fellow Americans, could truly appreciate the beauties and values of the Old World, she sought to make it her own by gaining admission to its historical and cultural ethos. Like Fuller, too, Wharton was torn between conflicting impulses which had a significant effect upon her response to Europe, but hers were of a rather different kind. Whereas Fuller had to move away from her rigorously intellectual background in order to expand her more passionate side in an environment of harmonised thought and feeling, soul and body, Wharton felt stultified by the philistinism and anti-intellectualism of her native New York and turned to Europe to provide her with mental as well as spiritual stimulation. As her travel writings show, there is some anxiety in her attitude to the Old World, and identification with the foreign other involves attention to that other’s reception of her. Paradoxically, while she felt comfortable in Europe, she also felt challenged by it; her new self-positioning took a more aggressive stance than did Fuller’s. In this respect, it is important to note that her travel texts are a direct representation of her experiences and have not fallen victims to protective editing. Indeed, as R. W. B. Lewis’s excellent biography reveals, apart from her liaison in Paris with Morton Fullerton, unpublicised until after her death and the discovery, in 1980, of a substantial collection of her letters, there is no obvious discrepancy between her public and private responses to Europe. Both her commitment to the Old World and her need to find a means of establishing her place within it are evident in her representations.

Wharton loved England, but for her it was more the source of social and cultural pleasure than of spiritual enrichment. In any case, due to her extended motoring trips on the Continent which for many years occurred almost annually after her marriage in 1885, she was more familiar with Italy and France. She was unable fully to enjoy her stays in London, either, at least while she was still with Teddy, since her chief pleasure was in the city’s literary life while he, wanting only to mix with the British sporting set, insisted on their leaving as soon as possible. These facts alone must certainly account for the relative sparsity of her writing on England, in contrast to her extended accounts of her European travels.

Wharton also looks on England with a more critical eye, perhaps seeing it in some respects as too much like her homeland. She notes dryly the national self-centredness and lack of interest in “any topic whatever outside of the political and social preoccupations of the England of the day”,[44] mockingly describing two dinner-party encounters, one with a noted polo-player, one with a young army officer, both of whom are completely non­plussed by her attempted literary conversation. Of course she had many cultured friends here, including Max Beerbohm, Mrs Humphry Ward, Edmund Gosse, and Henry James, and her dearest experiences in England were those connected with the last of these. Her accounts of her annual visit to James at Lamb House, Rye, celebrate her sense of joyous liberation” as she sees the house at the top of the grass-grown street, and her delight in “its ancient mulberry tree, its unkempt flower-borders”.[45] Wharton found the same sense of magical beauty, emanating from a past era, at “the ancient house of Brede”,[46] home of the Morton Frewens, which, with its vast hall and magnificent fireplaces seemed “strange, ghostly … extraordinarily picturesque”,[47] or at Bodiam Castle in Sussex:

One perfect afternoon we [she and James] spent at Bodiam—my first visit there. It was still the old spell-bound ruin, unrestored, guarded by great trees, and by a network of lanes which baffled the invading charabancs. Tranquil white clouds hung above it in a cloudless sky, and the silence and solitude were complete as we sat looking across at the crumbling towers, and at their reflection in a moat starred with waterlilies, and danced over by great blue dragon-flies.[48]

In England, too, she was alerted—albeit less acutely than on the Continent—to the lack in her native land. On a visit to Cambridge in May 1904, for instance, her rapture at “the gardens glowing with spring flowers, the old mellow walls bathed in pale sunshine” gives way to a gloomy awareness of difference:

How much we miss in not having such accumulated beauties to feed on now & then at home! I enjoy them so keenly that the contrast makes me miserable, & I think it almost a pity for an American who loves the country ever to come to England.[49]

On the whole, England soothed rather than excited Wharton, and she did not feel the same desire to grasp its essence as she did in Italy and France. Italy was her first European love, the site of her earliest foreign recollections and the source of some of her purest enjoyment of environmental beauty. It was the country to which she and Teddy went most frequently in the early years of their marriage, and inspired her collection of travel articles, Italian Backgrounds (1905),and her first substantial work of fiction, The Valley of Decision (1902).Wharton’s response to Italy, like that of the other women, emanates from the notion of an ideal land, a place of irresistible attractiveness in which the visitor, released from the restraints and conventions of the home environment, can discover a new self. This ideal land is so alluring partly because it is known in advance, created from images already formed through literature and artefact. In this aestheticised setting, the real’ is validated by the imaged’ which it recalls, as near Orvieto, where the natural landscape “touches a spring of memory and transports us from the actual scene to its pictured presentment—Turner’s Road to Orvieto’”.[50] At such a moment, “the traveller … loses sense of the boundaries between art and life, and lives for a moment in that mystical region where the two are one” (IB, 154).

Wharton’s realisation of the Italian landscape through painting echoes earlier commentators, and she, like them, uses as touchstones the work of Claude, Poussin, Rubens and Giorgione, as well as Turner. Literary analogies are equally important here: the Bergamasque Alps captivate her through their association with the commedia dell’arte, while the Borromean gardens at Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore “are Armida’s gardens anchored in a lake of dreams, and should be compared, not with this or that actual piece of planted ground, but with a page of Ariosto or Boiardo”.[51] Her emphasis on the dream-quality of Italy, which enchants’ in both meanings of the word, is also a familiar response, but with a particular personal relevance for her. Her travels in Italy were an escape from the creative wastelands she felt Newport and New York to be, and thus represented spiritual renewal. So her descriptions of the magic of Italy in terms of “hallucinations”, “vision”, and “madness” (IB, 40, 41, 42), or of intoxication and mystery, indicate how the country spoke to her instinctual, as opposed to her rational (American), self.

Even at this stage of her life, then, though she had not yet fully separated herself from her homeland, Europe had begun to take on a symbolic significance for Wharton. Italy’s beauty is apprehended through rejection of America’s ugliness, its “modern improvement” (IB, 60),its “depressing uniformity of modern fashion” (IB, 62), and its “crass food, crass manners, crass landscape!”[52] America thus becomes the negative, the alien other, whose great cities lack even the modest architectural dignity of “many a dull little town like Tirano” (IB, 32),and where there is no tradition of “the stratified art of centuries” (IB, 125)or any sense of harmony between man and nature. Only by separating herself from such philistinism can Wharton achieve identification with the Italian spirit and become the true “lover of Italy—the perennial wooer whom every spring recalls across the Alps” (I B, 116).

As she grew older, Wharton increasingly turned her attention to France, making it her European place of residence, and paying only brief visits to Italy. According to Lewis, the disruption of her plans to go on from the Mediterranean into Italy on her first motor trip in Europe in March 1904marks the end of the Italian phase of her life and the beginning of her permanent French affiliation.[53] This affiliation was on the one hand cultural and social. Paris in particular represented to her the apotheosis of civilization, in its belle epoque period before the First World War. Lewis details the Parisian artistic and intellectual milieu to which Wharton’s friend, Paul Bourget, introduced her[54] and which increasingly came to signify the environment in which she could best flourish. France’s superior attractions were also symbolised by its rich literary heritage, and her pilgrimage to Nohant, the home of George Sand, in May 1906, was the highlight of her first motor-flight’ through the country.

Through its representative personalities, then, Wharton was enabled to enter into France’s desired foreignness. Her engagement with its physical environment, natural and man-made, was more complex, the result of a sharper sense of contrast between passive receptivity and more active appropriation. In some ways, France represented for her the same kind of magic which she found in Italy, and she enthusiastically expresses her admiration for a place whose “universal … sense of form”,[55] profound reverence for the past, and innate good taste make it for her the most creatively and intelligently civilised country on earth. Luxuriating in the modern “romance of travel” (ME, 1) which motoring makes possible, Wharton gives herself up to an environment which, like Italy’s, is “picturesque”, “romantic”, and mystical. Beauvais cathedral is “like some climax of mystic vision, miraculously caught in visible form” (ME, 16); Vichy, like Tirano, has had its ordinariness transformed by the “spell” of a “magic wand” which has turned it into a “dream-town” (MF, 52); and Nancy, in the darkness of war-time blackout, becomes “an enchanted city”.[56] Even the burnt-out cathedral at Rheims becomes “a structure so strange and beautiful that one must search the Inferno, or some tale of Eastern magic, for words to picture the luminous unearthly vision” (FF, 185). As with Italy, too, Wharton apprehends scenery in terms of the visual arts: the stimulating variety of the Auvergne landscape, for example, seems “a confusion of scenes romantically combined, as in the foreground of a Claude or a Wilson” (MF, 54); there is a Pre­Raphaelite precision in the Provencal landscape; and the few lights in the darkness of war-time Paris “create effects of Piranesi­like mystery” (FF, 30).

Wharton, however, desires not only to be possessed by but to possess this magic. Lewis points out her compelling desire to establish a connection between the outer world of the foreign and her own personal life, to place herself within “the long rich heritage of human experience”‘ encapsulated by France’s treasures.[57] So on the one hand she is eager to become the receiver of impressions and involuntary sensation. Many of the metaphors she employs express this willing receptivity: she becomes “a blank page” (MF, 7) for unknown towns to write their names on, and is happy at being “imprisoned” by the memory of Beauvais (MF, 18); she articulates the tremendous power of Rheims cathedral in terms of “a sense of being possessed by it, subdued to it” (MF, 176). On the other hand, she is not content with being merely the passive recipient of what France chooses to yield up to her, and wants a more positive and active relationship with its otherness, asserting supremacy over it. A Motor Flight opens by celebrating “the delight of taking a town unawares, stealing on it by back ways and unchronicled paths, and surprising it in some intimate aspect of past time” (ME 1); knowledge is gained through pursuit and seizure. An equally possessive desire is expressed m her description of an unmapped hill-town which she mews in the distance—“[I vowed], as we lost the last glimpse of its towers, that next year I would go back and make it give up its name” (MF, 38). Here, she is casting herself as the male conqueror, seeking to break down resistance to her own spiritual expansion.

As has already been seen in the case of Italy, Wharton’s desire to insert herself into the foreign necessitated separation—physical and ideological—from both her homeland and its inhabitants, a twentieth-century reversal of the Old/New World pattern of colonisation. Like Fuller, she chose to live an expatriot existence, staying in Paris even in the darkest war years (where, also like Fuller, she took charge of emergency medical arrangements) and purchasing a house at Hyeres, on the Mediterranean, in 1919. She appropriates France through negation of the United States, rendering its reality by reference to American lack’. The “splendid surprise” (MF, 31) of the little-known mediaeval castle unexpectedly encountered in Dourdan is dependent on this positive /negative dualism—“to taste the full flavour of such sensations, it is worth while to be of a country where the last new grain-elevator or office building is the only monument that receives homage from the surrounding architecture” (MF, 32). The “sight of a well-kept, self-respecting French town” (MF, 51) like Vichy reminds her that such elegance is due not to a millionaire’s riches, but to “wise public expenditure” (MF, 52)—the sort of expenditure which in some modern republics, she comments sardonically, “sometimes seems to produce no results whatever” (MF,100).

Wharton’s two war-time works on France (neither of which is strictly a travel book) more coolly and analytically lay out America’s deficiencies. In Fighting France (1915), the “distinctively French” (FF, 3), its beauty and humanity undiminished even by military activity, is set against the ugliness of the American scene. Of the lion sculpture guarding the Citadel at Belfort, for example, she remarks wryly, “probably it is easier for an artist to symbolize an heroic town than the abstract and elusive deity who sheds light on the world from New York harbour” (FF, 203)—a monument she has already dismissed as “a pompous statue of a goddess with a torch, designated as Liberty enlightening the World’” (FF, 177). In French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), Wharton takes more specific stock of America’s shortcomings, and highlights what France has to teach the New World. Once more she stresses that French civilisation is “so profoundly unlike ours—so much older, richer, more elaborate and firmly crystallised”[58] in contrast with the “idol-breaking instinct of the freest minds in the world” (FW, 30) who, themselves barely out of the primitive state, have no time for the past and no artistic sensitivity:

Any American with eyes to see, who compares the architectural use to which Paris has put the Seine with the wasteful degradation of the unrivalled twin river-fronts of New York, may draw his own conclusions as to the sheer material advantage of taste in the creation of a great city. (FW, 44)

In the social sphere, too, Wharton insists, the French offer a superior way of life—in their open attitudes towards sexual relationships, and the freedoms and responsibilities granted to their women, for example.

Wharton’s treatment of Europe, then, is a complex signifier, revealing as much about herself as about the subject of her discourse. In many ways, the continent about which she writes is the one she wanted to find rather than the one she actually discovered. More than merely seeking to know, even to understand the foreign other, she strove for self-definition through her relationship with it, a relationship fraught with conflicting impulses. Just as she was simultaneously the American Edith Newbold Jones and the European Madame Wharton, so she was also at once the eager recipient of foreign influences and the active coloniser of her land of promise. And ultimately, perhaps she never found the place where she truly belonged.

5. Guide to Further Reading

The primary (printed) sources used here—the women travellers’ accounts of their European experiences—are as indicated in the text and the notes. Biographical material is available in Edward T James et al, Notable American Women 160-1950: a Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, Harvard, 1971) and in the following more specific works, although most of these pay little attention to their subjects as travel commentators. For Sophia Hawthorne, apart from Julian Hawthorne’s biography of his parents, there is Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s Memories of Hawthorne (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1897) and Louise Hall Tharp’s The Peabody Sisters of Salem (London: Harrap, 1950). Two contemporary biographies of Harriet Beecher Stowe—her son Charles E. Stowe’s Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1889), and Annie Fields’ Life and Letters—can be supplemented by Forrest Wilson’s Crusader in Crinoline (Philadelphia, London: J. Lippincott, 1941). Apart from Ednah Cheney’s biography of Louisa May Alcott, and Joel Myerson’s and Daniel Shealy’s edition of The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987), Madeleine B. Stern’s Louisa May Alcott (London and New York: Peter Nevill, 1952) provides a full bibliography of Alcott’s writings, including details of her articles for The Independent and her Shawl-Straps (Boston: Roberts Bros, 1872), in which Alcott enlarges on and fictionalises her travel experiences. Additional information on Margaret Fuller can be found in Robert N. Hudspeth’s edition of The Letters of Margaret Fuller (Ithaca: Cornell, 1983), Julia Ward Howe’s Margaret Fuller (Boston: Roberts Bros, 1890), and Madeleine B. Stern’s The Life of Margaret Fuller (New York: Dutton, 1942). More recent biographies include Paula Blanchard’s Margaret Fuller. From Transcendentalism to Revolution (New York: Delacorte Press, 1978) and Margaret Allen’s The Achievement of Margaret Fuller (University Park: Pennsylvania State, 1979). Joseph Jay Deiss’s The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller (New York: Crowell, 1969) concentrates on Fuller’s relationship with Italy, using additional MS material, but is somewhat confusingly annotated. The best recent commentary on Fuller as a feminist is Bell Gale Ghevigny’s excellently edited anthology, The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings (New York: The Feminist Press 1976), which provides useful introductions to each section of Fuller’s writings. The standard works on Edith Wharton remain R. W. B. Lewis’s biography, and his and his wife’s edition of the Letters (though a new edition is forthcoming, using additional material); two useful articles are Mary Suzanne Schriber’s “Edith Wharton and Travel Writing as Self-Discovery”, American Literature, 1987, 59, pp. 257-267, and Alan W Bellringer’s “Edith Wharton’s Use of France”, Yearbook of English Studies, 1985, 15, pp. 109-124.

Writings by other American women travellers not discussed here offer supplementary information: for example Catherine Sedgwick’s Letters from Abroad (New York: Harper and Bros, 1841); Constance Fenimore Woolson, extracts edited by Clare Benedict (London: Ellis, n.d.); Julia Ward Howe’s Reminiscences (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899);and Alice James’s Diary (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1934).

Criticism on the American response to Europe has focussed almost exclusively on male figures such as Hawthorne, Howells, Twain, and James. Christopher Mulvey’s Anglo-American Landscapes (Cambridge: CUP, 1983)and Transatlantic Manners (Ibid, 1990)include treatment of Stowe, Fuller, and Alice James. Other useful studies on Euro-American literary and social relations, despite their scant reference to women, are Marius Bewley, The Complex Fate (London: Ghatto and Windus, 1952);Foster Rhea Dunes, Americans Abroad: Two Centuries of American Travel (Ann Arbor: Michigan, 1964),which includes a useful bibliography; Henry Steele Commager, Britain Through American Eyes (New York: McGraw Hill, 1974);and William L. Vance’s splendidly exhaustive and illustrated America’s Rome (New Haven and London: Yale, 1989).Malcolm Bradbury’s pamphlet 9in this series offers a useful literary survey and also has an excellent bibliography.

Finally, there are many recent studies of nineteenth-century female travel offering suggestive approaches to the topic, though they tend to be British-oriented in their subjects. These include Dorothy Middleton’s pioneering Victorian Lady Travellers (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965);Mary Russell’s The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt (London: Collins, 1986);Dea Birkett’s Spinsters Abroad (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989);and Shirley Fosters Across Nell) Worlds (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990). Sara Milk’s Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (London: Routledge, 1991)tackles the question of a gender-specific linguistic representation of the foreign, building on earlier studies of imperialist discourse.

4. Notes

    1. Frances Anne Kemble, Records of a Girlhood, 3 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1878), 111, 229-30.


    1. ed. Ednah D. Cheney, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and journals [1889] (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1928), p. 142.


    1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands [1854], reprint, 2 vols (Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co, 1856), I, 1-2.


    1. Margaret Fuller Ossoli, At Home and Abroad: or Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (Boston and London: Sampson Low & Son, 1856), p. 250.


    1. Cecilia Beaux, Background with Figures (1930), quoted in Henry Steele Commager, Britain Through American Eyes (New York: McGraw Hill, 1974), pp. 595-6.


    1. Margaret Chanler, Roman Spring: Memoirs (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1934), p. 110.


    1. Ibid., p. 289.


    1. ed. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, The Letters of Edith Wharton (London: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 84.


    1. Roman Spring, p. 289.


    1. Two excellent studies which examine the characteristics of female travel discourse are Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference (London: Routledge, 1991)and Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes (London: Routledge, 1992).


    1. Mrs [Sophia] Hawthorne, Notes in England and Italy (London, 1869), p. 3. All subsequent references to this work are included in the text.


    1. ed. Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife: a biography, 2 vols (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co, 1885), I, 56.


    1. Curiously enough, her husband seems to have been more disturbed by such matters; his writings on Europe often reveal his nagging awareness of the inequalities and suffering inherent in more rigidly hierarchical societies than America’s.


    1. ed. E. Marks and I. de Courtivron, New French Feminisms (Brighton: Harvester, 1980),p. 260.


    1. The detailed reports of the various anti-slavery meetings she and Calvin Stowe attended are gathered together at the beginning of the book, thus separating them from the main body of the text and emphasising the primary importance of the work as a travel commentary.


    1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sunny Memories of Sunny Lands [1854],reprint, 2 vols (Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Go, 1856), I,iv. All subsequent references to this work are included in the text.


    1. ed. Annie Fields Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co, 1898), p. 94. All subsequent references to this work, indicated as L&L, are included in the text.


    1. George Shepperson, “Harriet Beecher Stowe and Scotland, 1852-3”, Scottish Historical Review, Vol 32 (1953), pp. 40-6.


    1. ed. Ednah D. Cheney, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals [1889] (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1928), p. 139.All subsequent references to this work are included in the text.


    1. These sketches are based on Alcott’s actual experiences in Europe, but changed names in them suggest that she intended them to have an essentially fictional status. According to Cheney, they give a “somewhat travestied” account of her trip (173).For this reason, they have not been used as source material for this study, although some of Alcott’s later biographers uncritically collate fact and fiction in this area.


    1. ed. Daniel Shealy, Joel Myerson, and Madeleine Stern, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989), pp. 142, 145, 150.


    1. Cheney, op cit., pp. 154-5.


    1. ed. Clarke, Emerson and Charming, Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, 3 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1852), I, 20.All subsequent references to this work are included in the text. The Memoirs are a valuable source of information about Fuller, but the work suffers from the editors’ anxiety to protect their subject and present an “acceptable” image of her. Thus they contain no reference to her early romances; her liason with Ossoli is played down and made respectable by dating their marriage before the birth of their son, and little attention is given to her political beliefs and activities in Europe. Margaret Allen’s The Achievement of Margaret Fuller (University Park: Penn State, 1979) discusses these omissions and distortions (pp. 15-18); and Bell Chevigny’s critical anthology, The Woman and the Myth (Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 976) helpfully indicates the differences between MS originals and published versions of Fuller’s letters and journals.


    1. ed. Perry Miller, Margaret Fuller, American Romantic: a selection from her writings and correspondence (Ithaca: Cornell, 1963), pp. 149-50.


    1. Quoted in Paula Blanchard, Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution (New York: Delacorte Press, 1978), p. 70.


    1. Ibid., p.224.


    1. Margaret Fuller Ossoli At Home and Abroad: or Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (Boston and London: Sampson Low & Son, 1856), p. 125. All subsequent references to this work, indicated as HA, are included in the text.


    1. [Margaret Fuller], “Fragment of a Tour in Scotland” (1846), MS in Houghton Library, Harvard University.


    1. Ibid.


    1. Ibid.


    1. Blanchard, op cit., pp. 253-4.


    1. Ghevigny, op cit., p. 422.


    1. Ibid., pp. 2-3.


    1. There is some doubt about when exactly Fuller married Ossoli, although it seems that their union had been legalised by the time she left Italy to return to the United States. It is fairly certain, however, that her son was born before this occurred.


    1. Quoted in Ghevigny op cit., p. 434.


    1. The fullest details of the political turmoils of this period and Fuller’s involvement in them are to be found in Joseph Jay Deiss, The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller (New York: Crowell, 1969).Margaret Allen’s study (see note 1 above) also covers some of this ground, especially the nature of Mazzini’s powerful appeal to Fuller.


    1. Blanchard, op cit., p. 309.


    1. Chevigny, op cit., pp. 10-11.


    1. Quoted m Blanchard op cit., p. 301.


    1. Letter to Sara Norton, 5 June [1903],ed. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, The Letters of Edith Wharton (London: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 84.


    1. Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance [1934], reprint (London: Century, 1987), p. 8.


    1. Letter to Sara Norton, 1 March [1906], Letters, p. 104.


    1. Letter to Sara Norton, 14June, 1916, Letters, p. 380.


    1. A Backward Glance, p. 216.


    1. Ibid., p. 245.


    1. Ibid., p. 248.


    1. Letter to Sara Norton, 18November [1908], Letters, p. 165.


    1. A Backward Glance, p. 249.


    1. Letter to Sara Norton, 5 May [1904], Letters, p. 90.


    1. Edith Wharton, Italian Backgrounds [1905],reprint (London: Cape, 1928), p. 153.All subsequent references to this work, indicated as IB, are included in the text.


    1. Edith Wharton, Italian Villas and Their Gardens [1904],reprint (New York: Century Go, 1910), p. 207.


    1. Letter to Sara Norton, [19 August, 1904], Letters, p. 93.


    1. R. W. B. Lewis, Edith Wharton: a Biography (London: Constable, 1975), p. 129.


    1. Ibid., pp. 161-182 passim.


    1. Edith Wharton, A Motor Flight Through France [1908],reprint (Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois, 1991), p. 29. All subsequent references to this work, indicated as MF, are included in the text.


    1. Edith Wharton, Fighting France: from Dunkerque to Belfort [1915],reprint (New York: Scribner, 1919), p. 106. All subsequent references to this work, indicated as FF, are included in the text.


    1. Lewis, op. cit., p. 169.The quotation is from Wharton herself but is unannotated. The lack of specific annotation is a notable defect in this otherwise excellent biography.


  1. Edith Wharton, French Ways and Their Meaning (New York: Appleton, 1919), p. 16. All subsequent references to this work, indicated as FW, are included in the text.

Top of the Page

Peter Coates, In Nature’s Defence: Americans and Conservation

BAAS Pamphlet No. 26 (First Published 1993)

ISBN: 0 946488 16 9
  1. Chronology
  2. Introduction
  3. Conservation Before The Conservation Movement
    i. American Indian Antecedentsii. Colonial Precedentsiii. The Pioneers Of Nature Appreciation And Environmental Concern
  4. The Conservation Movement
    i. Pinchot, Forestry And Utilitarian Conservation
    ii. Sportsmen And Wildlife
    iii. Muir And Preservationism
    iv. The National Parks
    v. From The Twenties To The Fifties
  5. The Transition To Environmentalism
    i. Leopold And The Influx Of Ecologyii. The Nuclear Age
  6. Unfinished Business
  7. Guide To Further Reading
  8. Notes
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.

1. Chronology

1864: The Yosemite Grant creates a state park in California
1864: Man and Nature by George Perkins Marsh
1872: Yellowstone National Park established
1878: Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States by John
Wesley Powell
1881: Division of Forestry set up within Department of Agriculture
1885: Adirondack Forest Preserve established in New York state
1888: Boone and Crockett Club founded
1890: Federal census announces the closing of the frontier
1891: Forest Reserve Act empowers the president to create reserves
1892: Sierra Club founded
1900: Lacey Act outlaws interstate shipment of game killed in violation
of state laws
1905: The Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service assumes control
of forest reserves
1906: Antiquities Act permits protection of objects of historical and
scientific interest on public land as national monuments
1908: White House conference of governors on conservation
1913: Hetch Hetchy Valley controversy resolved in favour of water
and power development
1916: National Park Service Act
1918: Save-the-Redwoods League established
1922: Izaak Walton League founded
1933: Civilian Conservation Corps founded
1933: Tennessee Valley Authority created
1935: Wilderness Society founded
1940: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created
1949: Posthumous publication of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand
County Almanac

1956: Echo Park Dam controversy resolved in favour of wilderness
1962: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
1964: Wilderness Act establishes system of national wilderness areas
1968: National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
Grand Canyon Dam proposals defeated
Redwood National Park created
1969: Friends of the Earth founded
1970: National Environmental Policy Act
First celebration of Earth Day, 22 April
1971: Greenpeace founded
1973: Endangered Species Act
1970-1973: Conservationist legal action blocks construction of
Trans­Alaska oil pipeline
1973: Trans-Alaska Pipeline authorized
1978: Supreme Court blocks construction of Tellico Dam (TVA) in
the interests of the snail darter fish on the basis of
Endangered Species Act
1980: Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act adds over
100 million acres to federal conservation systems
1980: Reagan’s presidency launches assault on conservationist
achievements since Theodore Roosevelt
1981: Earth First! (direct-action deep ecology group) founded
1983: Resignation of James Watt, the most controversial Interior
Secretary since Richard Ballinger
1989: Exxon Valdez oilspill in Prince William Sound, Alaska

2. Introduction

The dialogue between human civilization and the natural world is a fundamental and distinguishing feature of American history. In the post- Columbian American context, the process of environmental transformation was more compressed than ever in the past. Changes that took place over centuries in Europe often happened within a few generations in the New World. As one eighteenth-century commentator (proudly) remarked: we have done the most in the least time of any people on earth. From the beginnings of colonization to the perceived closing of the frontier in the late nineteenth-century, American treatment of the land and its creatures was conditioned by the ‘myth of superabundance’ and an antipathy toward untamed nature. Dazzled by a seemingly inexhaustible cornucopia, American society thrust west without thought or care, convinced of the righteousness of its mission to redeem the wilderness. Eventually, a minority began to count the cost of environmental destruction in material and cultural terms. Around the turn of the century the ideas and values of the earlier nineteenth-century pioneers of wild nature appreciation and environmental concern circulated in an increasingly hospitable climate and a diverse conservation movement emerged. For some—the utilitarian conservationists—the priority was more rational and equitable use of natural resources. Others—the ‘preservationists’ or aesthetic conservationists—rebelled against the very concept of resource exploitation, focusing on nature protection for purposes of recreation, patriotism, and spiritual uplift. With the advent of the atomic age, the natural world was pushed to its limits by post-war economic growth and the fallout from big science and new technologies. Ecological thinking began reshaping public attitudes and drawing attention to an increasingly vulnerable American earth. When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, the American environmental movement was about to dawn.

This account pays only cursory attention to well-known highlights such as the Hetch Hetchy and Echo Park dam controversies and the symbolic clash between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Nor is there space for details of seminal events like the creation of the first national park and the first national forests, or a list of legislative achievements. It also tries to avoid retelling the treasured stories of conservation folklore, such as the noble campfire discussion in the Yellowstone in 1870 that supposedly gave birth to the national park idea, and Pinchot’s ride on a horse named Jim in Rock Creek Park at twilight on a gloomy February day in 1907 when the rider apparently gave birth to Conservation. Instead, it looks at the cultural context that produced conservation and at how conservation became environmentalism.

Though conservation, whatever its hue, offered a weaker defence of nature than environmentalism would, its preservationist aspect promised the stiffest resistance by pre-environmentalist standards and provided the strongest link with the later environmentalism. So preservationism receives particular attention. While including some milestones and basic chronology, a more important concern is with how the modern US environmental movement has interpreted and utilized the history of conservation and its luminaries.

3. Conservation before the Conservation Movement

i. Native American Antecedents

Though this is a history of white conservation, the claim that conservation ideology and activity predate Euro-American history should be briefly addressed. During the 1960s and 1970s, environmental historians and environmentalists praised the original American in the same breath as chiding the Euro-American. Wilbur Jacobs was convinced that they were “America’s first ecologists.”[1] Stewart Udall, secretary of the interior (1960-68), agreed; modern conservation involved a return to Indian “land wisdom.”[2] Marshalled in support were features of Indian life such as animistic pantheism, a sense of community extending beyond humans, sustainable and reverential agricultural, hunting and gathering practices, restrained technology and population control devices. In 1971, the American public became acquainted with the Indian as conservator through the anti-pollution television advertisements starring the Cherokee actor, Iron Eyes Cody. (A tear runs down Cody’s cheek as urban garbage flows around his moccasins.)

Those who seek to knock the Indian off this saintly pedestal dismiss the ecologist/ conservator image as the latest repackaging of the noble savage myth. The detractor’s case can be stated thus: The relatively light imprint on the land prior to contact reflected comparatively sparse numbers, a limited capacity to inflict damage, and the absence of incentives to greater exploitation. The latter protective barrier fell easily in the face of tempting European trade items and the scale and enthusiasm of involvement in the fur trade in particular shows up the skin-depth of aboriginal eco-friendliness. To the extent that Indian conservation existed, it was pragmatic rather than a manifestation of a superior ethic. Archaeological evidence of Indian abuse of nature casts further doubt on their credentials and the notion of a golden age of man-nature relations in the Americas. Quantities of buffalo bones unearthed at ‘kill-sites’ indicates wholesale destruction. ‘Bison jump’ evidence is especially telling because of the stress on the buffalo hunter and consumer (with ‘nearly a hundred uses’) as the ultimate efficient resource user. The collapse of Anasazi civilization in twelfth-century Arizona and New Mexico through deforestation underscores the aboriginal capacity to upset the ecological balance.

The Indian’s champions have issued a rebuttal along these lines: Far from supporting uniformly sparse, unsophisticated populations, parts of North America were characterized by fairly dense concentrations practising intensive environmental management, especially the use of fire. Yet Natives worked with the land, frequently enhancing natural resource yield. Rather than being deficient, the state of Indian technology reveals a conscious decision not to evolve a damaging hardware. There is no contradiction between empirical and mythopoetic relations with nature. The evidence of wanton faunal despoliation is anecdotal and indicative of an alarming lack of perspective. Isolated and fairly modest instances of indigenous overkill are of far lesser historical significance than the systematic profligacy of white settlers. Condemnation of the Indian role in the fur trade—the only substantial example of Indian wastefulness and vindictiveness—is a blatant instance of blaming the victim. Moreover, even if an aboriginal role in large animal extinction 12,000 years ago is conceded, how is this relevant to the state of Native American environmental relations on the eve of European colonization? Even advocates of the ‘blitzkrieg’ theory acknowledge that there were no significant losses of animal species in America over the centuries prior to contact after these megafaunal losses. Change and adaptation were constant features of Native life before 1492 and the ecological ethic may have developed as a response to Pleistocene overhunting and deforestation in the Southwest. Any post-Columbian lapses from the carefully nurtured Indian worldview resulted from the wholesale disruption of Indian life via disease, trade, dispossession, removal and proselytization. What matters for present purposes, however, is that America’s white pioneers of conservation largely accepted the Indian-as-conservationist argument, though aboriginal attitudes were insignificant in shaping their own outlooks.

ii. Colonial Precedents

The natural bounty of the Atlantic colonies astounded the English (though what astonished them even more was the apparent failure of the indigenes to exploit it properly). Promotional tracts hailed Virginia as “earth’s only paradise.” For all the celebrations of cornucopia, however, shortages of natural resources can be identified from the earliest days of settlement. Intensive hunting to supply the fur trade meant beaver were growing scarce in coastal New England as early as 1640. At mid-century, they were also largely wiped out in what became New York state. By the turn of the century, the fur trade was in decline even in the interior of New England. The wild turkey, a prized food, was also rare by 1700 and even the passenger pigeon, quintessential symbol of New World superabundance, was dying out in the region after two centuries of colonization. The large mammals, such as elk, bear and lynx, had disappeared unmourned from most parts of New England by the early 1700s. The large-scale introduction of livestock sealed the fate of predators like wolves, who needed a fresh supply of food now that deer were increasingly scarce. Cows and sheep were easy pickings and the bounty system put a further price on the head of wildlife. Swamps were drained to eliminate wolf habitat. The forest was steadily stripped for agriculture and to supply domestic fuel, building materials, and a variety of needs ranging from barrels to ships timbers.

Appropriate action was sometimes taken. In 1626, just six years after its founding, Plymouth Colony began to regulate the cutting of timber. In 1681, William Penn laid down that for every five acres of forest cleared in Pennsylvania, one had to be left covered. The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter of 1691 reserved all trees over 24 inches in diameter for the British navy and protected other pines vital for naval stores—regulations subsequently extended to other English colonies. Game restrictions date from 1639, when the township of Newport, Rhode Island, imposed a six-month moratorium. America’s first game law, which regulated seasons and banned the export of game and hides, was enacted by Connecticut in 1677. By 1700, all other English colonies aside from Georgia had imposed closed seasons on deer.

Lone voices of concern can be detected from the start. But they were diffuse and often casual. None of it constituted a body of thought that can be labeled conservationist. The first to comment on environmental transformation were visiting Europeans. Accustomed to a continent largely devoid of primal nature, they were well placed to note the drastic shift from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilization.’ Scientists appreciated the New World’s value as a laboratory for observing environmental change, reinforcing hypotheses of climate change through deforestation. Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist touring America in the 1740s, admonished Americans sharply over their reckless use of timber: “We can hardly be more hostile toward our woods in Sweden and Finland than they are here; their eyes are fixed upon the present gain and they are blind to the future.”[3] The process accelerated after independence, an English traveler in New Jersey in the 1790s noting that “in order to save themselves the work of shaking or pulling off the nuts, [Americans] find it simpler to cut the tree and gather the nuts from it, as it lies on the ground.”[4]

Colonial Americans also noticed the negative side of the conversion of nature’s domain into human habitat. In the mid-eighteenth-century, John Bartram, the self-taught Philadelphia botanist, recorded the depletion of soil fertility resulting from the clearance of riverine lowlands. Before planting, the vegetation retained the debris brought down by streams in flood; the decay of this vegetal matter maintained the richness of the soil. Following clearance, floodwater passed over the land without depositing nutrients, transporting away the top layer of soil from the cultivated land. Apparently unlimited abundance encouraged bad practices. Jared Eliot, leading New England divine and physician, was no opponent of the civilizing process, but wrote in 1748: “When our forefathers settled here, they entered a Land which probably never had been Ploughed since the Creation; the Land being new they depended upon the natural fertility of the Ground, which served their purpose very well, and when they had worn out one piece, they cleared another, without any concern to amend their land … whereas in England they would think a man a bad Husband, if he should pretend to sow … without any Dressing.”[5] Most members of the Virginian colonial intelligentsia worried about topsoil erosion, a process aggravated by cash crop monoculture that produced high yields yet exhausted fertility within five years. The early eighteenth-century observations and warnings of planter- historian Robert Beverley were repeated by George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. From the inventor of the fuel-economizing iron stove, fittingly, came another warning to intervene carefully when engaged in the “attempt to amend the scheme of Providence.” As a cautionary tale (1753), Benjamin Franklin cited the campaign to eradicate the blackbird in New England because of its predations on the corn crop. This backfired, for as the birds decreased, the numbers of a worm that preyed on grass escalated: “finding their loss in grass much greater than their saving in corn, they wished again for their blackbirds.”[6]

Forest devastation was the most visible and pressing drawback of colonization and attracted what little attention these matters received. President John Quincy Adams, in 1828, to discourage speculation on federal lands, tried to secure stricter controls on timber cutting but was rebuffed by an unsympathetic Congress. These eighteenth and early nineteenth-century antecedents of conservation might be seen to indicate that a rootedness promoting a more thoughtful attitude to the land was emerging in the settled east. But caution was entirely out of step with the nation’s restless, westering mood. Adams’s setting aside of a live-oak forest in Florida for naval use was overturned by his successor. “Sell cheap” was the motto of federal land policy from Jackson to the Civil War.

iii. The Pioneers of Nature Appreciation and Environmental Concern

Just as European thought shaped American antipathy to wilderness, Old World intellectual trends wrought a metamorphosis that invested untouched nature with almost paradisical qualities. Values expressing a mix of curiosity, love, admiration, respect and (sometimes) concern for untrammeled nature came to the fore during the first half of the nineteenth-century. Tocqueville, for example, brought his educated European sensibilities to America. As he commented during a trip to frontier Michigan in 1831, the object of which was to find somewhere (and someone) still immune from the torrent of European civilization: “To break through almost impenetrable forests … to sleep out in the damp woods—those are exertions that the American readily contemplates if it is a question of earning a guinea. But that one should do such things from curiosity is more than his mind can take in. Besides, living in the wilds, he only prizes the works of man. He will gladly send you off to see a road, a bridge, or a fine village. But that one should appreciate great trees and the beauties of solitude—that possibility completely passes him by.”

What Tocqueville characterized as “a quiet admiration, a gentle melancholy sense, and a vague distaste for civilised life, a sort of primitive instinct that makes one think with sadness that soon this delightful solitude will have changed its looks” was the stock bittersweet response of the romantic soul.[7]

It followed that the first Americans to view these changes in the European way hailed from the East and from the towns. Perhaps too much attention has been paid to the disaffected literary and artistic gents expressing dismay at the mean-spirited dealings with nature of the vast majority of their fellow-Americans from their comfortable vantage points. Nature appreciation often revealed discontent with industrial civilization rather than love of nature. Much of this was fashionable posturing betraying Wordsworth, Byron and Rousseau’s influence more than the impact of the American wilderness. Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels of the 1820s are riddled with disparaging references to the environmental consequences of frontier conquest. That doesn’t make Natty Bumppo (or Cooper) a pioneer environmen­talist, but does signal a spreading mood of ambivalence, a balancing of the cost of progress against the blessings that Cooper and the rest readily accepted. What they accomplished in a practical sense is miniscule. Historian Francis Parkman tried to persuade the state to buy private lands for a park in his beloved White Mountains and the artist Frederic Church got involved in the effort to establish Niagara international park (1885). The romantics are worth our time, however, because their eloquent questioning of the hegemonic western paradigm of environmental exploitation (to use politically correct language) inspired those of a later generation who did become activists.

A more distinctively American reappraisal of attitudes to wild nature was generated by the needs of cultural nationalism. The use of nature for this purpose stretches back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson’s rebuke to French zoologist Count Buffon in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) that New World mammals were bigger and better than their European counterparts. References to the puniness of the European reindeer alongside a moose and barbs that Roman pillars were not only dwarfed but positively juvenile next to redwoods were a staple of early patriotic puffery. Still, pride in a new land and reverence for sublimity would only become potent forces for change within the context of the frontier’s perceived closing in the 1890s. Parkman’s increasingly gloomy and elegaic prefaces to later editions of The Oregon Trail (1872, 1892) chart the advance of the process by which the “Wild West” was “tamed” and the extent to which its “savage charms” had “withered.”[8]

If there was a Mount Rushmore for America’s green giants, chiselled into the rock would be the faces of Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. Modern U.S. environmentalism’s search for heroes and intellectual pedigree has found its taproots in Thoreau and his Walden (1854). Unlike most of his countrymen, among whom a nineteenth-century English traveller noted “scarcely any such thing as local attachments—the love of a place because it is a man’s own . .. Speaking generally, every farm from Eastport in Maine to Buffalo on Lake Erie, is for sale,”[9] Thoreau found a sacred space and developed a sense of place. The significance of transcendentalism in promoting more tender feelings toward nature in the raw—in Thoreau’s case and in general—has been exaggerated. Unlike most Concord literati, Thoreau’s curiosity was tangible as well as intellectual. Thoreau, the one-time disciple, is embraced as the grandfather of environmentalism rather than Emerson, the one-time master and transcendentalist maestro. This is no quirk of history. The stoical Emerson never waded in a bog to commune with a seething mass of mating toads nor climbed a tree to feel the wind. For the orthodox transcendentalist, the study and appreciation of nature were essentially an extension of the study and appreciation of the human self. To rise above the physical to the spiritual realm required the stimulus of something awe-inspiring, such as wild nature. There was no demotion of the peerless human individual which lies at the core of ecological humility. The material world of nature was valuable to the extent that it served higher spiritual purposes. Nature had no autonomous, animate existence. Most who venerated nature for its symbolism were complacent about change, conceiving of nature as something eternal and immutable. How could mere humans destroy something divine?

Thoreau, by contrast, understood its vulnerability and left a scientific record of a period of intensified environmental impact, whose most striking agents were factories and railroads and of which the most dramatic manifestation was deforestation. Though he appreciated the need to use wood, advocating wise management, his attitude to trees was also shaped by a conviction that nature had rights. In 1857 he wrote in his journal after witnessing the removal of underbrush: “If some are prosecuted for abusing children, others deserve to be prosecuted for maltreating the face of nature committed to their care.”[10] Some have detected in his ranting against a dam on the Concord River (“Who hears the fishes when they cry? I for one am with thee, and who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica dam”[11]) not only an enlarged concept of community embracing non- humans but also the antecedents of 1980s ‘monkeywrenching’—direct action to liberate enslaved nature. Thoreau found inspiration for his “heathenism” in the Native American—not the degraded contemporary product but the undefiled aboriginal of the past and of the imagination. Contemporary deep ecologists, determined to extract maximum value from such pronouncements and positions, easily consolidate a variety of disparate utterances from different periods of his life into a coherent philosophy.

This imposed consistency overlooks the diversity, equivocality and messiness of his thinking. Proto-ecological elements in Thoreau’s make-up tend to be the result of transcending transcendentalism but he never managed to throw off its shackles entirely. Nor did he emancipate himself fully from the Puritanism transcendentalism rejected. No intellectual in New England’s Puritan heyday lapsed into the decadence of nature poetry, despite being surrounded by more breaktaking and intact wild beauty than remained for Thoreau to praise. Yet he could not liberate himself completely from this powerful heritage. Transcendentalism shared puritanism’s quest for a higher truth and moral code. The clash between Thoreau’s transcendentalist puritan and pagan selves is illustrated by his attraction to vegetarianism. In common with the zealots of Fruitlands, he believed man could rise above his baser animal instincts and residual wildness to a higher plane by avoiding flesh. Against this can be set the enthusiasm with which he caught fish as part of his subsistence economy at Walden Pond, and comments that on encountering a woodchuck he was “strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw.”[12]

Thoreau’s specific proposals were few and often expressed privately. He opined that each Massachusetts township “should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.”[13] In 1858, inspired by the backwoods of northern Maine, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, he recommended the creation of “national preserves … in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be ‘civilized off the face of the earth.’”[14] Granted, there were no conservation organizations to join, but even had there been, he is unlikely to have joined let alone founded one. In the 1850s, there were far more pressing issues that occupied even his time. And yet, despite his abhorrence of slavery, he refused to join the local anti-slavery society and held reformers as a class in the greatest of contempt.

America’s mystical proto-ecologist has been better known in Britain (and the rest of the world) as a political dissident. Walden was cult reading for late Victorian radicals. Every early socialist intellectual who worshipped William Morris and Shelley as much as Marx and Engels is supposed to have carried a copy in his or her pocket, attracted by its critique of capitalism and materialism rather than its natural history. Robert Blatchford, the author of Merrie England (1893), claimed to have slept with Walden under his pillow. Though Thoreau never intended his paean to wild nature to be a blueprint, its value to the American environmental movement has been precisely the inspirational alternative path he pursued as well as preached. Not only Americans have marched to the beat of his green (as opposed to red) drum. The Victorian Englishman, Henry Salt, his first proper biographer, discovered Thoreau just as he was being converted to socialism, vegetarianism and the cause of animal rights. This lethal combination caused him to quit his teaching post at Eton in 1885 and retire (in semi-solitude—he had a wife) to a cottage in deepest Surrey where he tore up his gown and used the strips to tie his Thoreauvian beans to their poles.

Thoreau was relatively unknown in his lifetime outside Concord. Fellow New Englander and contemporary, George Perkins Marsh, did not suffer the same obscurity. The Marsh family had a secure position in the American intellectual aristocracy and George (1801-82) led a diverse career as lawyer, linguist, businessman, politician and diplomat. His interest in the deleterious role of human intervention in nature focused initially on deforestation in his native Vermont but eventually encompassed the globe. Marsh distilled his accumulated ideas and experiences into Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864). His great departure was to insist that man was an active and a free agent who shaped the earth more than it shaped him, and, moreover, frequently misshaped it. From his travels and studies, Marsh gleaned an arsenal of data to support his case for mismanagement. The deforested hills of the Mediterranean offered him an environmental explanation for the collapse of ancient civilizations. His American sections covered wildlife destruction but deforestation remained his central theme. The term ‘ecology’ did not yet exist but Marsh had a sound understanding of the proper workings of the natural system, the interrelatedness of parts, and the follies of human interference. He cited the vivid example of the massive destruction of pines by insects, concluding that “there is good reason to believe that man is the indirect cause of an evil for which he pays so heavy a penalty. Insects increase whenever the birds which feed upon them disappear. Hence, in the wanton destruction of insectivorous birds … man … is not only depriving his groves of their fairest ornament, but he is waging a treacherous warfare on his natural allies.”[15]

Many commentators have been unequivocal in their assessments of Marsh’s book. According to Michael Williams: “Here was the first stirrings of environmental awareness and the conservation movement, as it became known in the Western world.”[16] Man and Nature was the most comprehensive, synthetic and scholarly treatment of the relationship between man and nature over time to date. Walden had sold slowly, but Marsh’s first edition sold out within a few months and appeared in Italian editions in 1869 and 1872. A new English language edition, incorporating new material, was published in 1874 as The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Thoreau and Marsh addressed the same issue; proper use of the natural world—specifically use of trees. While Thoreau was short on practical suggestions, Marsh was replete with diagnoses and remedies such as the artificial propagation of fish. Yet he should not be read too narrowly as the precursor of the conservation later associated with Gifford Pinchot. Granted, he was primarily concerned with the dangers of man’s imprudent use of the earth for man himself “The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant.” In the second edition, however, he called for the setting aside of land “in its primitive condition,” not only for education and recreation, but also as “an asylum where indigenous trees … plants … beasts may dwell and perpetuate their kind.” Current attitudes and behaviour were wrong as well as bad for people. “Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.” He, too, found the American Indian an inspiration in the quest for a better, gentler creed, being particularly impressed by their way of extracting maple syrup, which released sap without damaging the tree.[17]

Another seminal work was John Wesley Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878), hailed by Jacobs as “the first study of the land to call for a scientific and environmental understanding of the West.”[18] Powell, a one-armed veteran of the Civil War and explorer of the Colorado River, was chief of the infant U.S. Geological Survey. In the drier West, Powell believed the Jeffersonian homesteader vision bred of the humid, temperate, forested east had met its nemesis. Tossing out the sacred notion of 160 acres and the practise of arable farming, he warned that the West offered no scope for a massive settler influx and that a pastoral economy was the only kind attuned to the character of the land and suggested that 2,500 acres were the minimum required for a viable grazing operation. Powell’s sober views and his emphasis on the role of careful planning and government intervention were denounced as pessimistic and un-American. The report was shelved and the colonization of the ‘Great American Desert’ followed the established pattern.

4. The Conservation Movement

i. Pinchot, Forestry and Utilitarian Conservation

After the Civil War, in the trans-Mississippi West, the conquest of the continent culminated in what Vernon Parrington called the “huge barbecue … to which … all the important persons, leading bankers and promoters and business men, received invitations.”[19] Gilded Age governments remained loyal to the ingrained philosophy of ‘giveaway.’ Under the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, for example, any citizen could buy 160 acres of non- agricultural land for $2.5 an acre without having to live on it. The only requirement was that the buyer swore an oath that they would use the land themselves. Through an act granting swamp and overflow lands to the states, a good deal of prime forest land passed cheaply into corporate hands. In addition to blatant trespass and illegal appropriation, the lumber barons in particular perfected a series of devious methods to thwart the law. Trainloads of city folk were shipped out to a desirable piece of public domain, shepherded to the land office to file their individual timber-and-stone claims, where they paid with money provided by the barons and immediately sold to them. A favourite anecdote concerns the man who homesteaded a piece of prime timberland in Idaho. He swore he had cleared some of the land and planted a crop, cut timber, built a cabin, and eaten the potatoes he had raised. In fact he’d been hired to secure the land for a timber baron. He’d buried a sack of potatoes, built a minature house about four feet square, then dug up some of the potatoes and eaten them. Two days after entering his claim, he filled out the papers and secured ownership. [20]

The first flickers of a conservation conscience inside the federal government were a reaction to deforestation. Carl Schurz, Hayes’s secretary of the interior, was an immigrant who brought the more mature European perspective on natural resource management. In 1877, the reformer issued a report accusing the lumber barons of “not merely stealing trees, but whole forests.” Schurz managed to bring a few corporate culprits to heel and proposed federal forest reserves, reforestation and user fees. The reaction of congressmen from lumber states set the tone for parochial hostility to conservation over the next century. Conservation came out of the East but the major battleground was the ‘vest, which felt the same way about Washington’s proscriptions as colonial New Englanders did about London’s ‘broad arrow.’ Schurz’s conservation, like Powell’s recommendations, was un-American, a sinister bid to impose “Prussian methods.”[21] Wielding the financial axe as their handiest weapon, timber state and territorial politicians fought ‘internal colonialism’ by withdrawing funds for federal enforcement. The growth of saplings like Schurz was overshadowed and stunted by the towering timber barons during the 1870s and 1880s. Still, he had pointed the government toward stewardship, not least by bringing in a professional forester, Bernard Fernow (a fellow German immigrant), as the first chief of the new Division of Forestry. So far, though, there were no trees to look after. The first material success came in 1891 when President Harrison secured (through astonishing luck and duplicity) the Forest Reservation Act, which authorized the chief executive to carve reservations out of the public domain. Harrison withdrew 13 million acres within a month all of them west of the Mississippi. In 1897, Cleveland set aside another 21 million acres, also in the face of extreme congressional disapproval.

Now there were forests but no management policy. “Lock up,” the opposition’s term, suited those who wanted reservations to mean permanent non-use. Enter Gifford Pinchot, who took charge of the Division of Forestry in 1898. The Pinchot family fortune was partly based on logging profits and Gifford’s father, concerned over depletion, was eager for French methods to be introduced from the old country. There was nowhere in America to study forestry, so Pinchot was sent to the finest French and Swiss schools to study under Sir Dietrich Brandis, the German who founded forestry in British India. By the time Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency, Pinchot had added 40 million acres of forest reserve. In 1905 the (now) Bureau of Forestry became the U.S. Forest Service (of which Pinchot served as chief until 1911) and the reserves over which it had only recently won control from the Department of the Interior were redesignated as national forests. This institutional legacy was matched by an ideological legacy: the conservation-as-wise-use school, that coalesced around Pinchot. Though forestry was his first and remained his main love, he strove for a coordinated federal policy encompassing trees, soil, water and minerals. He claims to have coined the term ‘Conservation’—whose meaning had previously been restricted to the preservation of fruit and the keeping of bees—though he was aware of the British precedent in India, where government forests were called Conservancies and their foresters known as Conservators. The secret of his success was his intimate personal and professional relationship with Theodore Roosevelt, a rapport between agency chief and chief executive unique in U.S. history. By the 1980s, environmental awareness and consensus in Congress and the nation at large were sufficiently entrenched to frustrate a hostile executive branch. In the early 1900s, facing a legislature loath to fund federal initiatives, commissions and congresses, conservation was entirely dependent on presidential/federal leadership for its strength and momentum. T.R. and G.P. had boundless ambitions. In 1908, they organized a governor’s conference on conservation at the White House. The following year the president hosted a North American conservation conference attended by Canada, Newfoundland and Mexico. The first ‘Earth Summit’ convened in Rio, Brazil, in June 1992 but if T.R. and G.P. had had their way, it would have been held over seventy-five years ago. In contrast to Bush’s isolation in 1992, Roosevelt’s regime was in the vanguard of world conservation. During his administration’s dying days, he was planning a global conference. His successor, Taft, killed the initiative.

Pinchot’s policies were packaged for public consumption as a democratic crusade and the traditional view was that conservation typified the reformist, trust-busting nature of the Progressive era. Reassessments of Progressivism have directly affected interpretations of conservation. Samuel P. Hays rejected the liberal view, not to demonstrate that conservation was conservative, but to stress its essentially apolitical, modernizing character. Conservation, he argued, epitomized the managerial, efficiency, planning and generally technocratic goals of Progressivism, with its attempt to transfer decision-making from politicians to experts.[22] Opposition to unrestrained laissez-faire and haphazard exploitation did not make conservation anti- corporate. There is evidence that big business found it quite congenial. Curbs on production, avoidance of waste and reforestation met with the approval of businesses facing resource shortage in the long term and welcoming curbs on competition. The fiercest critics were often ‘the people’ not ‘the interests’.

For all the talk of ‘scientific management’ (which did not mean management on ecological principles), commercial gain remained the yardstick; in the national forests, grazing took precedence over watershed protection. There was obviously less difference between unregulated grazing and regulated grazing than between grazing of any kind and no grazing. It may have represented an advance over pioneer practise but involved much less of a break with the past in terms of attitudes to nature. The famous Alaska coal lands leasing dispute also obscured a high degree of ideological convergence between the warring parties. The controversy, after all, was over how, by who, and when the resource should be exploited, not over the principle of development. For Pinchot, non-use was as bad as wasteful use. Conservation was the solution to “the one great central problem of the use of the earth for the good of man.”[23] Utilitarian conservationists approached the natural world just as the sociologist, Lester ‘yard, approached society; bent on redesigning and improving. “The first great fact about conservation,” Pinchot reiterated, “is that it stands for development … The first principle of conservation is development.”[24]

Trees were a crop and forests were tree farms, so the forest service’s home in the agriculture department made sense. Pinchot fought efforts to create game reserves in national forest. He tried to bring existing national parks within his empire and, adamant that not an inch of land should be taken out of production, opposed all new ones. He preferred the company of lumber executives to that of neo-transcendentalists. Interestingly, he drew on the prudent husbandry of the American Indians—as opposed to their earth-worship—for support: “centuries before the Conservation policy was born, here was Conservation practice at its best.”[25]

The public, however, was less interested in utilitarian conservation than in preservation (‘aesthetic conservation’). The former emerged largely from within the federal government. The latter lacked a power base at the top and functioned more like a modern, grassroots environmental protest movement. Prominent at this local level were women—the fertile seedbed for a plethora of private reform initiatives in the late nineteenth-century. Women were among the earliest members of the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club (1876) and San Francisco’s Sierra Club (1892), and featured in more than a teamaking role. They spearheaded local campaigns to save New Jersey’s Palisades, California’s Calaveras Big Trees, and Colorado’s ancient cliff dwellings. The Daughters of the American Revolution, over 70,000 strong at the turn of the century, had a doughty conservation committee chaired by Mrs James Pinchot, Gifford’s mother, and the women’s conservation movement generally remained loyal to Pinchot until Hetch Hetchy. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (1890) was another formidable instrument of persuasion, representing over three-quarters of a million women by the early twentieth-century. Mrs John Dickinson Sherman, chairwoman of the federation’s conservation committee, threw herself into the campaign for a national park service, writing 700 personal letters in 1916.[26] Birds, above all, attracted female attention. Women dominated early Audubon Society campaigns and, by 1915, counted for slightly over 50% of Auduboners. Women, through their hats, were large consumers of bird products. Their efforts (importation of wild bird feathers was banned in 1913) were assisted by the whims of fashion which, once again, came to the rescue of wildlife. Just as the shift to silk hats had saved the beaver, so the survival of certain birds was assured in the 1920s when large ungainly hats—often festooned with entire birds—largely became extinct; the bob provided no anchorage for a hatpin.

Contemporary feminists may cringe over women’s motivation. Conservation and preservation became magnets of righteousness attracting old stock Americans of both sexes unsettled by the forces of industrialization, urbanization, industrial conglomerations and ‘new’ immigration. Though opponents denounced the antics of ‘long-haired men and short-haired women,’ some women saw their involvement as an extension of the traditional female role as conservators of the home, the child, and the race. And for women like Mrs Matthew T. Scott, president general of the D.A.R., the values and racial purity of Anglo-America also needed protection. As she told the Second National Conservation Congress in 1910: “We … ancestresses of future generations, have a right to insist upon the conserving not only of our soil, forest, birds … fishes … but also upon the conserving of the supremacy of the Caucasian race in our land.”[27] Aesthetic conservation remains a supremely patriotic cause. Though shorn of its uglier overtones, love of the untamed American earth is a key facet of Americanism. As a bumper sticker issued by Earth First! exhorts: “American Wilderness: Love it or Leave it Alone.”

ii. Sportsmen and Wildlife

Wildlife provided the most numbing evidence of environmental despoliation. Buffalo and pigeon were the most blatant examples. John James Audubon, the first great American naturalist, demonstrates, though, that the sheer fact of mass destruction and disapproval thereof were insufficient to promote concern, let alone action. Audubon witnessed the wholesale slaughter of passenger pigeons in Kentucky in 1813, describing how “the authors of all this devastation began to move among the dead, the dying and the mangled, picking up the Pigeons and piling them in heaps. When each man had as many as he could possibly dispose of, hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.” Yet he foresaw no long-term impact from the activities of “the tyrant of creation, man,” reflecting that though “persons unacquainted … might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species … I have satisfied myself by long observation that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease.”[28] 1813 was still the heyday of superabundance and the myth of inexhaustibility. Restrained estimates put the pre-Columbian pigeon population of the U.S. at between 3 and 5 billion and until the 1870s, despite the type of carnage Audubon witnessed, more pigeons hatched than were killed. The last wild pigeon was killed in 1899 and the last representative of the species, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. In 1492 an estimated 60 million buffalo roamed North America. By the 1820s, the last specimen east of the Mississippi had been shot. A government survey in 1894 could only find about 80 wild animals and a further thousand or so in parks or ranches. The heyday of slaughter came in the 1870s, when buffalo were shot as a meat supply for railroad construction workers, to provide leather for the transmission belts of eastern industry and the boots of British soldiers, to supply robes for carriage rides, for trophies to adorn the study walls of eastern aristocrats, just for fun, and, not least, to starve out the last recalcitrant Indian tribes. This nearextermination provided the impetus for wildlife conservation.

John Reiger believes the role of wildlife and sportsmen has been neglected by historians of conservation. Distinguishing between two classes of hunter—those who shot for the market and the sportsmen who indulged in the chase for a variety of non-material reasons—the hunter-historian tries to show that love of nature and love of hunting were (and still are) compatible. The emergence of a professional ethic and group identity in the 1870s is seen in the mushrooming of mass circulation, national newspapers such as Forest and Stream and the proliferation of sportsmen’s clubs (over 300 by 1878). From the 1870s onwards, state law regulated bags, seasons and methods, set up game commissions and appointed wardens. Commercial hunting was abolished and the crowning achievement, the Lacey Act of 1900, outlawed interstate trade in game killed in violation of state laws. In 1903, Roosevelt created the first wildlife refuge—Pelican Island, Florida. (The first informal wildlife refuge was arguably Afognak Forest and Fish-Culture Reserve off the coast of Alaska [1892].)

The assertion that concern for wildlife rather than concern for forests, reclamation or parks marks the origins of conservation dethrones both Pinchot and the preservationists. Instead, Reiger enthrones George Bird Grinnell, arguing that the editor/proprietor of Forest and Stream was the earliest and most important influence on T.R., preparing him for Pinchot. Another revisionist impact is the pushing back of organized conservation’s origins to the 1870s. And whereas many historians characterize the conservation impulse as middle- class, Reiger identifies upper-class sportsmen as “the real spearhead.” His effort to pinpoint hunting and fishing as the key experience in the making of most early conservationists (“that first crucial contact with the natural world”) will never convince the non-hunting majority in the contemporary environmental movement but he is justified in heralding the prestigious Boone and Crockett Club (1888) as “the first private organization to deal effectively with conservation issues of national scope.”[29] Most importantly, he sees sportsmen as being in the vanguard of all three major foci of conservation activity in the late nineteenth-century; not only wildlife but also forests and national parks. Sportsmen were especially interested in effectively protecting Yellowstone’s beleaguered game, Grinnell leading the campaign for legislation (secured in 1894). Sportsmen who lobbied for parks—where all game was protected—cannot be accused of mere self- interest. Nor can Grinnell when he formed the Audubon Society in 1886—an organization dedicated to protecting non-game birds. He also used Forest and Stream to campaign for efficient forest management, advocated for reasons quite independent of game habitat preservation.

The elite Boone and Crockett Club (membership restricted to a hundred who had killed “in fair chase” at least three North American big game trophies) took its code from the British aristocracy but its name from the two most famous hunters in American history, from the days when hunting was a basic pioneer right. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, in the context of the 1880s, were precisely those unscrupulous pot hunters who jeopardized their sport. That Francis Parkman was a member reveals a good deal. So does the role in its founding of politicians like future Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge. A prime function of sport hunting was the ritual reinforcement of old values in a changing America, a patrician protest against crass materialism and a nativist defence of American natural patrimony threatened by foreigners who hunted for base reasons. Unsurprisingly, many sportsmen conservationists shared the Anglo-Saxon supremacism of the time and regarded the outdoors as a wholesome, proper environment for Nordics, whereas lesser breeds flourished in the cities.[30] Game laws gave an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Revulsion against the status of songbirds in Italian cuisine led to some state laws banning the use of lime and nets, the barring of aliens from carrying or owning firearms and even from hunting altogether.[31] Hunting could also be a more positive expression of frontier nostalgia and cultural patriotism. For pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold (an ardent, life- long hunter) there was “value in any experience that reminds us of our distinctive national origins … i.e. that stimulates awareness of history. Such awareness is ‘nationalism’ in its best sense … a boy scout has tanned a coonskin cap, and goes Daniel Booneing in the willow thickets below the tracks. He is re-enacting American history. He is, to that extent, culturally prepared to face the dark and bloody realities of the present.”[32]

iii. Muir and Preservationism

In the late 1970s, the California Historical Society chose John Muir as the greatest figure in Californian history. And for the modern American environmentalist, a visit to John Muir’s home at Martinez, California, is an act of homage of the same order as a pilgrimage to Lenin’s Tomb once was for a member of the Soviet Communist Party. Muir (1838-1914) spent his first eleven years in Dunbar, Scotland, followed by a spartan upbringing on a lean pioneer farm in Wisconsin, where he was force-fed a stern puritan ethic by his cruel father. Unlike Thoreau, Marsh and Pinchot, Muir experienced the direct, workaday confrontation with wild nature that usually bred hostility. He was one of the few early conservationists to emerge from within the pioneer tradition. He finally cut loose for ‘the University of the Wilderness’ and his travels eventually brought him to California. He spent the early 1870s living in Yosemite Valley, working at odd jobs and wandering in the Sierra, absorbing himself in glacial studies. In the later 1870s, as middle age caught up, Muir settled into family and business life as a fruit farmer. Forays into the mountains also became fewer as he threw himself into conservation politics. Muir is often portrayed as a scion of Thoreau but he came down to fight for what he loved. The skillful mountaineer became a skillful politician through a campaign to transfer Yosemite Valley to the surrounding national park. By the early 1900s, his writings were nationally famous and he could rarely walk in his cherished spots without suffering the smothering attention of his devotees.

The adolescent Muir’s unrelenting biblical diet shaped his every thought and expression. Christianity lay at the root of his environmental ethics. Muir’s case provides powerful support for those seeking an alternative Christian vision to set alongside the dominant anthropocentric tradition pilloried by Lynn White in his celebrated essay (1967) on Western religion’s responsibility for the environmental crisis. Muir threw out his father’s God but took in a more generous, almost pantheistic deity. Climbing mountains took him closer to God’s only true temples. He near-worshipped Emerson and carried Nature with him into the mountains but transcendentalism and romanticism merely reinforced his Christian convictions. According to a recent biographer, he first read Walden in 1872 at age 34.[33] The gulf between transcendentalist identification with nature and Muir’s visceral affection was highlighted when the ageing Emerson visited Yosemite in 1871. Muir invited his hero to spend a month hiking in the Sierra. Emerson declined, preferring the comforts of a hotel bed, explaining that “solitude is a sublime mistress but an intolerable wife.” That Emerson preferred “carpet dust” to a fragrant bed of pine needles was for thirty-something Muir a “sad commentary on the glorious transcendentalism.”[34] Muir had no need of mistresses. Wilderness solitude was for him the sublimest of wives.

In a journal entry in 1867-68, Muir lashed out at man’s dominion from God’s position:

A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything living or dead, in all God’s universe, which they cannot render in some way what they call useful to themselves. They have precise and dogmatic insight into the intentions of the Creator … Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos? They are earth-born companions and fellow mortals … They, also, are his children … How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies! They … are part of God’s family, unfallen, undepraved and cared for with the same species of tenderness and love as is bestowed on angels in heaven and saints on earth.[35]

A major debate within a burgeoning Muirian scholarship focuses on the originality of his thought. The older view is that his primary significance fies in effective publicization of orthodox transcendentalist ideas. Deep ecologists, however, are keen to claim him as a subversive and early biocentric, citing his avant garde sympathy for the renegades and sinners of the animal kingdom—rattlesnakes, grizzlies and other predators—and expressions of contempt for ‘Lord Man.’ Though he clearly went far beyond Emerson and even Thoreau, the effort to construct a politically correct Muir tends to skip over elements such as his friendship with and admiration for magnates like E. H. Harriman, the owner, among other things, of the California state legislature and the Southern Pacific Railroad, who assisted Muir in securing the Yosemite recession. Yet the cultural context that ensured Muir was more influential than his New England predecessors deserves as much attention as the question as to whether his thought was derivative or innovative. Unlike Thoreau, Muir did not find himself stocking his library with his unsold books. The first 1,500 printing of The Mountains of California (1894) sold out within a few months and magazines with a circulation of 200,000, such as the nation’s premier literary journal, Century, eagerly solicited his articles. American society was clearly more receptive to the wild message by the end of the century. Muir’s literary success has to be considered in the context of the mood of anxiety born of the announced closing of the frontier and the wilderness cult that developed to cope with the implications for a frontier-nurtured culture. Frontier nostalgia and the celebration of the ‘strenuous life’ as a virile antidote to the dangers of national middle age and emasculating over-civilization forged a macho form of wilderness appreciation more potent than romanticism. The celebration of the wild in the wake of the frontier’s apparent passage into history was part of a groundswell that produced the Boy Scout movement and made a bestseller of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903).

The tale of the rumpus following San Francisco’s application to dam the 2 square miles of 1100 square-mile Yosemite National Park represented by Hetch Hetchy Valley (1909-13) is probably the best known incident in U.S. conservation history. That the controversy marked the final break between Pinchot and Muir and set in stone the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation is a basic convention in the historical literature. Suffice to add that the dam threat was good for preservationism. It provided the first opportunity to put the case for wilderness preservation before a national audience. Hetch Hetchy also emphasized the dilemma of many Americans, within whom Pinchot and Muir vied for ascendancy. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, had done a lot for the preservationist cause but came down, in this particular instance, on the side of the utilitarians, as did about a third of the Sierra Club. The Hetch Hetchy controversy seems a surprisingly modern one. The tactics are familiar; coalitionbuilding, lobbying through letters, petitions, telegrams, and articles. One broadside was sent to 14,000 newspapers. One senator received 5,000 letters protesting the decision to approve the permit. Through intensive lobbying, citizen-led aesthetic conservation received a political education. Hetch Hetchy suggested that future disputes over wilderness would figure prominently in U.S. political debate. Not least, it gave the preservationists an outrage, a guilt factor on which to play whenever parks were threatened: ‘Remember Hetch Hetchy!’ The most important immediate lesson was that the parks could not be defended on aesthetic grounds alone. The onus was on their advocates to prove that more revenue could be generated through preservation than by resource extraction.

iv. The National Parks

“Coca-cola, basketball, and National Parks: American contributions to world civilisation.”[36] The national park can be seen as a democratic reinterpretation of British precedent; the Victorian urban park and medieval royal hunting reserves like the New Forest. Indirect American precedents—urban and rural—can also be found. Colonial Massachusetts’s Great Ponds Act of 1641 set aside some 90,000 watery acres in perpetuity for public fishing and wildfowling. The industrializing nation’s growing desire for outdoor recreational opportunities was seen in the rural cemetery movement, such places being used for picknicking and taking the air as well as visiting the dead. The first of these was Mount Auburn, near Boston (1831). Though Boston Common was set aside as early as 1634, New York City’s Central Park (1861) was the first tract dedicated by a municipality entirely for public recreation and a hundred cities had followed its example by 1892. It is no coincidence that landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, its planner and an early manager, proceeded to play a leading part in the creation and management of the Yosemite Grant (1864, see below), serving as its first custodian. A more direct precedent was the establishment of the Hot Springs Reservation, Arkansas, in 1832, reserved for the nation to thwart private appropriation.

George Catlin, renowned painter of the vanishing Native American, is now usually credited with the national park idea. In 1832, while travelling in what is now South Dakota among herds of buffalo and ‘the wildest tribes’ and rueing their imminent extinction, he expressed the hope that these

joint tenants … might in future be seen, (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could now see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow … What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty![37]

A fine example of how the romantic and primitivist spirit favourably reshaped perceptions of wild nature. Yet when national parks were created they bore little resemblance to Catlin’s living museum on the Plains.

Yellowstone is the icon but some regard Yosemite as the first national park in all but name. In 1864 the federal government (despite the preoccupations of the civil war) ceded to the state of California some 40 square miles of majestic scenery and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in the Sierra Nevada, to “be held for public use, resort, and recreation; … inalienable for all time.” Again, the move was a response to the beginnings of private acquisition. The concept was formally established in 1872 with the 3,300 square mile Yellowstone National Park in the Wyoming Rockies. The objects of attention here were fabulous geysers and bubbling mud pots. The size of the withdrawal can be explained as an insurance measure; there might be more geothermal wonders. The agricultural worthlessness of the region smoothed the bill’s passage. Once more, the move was to check the filing of legitimate private claims to public domain. No money was provided to manage the park until a meagre appropriation in 1877 and wildlife in particular remained unprotected until cavalry units appeared in 1886. ‘Geyser jamming’ continued through the 1870s. Hoping to provoke unnaturally spectacular eruptions, early visitors habitually clogged Old Faithful with trash.

Just as the U.S. Forest Service institutionalised the utilitarian ethos, the National Park Service (1916) granted preservationism official recognition. The parks are often regarded as the embodiment of the anti- commercial, idealistic impulse of conservation. Wilderness was preserved through park creation but this was not their raison d’etre. Their purpose was to to protect wonders of nature like giant sequoias, tumbling waterfalls, and gushing geysers from private exploitation. Conservation (let alone ecology) had little to do with the early park movement. The demands of cultural nationalism supplied the impetus. Lacking Europe’s historical and artistic monuments, Americans strove to combat cultural anxieties by enshrining their natural treasures. It followed that only stunning scenery and freaks of nature qualified. All late nineteenth-century parks conformed to the original criteria of monumentalism and worthlessness in terms of resource extraction. Areas known to contain commercial timber or minerals were excluded and park size was often reduced to exclude natural resources once they came to light. All were located in the still-wild mountain West. In 1890, Sequoia, General Grant and Yosemite National Parks came into being in the Sierra Nevada. (The Yosemite Grant was restored to federal control in 1906, becoming the heart of the Yosemite park.) Mount Rainier National Park, focusing on perhaps the most impressive single peak in the lower 48 states, was carved out of the North Cascades in 1899, the words ‘national park’ being first used in the enabling legislation for Rainier. The monumentalist, ‘rock and ice’ trend continued into this century, embracing the volcanic wonders of Crater Lake (1902) and Lassen (1916), and the rugged alpine scenery of Glacier (1910).

These national parks were matched by state parks, many of them east of the Mississippi. New York state took the lead here. For many Americans and Europeans, the tawdry commercialization and harnessing of Niagara Falls was the most shameful symbol of the youthful nation’s failure to appreciate its natural splendours. The bid to protect some of the area, begun formally in 1867, came to fruition in 1885 with the dedication of the Niagara Falls Reservation. That same year, the state legislature set up the Adirondack Forest Preserve, decreeing that an area the size of Switzerland should remain “forever wild” in the interests of watershed protection, public recreation, and wilderness preservation. Often overlooked in standard accounts is the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorized the president to designate as national monuments by proclamation federal areas containing objects of historic, prehistoric or scientific value. Monuments almost immediately established included Devils Tower, Wyoming, Petrified Forest, Arizona, and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The advantage was that the temporizing of Congress and the delays inherent in the normal procedure for setting up parks could be circumvented at a stroke and a number of national parks originally came in through the back door as national monuments: Grand Canyon, Olympic, Zion and Bryce Canyon. And since the criteria for monuments were much vaguer than for parks, they sometimes proved far more amenable to environmental considerations. Saguaro cacti and redwoods, for example, achieved initial protection as monuments. Moreover, the monuments received much less publicity than the parks and were less prone to tourist development pressures. This neglect could furnish greater protection for nature than the parks.”[38]

Designation as park or monument did not protect per se from economic development. The Hetch Hetchy dam is prime evidence of the vulnerability of the fledgling parks as soon as a material use surfaced. Spared the lumberman, grazier, and miner, if not the dambuilder, parks succumbed to a different form of pressure-that exerted by mass tourism. The park service may have salvaged the parks from financial uncertainty and administrative confusion, but was ensured a complex future by coming into being with a dual, ambiguous mandate to “provide for the enjoyment [of the parks] in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Yet early proponents had little choice but to offer them as public “pleasuring grounds.” They had to beat utilitarian conservation on its own terms and meet the public at its level, justifying the parks’s existence to congressmen by emphasizing their usefulness and egalitarian appeal. Politicians would have laughed out parks to protect nature for its own sake or in the interests of wellheeled wilderness buffs. Muir knew this and assumed wholeheartedly the role of booster, conceding in 1898 that “even the scenery habit in its most artificial forms, mixed with spectacles, silliness and kodaks; its devotees … frightening the wild game with red umbrellas” was encouraging and good for the cause. [39]

Boosting visitation involved hotels, roads and entertainments, like the firefall, bear feedings, Indian rodeo, and zoo in Yosemite. Yellowstone developed its own carnival atmosphere. It made sense that the first director of the National Park Service (1915-29), Stephen Mather, was a successful businessman (like many fellow Sierra Clubbers) who applied his skills to selling the parks. Assisted by wartime disruption of travel to Europe, and backed by the railroads and the American Automobile Association, he launched a ‘See America First’ campaign. Already by the 1920s, more visitors came by automobile than by train. Few Americans (least of all Muir) thought that opening the parks to the automobile was anything but positive. After all, the Sierra Club’s declaration of purpose included the undertaking “to explore, enjoy and render accessible” the Sierra Nevada. One of the few apprehensive voices was that of the famous Scottish alpinist (and Liberal politician), James Bryce. In 1912, the British ambassador to the U.S. warned the American Civic Association that America was losing its distinctiveness in terms of the unusual abundance of wild places it once enjoyed. With specific reference to Yosemite and the deepening American love- affair with the auto, he preached:

There are plenty of roads for the lovers of speed and noise, without intruding on these few wild places where the wood nymphs and the water nymphs ought to be allowed to have the landscape to themselves. If Adam had known what harm the serpent was going to work, he would have tried to prevent him from finding lodgement in Eden; and if you were to realize what the result of the automobile will be in that wonderful, that incomparable valley, you will keep it out. The automobile means dust, it moves too fast and interferes with detailed esthetic enjoyment, it prevents contemplation, it destroys the whole feeling of the spontaneity and freshness of primitive nature.[40]

Autos were given the green light in 1913. The first Ford entered Yellowstone in 1915. The survival of the parks as viable institutions was assured, but their survival as nature was less certain. :Most visitors were auto-powered and viewed the parks as another roadside attraction. Others sought contact with nature but not necessarily wild nature. The smallest group—the purists—were prepared to take the wilderness ungilded but their interest remained anthropocentric. Spirits like Muir, who extolled the rights of nature, especially those of its least popular forms (like rattlesnakes) were a curiosity. Most preservationists happily countenanced predator eradication in the parks. The establishment of Everglades National Park in Florida (1934) over the protests of traditionalists who felt this area of dreary swamp was unworthy of hallowed park status marked a considerable victory for the biocentrists; the appeal of the Everglades resided in its wildlife. Steps were also taken to peel off some of the lily’s crasser layers of gilding. Bear feedings were abolished in Yellowstone and Yosemite in 1941 /42. Despite such biocentric gestures, the preservation of representative wildlife and environmental samples, “vignettes of primitive America” (to quote a pathbreaking report of 1963) are still struggling to become park service priorities.

Only now are Catlin’s “monotonous” grasslands gaining recognition as a candidate for admission to the system. Catlin, ironically, had employed the worthless lands argument himself, predicting that the Great Plains, from Canada down to Mexico, “ever must be, useless to cultivating man.”[41] He wildly underestimated their suitability for corn and wheat, hand hunger, and the capacities of technology. So when interest in elevating grasslands to park status emerged, only two significant remnants of tallgrass prairie survived (due to unsuitability for the plough), in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and Oklahoma’s Osage Hills. The proposed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Oklahoma contains plenty of movement when the wind caresses the tallgrass but has lacked the more charismatic forms of animate nature since the teeming buffalo and their aboriginal hunters bit the dust. Reclamation of the biological past (and even the partial fulfillment of Catlin’s vision) will involve reintroducing elk, buffalo and pronghorn antelope.

A more tangible problem is the ‘being loved to death’ phenomenon. Overcrowding in Yosemite had struck one visitor as a problem as early as 1931. This wag felt that the only difference between it and an intersection in Los Angeles was that “they had trees and no traffic cops in Yosemite Valley, while at Seventh and Broadway they had no trees and a traffic Cop.”[42] The Sierra Club took formal note of the problem of overload in 1951 when it dropped the “render accessible” provision from its bylaws. Since the 1960s, biocentric dissent has flourished as never before. The most strident attack on the development faction within the park service and ‘industrial tourism’ was mounted by Edward Abbey, novelist and sometime seasonal park ranger, whose plan (1968) for their ‘salvation’ included: “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they too, are holy places.”[43] Back with a twist is the patriotic idea of the national park as a shrine, a treasure on a par with the finest of human culture.

v. From the Twenties to the Fifties

Initially it may seem that periods of conservationist awareness and achievement coincide with the conventionally identified ages of reform: the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the New Frontier/ Great Society. So to the extent that America retreated from reform after 1917, the progress of conservation is also believed to have suffered. Yet the momentum had begun to fall off with T.R.’s departure (1909). Conservation under Taft degenerated into vapid meaninglessness, being stretched to cover a multitude of desirables even conservation of the money supply. The impact of World War One, which renewed the emphasis on squeezing maximum productivity out of natural resources, was seen in the admission of sheep to the national parks. A string of Republican regimes hostile to intervention unless it advanced corporate interests was bad news for a movement dependent on a vigorous central initiative.

The Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal is usually cited as the best indication of the backsliding temper of the twenties with regard to natural resource husbandry—the reservation for navy use of oil reserves being seen to epitomize the Progressive spirit. Others are less willing to accept that the impulse evaporated entirely. As historians look beyond Teapot Dome, and breathe life back into the corpse of reform,, so a fuller, more favourable picture of conservation is emerging. Burl Noggle argues that the zeal with which leading pre-war conservationists pursued the wrongdoings and wrongdoers in the Teapot Dome affair shows the Progressive spirit was alive and kicking.[44] And we have been reminded that aesthetic conservation came of age in the 1920s: “It was in the Jazz age … that the nation began its love affair with the national parks.”[45] The park service’s authority was demonstrated as early as 1919, when it defeated proposals to dam part of Yellowstone to irrigate Idaho farmland.

That post-war pursuit of prosperity and conservation were by no means antithetical is suggested by the founding of the Save-the-Redwoods League (San Francisco, 1918) and the Izaak Walton League (Chicago, 1922). Almost 40% of the former’s inter-war councillors were businessmen. (The era’s nativist tendencies were evident in the urge to preserve the remnants of an arboreal master race. Just as the Nordic was the finest human product of evolution, so the redwood was the perfect product of botanical evolution.)[46] The moving force of the fishermen’s fraternity, Will Dilg, like many of Walton’s founding members, were in sales and advertising. They worried about the loss of their favourite fishing holes and the emasculating tendency of modern civilization. Enervated boosters and regular fellows responded in droves to the call that drove Sinclair Lewis’s George F. Babbitt into the backwoods with his rod and flies in search of uninhibited masculinity. As Dilg explained in the league’s journal: “we are composed of thousands upon thousands of HE MEN.”[47] By 1925, there were over 100,000 Waltonians, vastly in excess of any other conservation organization. One of them was Herbert Hoover, who may have struck many as a cold fish, but was a passionate angler. The secretary of commerce’s inaugural address as honourary president of the Waltomans stressed that less pollution meant more fish. Extolling its “rejuvenating joy,” he showed that contact with “primitive nature” was part of twenties rugged individualism.[48] Through a series of (highly civilized) camping trips in frontier settings, Henry Ford expressed his nostalgia for the old America his product was doing so much to destroy. Ford was also a keen ornithologist and in 1911 had provided the financial backing for the Permanent Wild Life Protection Fund, the war chest of William Hornaday, the early century’s leading wildlife protectionist. The auto king instructed America’s six hundred Ford dealers in 1912 to write their congressman in support of a migratory bird protection bill.

Misleading as it is to speak bluntly of conservation’s return to favour in high places after 1932, the New Deal did give a fillip to the cause. The Civilian Conservation Corps was undoubtably FDR’s (and the nation’s) favourite New Deal programme. If any aspect of the New Deal can be called FDR’s personal creation, it was the CCC.[49] FDR’s usually sunny disposition was rarely sunnier than on the photographs of him lunching outdoors with some of the 2.5 million unemployed young men who served in its ranks. The CCC built dams, telephone lines, logging roads, trails, lookout towers and firebreaks in the national forests. On rangelands it re-seeded worn terrain, strung up barbed wire, dug wells, filled gullies, erected storage dams for thirsty cattle, and wiped out forage competitors like prairie dogs. The corps also planted trees—many of them for the christmas tree industry. In the national parks the accent was also on improving on nature. To enhance recreational opportunities, the corps built cabins, swimming pools, campgrounds, and ski facilities, and dammed streams for lakes. ‘Roosevelt’s Beavers’ is a more accurate label than ‘Roosevelt’s Tree Army.’ Prior to 1934, ranchers and sheepmen had run their stock at will over the arid and semi-arid public lands of the West. The Taylor Act withdrew from homesteading all remaining federal grazing lands and transfered them to a fee charging grazing service. The shift from sale to lease and regulation with the basic principle of development unchanged was classic Pinchotianism. The Tennessee Valley Authority was the ultimate monument to the utilitarian notion of integrated river basin development, delivering industrialization, flood control, and rural electrification. TVA captured conservation’s socio-economic reformism and its notions of planning, management and enhancement. Conservation’s main purpose remained not so much the defence of nature as the devising of more sophisticated, sustainable methods of attack.

Harold Ickes, the nation’s longest serving Interior Secretary (1933-46), invested a lethargic, sycophantic department with some of the same backbone and esprit de corps that Pinchot had instilled in the forest service. His achievements for both utilitarian conservation and preservation are another reminder of the dangers of casting the story of American conservation in terms of a simple dichotomy. Ickes pursued the creation of national parks with the same enthusiasm he put into mega- projects like Grand Coulee Dam. FDR also took a strong personal interest, making time to visit a number of parks. Both played a key role in pushing preservationism toward greater parity with the traditional developmental orientation of federal conservation.[50] The size of the park system more than doubled during Ickes’s tenure and the number of national monuments almost trebled, marking the FDR years as the most dynamic period of expansion in park history.[51] Even foresters were beginning to see beyond the timber to the trees. During the thirties, a faction called for the acceptance not only of recreation but also of wildlife and wilderness protection as legitimate objectives alongside timber harvest. In the vanguard was the wealthy radical and professional forester, Robert Marshall. By his death in 1939, sixteen wilderness areas had been set up within Indian reservations and 14 million acres of national forest withdrawn by administrative decree.

Conflict within preservation receives less attention than the conflict between preservation and utilitarian conservation. Yet grumblings from the ‘purists’ grew louder in the 1930s and Ickes moved closer to their position. In typically cantankerous fashion, he ranted against the auto and the degeneration of parks into “Coney Islands.”[52] Olympic and Kings Canyon in particular were striking triumphs, not only as they were fashioned out of national forest, but also because they were deliberately conceived as wilderness parks. A further break with the Mather- Albright tradition was the shift at the top of the park service in 1939 from a Mather-Albright protege to Newton Drury, an outsider with strong connections to leading preservationist organizations. A miffed Albright is alleged to have remarked that “Drury wants things so natural in the parks that he would like people to check their contraceptives at the entrance station.”[53] Nevertheless, preservationism, pure or impure, remained firmly anthropocentric. Spiritual uplift or fun? The priorities were both human.

FDR’s love of trees found its most expansive outlet in the shelterbelt programme of the Soil Conservation Service. 18,000 miles of trees were planted as part of the effort to heal the Great Plains between 1934 and 1941. Donald Worster has singled out the Dust Bowl as the most severe environmental catastrophe in the entire history of the white man on this continent.[54] The plainsmen blamed the weather and the thrust of federal relief was to mitigate a temporarily difficult situation until rain restored normality. Feed and seed loans were advanced, mortgages were refinanced. Reform measures were agronomist; shelterbelts, wells, removal of marginal land from production, and subhumid farming techniques. More technocratic conservation; improved means to traditional ends. Few Americans looked beyond the drought (as Worster does) at the long-term causes rooted in the nation’s habits and attitudes to nature. A handful did see the ‘dirty thirties’ as the logical outcome of capitalist culture. Pare Lorentz’s ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains,’ a documentary produced for Tugwell’s radical Resettlement Administration, implied that the sod should never have been busted, cast the tractor as the villain of the piece, and communicated a subliminal desire to deconstruct the settler’s monocultural reconstruction of the grasslands. The bold rhetoric of the federal report, The Future of the Great Plains (1936), about accepting natural restraints on the human economy—as Native Americans did prior to the beginnings of white occupation in the 1850s, and as Powell had recommended in the 1870s—was not reflected in its recommendations, which did not go far beyond government purchase of submarginal lands.

New Deal conservationists and a crop of ecologists found the nation little more receptive than Powell had found it a half century earlier. True, Marsh’s Man and Nature was dusted down and an Oklahoma botanist, Paul Sears, published a book, Deserts on the March (1935), which identified soil destruction as a crucial factor in the collapse of great civilizations. But as soon as the rains returned and war boosted demand, more virgin sod was busted and marginal land was put back into production.[55]

There is a tendancy to identify the Republican recapture of the presidency as the crucial act in the demise of New Deal conservation. The arrival at Interior of Douglas ‘Giveaway’ McKay, a Chevrolet dealer, is seen as the beginning of the backlash. According to Senator Wayne Morse, fellow Oregonian Republican, McKay’s appointment was “very good for the reactionary forces that are out to plunder the people.”[56] But Clayton Koppes pinpoints the Fair Deal as the source of discontinuity. In 1946 complacency set in when Ickes was replaced by Julius Krug, a former chief engineer for TVA. Krug’s priority was public power and preservationism left him cold.[57] TVA became little more than a power-generating unit tied to fertilizer production. The potential of the Taylor Grazing Act was ignored. Krug cuddled up to the graziers, quashing efforts to make them pay a realistic price. Ickes had thwarted the logger’s efforts to gain access to prime spruce in Olympic National Park during the war but Krug signalled willingness to delete its commercially valuable timberlands. The drift away from preservation continued under Oscar Chapman, who approved the Echo Park Dam in 1950 (see next section). Truman himself was supremely indifferent to the national parks, being the only president since Cleveland who failed to add any. In some respects, conservation’s fortunes improved under Eisenhower. McKay dropped the controversial dam in Echo Park and even added a new national park. He blocked moves to reduce Olympic, plant a reservoir in Glacier, and explore for oil in Everglades. On the utilitarian front, the federal government continued to expand its role in generating power though largely abdicating responsibility for directing its sale and use. The revulsion against large-scale reclamation projects in the 1960s, whether private or public, Democrat or Republican, would reveal the depth of the estrangement between traditional utilitarian conservation and the nascent environmentalism. Public support for preservation and environmentalism was growing regardless of changes in policy at the top.

5. The Transition to Environmentalism

i. Leopold and the Infusion of Ecology

If Thoreau is the nineteenth- century guru of contemporary environmentalism, and Muir its turn-of-the-century idol, then Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is the mid-twentieth-century prophet—the great who almost made it into the promised land of the environmentalist era. Recent surveys confirm the status of his A Sand County Almanac (1949) as the movement’s bible. According to Dave Foreman, of the deep ecology group, Earth First!, it is “not only the most important conservation book ever written, it is the most important book ever written.”[58] Leopold was not born a prophet. His gradual awakening was a harbinger of the direction in which conservation would move. He began his career as a Pinchot protege, being one of the first graduates of Yale School of Forestry, established with Pinchot family money and dedicated to Gifford’s policy. Leopold’s first forest service assignments (1909) were in the Southwest and he took with him his mentor’s attitude to timber and wildlife as resources to be managed for maximum production of species valuable to humans. Useful wildlife meant deer and other game species. These discriminations had characterized wildlife conservation since the first alarm bells sounded for the buffalo. No animal was more vilified than the wolf, denounced as the “most despicable” of American creatures by wildlife protectionists and ranchers alike. Extermination of predators was one way to produce a healthy surplus of game and in 1920 the young forester vowed to track down “the last wolf or mountain lion in New Mexico.”[59]

The unforeseen consequences of successful predator eradication provided a painful object lesson in Leopold’s ecological education. Deer populations in the Southwest rocketed (between 1906 and 1924 in Grand Canyon Game Preserve, numbers increased from 4,000 to 100,000), exceeding the food supply and then crashing through mass starvation (60% in the Grand Canyon preserve died in the winter of 1925/6). Overpopulation and consequent denudation became a problem in the Midwest and Northeast too. Leopold no longer thought in terms of good and bad animals, nor of the land as a commodity. During the 1920s the dissident scientist also discovered Thoreau, who helped him to think of the land as an indivisible community of living organisms. Another major influence was Charles Darwin. Some approached evolutionary science and the ‘survival of the fittest’ notion as further legitimation of human dominion over nature. Yet central to Darwinian thought was the ‘web of life’ and the demotion of humankind from its position above and apart from the rest of nature to the rank of “plain member and citizen” of the biotic community. Evolution offered an entrance for ecology and was a potential boost to biocentrism. It taught Leopold humility and interdependence and restored a pre-Christian sense of kinship: humans were just “fellowvoyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.” [60] Another landmark in his growing disenchantment with inherited conservation was a trip to Germany in the mid-1930s. Trained to share Pinchot’s admiration for Europe’s intensively managed woods, he found them aesthetically dreary and botanically deficient. He calculated that most native plants in German forests had been eliminated by deer herds maintained at unnaturally high levels through predator control and artificial feeding. The result was a sterile monoculture with attendant decrease in soil fertility.

By this time, he had moved on to the U.S. Forest Service Products Research Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. There was appropriate irony in the emergent ecologist submerged in an institution devoted to finding better ways of bleaching woodpulp and so forth. After a few frustrating years, he quit government service in 1928 to follow interests closer to his heart, working as a wildlife management consultant funded by the sport hunting ammunition manufacturers. His pioneering role was recognised in 1933 when the University of Wisconsin created for him the nation’s first chair of wildlife management. Leopold devoted much of his private life in his later years to restoring the battered, logged over lands of a portion of Wisconsin’s sand country, where he bought an abandoned farm and planted native pines and wildflowers.

Leopold was an historical ecologist determined to publicize the role of nature in a larger than human history. By the 1930s, what little prairie remained in Wiconsin survived by default in graveyards. He described a “yard-square relic … unreachable by scythe or mower” that flowered with Silphium each July. Then, one year, the fleck succumbed to the mower’s predation and he lamented how “If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weed, he would be amazed and uncomprehending.”[61] Leopold and Frederick Jackson Turner were practically neighbours in Madison for a couple of years in the mid-twenties and Leopold took the historian’s conviction about the cultural importance of the frontier in America to heart. He too feared the loss of American exceptionalism, mourning the day when “the pack train will be dead, the diamond hitch will be merely rope, and Kit Carson and Jim Bridger will be names in a history lesson. Rendezvous will be French for ‘date’ and Forty-Nine will be the number preceding fifty.” He also took Turner a step further, asking: “is it not a bit beside the point for us to be so solicitous about preserving [American] institutions without giving so much as a thought to preserving the environment which produced them and which may now be one of our effective means of keeping them alive?”[62] In 1935 he and Robert Marshall were operative in founding the first organization specifically dedicated to wilderness preservation the Wilderness Society.

Like Thoreau, Leopold’s influence was largely posthumous, based on A Sand County Almanac, the essay collection he’d been working on since the 1920s but for which he’d been unable to find a publisher until the week before he died. In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold explained how he began to see the ecological light watching “a fierce green fire dying” in the eyes of a wolf he’d merrily shot as a trigger-happy young man. He had been struck by the ‘value of a varmint’ to the natural system as a whole, of which the mountain was his metaphor: “I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain … I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed … to death … a mountain lives] in fear of its deer … Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” Nature, Leopold had learnt and now taught, has no favourites. The ultimate human delusion was to believe that the parts of value to humans would function without the other bits. Hence the need “to preserve all the parts”—a mechanistic image likely to appeal to his audience. The concluding piece, “The Land Ethic,” calls for humankind to renounce its concept of land as property and include the natural world within its ethical system. He attributed the lack of real progress in conservation (which “still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory”) to the failure to adopt a noneconomic ethic.[63]

ii. The Nuclear Age: 1945-62

The injection of ecology was insufficient to produce environmentalism. Ecological thinking forced an expansion and redefinition of conservation only in the context of a new order of scientific and technological menace. Earlier conservationists faced threats that were mild by post-war standards. Whatever the dangers to the land itself, they had assumed that the sky and water were inviolate. Before the war, Rachel Carson, a biologist and accomplished popular science writer, confidently believed that “much of nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man: he might level the forests and dam the streams, but the clouds and the rain and the wind were God’s”.[64] Damage inflicted by detergents, insecticides, chemical fertilizers and synthetics was a post-1945 problem. Biologist Barry Commoner, the public face of ecology for millions of Americans, argued in 1971 that productive methods adopted since 1945 were responsible for 80-85% of total pollution output. He reported fantastic increases in the production of non-returnable soft drink bottles (up 53,000%), synthetic fibres (up 5,980%), plastics (up 1,960%) and pesticides (390%).[65]DDT, a wonder chemical invented in 1939, and deployed by the U.S. military in the war to control insect-borne diseases in Italy and the Pacific was redeployed on the domestic front against garden and field pests. The now familiar pollution issue muscled its way onto the agenda and became the leitmotif of the new environmentalism.

The splitting of the atom was the ultimate manifestation of the ageold, Baconian desire for total human mastery over nature. The bomb and its sibling, the peaceful atom, were catalytic in the advent of environmentalism. Insufficient Americans responded sufficiently positively to the alleged potential of military or civilian applications. The scientist’s public education movement began with the St Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI) in 1958. CNI provided an antidote to official information on radioactivity, believing that decisions about science and its relationship to public and environmental welfare were too important to be left to politicians and so-called experts. Fallout provided an object lesson in ecology that no amount of Leopoldian eloquence could match. The interrelatedness of all forms of planetary life within one community was dramatised by Project Chariot, a proposal in the late 1950s to blast a harbour in arctic Alaska using nuclear devices. Opponents stressed the danger to native peoples from radioactive isotopes that concentrated as they moved up the relatively short and simple arctic food chain. Lichens saturated by radioactive nutrients were grazed by caribou which in turn were the staple of the local indigenes. Radioactivity levels in the bones of Alaskan Eskimos were already the highest in the nation.[66]

As the first American commercial reactor came on line in Pennsylvania in 1957, many conservationists remained sanguine about the potential of nuclear power as a clean, renewable energy source, not least as an alternative to damming wild rivers. The public debate over fallout from testing in Nevada during the 1950s, however, helps explain the galvanising impact of Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)—often dubbed the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of  the environmental movement. Fears were already being voiced by the end of World War Two, the scientific evidence to support the sceptics was already available, and Carson had tried to publicize the dangers as early as 1945. But Reader’s Digest was interested in bats rather than a piece on DDT. Within twenty years, her heavily-documented book about a potentially dull and arcane topic—pesticides—topped the bestseller lists and was serialized in Reader’s Digest, precipitating a controversy comparable to the furore a century earlier over The Origin of Species. Americans had been prepared by a decade-long discussion of the harmful effects of an insidious substance on humans and the rest of nature.[67] Carson’s opening scene of a small town rendered silent and lifeless by a “strange blight” drew on countless resonant images of nuclear holocaust: “in the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams.[68]

Loss of faith in the benefits of science and technology and doubts over the entire thrust of human progress were close to the core of emerging environmentalism. Gloom and pessimism were new quantities. Traditional conservation was upbeat about the future, confident in the capacity of human contrivance to make the earth ever more efficient and productive. Neither did the preservationists pose many questions about basic values. A park here and a wilderness area there seemed enough for most. In the 1950s, Joseph Wood Krutch, a literary critic and biographer of Thoreau, warned that “Man’s ingenuity has outrun his intelligence.”[69] In 1966, Commoner called for “a new conservation movement . . . to preserve life itself.”[70] Ecology did not necessarily push conservation away from primary concern with human welfare. The post-war era of fresh menace also enhanced its anthropocentric content, even if one now needed to distinguish between what microbiologist Rene Dubos called “crude” and “enlightened” anthropocentrism.

Economic and demographic progress were both cause of the environmental crisis and the source of fresh attitudes. Affluence produced effluence but also a greater concern for quality of life issues like environmentalism, while increased leisure time expanded the clientele for outdoor recreation and the demand for wild nature. By 1950, a seventh of the GNP was being spent on leisure, fueling a booming outdoor goods industry—ranging from motorhomes to lightweight backpacking equipment. In 1950, there were 33 million visitors to the national parks. By 1983, visitation had risen to 327 million. Rising levels of education and an increasingly youthful population (by 1965, 50% of Americans were under 25) also contributed to the flowering of an environmental movement. Continuity between conservation and environmentalism was mostly provided by preservationism, which now came of age.

The wilderness cause—a key preservationist tenet—moved in from the periphery of conservation to the forefront of environmentalism. Wilderness symbolized a healthy ecosystem as well as offering a spiritual sanctuary and scope for satisfying a rising demand for ‘primitive’ recreation. The defeat of the Echo Park dam proposal in the 1950s illustrates the divergence between conservation and environ­mentalism. Ambitious plans to harness the Colorado involved drowning the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument. The preser­vationist community united and launched a massive campaign of persuasion. Particularly effective was the waving of the bloody shirt of Hetch Hetchy. A Sierra Club film juxtaposed shots of a dismal Hetch Hetchy reservoir at low water with footage of Yosemite Valley bursting at the seams with visitors on the same day. Wilderness enthusiasts had won the latest test case over the sanctity of the park system and demonstrated their numerical strength and political savvy.

The flowering of the so-called third conservation movement (that of the New Deal is frequently designated the second) was encouraged by the Democrats’s good husbandry after their recapture of the presidency in 1960. Stewart Udall, who served as chief custodian of the nation’s natural resources during the Kennedy Johnson years, brought greater dedication to the conservationist cause than any Interior Secretary since Ickes. The passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 after a ten-year congressional deadlock provided the machinery to create a national wilderness system. Udall’s department also pioneered a system of National Seashores—the first significant additions to the national park system since the New Deal. Bids to dam the Colorado that would have impinged on Grand Canyon National Park were finally defeated in 1968, when Udall, an Arizonan, came round to the preservationist viewpoint. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 created a system for the protection of free-flowing rivers modelled on the Wilderness Act.

Meanwhile, preservationist organizations underwent professional­ization and tremendous expansion. The Sierra Club appointed its first fulltime, paid executive director in 1952. Under David Brower’s evangelical leadership, the genteel Californian hiking coterie became an aggressive, sophisticated and national political force. (Some would say the club was simply returning to its radical, Muirian roots after a period of complacency after 1914.) Brower attracted comparisons with John Brown in his mission to save the planet. A consequence of the club’s higher profile and greater militancy was the loss of its tax­deductible status in 1966, a move that did nothing to curb its popularity. In 1960, its membership stood at 15,000. By 1970, it had increased to 135,000.

6. Unfinished Business

How successful was nature’s defence prior to the onset of environmentalism? Plenty of scenery has been preserved but from the ecological standpoint of nature itself accomplishments under conservation were modest. And for radical critics of the main thrust of environmentalism, the cause of ecology and the ‘rights of nature have not advanced much since the early 1960s, despite the aforementioned achievements of that decade. Take the spotted owl. Over three-quarters of its habitat, the old-growth forests of Oregon and Washington, has been destroyed. The Endangered Species Act (1973) has furnished some protection but boundary lines in this case and others usually remain political, excluding the most commercially (and biologically) valuable areas. The similarities between Disneyland and the best-known national parks persist. In Yosemite Valley you can buy a takeaway pizza, develop your snapshots and rent a video. And though the massive Alaskan additions in 1980 more than doubled the amount of designated American wilderness and parkland, biologically critical terrain known to be oil-bearing (notably the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) has yet to receive the more durable and comprehensive protection conferred by park or wilderness status.

Thirty years after Silent Spring conservation for ecological ends is still in its infancy. Biodiversity is the key concept. Predator extermination in the national parks ended in 1936 but while grizzlies have been preserved in Yellowstone park, for example, dozens of other grizzly species have gone. Due to the loss of genetic diversity, many preserved animals constitute ‘the living dead.’ Defective sperm, kinked tails and other abnormalities among the thirty surviving Florida panthers in Everglades National Park indicate deteriorating genetic fitness—the natural world’s equivalent of the Hapsburg chin. Equally important are the maintenance of species diversity (the range of species within a habitat) and ecosystem diversity (the variety of habitats within a region). Statistics indicating quantity of protected land can be misleading. What counts ecologically is the distribution of these areas throughout a representative range of ecozones. Plenty of high alpine tundra is protected in California, yet hardly any of the state’s far more biologically productive grasslands, riparian forests or coastal wetlands remain. Nature must be defended outside the existing parks and refuges if marginalized species are to stand a chance. Over half the currently documented threats emanate from outside protected units. Since 1945 interference with inflowing water has drastically cut the population of freshwater wading birds in Everglades National Park. Logging continues in critical watersheds adjacent to Redwood National Park (1968) in northern California.

If John Muir had wandered around his beloved Sierra Nevada in 1992, the year his Sierra Club celebrated its centennial, he might also have concluded desolately that not much has been achieved since his death in 1914. Despite having grown to over 600,000 members, the club has been unable to defend the mountains that inspired it. Only 10% of the range is contained in parks. Over half the Sierra belongs to the U.S. Forest Service which remains devoted to Pinchot’s goal of timber harvest. Two-thirds of California’s giant sequoia are unprotected. Fire suppression has produced forests congested with brush and saplings and the soil, denied flaming rejuvenation, grows sterile. Pollution damages the trees that remain and those nominally protected in the parks. Streams are muddied by run-off from eroded clear-cuts, overgrazed range and road cuts. Urbanization is encroaching as Californians flee their connurbations. Many of the fastest growing counties in the nation’s most populous state are in the Sierran foothills, resulting, not least, in the reduction of the mule deer’s winter range. Smog levels in the parks rival those of urban California. Hundred mile views have been reduced to a bare five miles.[71] America’s natural wonderlands were well on the way to becoming denatured—‘mere’ scenery—when the parks were created in the heyday of conservation at the turn of the century. Now its getting hard to see even the scenery. America’s surviving non-human inhabitants—animate and inanimate—have yet to switch from a defensive to an offensive mode.

8. Guide to Further Reading

* For full bibliographical details, see the appropriate reference in the Notes as indicated.

Widespread interest in the history of conservation/ environmentalism coincided with environmentalism’s emergence as a prominent issue in the 1960s. Valuable starting points are Arthur A. Ekirch, Man and Nature in America (1963) (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), Udall’s accessible The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation (1988, an update of his 1963 original)’, and “The American View of Nature” in Russel B. Nye’s This Almost Chosen People (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1966). An introduction via biography is Douglas H. Strong, Dreamers and Defenders: American Conservationists (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988). Peter Wild, Pioneer Conservationists of Western America and Pioneer Conservationists of Eastern America (Missoula: Mountain Press, 1979 and 195) covers much of the same ground (if less effectively) but includes some lesser knowns. Richard H. Stroud, ed., National Leaders of American Conservation (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985) provides exhaustive biographical data.

Essential overviews are Gordon B. Dodds, “The Historiography of American Conservation: Past and Prospects,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 56 (April 1965), pp. 75-81; Roderick Nash, “The State of Environmental History,” in Herbert Bass, ed., The State of American History (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970, pp. 249-60; “American Environmental History: A New Teaching Frontier,” Pacific Historical Review 41 (1972), pp. 362-72; Lawrence Rakestraw, “Conservation Historiography: An Assessment,” Pacific Historical Review 41 (August 1972), pp. 271-88; Richard White, “American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field,” Pacific Historical Review 54 (August 1985), pp. 297-335; and Philip G. Terrie, “Recent Work in Environmental History,” American Studies International 27 (October 1989), pp. 42-65.

Various anthologies meet the needs of a growing number of environmental history/history of environmentalism courses. The most recent and imaginative is Roderick Nash, ed., American Environmentalism: Readings in Conservation History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990), a revision of 1968 and 1976 editions. Nash has also edited Environment and Americans which contains historical interpretations rather than primary sources. Donald Worster, ed., American Environmentalism: The Formative Period, 1860-1915 (New York: Wiley, 1973), contains lesserknown selections and is slanted toward history of science. Frank E. Smith, ed., Conservation in the United States, 5 vols (New York: Chelsea House, 1971) is useful mainly for legislative and administrative details. By contrast, McHenry and Van Doren, A Documentary History of Conservation in America’ covers a broad range of human responses to nature and is dominated by literary, journalistic and other cultural sources.

For the European background consult the historical geographer Glacken’s monumental Traces on the Rhodian Shore, which first appeared in 1967. For the impact of colonization see Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972) and Kirkpatrick Sale’s impassioned The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (New York: Penguin, 1991). On the question of Native American conservationism consult J. Donald Hughes, American Indian Ecology (El Paso: Texas Western University Press, 1983) and Vecsey and Venables, American Indian Environments’. For reviews of the literature pro and con see J. Baird Callicott, “American Indian Land Wisdom? Sorting Out the Issues,” Journal of Forest History 33 (1989), pp. 35-42, and Richard White, “Native Americans and the Environment,” in W.R. Swagerty, ed., Scholars and the Indian Experience: Critical Reviews of Recent Writing in the Social Sciences (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). The process of environmental transformation triggered by colonization is discussed in William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983). Carolyn :Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender and Science in New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), takes the story through the industrial revolution. For the environmental consequences of westward expansion see Richard A. Bartlett, The New Country: A Social History of the American Frontier, 1776-1890 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), section 4; Jacobs, “The Great Despoliation: Environmental Themes in American Frontier History,” Pacific Historical Review 47 (February 1978), pp. 1-26 (reprinted in American Indian Environments)’. John Opie, “The Frontier and the Environment,” in Michael P. Malone, ed., American Frontier and Western Issues (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), pp. 7-25, shows the link between frontier revisionism and environmental history. Cultural and intellectual factors conducive to aesthetic conservation are discussed in art historian Hans Huth’s Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (1957) (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990). Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), deals with wilderness appreciation among American artists. Lee Clark Mitchell Witnesses to a Vanishing America: The Nineteenth-Century Response (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), traces how the receding frontier was memorialized in art, literature and photography. Mitchell argues that creative individuals like Catlin, Cole and Cooper may have been exceptional in talent but were unexceptional in their sentiments, representing an ambivalence over progress and a sensitivity to the loss involved that was more widespread than has been realized. Schmitt, Back to Aature26, while not directly concerned with conservation either, is an illuminating discussion of various turn-of-the-century manifestations of enthusiasm for nature—from the popularity of nature education and landscape photography to summer camps and the cult of the wilderness novel. The definitive intellectual history of wilderness appreciation is Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 3rd rev. ed., 1982). Frank Bergon, ed., The Wilderness Reader (New York: Mentor, 1980) is an anthology of classic American writings on wilderness. For details of political campaigns see Craig W. Alfin, The Politics of Wilderness Preservation (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982). Also worth consulting is Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). Wilderness, it should hardly need pointing out, is a Euro-American cultural concept—and as ethnocentric as most—rather than a tangible environmental condition. Native Americans, of course, had no equivalent word or concept.

Most of the founding fathers/ grandfathers have received full monographic treatment in addition to their coverage in the aforementioned texts by Strong, Wild, Udall and Nash. For definitive biographies see David Lowenthal, George Perkins Marsh: Versatile Vermonter (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958); Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: 3ohn Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954); and Laura Wood Roper, FL 0: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). For Thoreau’s role see Worster, Nature’s Economy, Part 2. A treatment stressing Thoreau’s value to the contemporary deep ecology cause is Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness, which treats Muir and Leopold in similar fashion. Roderick Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), discusses the trio’s contribution to environmental ethics. Muir’s popularity is reflected in a rash of recent studies. The first based on his personal papers is Fox, The American Conservation Movement”, which serves double duty as biography and study of the fortunes of preservationism since Muir’s death. Michael P. Cohen, The Pathless Way: John Muir and the American Wilderness (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984) is less a biography than a study of his ideas and ethics. Frederick Turner’s Rediscovering America:John Muir in His Time and Ours (New York: Viking, 1985) is of limited value to the uninitiated. Lisa Mighetto, ed., Muir Among the Animals: The Wildlife Writings of John Muir (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1986), has a revealing introduction on Muir and animal rights. Fox and Cohen have largely supplanted the older yet still engaging narratives by Linnie Marsh Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness: The Life ofyohn Muir (New York: Knopf, 1945), William F. Bade, The Life and Letters of john Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923-24), and James Mitchell Clark, The Life and Adventures of Yohn Muir (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980). A detailed account of Muir’s political leadership is Holway R. Jones, Yohn Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1965).

Pinchot languishes in comparative neglect. The most recent treatments are Clifford Geary, Gifford Pinchot: Forester and Politician (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), Harold T. Pinkert, Gifford Pinchot: Private and Public Forester (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970), Roderick Nash, From These Beginnings: A Biographical Approach to American History (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), chapter 8, and Samuel P. Hays, “Gifford Pinchot and the American Conservation Movement”, in Carroll W. Purcell, ed., Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981). For his predecessor, see Andrew Denny Rodgers, Bernhard Eduard Fernow: A ,Story of North American Forestry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951). The zoologist Paul R. Cutright’s Theodore Roosevelt: The Making of a Conservationist (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985) is short on analysis. Robert Shankland’s Steve Mather of the National Parks (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1954), is undocumented but the only biography. Donald Swain, Wilderness Defender: Horace M. Albright and Conservation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), covers the Mather administration as well as its successor. The most manageable treatment of Leopold’s ideas is Susan L. Hader, Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974). Three substantial works marked the centenary of his birth. Curt Meine, Aldo Leopold.- His Life and Work (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987) is formidably detailed if rather iconolatric. For comment on Leopold’s most influential work by historians and philosophers see J. Baird Callicott, ed., Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987) and Thomas Tanner, ed., Aldo Leopold: The Man and His Legacy (Ankeny: Soil and Water Conservancy, 1987). Scholars agree on the significance of Leopold and his legacy. The debate turns on the originality of his ideas. For a straightforward treatment of the leading 1930s wilderness campaigner see James M. Glover, A Wilderness Original; The Life of Bob Marshall (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1986). The nearest to a biography of Rachel Carson (which includes selections from her writings) is a book by her friend and editor, Paul Brooks: The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972). David Brower’s autobiography, For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1990), includes much of his written output in connection with various causes.

There are fewer studies of prominent organizations. See Michael P. Cohen, History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970 (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988) for the fullest treatment. Michael L. Smith, Pacific Visions: California Scientists and the Environment, 1850-1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) is of some relevance to the club’s history. The Save-the-Redwoods League is treated in Schrepfer, The Fight to Save the Redwoods46. James B. Trefethen, An American Crusade for Wildlife: Highlights in Conservation Progress (New York: Winchester, 1975) covers the Boone and Crockett Club. See also Oliver H. Orr, Saving American Birds: T. Gilbert Pearson and the Founding of the Audubon Movement (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1992). Thomas B. Allen, Guardian of the Wild: The Story of the National Wildlife Federation, 1936-1986 (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987) is an official, celebratory chronicle of the largest U.S. conservation organization. Marcia Myers Bonta, Women in the Field; America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991) provides twenty-five female portraits. Material on organized womens’ groups in the early decades of conservation /preservation can be found in Janet Robertson, Those Magnificent Mountain Women: Adventures in the Colorado Rockies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

Coyle, Conservation; An American Story of Conflict and Accomplishment”, claims to be the first history of the conservation movement. This undocumented, political account by an engineer is dominated by Pinchot, forestry, and utilitarian conservation in general -soil, river basin management, irrigation and rural electrification. For more probing discussions of conservation as an aspect of Progressivism see J. Leonard Bates, “Fulfilling American Democracy: The Conservation Movement, 1907 to 1921,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44 (June 1957), pp. 29-57; Hays’s revisionist Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (1959)22; James Penick, Progressive Politics and Conservation: The BallingerPinchot Affair (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1968); and Elmo R. Richardson, The Politics of Conservation: Crusades and Controversies, 1897-1913 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962). Merchant discusses the female role in “The Women of the Progressive Conservation Crusade,” in Environmental History (1985)21. Mandatory if hagiographical reading on the role of sportsmen and wildlife protection within the conservation movement is Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation29. Dunlap, Saving America’s Wildlife”, focuses on non-game animals (especially wolves and coyotes) and the role of science, providing a non- hunter’s perspective. See also Lisa Mighetto, Wild Animals and American Environmental Ethics (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991). For legal details see James A. Tober, Who Owns the Wildlife?. The Political Economy of Conservation in Nineteenth-Century America (Westport: Greenwood, 1981) and Michael Bean, The Evolution of National Wildlife Law (New York: Praeger, 1983). A valuable regional study is Morgan B. Sherwood, Big Game in Alaska: A History of Wildlife and People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Donald C. Swain, Federal Conservation Policy 1921-33 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963) takes the political and administrative story through to FDR. New Deal historians have rarely done justice to the role of conservation. An exception is Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), Part 5; “The Battle for Public Development.” For FDR’s role see A. L. Riesch-Owen, Conservation Under FDR (New York: Praeger, 1983). See also Swain, “The National Park Service and the New Deal” 4’ and Koppes, “Environmental Policy and American Liberalism”. Elmo R. Richardson, Dams, Parks and Politics: Resouce Development and Preservation in the Truman and Eisenhower Era (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1973) pushes the political narrative forward to 1960.

For a discussion of socio-economic changes favourable to environmentalism’s emergence see Samuel P. Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence.- Environmental Politics in the United States. 1955-1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). On the shift from conservation to environmentalism see also Clayton R. Koppes, “Efficiency, Equity, Esthetics: Shifting Themes in American Conservation,” in Donald ‘Vorster, ed., The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 230-51. Donald Fleming, “Roots of the New Conservation Movement,” Perspectives in American History 6 (1972), pp. 7-91, provides a complementary analysis of environmentalism’s intellectual origins. For an interim perspective see Grant McConnell, “The Conservation Movement: Past and Present,” Western Political Quarterly 7 (1954), pp. 463-78. Also worth consulting are compilations by John Opie, ed., Americans and Environment: The Controversy over Ecology (Lexington: Heath, 1971), and Carroll Pursell, ed., From Conservation to Ecology (New York: Cromwell, 1979). Michael McCloskey, “Wilderness Movement at the Crossroads, 1945-1970,” Pacific Historical Review 41 (1972), pp. 346-61 discusses the new era’s impact on a vintage cause.

The various components of the natural environmental and different categories and agencies of conservation/ protection are receiving attention. On trees, the thoroughness and readability of Williams, Americans and their Forests 16 is unlikely to be surpassed in the near future. Still useful is Thomas C. Cox et al., This fVell-Wooded Land: Americans and Their Forests from Colonial Times to the Present (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985). See also Harold K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service: A History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976). The seminal park study from a cultural/ intellectual standpoint is Runte, National Parks (rev. 1987)40, which seeks to dispel the aura of altruism. An earlier, essentially political and administrative narrative is John Ise, Our National Parks: A Critical History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961). Individual studies are Runte, Yosemite:: The Embattled Wilderness (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), Richard A. Bartlett, Yellowstone: A Wilderness Besieged (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985), and Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986). Runte and Chase are savagely critical of park policy. On the state level see Philip G. Terrie, Forever Wild: Environmental Aesthetics and the Adirondack Forest Preserve (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985). Local and regional studies are flourishing. J. Ronald Engel, Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983) discusses the three-quarter century campaign to protect a piece of Lake Michigan shoreline near Chicago. Peter A. Coates, The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation and the Frontier (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1991) is the first monograph to investigate the evolution of conservationist concern over Alaska since 1867.

7. Notes

  1. Wilbur R. Jacobs, “Indians as Ecologists and Other Environmental Themes in American Frontier History,” in Christopher Vecsey and Robert W. Venables, eds., American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980), p. 49. Back
  2. Stewart L. Udall, The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1988), p. 12. Back
  3. Robert McHenry and Charles Van Doren, eds., A Documentary History of Conservation In America (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 172. Back
  4. “Indians as Ecologists,” p. 51. Back
  5. Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western nought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 692. Back
  6. Ibid., p. 693. Back
  7. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, Appendix IV, (London: Fontana, 1968), pp. 977, 968, 975, 989. Back
  8. Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (Boston: Ginn, 1910), xxxvi. Back
  9. Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Yackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York: Knopf, 1975), p.103. Back
  10. As quoted in Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 73. Back
  11. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 37. Back
  12. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: New American Library, 1980), p. 143. Back
  13. Milton Meltzer, ed., Thoreau: People, Principles and Politics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963), p. 165. Back
  14. Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (New Haven: College and University Press, 1965), p. 321. For Salt’s biography see The Life of Henry David Thoreau (London: Richard Bentley, 1890). Back
  15. George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 34. Back
  16. Michael Williams, Americans and their Forests: A Historical Geography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 145. Back
  17. Man and Nature, pp. 36, 43, 327 (2nd edition), 36, 39. Back
  18. “Indians as Ecologists,” p. 53. Back
  19. Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, vol 3: The Beginnings of Critical Realism, 1860-1920 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930), p. 23. Back
  20. David Cushman Coyle, Conservation: An American Story of Conflict and Accomplishment (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957), pp. 16-17. Back
  21. The Quiet Crisis, p. 87. Back
  22. Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959). Back
  23. Gifford Pinchot, Breaking New Ground (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947), pp. 322. (Pinchot’ autobiography.) Back
  24. 24. Gifford Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation (Garden City, N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, 1910), p. 42. (Pinchot’s self-promoting account of early conservation.) Back
  25. Breaking New Ground, p. 25. Back
  26. Peter Schmitt, Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 159. Back
  27. Carolyn Merchant, “The Women of the Progressive Conservation Crusade, 1900-1915, in Kendall E. Bailes, ed., Environmental History: Critical Issues in Comparative Perspective (Lanham: University Press of America, 1985), p. 165. Back
  28. David D. Anderson, ed., Sunshine and Smoke: American Writers and the American Environment (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1971), pp. 171-72. Back
  29. John Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), pp. 21, 48-9, 23. Thomas R. Dunlap, “Sport Hunting and Conservation, 1880-1920,” Environmental Review 12 (Spring 1988), pp. 51-60, takes issue with Reiger’s thesis on several counts, questioning the extent to which wildlife protection and sportsmen were representative of Progressive era conservation. Donald J. Pisani, “Forests and Conservation, 1865-1890,” Journal of American History 72 (September 1985), pp. 340-59, also argues that a conservationist ethic predated Progressivism. Back
  30. Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1916), pp. 37-45. Back
  31. Thomas R. Dunlap, Saving America’s Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind, 1850-1990 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 12, 179. Back
  32. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 177. Back
  33. Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), pp. 82-3. Back
  34. As quoted in A Documentary History of Conservation, p. 69. Back
  35. John Muir; William Bade, ed., A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1916), pp. 136, 139, 98-99, 139. Back
  36. Roderick Nash in John C. Hendee et al, Wilderness Management (Washington, D.C.: Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, 1978), p. 43. Back
  37. George Catlin, North American Indians (London: Penguin, 1989), p. 263. Back
  38. See Hal Rothman, Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1989). Back
  39. A Documentary History of Conservation, p. 292. Back
  40. Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), pp. 158-9; Roderick Nash, Environment and Americans: The Problem of Priorities (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), p. 63. Back
  41. North American Indians, pp. 262-63. Back
  42. Robert G. Athearn, The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986), p. 199. Back
  43. Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), p. 60. Back
  44. Burl Noggle, “Oil and Politics,” in John Braeman, Robert Bremner and David Brody, eds., Change and Continuity in TwentiethCentury America: The 1920s (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968), p. 52-53. Back
  45. Donald C. Swain, “The National Park Service and the New Deal, 1933-1940,” Pacific Historical Review 41 (February 1972), p. 313. Back
  46. Susan Schrepfer, The Fight to Save the Redwoods: A History of Environmental Reform (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983) p. 43. Back
  47. The American Conservation Movement, p. 161. Back
  48. Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Cabinet and President, 1920-33 (London: Hollis and Carter, 1952), p. 157. Kendrick Clements, “Herbert Hoover and Conservation, 1921-33,” American Historical Review 84 (February 1984), pp. 67-88, focuses on the great engineer’s proclivity for utilitarian conservation and his achievements in that field. Back
  49. John A. Salmond, The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study (Durham: Duke University Press, 1967), p. 8. Back
  50. See H.T. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes. 1874-1952 (New York: Henry Holt, 1990). Back
  51. “The National Park Service and the New Deal,” p. 316. Back
  52. Ibid., p. 330. Back
  53. The Fight to Save the Redwoods, p. 76. Back
  54. Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 24. Back
  55. Ibid., pp. 181-230 for New Deal conservation with regard to agriculture. Back
  56. Elmo Richardson, “The Interior Secretary as Conservation Villain: The Notorious Case of Douglas ‘Giveaway’ McKay,” Pacific Historical Review 41 (August 1972), p. 335. Back
  57. Clayton Koppes, “Environmental Policy and American Liberalism: The Department of the Interior, 1933-1953”, in Environmental History: Critical Issues in Comparative Perspective, p. 451. Back
  58. Mark Vaz, “Leaves of Green,” Sierra 71 (May/June 1986), p. 56. Back
  59. David Rains Wallace, “Sand County’s Conservation Prophet,” Sierra 72 (November/December 1987), p. 64. Back
  60. Sand County Almanac, pp. 24, 109. Back
  61. Ibid., p. 46. Back
  62. Aldo Leopold, “Wilderness as a Form of Land Use,” Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics 1 (1925), pp. 403-4, 401. Back
  63. Sand County Almanac, pp. 129-32, 207, 209. Back
  64. Frank Graham, Since Silent Spring (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970), p. 13. Back
  65. Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Confronting the Environmental Crisis (London: Cape, 1971), pp. 142-3. Back
  66. Peter A. Coates, “Project Chariot: Alaskan Roots of Environmentalism,” Alaska History 4 (Fall 1989), pp. 1-31. Back
  67. Ralph H. Lutts, “Chemical Fallout: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Radioactive Fallout, and the Environmental Movement,” Environmental Review 9 (Fall 1985), pp. 211-25. Back
  68. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), pp. 21-22. Back
  69. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Measure of Man (Indianapolis: Bobbs­Merrill, 1954), p. 25. Back
  70. Barry Commoner, Science and Survival (London: Ballantine, 1971), p. 151. Back
  71. See Tom Knudson, “The Sierra in Peril,” five-part special report; The Sacramento Bee, 9-13 June 1991. Back

Top of the Page

Geoff Ward, Language Poetry and the American Avant-garde

BAAS Pamphlet No. 25 (First Published 1993)

ISBN: 0 946488 15 0
  1. Introduction
  2. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: The Politics Of Poetic Form
  3. Songs Of The Self
  4. Conclusion: Beyond Language
  5. Guide to Further Reading
  6. Notes
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.

1. Introduction


This study has a double focus. The rise to critical prominence in the United States of the so-called ‘Language’ poets is both remarkable in itself, and a development that sets the achievements and dominant styles of post-war American Poetry in a new, and a questionable light. What follows is first of all a critical introduction to Language poetry; to its origins, personnel, stated aims, and distinguishing features of method and content.

Although the group includes one or two elders such as Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer who, as it were, wrote poetry before there was Language, this development has brought to public attention a range of authors equal if only in their unfamiliarity to non-American readers: to mention Ron Silliman, Steve Benson, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Barrett Watten, Leslie Scalapino, Stephen Rodefer, Craig Watson, Steve McCaffery, Bob Perelman, Robert Grenier, Hannah Weiner and Diane Ward would by no means exhaust the list of salient contributors. Jerome McGann, a sympathetic onlooker, takes the view that in Language writing ‘poetry appears at a crisis of its traditional modes of expression.”[1] Rod Mengham detects a utopian impulse in the will-to-crisis, seeing in the Language group’s aggressive deconstruction of literary subjectivity an ambitious and (if it works) fundamental reorientation of the relations between poem, writer, and reader, ‘bringing to an end the long history of poetry which privileges the writer’s mind’. The new poem will include ab initio ‘a preconception of how, when and where it will be read.’[2] (Apparent echoes of Reception Theory and poststructuralist accounts of the writing process are not coincidental, and will bear investigation at a later stage.)

It would be easy to show the divergence of Language poetry from the more conservative traditions of American verse; a Language poem looks and sounds nothing like a poem by Robert Lowell or James Dickey or Louise Gluck. More vexed, and likely to prove of greater historical consequence, is the relationship between Language writing and the various post-war American avant-gardes; the Beats, the Black Mountain or New York schools. The generation of Robert Creeley or Ed Dorn, writers born for the most part in the 1920s, had managed by and large to hang on to its radical and progressive credentials until the 1980s – until, that is, the advent of Language poetry. Before turning to the poetry of today, it may be useful to sketch once more the literary terrain of the post-war period in which that earlier radicalism took root.


The poetic consensus in America, one that held steady for around forty years, involved the antagonistic but balanced co-existence of an establishment literature (epitomised first by Auden, finally by Lowell) and a loosely left-Bohemian opposition, represented by Donald Allen’s famous anthology The New American Poetry.[3] The New American Poets had their own hierarchies and preacher or teacherly figures (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson), but retained a fraternal proximity to the counter-culture and spirit of rebelliousness that reached its maximum level of social diffusion in the late 1960s. Like the aroused lovers and sprightly musicians depicted on Keats’s Grecian Urn, these poets were frozen in time; doomed never to win, to topple the poetic establishment, but allowed to keep their Dionysiac wildness, and an air of dangerous experimentalism. Although the huge Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg comes complete with a name and subject index, while the photograph on the dustjacket bestows on its subject all the glamour of a retired banker, Ginsberg would until very recently have been the poet most identified with ‘youth’ by America’s reading public. The moment of Language poetry is therefore a critical moment for the whole post-1945 period in American poetry. The poetic Urn – be it Well-Wrought and classical or the Dionysiac kind – would at long last appear to have been broken. In the chapters that follow, I will ask whether the soi-disant vanguardism of the City Lights generation is given a decisive knock by Language; are Ginsberg and John Ashbery (whose influence and prominence since the mid-1970s loom larger than Lowell’s ever did) merely the new Establishment? Ale the Language writers, Blasting and Making It New in the poetry stakes, just the latest wave of New American Poets who will one day be comfortably assimilated into the old?


The generation that came to prominence in the late 50s and early 60s was divided internally according to geographical region. The Beats were associated chiefly with the West Coast, finding a supportive context in San Francisco’s traditional tolerance towards homosexuality, as well as the literature of psychic exploration and political dissent initiated by the ‘San Francisco Renaissance’ of Kenneth Rexroth and his contemporaries.[4] By contrast the New York School (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler et al) pursued careers in the art world that brought them into contact with Abstract Expressionist painting, as well as the influence of immigrant Surrealists, and the side of New York culture which has always endeavoured to face Europe rather than the Americas.[5] Meanwhile in the backwoods of Carolina, its last rector, Charles Olson, was fighting to keep Black Mountain College open for a Faculty of independent minds that had included Robert Duncan and John Cage; Robert Creeley, an external examiner who stayed: and a student body barely younger than its teachers, that included Edward Dorn, Fielding Dawson, and John Wieners.

It is important to note that each of these separate regions maintained its own particular access to publication and dissemination of work. The differences in typography, page-size and other design features, that distinguish the books published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco from, say, the early pamphlets by Ashbery or O’Hara appearing under the imprint of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, could not be greater. Each carries its own cultural associations which bear on wider social issues, as well as the politics of poetry.

Michael Davidson speaks for a whole generation of poetry readers when he recalls ‘an older “bohemian” student’ lending him a City Lights Pocket Poets volume on a school bus in 1959.

Not only had I never read poems like that (we were still trying to figure out why the horse did stop in the woods on a snowy evening), I had never seen books made like that. Its small format and stapled binding bespoke a portability intended for immediate access, a book one was meant to read on the bus or standing in line. And there was something about the way my friend handed the book to me that signalled secrecy and solidarity at the same time.[6]

A few years earlier, John Bernard Myers’ gallery in New York had published Turandot, a pamphlet of poems by John Ashbery now so rare and sought-after that even its author does not possess a copy. At the time, however, Myers’ enthusiasm for the new poetry was not shared by visitors to the gallery. While abstract canvasses costing thousands of dollars were a chic acquisition (and a reminder of the new American triumphalism), the pamphlet costing two dollars didn’t sell. Where the West Coast poetry book was a sign of the burgeoning counter-culture, building on a regional tradition of political dissidence, the East Coast book was at best a de luxe adornment.

Of course, to paraphrase a line from John Ashbery, these distinctions can be brought to life in order to be dismantled. A simple geographical model of the contesting poetries and poetics brought together in the Allen anthology will not quite do. The contradictions are multiple: Lunch Poems, the most popular collection by New York poet Frank O’Hara, was published by City Lights in San Francisco. Ginsberg, the poetic voice of the West Coast, has lived for many years in New York, and his work contains far more references to that city than does, for example, John Ashbery’s. An historical account of Robert Duncan’s development would need to place him in the mutually inimical contexts of Black Mountain College, with its house-style of austere self-sufficiency and heterosexist swagger, and the more bardically exotic Berkeley Renaissance of Brother Antoninus and the gay, Orphic poet Jack Spicer. In fact, the lines along which the geographical distinctions do hold, and had purpose, are ultimately not to do with physical locale, but with procedural antipathies. The Beats, the New Yorkers and the Black Mountaineers liked to be seen to be at odds with each other on methodological and political grounds. The claim of each coterie to prime visibility was strengthened by the combative assertion of its differences from rival groups.

Frank O’Hara, for example, condemned the Black Mountain addiction to ‘the serious utterance, which isn’t particularly desirable most of the time’, seeing in Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems a congested neo-Poundian gravitas that could only sit in the reader’s way.[7] In his mock-manifesto ‘Personism’, included by Donald Allen in the anthology, O’Hara dismissed the contemporary agonising over linebreaks and questions of form that had spread in the wake of Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ manifesto: ‘You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”‘[8] Yet O’Hara’s poems didn’t just run’, or if they did it was along and then beyond pathways explored by the French Surrealists. André Breton and his followers were important precursors of the New York group through the mediating influence of the art world, in which O’Hara and Ashbery had begun successful middle-class careers, the former as assistant and then associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art. John Bernard Myers of the Tibor Gallery had been the managing editor of View, Breton’s journal-in-exile. As a result of such professional connections, Allen Ginsberg and others were able to accuse the New York coterie of East Coast snobbery with a European bias. Ginsberg’s elegy for Frank O’Hara (killed in an accident in 1966) mixes tenderness and regret with a sharp attack on O’Hara’s milieu, in particular its supporting cast of Ivy League brahmins on the make:

I tried your boys and found them ready
sweet and amiable
collected gentlemen with large sofa apartments
lonesome to please for pure language:
and you mixed with money
because you knew enough language to be rich[9]

Here we see the reopening of old antagonisms. Ginsberg’s disinclination to adopt a ‘pure language’ returns us to the agenda of Walt Whitman (his chief rhetorical influence) and William Carlos Williams (his mentor), in calling for a severance of pioneering American poetics from Europe and the Old World. With all three poets, this call was the literary expression of a dissident politics. Yet, if O’Hara ‘mixed with money’, Allen Ginsberg’s own radicalism was nothing if not mixed, as his programme for sexual and psychic liberation came to dissolve in the deluded and diluted Romanticism of a 60s hippy culture it had helped to create. These ironies and arguments have been well charted, and it is not the aim of this study to repeat them. It will be more helpful to examine the ways in which the emergence and intervention of Language poetry have shunted all those debates and procedural antagonisms into a new light and, perhaps, a new vulnerability, one that emphasizes the affinities between the New American Poets at the expense of the internal differences on which they themselves tended to dwell.


The early poems of Steve Benson show the crude, innovative power of Language poetry in the 1970s. Their rhetorical strategies are drastic, and initiate a critique of Benson’s poetic precursors:

I want to go out for love tonight
If you want to get existential a moment
Fabricate a lie darling
This crisp determinate, silvery bill
Glance into the fat of my hand
(“‘I want to go out for love tonight

the hair along her navel to vagina line feels like tingling
9 persons found dead on freeway early this morning
metal plates in the street I never consider their function
just flip pages in the dictionary forget the word adjudicate
alongside the room grazes a treetop birds swing out from
nylon hose flung out the window in mild abandon
let me read you this aloud
(‘As Is’) [10]

The poetry’s jaded undercutting of a romanticization of self and its affections is undercut in its turn: does ‘This’, in the first excerpt, refer to the ‘lie’? What then, if anything, can truly be said to be ‘determinate’ here? Linguistic reference is angled sufficiently sharply to be a personal issue, but never within a specific social context – or even a specifically gendered context, as the ‘her’ that ends a later line shifts at once into ‘Him the man I’m sitting next to’. The poem’s constant recourse to a feint of reference, followed by a glancing blow, leaves us with a free-floating anxiety of agency, the unplaceability of what might signify ‘love’ and what ‘a lie’ exemplifying its inextricably mixed pleasure and threat. In the second excerpt lines connoting pleasure and threat are more sharply distinguishable, from a readerly viewpoint, but the poet’s laconic admission that this text may be on permanent vacation from literature’s traditional functions and responsibilities (‘forget the word adjudicate’), is counterbalanced by persistent reminders of the textuality of lyric poetry. ‘let me read you this aloud’, reminds us quite precisely that he can’t. In sum, the devices of estrangement employed by the two texts are each other’s mirroring opposite: the first implies an abdication of conventional literary control through its immersion in the weird twinning of sexual overtures and cynical withdrawal, where the second simply dumps the whole thing on the reader and says, you sort it out – if you want to.

The strategies may differ but Certain literary antecedents are common to both. Benson’s ‘you’ is a contemporary descendant of the ‘you’ of Apollinaire’s Zone, and Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. Punctuation may have gone, but the initial capital letter of each line in the first excerpt, the typical length and nearly toneless tone of both, do recall, however vestigially, the run of casually intimate invective in the French and Francophile lyric from Baudelaire through Rimbaud and Surrealism to Frank O’Hara. Apparently even that rhetorical vestige may have smelled too strongly of a ‘pure language’ to Benson. Also in the late 70s he produced a sequence called Blindspots; the title poem begins as follows:

[“Heyyyy!” other
crowd noise –
individual voice

there are problems
situationsthere are … illusions,
allusions …
there are collusions …

[voices gradually dying down in
crowd, individual
there are situations voice heard some-
described in film several times times

There was a race horse called Gunga Din.
He had a problem,
by his own definition.
So he changed his name
to Samson.
Then he felt that he had
another kind of situation.
he walked over to the foul line,
sort of eased over to the foul line,
knocked up against it,
handled it for a while with his fingers
till it began to flake
and fray against his fingers.

The italicised portions of the text are not stage directions, as in a drama, but transcriptions of an actual event. Anyone suspicious that the reader was to be set up as the dupe of a neo-Dadaist tease might well find their suspicions confirmed by the author’s prefatory admission that Blindspots (which occupies seventeen pages of printed text) ‘was an unrehearsed, improvised oral poem I spoke as I determined it, moving between the audience and a brick wall’ in reaction to three stereo tapes by a collaborator, playing at the time.[11] During the last decade Benson has pushed this kind of risky strategy to legendary extremes: for a text entitled ‘The Town of He’, for example, committing to memory long passages from, among other sources, Peter Pan, Johnson’s Life of Swift, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 report to the King of Spain regarding his peregrinations from Florida to Mexico, in order to offer spontaneous oral recombinations of their contents for the delectation of the audience at New York’s Ear Inn on an evening in May, 1985.

So Benson’s handling of pre-existing materials in order to make them ‘flake’ and ‘fray’ even more, is not without its humorous side. Nor is it without seriousness, a seriousness related to that very preexistence. By his own account Benson is ‘passionately in love with conversation’. Lyn Hejinian has likewise noticed this shift of emphasis away from subjectivity, writing that Benson’s work issues always ‘from within a full milieu’. Benson’s poetry offers a polemical reversal of the now traditional model of relations between poem, poet and reader. Conventionally, the act of writing establishes an individualised claim to certain experiences, the originality of the claim attested by a linguistically unusual array of expression, which may be retrospectively summarised as that poet’s ‘style’. The poem, by these dimming lights, is ultimately a privileging of mind over its objects. This position may be said to have had its heroic phase in the Romantic period, surviving along the various strata of Modernist poetics in a dwindling and anxious form. The manifest social inefficacy of poetry has tended, in a utilitarian age, to push its practitioners into the frail refuge of alienated subjectivity. Here the very removal of poetic style from other, more common forms of expression has become poetry’s own subject and remaining consolation. By direct, indeed violent, contrast, Benson’s work reverses this process, insisting (as does most if not all Language poetry) that the self is basically a construct of social networks, no free agent, but rather a living and breathing point of intersection for various social and historical pressures or codes. The element of madcap role-playing in Benson’s work can be viewed as an exploded diagram of this social reality as exhibited by one speaker. Its background, its theoretical matrix is (was) that of scientific Marxism. Its artistic working-out in Benson’s poetry is, interestingly, anything but assured; there is no purposeful subscription to a political manifesto, but rather a series of constantly changing postures of unease. The multiplicity of discourses that go to make up the single self are heard as simultaneous, and conflicting. Benson’s ‘conversation’, his ‘full milieu’, is invariably troubled by ‘the immense amount of motion that is a person’s life’.[12]

Most Language poetry is less honestly awkward than Steve Benson’s. The wry comedy of Ron Silliman’s work, or the attractively patterned reminiscence of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, both of which will be discussed later, are easier to take. (Indeed, the Hejinian text appears to be everyone’s favourite Language book, and the first to make it onto the syllabus.) Many of the suppositions of these works are shared by Benson’s, but he does clarify certain facets of Language practice by so insistently going to extremes. Of particular significance is his use stretched to the point of parody, of improvisatory techniques and a stress on orality, (‘let me read you this aloud’), which were of course key points of procedure for the earlier generation of New American Poets.


Whatever their differences, the Black Mountain, Beat and New York Schools shared a commitment to poetry as individualistic expression. Partly a literary matter bound up with the persistence of Romanticism this emphasis can also be read as a reaction to the sullen conformity of American life in the period of Cold War. A stress on self-expression and the right to a private language unites the poetry, painting and music of the post-war years. This was the period in which jazz found a new popularity and a new critical respect, with players like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler pushing the rhythmical innovations of BeBop into fabulously extended improvisations, heard at the time as articulating all kinds of emotional, ethnic and mystically philosophical tensions. In fact, this was the age of improvisation; Ginsberg’s and Jack Kerouac’s ‘spontaneous bop prosody’, the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, John Cage’s use of the aleatory to make each musical performance unique and, as 1950s monochrome fanned out into the peacock colours of the 60s, the collective improvisation of the ‘happening’ and the first Pop Festivals.

The 1970s, therefore, may be read with hindsight as a period of aftermath, in which individual careers were consolidated, but where artistic individualism as a trailblazing credo sank to the point of parody in the culture of narcissism exemplified and recorded by Andy Warhol. It is at this point that poets such as Steve Benson begin to publish and perform. One could read in his emphasis on spoken improvisation a manic extrapolation from, and subversion of, the improvisatory aesthetic laid down by the jazz saxophone, Charles Olson’s emphasis on the breath in his Projective Verse essay, and the principles underlying Ginsberg’s urge to ‘set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping’.[13] Michael Davidson has coined the useful term ‘expressivism’ to cover these artistic developments of the Cold War period. The following chapter will be an attempt to sketch a summary of Language theory and practice, and to test Davidson’s dual hypothesis that ‘language-writing offers the most thorough critique of expressivism in post-war writing, even while building upon the earlier generation’s accomplishments’. Davidson may slightly exaggerate the case, in summarising post-war poetics as one in which ‘muscular and physical response is valued over reflective or discursive moments’, tout court.[14] The Maximus Poems are nothing if not discursive, and reflective. But Davidson has located what may prove to be the most significant turning point in American poetry for thirty years.

2. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: The Politics of Poetic Form


It seems appropriate at this point to put the New American Poetry on hold, in order to give a brief chronological account of the development of Language poetry, together with a précis of the theoretical debates and positions that the poets have wanted most frequently to put under close scrutiny. To move from theoretical essays to poems, rather than the other way about, is itself an acknowledgement of the heavy emphasis this movement has always laid on theory, discussion, teaching, and the opening of possible avenues from poetry to politics.

The first published use of the term ‘Language Poetry’ may well have occurred in 1975, when Ron Silliman edited a selection of work by nine poets (including Bruce Andrews, Clark Coolidge, Robert Grenier and Silliman himself) for Alcheringa magazine. There Silliman writes of the poets associated with (now defunct) little press poetry magazines like This, Big Deal and Tottel’s as “called variously ‘language centred’, ‘minimal’, ‘nonreferential formalism’, ‘structuralist’. Not a group but a tendency in the work of many.”[15] By this time Stephen Rodefer had begun to publish poems which carried a wit and verbal agility sponsored by the New York School; and Steve McCaffery had produced an interesting early work, ‘Ow’s “Waif” the poems of which result from ‘a calculated action upon a specific word-source or “supply-text , a use of ‘found’ materials that clearly derives from the cut-ups of William Burroughs, and the work of John Cage.[16] McCaffery would go on to edit a special number of the journal Open Letter in 1977 though in the verdict of Lee Bartlett ‘once again it seemed to argue not for a movement but rather for a disposition.’[17] That ‘disposition’ was more international at this early stage than it would be subsequently. Along with the Americans known to Silliman, one would want to cite Canadians such as McCaffery and Christopher Dewdney, and some maverick British poets such as Paul Buck, whose magazine Curtains was combatively interested in the political implications of an extremist use of language. The more inflammatory poems by John James were relevant at this point, as was the work of a number of poets resident at one time or another in Cambridge, and represented by its small presses and journals: Tom Raworth, for example, perhaps the most consistently interesting poet writing in Britain today: and at the younger end, poet-scholars like Rod Mengham, and the late Veronica Forrest-Thomson, whose work anticipates much of what has happened since. In fact her book Poetic Artifice was the direct catalyst of an important theoretical text by Charles Bernstein, Artifice of Absorption.

It was Bernstein, and his co-editor Bruce Andrews, who formalised the ‘disposition’ into something nearer a movement through the appearance of their bimonthly journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the first issue of which appeared in February 1978. Devoted to poetics, the journal combined a fabulously elliptical house-style with the urgency of a bulletin; strict limits were set on the length of book-reviews, many of which run to a hundred words or less. The first third of this review of Kit Robinson by Gary Lenhart will convey the general flavour.

You can fill in the spaces in these poems with facts, as Kit Robinson does in “7 Days in Another Town.” You only lose the special music like the wind everywhere in these pages. Discrete vowels poke no holes. No tantrums hack. Restrained verse turns credible, mostly jump jump.[18]

It certainly made a change from the TLS. Short pieces on Marx, schizophrenic discourse, and the performance of poetry appeared alongside a putative revision of the canon, entailing respectful notices of new work by John Ashbery, and reassessments of Louis Zufosky and the late Laura (Riding) Jackson. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) found a new prominence.

Summarizing the magazine’s different projects, its editors were to lay stress on an orientation for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E beyond Language poetry alone; Bernstein and Andrews drew attention to

our analysis of the capitalist social order as a whole and of the place that alternative forms of writing and reading might occupy in its transformation. It is our sense that the project of poetry does not involve turning language into a commodity for consumption; instead, it involves repossessing the sign through close attention to, and active participation in, its production.[19]

There are two things to note here, before moving forward into an engagement with the argument as such. From a European perspective at any rate, this would appear to be the first group-resurgence of a specifically socialist programme in American letters since the 30s. But if L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is taken at its word, as returning to an agenda of revolution for the dispossessed, rather than libertarianism for the disaffected, as in 60s campus unrest, this is still a discourse shaped by the university. The Marxist lexicon of commodity fetishism and the social order is filtered by a vocabulary that derives from the various developments in literary criticism since 1968. As a matter of historical fact, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was the first published, collective evidence of the impact of what university literature departments now summarise as ‘theory’ on the practise of poetry in America.

The achievements, characteristic range of style, and the crucial dilemmas of Language writing were there from its inception in the late 70s, in this journal. Here were to be found: a project for massive social change; a collective project to write and to analyze poetry in relation to the impact of European theory; and the attempt to yoke the two under a repertoire of poetic styles that claimed antecedents in Ashbery, Russian Futurism and Tender Buttons. If it is hard not to see a discrepancy between the aims and the achievements of Language poetry, that must partly be because the ambitions were so heroically gargantuan. (And, some might argue, because of a thinness in their poetic models.) If it therefore becomes necessary, as well as easy, to pick holes in Language arguments, it is still worth noting and saluting the enormity of what these poets have wished to write their way into. Their work and the questions it raises form a standing rebuke to the prevailing mediocrity of America’s cultural output during the Reagan and Bush administrations.


From the outset, one strategy of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing lay in the recognition of the intractability of the tasks in hand, followed by a doubling of the linguistic stakes. If it proved difficult to develop a prose which would operate satisfactorily as a combined theory of poetry, economics and revolution, then that difficulty would be surmounted by a bravura leap, as in this display of acrobatics by Steve McCaffery:

Grammar is a huge conciliatory machine assimilating elements into a ready structure. This grammatical structure can be likened to profit in capitalism, which is reinvested to absorb more human labour for further profit. Classical narrative structure is a profit structure.

Grammar, as repressive mechanism, regulates the free circulation of meaning (the repression of polysemeity into monosemeity and guided towards a sense of meaning as accumulated, as surplus value of signification).

To have registered, say, certain parallels between the rise of the bourgeois novel and the expansion of the Industrial Revolution would not have told the reader anything new. The novelty of McCaffery’s analysis lies in its internalization of political struggle within a macrocosmic linguistic model. The fight for and against certain kinds of language becomes immediately a struggle for new political arrangements, affinities with roughly contemporary developments such as Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, work by Julia Kristeva, and other radical and interdisciplinary approaches being clearly present. As a set of suggestive parallels, the new Language model is at least as plausible as the Europeans’ polemic. His failure to convince is tied to McCaffery’s unwillingness to concede the element of rhetoricity in his project. He dare not, because the scale of Language’s ambitions leaves him no option but a double-or-quit gamble on the impressiveness of his own schema. The alleged parallels between economic and linguistic structures become ingenious, overly intricate, and in the end ludicrous:

A grammatical critique can be mobilized by presenting language as opaque and resistant (sic) to reinvestment. A language centered writing, for instance, and zero-semantic sound poetry, diminishes the profit rate and lowers investment drives just as a productive need is increased.[20]

As Rod Mengham has observed of such ‘bursts of legislation’ by McCaffery and Bruce Andrews, ‘it does not follow that any and every formulation of political economy can be applied in the field of language’, even if the general feasibility of a comparison between the workings of language and capital be conceded.[21] Where Mengham detects an excess of confidence in the scope of the comparison, one might just as easily diagnose an equally neo-Shelleyan anxiety. Just so, the breathless conclusion of Epipsychidion with its insistence that everything in the linguistic and sexual spheres must and shall intersect leads precisely to their pyrotechnic expiry. There is a long tradition in modern English and American poetry of barely acknowledged, would-be legislation.

The more customary Language position, again contemporary with the arguments of literary theory, is that the various kinds of linguistic dishevelment and terroristic circuit breaking available to poetry belong to, as well as pointing up, social/linguistic reality as a site of incessant contestation and contradiction. This does not prevent the resurgence of fabulously Romantic ambitions such as McCaffery’s, which might ultimately be read as over-compensations for the marginalization of poetry within the social arena it so desperately yearns to reconstruct. The early L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E manifestos dared not afford to be sceptical. Any such qualities were exiled to the poly- or ‘zero-semantic’ propensities of the poetry.

Notwithstanding the collectivism of their aims, the practice of individual poets gathered under the Language umbrella shows great variation. Ron Silliman’s ongoing multi-volume sequence The Alphabet and the minimalism of Craig Watson’s work could hardly be further apart in style or procedure. What would seem to unite all these poets, however, is the nature of their interest in the politics of poetic form. This is not confined to questions of purely literary innovation and influence. Language poetry is predicated on the belief that the visible and audible divergence of poetic language from customary discourse does itself mark out the ground of subversive political activity. In one of many calls to the linguistic barricades, Bruce Andrews voices an impatience with the ideological closure implied by single meaning: stop repressing the active construction, the making of meaning, the making of sense – social sense.’[22] The insistence here is not merely on the opening up of the means by which meaning is made; the poem in such a case would resemble one of those high-tech buildings that wears its piping and elevators on the outside – startling, but in no sense out of sync with the capitalist projects it houses.

Rather, as I have shown, the intention of Language is to disclose the workings of linguistic expression so as to open up wider issues of social meaning, by analogy. It is with analogy, imported in order to shrink the distance between poetry and more acknowledged modes of legislation, that the problems appear. As Charles Bernstein announces, in the afterword to the collection of papers from which this chapter draws its subtitle; ‘The poetic authority to challenge dominant societal values, including conventional manners of communication, is a model (my emphasis) for the individual political participation of each citizen.’ Even at its most intensely polemical, Bernstein’s writing is characterised by a hyperactive wit recalling the provocations of Dada and Surrealism. His use of modishly ecological imagery to back up the argument about a political relevance for poetry is seno-comic, perhaps, once more, because of an unacknowledged uncertainty about the validity of his argument:

Poets don’t have to be read, any more than trees have to be sat under, to transform poisonous societal emissions into something that can be breathed. As a poet, you affect the public sphere with each reader, with the fact of the poem, and by exercising your prerogative to choose what collective forms you will legitimate. The political power of poetry is not measured in numbers: it instructs us to count differently.[23]

The words used here may bounce off their referential vectors like the energy field in a Kirilian photograph, to adopt an analogy used elsewhere by Bernstein, but the argument gets damaged in the process. Trees don’t have to be sat under, arguably, to be trees; but poems, surely, do have to be read. Yet when they are read, the ‘fact of the poem’ alone seems poor soil from which to expect to see the ‘political power of poetry’ flourish.

Bernstein has been advancing these same arguments since the late 1970s. ‘So writing might be exemplary – an instance broken off from and hence not in the service of this economic and cultural – social – force called capitalism. A chip of uninfected substance; or else, a ‘glimpse’, a crack …’ [24] A chip, a glimpse, a crack; a ‘model’ for political participation; there is always, always has to be, a metaphor to bridge the gap between poetry and the world outside it that every socially conscious poet since and including Shelley has strained to bridge. Elsewhere, ironically, the Language poets are only too aware of the unbridgeability of the gap between words and things. Language poets want the political sphere to be an exception to the linguistic rule whose unacknowledged sway their work is otherwise, ironically, so intent on disclosing. To date, the problem for Language has been that of language.


Words are always late for the event. Words can point to, describe, sketch, shadow, haunt – do anything but be their object. And yet, the act of reference, always doomed to miss its target, still generates linguistic life, which poetry in particular has learned to cultivate; at times, indeed, taking the element of accident or slippage from communicative meaning as its own province. Once again Shelley’s poetry is instructive, in part because of his peculiar ability to both enter a delirium of poetic language, but enter in order to critique its limitations. Epipsychidion is again a powerful example: it begins by the poet’s lancing a hundred verbal epithets at the absent object of thought (‘Emilla Viviani’), only to concede their inefficacy:

I measure

The world of fancies, seeking one like thee,
And find – alas! mine own infirmity.

This ‘infirmity’ becomes, however, the ground of poetic life.

A Metaphor of Spring and Youth and Morning;
A Vision like incarnate April, warning,
With smiles and tears, Frost the Anatomy
Into his summer grave.[25]

The skewed victories of poetic language, its transformation of the failure of referentiality into the strange triumph of the non-representational, do of course figure prominently in the modern poetry of Europe and America. The precursors claimed by Language writing – John Ashbery, the Surrealists – show this acutely. It would be inappropriate to an introductory study such as this, but perfectly possible to demonstrate a continuing persistence of Romanticism that might include the Language project without either domesticating it unfairly, or collapsing the important divergences of Language from its poetic predecessors.

This chapter will conclude with an enquiry into particular examples of Language poetry, to see if the slippage of signifier from signified, and of poetic language from social reality – which problematises the prose manifestos – can be turned to a victory in poetry, however Pyrrhic or Shelleyan.


The opening poem of a sequence or collection is a traditional locus for the poem about poetry, or about poetry’s catalysis; a transitional writing where theoretical prescription and active practice may meet visibly, but only to bid farewell. The two poetic overtures under discussion are the opening page of Bob Perelman’s book-length sequence of prose poems, a.k.a. (1984), and the first work in a cycle of a hundred poetic texts, Raik by Ray DiPalma (1989).

Here is the opening of Perelman’s first page:

I am often conscious, yet rain is now visibly falling. It almost combines to be one thing, yet here I am again. Though he dreamed he was awake, it was a mistake he would only make at a time like that. There are memories, but I am not that person.[26]

and here is the opening of Raik‘s poem:

20 minutes of indolence
44 years of speculation
emblematic pretext five
the specific molded ilk [27]

Such comparisons are invidious, in one sense; an artificial juxtaposition of two texts with no necessary connection, bent into proximity by the exigencies of an outsider’s agenda. Yet, one only ever reads for some purpose or to satisfy some particular need, a reality that Language poetry itself has not been slow to note.

The Perelman poem announces at once that it is to be an examination of consciousness. Right from the Cartesian parameters of the opening words, it is clear that this is going to be an enquiry into the phenomenology of perception and consciousness, mind and its objects. That the instances offered to the reader are not going to be self-evidently or conventionally rational is also made an issue from the outset. The first sentence is not constructed as if its second half were a non sequitur, yet it is – at least in terms of conventional expression. The second sentence is similar in construction. The third reverses this approach; apparently a non sequitur, it actually makes experiential sense; the mistake of thinking yourself awake when you are not could indeed happen only in dreams. The final sentence of the paragraph summarises a key theme for the text as a whole: that while the history of a person’s memory appears to him or her to be continuous and ongoing, the self is self-divided. You are not now the person you once were, for good or ill, and not merely in terms of the change from a child to an adult, but by implication, from minute to minute, from perceptual scene to scene. Perelman’s last phrase replicates the close of a lyric by Frank O’Hara, ‘How to Get There’:

and we drift into the clear sky enthralled by our disappointment
never to be alone again

never to be loved

sailing through space: didn’t I have you once for my self?
West Side?
for a couple of hours, but I am not that person [28]

Perelman may or may not be quoting O’Hara, consciously or unconsciously. Either way, his poem establishes itself as in the O’Hara line: that is to say, consciousness-centred in a speculative and exploratory way that will use devices of estrangement, defamiliarization, parataxis and the whole grab-bag of modernist method to both detain the reader’s attention, and define the text as poetic.

By contrast, DiPalma’s text takes textuality as its dominant subject, ab initio. I did not have to forcibly just- the lines as I typed them out just now on my word processor. Each line is exactly the same length, in characters and spaces. There are five lines, and they include the word ‘five’. As the first in a sequence of a hundred related poems, this first is in a sense the pretext, a word that is also included. Form and formalism are very clearly on the poet’s agenda, and the rest of the poem, if not the book, is going to be the logical development of a ‘molded ilk’. The potential for tonal warmth, or even tonal variation, would seem to have been deliberately abjured to clear the way for an atmosphere of rather strict experiment. In fact, the rest of the poems are of varying lengths, but are equally box-like in form, use a considerable amount of repetition, and frequently open up their first line for recombinant possibilities as each page proceeds. The microscopic attention to words and letters that has always characterized the poetry of Tom Raworth, (who published alongside DiPalma in the days before Language), is the stable basis of the work under scrutiny. The strong implication of Raik is the inaccessibility of consciousness outside language – it is literally and purely a language poem.

The texts show certain common interests – in repetition and the recombinant potential of language, and in verbal quirkiness, for example. (It is significant that all the devices they share may be found in the work of Gertrude Stein.) Yet the differences of approach are vital, and rooted in the history of poetry as well as each author’s personal style. Here is a later poem from Raik in its entirety:

hedandplacidpeg [29]

The chief limitation of this kind of poem lies in its fealty to a pre-existing theory. Ultimately it is as soluble as a crossword puzzle. Multiple meanings do hang around the fourth line; (is it ‘sit later the veil,’ or ‘is it later the veiled inside’?) but this is not the kind of poetic ambiguity likely to lure one back for repeated rereading. The lack of spacing turns the text into an obstacle course, a retardation clearly intended to stimulate meditation on the working processes of reading and writing which are normally submerged in habit. At this level, it is a mildly instructive essay on ‘formandform’sop/acity’, though I suspect that most readers could have done with a bit more ‘rawradiantsurmi/se’. At any rate, the steps by which one moves from picking out individual words to thinking about more general operations of language are quite clear. In keeping with this, Steve McCaffery notes on the back of the cover of Raik that the poems seek to ‘resensitize the materiality of words’. His next statement seems more questionable: ‘These poems yield primary encounters with orthography and lexicon that induce political beyond aesthetic implications.’ Here again is the excessive confidence in poetry’s capacities, and its corollary anxiety that any poetry whose alms are less than world-changing has collapsed into aestheticism.

It is significant that Perelman retains while DiPalma abjures methods of approach and stylistic features of the new American Poetry, what Michael Davidson termed ‘expressivism’. While DiPalma would seem more engaged by Dadaist, Futurist and Concrete methodology, Perelman maintains a purchase on the consciousness centred lyricism of Robert Duncan’s and John Ashbery’s generation. I would argue that there is a general tendency in Language poetry for those texts which are more open to the expressivist heritage to work more successfully than the purist approach, typified by Raik or the (to my eyes, barren) work of P. Inman. This holds true within the work of individual poets, also. Stephen Rodefer’s Four Lectures has a dazzling wit, outshining the later and more programmatic Emergency Measures; yet when Rodefer’s style seems most his own, it also shows a straight continuity from texts like Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger and the poems of Frank O’Hara. The remainder of this study will be concerned to test Davidson’s claim that Language offers a potent critique of expressivism, alongside the possibility that Language writing at its best actually uncovers unexplored resources in American poetry of the post-war period.

3. Songs of the Self


If the New American Poets such as Dorn and Wieners and O’Hara published work that was grounded in an expressive individualism, the burden of particular poems often lay in the disclosure of divisions within the self. The unspeakable visions of the individual, to revive Jack Kerouac’s motto for poetry, tended to issue in practice as speakable visions of the individual’s not-being. The pleasures of reading the New American Poetry are to be discovered through a paradox: while poets in the 50s wrote under the oblique influence of continental existentialism, a philosophy of loneliness brought home by the activity of producing alienated poetry in a time of Cold War and commercialism, the self-splitting in the poetry can signal the aspects of selfhood that link and overlap in relationships and the social world.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry, for example, gives voice to the psychodrama of a self caught between the shaping pressure of will, and the self-opening of desire and the propensity to float into identification with the other. These tensions are often exploded in complex sorts of comedy, rather than resolved, as in O’Hara’s most famous poem ‘In Memory of My Feelings’:

to be born and live as variously as possible. The conception of the masque barely suggests the sordid identifications. I am a Hittite in love with a horse. I don’t know what blood’s in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child and the child’s mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain I am a child smelling his father’s underwear I am an Indian sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in the birches,
and I’ve just caught sight of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
What land is this, so free?[30]

No-one but Frank O’Hara could have written this, and the passage would be well-known and probably viewed as a crucial episode by any reader who valued his poetry. Yet this passage, stamped ‘O’Hara’ as definitively as Howl or Gunslinger is stamped as the apogee of its author’s style, is about the fission of discrete identity into a carnivalesque though alarming democracy of selves. And in broad terms, so is Ginsberg’s Howl, which pits the ‘minds of my generation’ against ‘Moloch’; and so is Dorn’s Gunslinger, whose narrative ‘I’ dies part way through Book II, to make way for less ontologically conventional company. The ultimate discoveries of the New American Poetry carry implications at variance with their neo-existentialist and individualistic stance. One strand of implication leads to a more social poetry which that generation was unwilling to pursue. Social meant societal, and although Dorn, O’Hara and Ginsberg all produced notable anti-racist poems (for example), the ethic and objective remained libertarian, and hence individualistic. By contrast the Language poets were able to draw on the social implications of the New Americans’ self-multiplication, encouraged by continental ‘theory’. New ways of interpreting selfhood as constructed within a web of interactive codes, set society and the creative powers of language into a new relation. As with the post-war influence of existentialism, French literary theory has had important stylistic and procedural consequences in American Poetry.

Of course the New American Poets did not spring fully-formed out of the Donald Allen anthology. Alongside the influences already mentioned of the San Francisco Renaissance, Surrealism and Modernism, the vernacular objectivism of William Carlos Williams is a ubiquitous catalyst; so is Whitman. The passage quoted from O’Hara’s ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ exists in a clear line of descent from Walt Whitman’s great lists, and from his happy conflation of two, seemingly contradictory philosophical positions: rampantly Romantic egotism (‘I contain multitudes’), and self-dissolution into those multitudes:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars … [31]

Notwithstanding the huge stylistic and other changes since Whitman’s time, the same attempts to understand experience through apparently divergent rhetorics of selfhood, nationality, race and gender are canvassed at speed by Frank O’Hara. Of course there are tones in O’Hara that are alien to Whitman: in ‘In Memory’ comedy is more than tinged with horror, a vertigo at the dissolution of fixed identity, and the lines to do with the arrival of settlers in the New World are shadowed by a historical bitterness howled down by Whitman’s booming attempt to sing the unity of dis-united states; as D.H. Lawrence so tartly noticed. The period when ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ was written, tends to now be celebrated for an allegedly guileless and Romantic cult of expanded awareness. Much of O’Hara’s poetic comedy is a reactive registration of the vertigo such an unsettling, desired but feared, can cause. The poem is about ‘how to be open but not violated, how not to panic’ as the painter Grace Hartigan observed.[32] She is the ‘Grace’ at the beginning of the quoted excerpt, though that whole sentence is chiselled on Frank O’Hara’s tombstone: Grace to he born and live as variously as possible. The double meaning of the joke shows amply enough the double potential of the poem’s discoveries about self which are also a duplicity. Of all ‘my many selves’ it is ‘the serpent in their midst’, cunning and venomous survivor, who must be saved, for poetry’s sake. Yet the division of the self can lead to Grace, also.


Stephen Rodefer published his first collection of poems in 1965, the year before Frank O’Hara’s death, and a decade before Language. Like that of Clark Coolidge and even Ron Silliman, his work might therefore be read as related to, but not circumscribed by either of the two ‘generations’. Four Lectures (1982) is in no sense a transitional work, but one that both continues directions for poetry inaugurated by O’Hara and his peers, from a coign of vantage informed by the new debates around structuralism and the politics of poetic form:

In Tehran to show pleasure they throw candy and rose water
on each other in the street, knowing how.
A dry, brown mushroom from Menlo Park with no price.
On his deathbed Breughel instructed his wife to burn some of his
as they could get her into trouble, lending personality to his oeuvre.
Paranoia is a carful. Step into her bed.
(‘Words in Works in Russian’)[33]

What structures the writing’s poetic intelligibility is the ‘knowing how’ that the reader brings from his or her own habitation of the codes that make particular societies at particular times comprehensible. Rodefer’s comedy is, in a sense, Saussurean. Any activity is meaningless, in itself and only given sense by context and convention. (e.g., try throwing ‘candy and rose water over someone in a street in Bellaire, Ohio, rather than Tehran and see if they ‘show pleasure’.) The poem’s bizarre juxtapositions argue that we should stop making sense, and look instead at how sense is made. The ‘dry, brown mushroom’ picked in the Park has no price, is not for sale. This small instance of common property has escaped from a particular code, that of commerce; but the mycological memento is not in a state of pure being. Carlos Williams’ prelapsarian urge to show the reader a thing as if for the first time looks dated, by this agenda; things and persons are always already constructed by linguistic networks. But like the dying Breughel, the perceptive reader can crack the code and picture alternative arrangements, a propensity that has always got imaginative humans ‘into trouble’.

Four Lectures is, in Ron Silliman’s words, ‘part carnival, part war’, a designation that would fit his own work also. His Sunset Debris (cf. Rodefer’s Plane Debris) a thirty-two page text from 1986, is made up entirely of questions:

Could you hear the violin? Did you go back to smoking? Did you quit the work, half-done, then go back to it, completing a bit at a time? Did it ever occur to you that she might not want it, might have it, might not need it? Did it ever propose itself as a question of privacy? Did you like the colour of the curtains? Did you ever wonder what it felt like, burst of semen into the throat? Doesn’t kidney failure haunt you? Can’t you foretell arthritis, ulcer, loss of hair, loss of teeth? When will it be your turn for the infarction? Did you see the snow? Did you do the job? Didn’t you hope to avoid language that passed itself off as a mockup of consciousness? Didn’t you suggest a formula just to get the haters of formulae pissed off? Won’t you, given the chance, betray everyone? Did you see how the soldiers, bringing the dead back in body-bags, chew gum?[34]

We are used to reading as interactive, as a process that as it were allows us to get a word in edgeways. We get into some relation with the text in reading, likely to be bored or dismayed by the opposing poles of either an utterly dominant reading, a case of deja-vu, or annihilation by the writing. Silliman’s text courts the second possibility, a terroristic interrogation that shifts tack with each question. It is an extended reminder of textuality, of the fact that our participation in any text is silent and in a sense imaginary, a fiction. Silliman is attempting a democratisation of categories of experience we might have preferred to keep separate, from those of ‘privacy’ (sex, bodily dysfunction and disease) to those of the polis (war and work). Yet the poet is not in any sadistic sense hidden from view while manipulating the reader. The hope ‘to avoid language that passed itself off as a mockup of consciousness’ appears self-directed, and would also summarise the projects of Language in relation to O’Hara and the earlier generation. (By referring to them, famously, as his ‘I do this, I do that’ poems, O’Hara openly conceded the element of ‘mockup’.) Silliman, like Rodefer and Perelman, uses the defamiliarizing non sequitur as a shock-effect. But so did T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. What is new here is the shift of poetic ground from the self-consistent authority of the poet’s voice, his style or ‘mockup of consciousness’, to the ‘knowing how’ through which any statement claims validity.

Style is undoubtedly a casualty of these changes, within the twentieth century understanding of style as modes of artifice whose recurrence guarantees authenticity of personal expression. A reader who prizes the individuality of voice in O’Hara or Olson over the nature of the issues poems raise would undoubtedly see the work of Rodefer et al as related to, but thinner than, the New Americans’. Indeed there is a case (which I cannot quite bring myself to make) for arguing the near irrelevance of any ‘issues’ to a poetry such as O’Hara’s or Charles Olson’s. For all the emphasis on history or locale, the reversed Jericho of Olson’s aim ‘to build out of sound the walls of the city’ makes of the polis a subjective act of utterance.[35] Just as O’Hara’s mock-manifesto ‘Personism’ does more than mock, so there was more to his objection to ‘the serious utterance’ than a suggestion that Olson lighten up. The apparently comic utterance can surprise with seriousness, a device exploited constantly by O’Hara, as by Lord Byron before him. It is no coincidence that the dramatic individuation of poetic voice was essential to the practice of both writers.


In the more impressive work by Rodefer and Silliman, such as the latter’s multi-volume, continuously engaging epic The Alphabet, style is an achievement not of voice so much as a primarily visual recording of social signs. Less introspective than the New Americans, and entirely without the tragic lyricism of John Wieners or Jack Spicer, they do still rely more on ‘a mockup of consciousness’ than the manifestos would care to claim. What, a book-length chunk of The Alphabet, does this throughout, and superbly:

Zen grocer, Eyes ache
after day at CRT.
A teenage girl with a bright smile,
safety pin through her nose. Bike messenger’s
wire basket. Wall up around construction site
with several generations of peeling posters.
Stepping outdoors, the cold air makes my eyes water.
Umbrella handle carved like the head of a duck.
Empire devastates the dominant: End the War
in ’94. Patterned white stocking
over thick black ankle. Tremendous
formal out-thereness of the haiku
translates into greeting card mush.[36]

What is What if not language, late for the event as ever, re-creating past experience as present? Doubtless the account is not entirely ‘faithful’, and its true present is the field of the unfolding text: but the repertoire of recording devices comes straight from Williams and the Beats. ‘Wall up around construction site’ omits articles of grammar in a style – would-be-photographic, impatient for immediacy – learned from Ginsberg. The interest in haiku is also traditionally San Franciscan. Indeed,

A teenage girl with a bright smile,
safety pin through her nose.

is virtually using that form, its ways of working not dissimilar to Kerouac’s ‘A Haiku’:

The little worm
lowers itself from the roof
by a self shat thread.[37]

Both offer a simple image which is then jerked out of the frame of readerly expectation by a slightly unpleasant detail of physicality, (the safety pin, ‘shat’) which is then accepted as real, and integrated into the image as an achieved miniature, a haiku. Kerouac’s vermiform triplet is itself one ‘self shat thread’ of text, a celebration of sturdy independent life which, without labouring the point, one could read as consonant with Beat individualism. Silliman’s punk girl with safety pin is a poetic image from a more social world. I suspect that white, western readers of a certain age and older have never quite got used to the spectacle of adolescent girls choosing to pierce their noses. However, to other readers/observers, those below a certain age for example, the fashion is familiar, and so the two-line image would operate quite smoothly, without any jerk of incongruity. By such means the whole force of Silliman’s poetic points towards ‘several generations of peeling posters’, a history of changing signs. Ron Silliman may be the first and last major structuralist comedian in the American tradition.

But if certain techniques employed here build on Beat achievements, there is also a criticism of post-war expressivism at work in Rodefer and Silliman. The more bardic stretches of Allen Ginsberg have not worn well, and their fall from relevance has been accelerated by books like What and Four Lectures. Here is Ginsberg cruising on the full tank of his own Whitmania, crowned King of the May (‘Kral Majales’) by Prague’s youth in the spring of 1965:

And I am the King of May, which is the power of sexual youth,
and I am the King of May, which is industry in eloquence and
action in armour,
and I am the King of May, which is long hair of Adam and the Beard
of my own body
and I am the King of May, which is Kral Majales in the
Czechoslovakian tongue,
and I am the King of May, which is old Human poesy, and 100,000
people chose my name.[38]

Silliman and Ginsberg write at opposing poles of what is simultaneously a politics and a poetic form. If the revolutionary ambitions of the Language manifestos are put aside in favour of actual poetic practice, the politics implied by the work – which need no manifesto, at least with the stronger poets – become challenging and effective. The ludicrous cosmic preening of Ginsberg’s jaunt around Prague is not only a culpable evasion of the political at a site of acute political tension, but a failure of language which the practice of more recent poetry can help us to deconstruct accurately.

Ginsberg is stuck in a view of language as symbolic. Sexuality, comic kingship, the ‘Czechoslovakian tongue’ and ‘old Human poesy all nest inside each other as translucent symbols, stretching from a Romantically ecstatic first-person singular out to the nebulae. It is a late flowering of Whitman’s Transcendentalism, which is a kind of Coleridgean Romanticism, brusquely stripped of its hang-ups and handed a megaphone in the theatre constructed from America’s revolution. The Language emphasis on allegory rather than symbol, metonymic urban bric-a-brac rather than grand metaphors of the psyche, the secular rather than the mystical; all combine to deflate the vatic ambition of Beat prophecy and self-absorption while opening up new avenues for a poetry of expanded social awareness.


The prominent achievements gathered behind the banner of Language do not exclusively demote the person in order to point towards the social. The work of Lyn Hejinian, particularly My Life, brings autobiography and the construction of personality to the fore. This text both builds on and departs from the simple promise of its title, conspicuously omitting the dramatic highlights of the conventional life-narration. My Life contains no climactic anecdotes of sexual encounter, motherhood or vocational decision, though the consequences of such absent moments, pivotal in the autobiographies of the famous, are everywhere in the text. Marjorie Perloff sees an element of playful satire in this refusal, writing of Hejinian’s work that it ‘calls attention to the impossibility of charting the evolution of a coherent “self’, the psychological motivation for continued action’.[39] Despite such a lack of forward propulsion, the textual first person is not presented as the passive tabula rasa for the social codes prevalent in her lifetime, though we all are that, intermittently, as the text acknowledges with a dry wit: ‘Now that I was “old enough to make my own decisions,” I dressed like everyone else.’ Instead the prevalent method is a collage of what are arguably non sequiturs, broadly comparable to the techniques sketched in Rodefer and Silliman’s work. Their instinctive leaning is towards the brilliant image and the snappy one-liner, however, where Hejinian’s characteristic tones are restrained and delicate:

What a situation. The refrigerator makes a sound I can’t spell. The finches have come at last to the feeder. The magician had come to entertain the children at the birthday party. It was called mush, and we ate it for breakfast in patterns, like pudding. We were like plump birds along the shore. Green night divining trees, scooped too. What memory is not a “gripping” thought.[40]

For all the quietness of its immersion in reminiscence, My Life is as open-ended as What or Four Lectures in its aversion from the mockup of consciousness, faked and traditional coherence. Instead the reader is invited to participate in the production of meaning, choosing perhaps to stress the syntactical parallelism in the third and fourth sentences of this extract as the ground of sense: or noting that ‘The refrigerator makes a sound I can’t spell’ uses a child’s perceptions to make relatively sophisticated points about the divergence between values of sound and semantics, points that the conspicuous poeticism ‘Green night divining trees’ underscores in a different way. The work’s formal exoskeleton combines restraint and openness in a comparable ambiguity. Written at the age of 37, My Life contained precisely that number of sections, each of which was 37 lines long. In republishing the book at the age of 45, Hejinian has stayed true to form, and added the numerically appropriate quota of sections and sentences. The new material fits seamlessly into the old, each chosen life-sentence as opaque and yet open to the construction of meaning as any other.

Michael Davidson argues that in the inevitable attempt by the reader to find connectives where the divergent sentences refuse to yield them readily, opacities and silences may be imbued with qualities intrinsic to the experience of women in society. Taking the juxtaposed phrases ‘Women, I heard, should speak softly without mumbling. The obvious analogy is with music.’, he remarks:

The idea that girls should speak softly without mumbling or that one should learn to listen is a bit of adult wisdom whose social consequences have only recently been challenged … When Hejinian asserts that “the analogy is with music,” she refers both to the organisation of her sentences and to the way that women’s silence is analogous to the “elusive” properties of music.[41]

The ‘elusiveness’ of a female voice disenfranchised by the discourse of male authority is of course a topic on which the various feminisms have reached diverse conclusions. Hejinians’s is not (as far as I can detect) affiliated to any particular set of prescriptions. Published in its first version in 1980, My Life does however appear to both side and take issue with the feminist innovations of the time.

By the late 70s, a loosely deconstructive approach acknowledging the French theorist Luce Irigaray, and stressing the unplaceable place of woman’s language as the Other, or unconscious of the male, had become part of American debates. Other, less theoretical and more historicized models were in play, including nineteenth century Methodism, and more importantly the spiritual autobiographies of Puritan women. Language writers such as Susan Howe have been able to make productive use of the latter, but a throughgoing if quiet irony in Hejinian’s sense of her own relationship to the meta-narratives of history, collective endurance and progress, appear to make any such affiliation problematic for her. There is undoubtedly a sense in which My Life is offered as a confessional text, and can therefore be related to developments of the time within feminism; yet the literary devices adopted by Hejinian are as complex and potentially rebarbative as any in the traditional armoury of male Modernism: straightforward communication is deconstructed satirically as well as embroidered poetically in this Life. Her writing appears to run along lines at times parallel to Irigaray’s Speculum, but to be distanced from psychoanalytic approaches, with their stress on introspection, and the assumption of a unified self. Not only does Hejinian reject the cultic imagery of witches, goddesses and other mythic paraphernalia; thematic representation of women’s lives is almost absent from her work. This is a feminist writing, in certain respects closer to the work of Denise Riley in England than to most Language poetry, that abjures formulaic summary of women’s biological or economic identity or Oppression. In Hejinian’s ‘rejection of closure’, to take the title of an essay by her, speaks an individualistic feminism that sees literary work as determining the criteria by which it is to be read.

Though elusive, Hejinian’s work may be more productive than poems by Nicole Brossard or Louise Dupré, whose affiliation to the new French feminism of Hélène Cixous seems all too literal and neat. Language-related in its preferred devices, Brossard’s work stresses the enactment rather than description of present experience, only to contradict her own project by gearing it so neatly to a fixed agenda preceding the text:

the entire skin the fictional skin the epidermis
deep in her eyes lies the very question of everyday living
the impression that the lower belly is generating sign
saliva that substance directly secreted by the exposed
like a page full of potentialities [42]

This is a poetry that talks about what it isn’t (‘crazed with desire’). It might usefully be contrasted with the work of Diane Ward, a body of writing more truly ‘full of potentialities’; contemporary with the Cixousian imperative towards poetic corporeality, but not dwarfed by its embrace:

Last night I was the mouth pressed to the shoulder
blade at the same time I was the hardest edge
of the bone itself. I was two figures, no three,
shrinking away toward the distant line labeled
horizon, known to trade its place with you.
The three figures were drawn together twice;
first, as stick figures or in full perspective
on white paper by the hand that’s free to dream,
clearing the way for the second drawing,
the moment that imagination always knew could
include you, me, and the spectrum of pronouns
conducting a conversation as background to
the ragged line of isolated bodies moving as
one, voluntarily bunched together then released.[43]

The ‘spectrum of pronouns’, rather than a separatist confinement to the pronouns of what American feminism once termed ‘her story’, facilitates a dazzling moiré patterning of subject-positions, using the poem as model for a Romantic desire whose aim is still spillage back into the extra-poetic. Ward’s poetry celebrates the ‘hand that’s free to dream’; as with Hejinian, artistic activity is proposed as a model of what Silliman calls in another context ‘unalienated work’. The poem ‘stands in relation to the rest of society both as utopian possibility and constant reminder of just how bad things arre.’[44] This is perhaps overly ingenious, allowing Language poetry’s habitual revival of Modernist devices the luxury of a retrospectively self-justifying choice between utopianism and terrorism, as the necessity arises. A more generous and accurate account might propose that, in a hypothetical triangulation of feminism, Language writing and the heritage of the New American poetry, each might learn from the other – if only from their gaps and omissions.

4. Conclusion: Beyond Language


The social orientation of Language poetry and the model of the avant-garde coterie that was exploited by the New American Poets point equally but differently to ideas of community. The evaluation of the Beat writers current in America, exemplified by Ted Morgan’s biography of William Burroughs, Literal Outlaw, or the reissue of Kerouac’s jazz-poetry as a boxed set (complete with explanatory booklet), scavenges for biographical anecdote filtered through nostalgia. The Beats are, by this account, made mythical; the sex and drugs and angst merely Halloween masks for Tom Sawyer and his gang. The emphases are finally on non-revolutionary lawlessness, peer-bonding, and the utopian ‘possibilities of a community in a world dominated by authoritarian elders’. In his definitive account of the relationship between poetics and community at mid-century, The San Francisco Renaissance, Michael Davidson remains sympathetic to the writing but intent on deconstructing the myth:

Within the “enabling fictions” of community surrounding the San Francisco Renaissance can be glimpsed the utopian hopes for some kind of Gemeinschaft that was rapidly being replaced by suburban anonymity and the new corporate state. Such fictions do not diminish the integrity of the movement but suggest the difficulties that post-war writers had in separating themselves from the society they criticised.[45]

The North Beach ‘scene’, Jack Spicer’s barroom Round Table, Beat adventures ‘on the road’ did in one sense vanish as they appeared, mirages driven back by the irresistible advance of consumer capitalism. And yet the vital and massive cultural changes in American culture around the late 60s and early 70s drew directly on the Beat blueprint, and remain the cultural lexicon for nonconformist expression.

Language poetry has inherited the urge towards rebellion, but has had to mount its critique from within the golden age of credit and the shopping mall; dissidence has been bought off. Late capitalism is not the only marginalising force: Language at the theoretical level is, as it were, terribly late socialism, the belated intervention in American literary debates of an informed Marxist perspective. But while the worldwide collapse of communism is unlikely to prevent Ron Silliman from continuing with The Alphabet, recent events have hardly brought Language interests and innovations into mass culture, in the ways that brought the Beats a real fame and influence. Instead, radical American poetry has been pushed back into the arms of the University; ‘the 500 pound gorilla at the party of poets’, in Silliman’s choice phrase, and one in whose embrace the would-be revolutionary can at best squirm. But if the number of tenured Faculty members hired directly because of their Language enthusiasms ‘can be counted on the fingers of one hand after an industrial accident’ – Silliman’s Union Card has clearly been countersigned by William Burroughs – it is also the case that ‘language poetry is already integrated into the institutional discourses of the academy’.[46] Jerome McGann, Marjorie Perloff Michael Davidson and George Hartley have published important books and articles; and the replies to a questionnaire to poets about employment in a recent issue of Tyuonyi magazine suggests that the University is where poets are found, even if it isn’t the same poets two years running. (‘My job as an adjunct faculty member at UCSD helps keep my family solvent, but, of course, there’s no job security’, was a typical account.)[47]

And yet the anecdotal evidence from Creative Writing programmes in the States suggests that where Language material has been read, students pick up a single style to be deployed at will. This is confirmed by an instructive anecdote from England. Ken Edwards is the editor of Reality Studios, now an innovative press, but until recently a magazine:

By 1983, I had received, among the many eager unsolicited submissions arriving for Reality Studios, one from an American poet who enclosed some Surrealist-style poems with a note to the effect that if I didn’t like them this person could send me some in a “Language poetry style”, or “like Charles Bernstein”. This told me two things : one, the language poets (and Bernstein in particular) had definitely arrived; two, the movement had reached its culminating point or point of failure (that is, when people start imitating its effects without understanding its bases) remarkably early. Since resistance to reification is a central driving force for these poets, such a development gives rise to decidedly mixed feelings.[48]

It may be that an accelerated disposability is now a feature of the life of things, and that a jaundiced and unfairly premature codification of intellectual developments is as built into the system as the ‘need’ to upgrade your computer, hi-fi, etc. However, if ‘the movement’ has peaked, perhaps the term ‘Language poetry’, useful as a handle, should be relegated to the past in order to facilitate getting to grips with what is in truth a provocative variety of poems and poetics.


Although the intervention of the new poetry has helped prolong the flagging careers of one or two older practitioners, its influence leaves recent books by the stars of The New American Poetry untouched. Robert Creeley’s latest collection Windows (1991) weighs in at over a hundred and fifty pages, all, alas, focused on the same foreboding at mortality. Even weightier is John Ashbery’s Flow Chart (1991), a single poem of over two hundred pages. This magnificent and magnificently indulgent work is hardly a sign of diminished energies, but it builds on a repertoire that was running smoothly well before Language. Edward Dorn is probably the poet of his generation to have campaigned with most persistence and vituperation against recent developments; his claims might carry more weight if his own recent Abhorrences (1990) were less a series of armchair outbursts, an irritable flipping of the cultural zapper. Having won his spurs, the Gunslinger appears to prefer carpet slippers.

The current impact of the new poetry on British writing is interestingly divergent. In a published lecture on ‘Language, Poetry, and Language Poetry’ Edwin Morgan draws attention to the importance of Stein, and of Russian Formalist concepts like ostranenie to the newest American poetry. However he betrays a very British kind of impatience in chastising the poets for proffering work ‘which may be almost but never quite solved’, as if the poem were a crossword it would be irritating not to be able to complete.[49] More fertile ground has been tended by a number of relatively fugitive and often university-based journals, from the Oxford-based fragmente to Equofinality in Cambridge; David Marriott’s Archeus, Paul Green’s Spectacular Diseases are also an ongoing archive of Language’s effects on British poetry and poetics.

Most of all, however, the literary effect of Language will have been to redraw the map of American poetry after 1945; in part, through the work of Rodefer or Silliman, to add to the sum of texts that repay rereading, but also to show the earlier work in a new light. The 50s generation emphasised the performative and individualistically gestural aspects of poetic writing somewhat at the expense of a social analysis, of a kind which the more recent writers have been able to supply. Whether their attempts to, in Olson’s phrase ‘write the republic’, have produced any single text as powerful as The Maximus Poems is another matter. At the least, they further the case that the New American Poetry was, in toto, the strongest the republic had produced.


5. Guide to Further Reading

1.Critical Introductions and anthologies

One might begin to find a pathway here by distinguishing between those theoretical or critical texts that have been produced by poets from within the Language movement, (however academic their orientation), and those that have been produced by university-based critics with some pedagogical or other investment in Language.

Chief among the first would be Charles Bernstein’s collected essays, Contents Dream (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1986). Of all the Language poets, Bernstein has been from the outset the most tirelessly willing to provide manifestos, position-papers, and summaries of intent. Artifice of Absorption (Philadelphia, Penn.; Singing Horse Press/Paper Alr, 1987) is perhaps his most compelling work in this area.

Language began with the journal of that name, edited by Bernstein and Bruce Andrews; their The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U.P., 1984) offers a generous selection of reprinted materials, and retains the polemical edge that was so striking about the magazine at the time. Of course Language Poetry is not synonymous with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine. However, while there could be endless debate about whether David Antin or Jackson MacLow or a dozen other names should or should not be included within the circle, this book-length gathering of work from the magazine does at least allow a crucial phase of recent American poetry to be presented with coherence and clarity. Also of interest, and also published by Southern Illinois University Press, are Writing/Talks, edited by Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax (both 1985). The transcribed debates in the second are particularly helpful in establishing a theoretical matrix through which the poetry might be read, or taught, now.

There are two outstanding anthologies of Language poetry: Language Poetries, ed. Doug Messerli (New York; New Directions, 1987), and In the American Tree, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, Maine; The National Poetry Foundation, 1987). The second has the broader overview. Silliman also contributes one of the liveliest talks in an excellent collection of transcribed papers and discussion, The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein, (New York: Roof, 1990). The contributions by Susan Howe and Nicole Brossard are especially pertinent to an assessment of the relations between feminism and Language.

Ron Silliman’s book of connected essays The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987) will be of help not only to readers attempting to understand Language poetry in relation to wider issues of politics and social change (in which Silliman is both ambitious and helpful), but to those attempting to situate the new poetry in relation to post-war American avant-gardes, as this study has done. The critical use of a term such as ‘avant-garde’ can never be problem-free, and a book this size lacks the space in which to tackle the various theoretical approaches through which the term has been excavated historically and opened to question in recent years. In some respects, Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (Manchester U.P./Minnesota U.P., 1984) remains the most authoritative recent analysis of the term, though that authority has itself been put into question by the recent collapse of classical Marxism, including the belief in historical determinism on which a study like Burgers rests its case. More promising avenues of enquiry are opened by the Slovenian critic Slavoj Zizek; books such as Looking Awry (MIT Press, 1991) throw concepts of high and low art, vanguard and mainstream into a productive turmoil. In a series of related books published over the last ten years, Marjorie Perloff has argued for an understanding of the avant-garde which privileges artistic production over political ambitions; see in particular The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbauld to Cage (New Jersey: Princeton U.P., 1981). More recently, Michael Davidson’s The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century (Cambridge U. P., 1989) and Geoff Ward’s Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets (St Martin’s/Macmillan, 1993) are complementary accounts, to the extent that the first looks West for an account of Language’s antecedents, where the second draws out the East Coast influences.

The first critical book on Language to appear from inside the university was George Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Indiana U.P., 1989), which has been joined by Linda Reinfeld’s Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (LSU Press, 1992), as this book was going to press. The final chapter of Christopher Beach’s ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition (California U.P., 1992) is also of relevance, and brings into focus the relationship between Language and Modernist writers such as Pound and Gertrude Stein on which this essay has only been able to touch. As readily available to readers with access to a university library will be the occasional articles in Critical Inquiry on Language poetry and related topics, particularly Lee Bartlett’s ‘What is “Language Poetry”?’ (Vol. 12, no.4, 1986), Jerome McGann’s ‘Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes’ (Vol. 13, no. 3, 1987), and a typically provocative and mercurial offering from Charles Bernstein, ‘Optimism and Critical Excess (Process)’ (Vol. 16, no. 4, 1990).

Several British journals of poetry and criticism have produced special ‘Language issues’, of which fragmente 2, 1990, has been the best so far. (fragmente is edited from Trinity College, Oxford, by Anthony Mellors and Andrew Lawson, who continue to show a commendably un-Oxonian intrepidity in the field of contemporary poetry.) A special issue of Verse (Vol. 7, no.l) guest-edited by Jerome McGann, seemed by contrast more interested in domesticating its chosen materials within a Great Tradition.

2. Poetry:

To dilate at length on which of the many names associated with Language poetry are most worth reading would be to repeat the argument of this brief study. At the time of writing however, it would misrepresent the currently lively condition of American poetry not to cite the work of Steve Benson, Ron Silliman, Stephen Rodefer, Bob Perelman, Diane Ward, Lyn Hejinian and Craig Watson, as the basis of a reading programme. There are a number of poets about whom this study has had little or nothing to say for reasons of space, rather than any critical objection, and these would certainly include Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, David Bromige, and poets with an investment in minimalism or programmatic repetition, Aram Saroyan, Tom Clark and John Giorno, respectively. A full-length history of Language writing would certainly want to take more account of the work of Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer, two ‘elders’ of the movement, than I have been able to do here.

Nationality was another consideration. Language has become a more purely American phenomenon than was true in the relatively fluid context of the late 1970s and early 80s. The work of a major Canadian poet, Christopher Dewdney, and (to my eyes) Britain’s greatest poet, Tom Raworth, run as it were on parallel tracks to Language, and might frequently be thought to overtake it.

Both poets are published, like so many Language poets, by Geoffrey Young’s press The Figures (5 Castle Hill, Great Barrington, MA 01230). Ode angle of entry to this material might legitimately be through its presses – The Figures, Roof or Something Else – as much as authors’ names. The Figures has led the way since the 1970s, in standards of imaginative book production as well as editorial Policy.

Another door which a more substantial history might have opened, but which it must be left to the reader to unlock, would have let in the visual and auditory contributions of Concrete and Sound poetry, respectively. Both intersected with Language, to some degree; just as the New American Poets of the 1960s were influenced by the implications of multi-media experimentation by John Cage and others, so the present-day inheritors of that poetry have been alert to the changing technology of recorded sound, and other developments coming from outside literature. ‘Language’ is one segment in a kaleidoscope of American experimentalism.

3. Access to Sources:

Although Language material is beginning to find its way on to the British syllabus, access to primary materials can be difficult, outside London. Paul Green, Spectacular Diseases, 83B London Road, Peterborough, Cambs., is the official UK distributor of most of the books mentioned in this study, and an excellent source. The following booksellers are among those who stock Language material on a regular basis, and who will deal by post: Compendium Books, 234 Camden High Street, London NWl 6QS; Alan Halsey, The Poetry Bookshop, 22 Broad Street, Hay-On-Wye, via Hereford, HR3 5DB; Peter Riley, 27 Sturton Street, Cambridge CBI 2QG. Waterstone’s are getting there.

6. Notes

    1. Jerome J. McGann, ‘Contemporary Poetry, Alternative Routes’, Critical Inquiry, VoI. 13, no 3, Spring 1987. p. 643. Back
    2. Rod Mengham, untitled review of Andrews, Bernstein, Coolidge, McCaffery and Watten, Textual Practice, Vol. 3, no. l, Spring 1989. p. 121. Back
    3. Donald Allen, ed. The New American Poetry. (New York: Grove Press, 1960). Back
    4. A more extended account of these connexions may be found in Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1989).


    1. See Geoff Ward, Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. (St Martin’s/Macmillan, 1993).


  1. Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance. p. ix. Back
  2. Edward Lucie-Smith, interview with Frank O’Hara, in O’Hara, Standing Still and Walking in New York. (Bolinas, Cal.: Grey Fox Press, 1975). p.13. Back
  3. Frank O’Hara, ‘Personism: A Manifesto’. Donald Allen, ed. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. (New York: Knopf, 1971). p. 498. Back
  4. Allen Ginsberg, ‘City Midnight Junk Strains’. Collected Poems 1947-1980. (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). p.458. Back
  5. Steve Benson, As Is. (Berkeley, California: The Figures, 1978). p. l, p. 48. Back
  6. Steve Benson, Blindspots. (Cambridge, Mass.: Whale Cloth Press, 1981). p. 9, p. 5. Back
  7. See Steve Benson, Blue Book. (Great Barrington and New York: The Figures/Roof, 1988). p. 16 ff. Back
  8. Ginsberg, Collected Poems. p. 130. Back
  9. Michael Davidson, “‘Skewed by Design”: From Act to Speech Act in Language-Writing’. fragmente 2, Autumn 1990, pp. 44-5. Back
  10. As given by Lee Bartlett, ‘What is “Language Poetry”?’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, no. 4, Summer 1986, p. 742. Back
  11. Steve McCaffery, ‘Ow’s “Wafi”. (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1975). Unpaginated. Back
  12. Bartlett, ‘What is “Language Poetry”?’, p. 742. Back
  13. Gary Lenhart, untitled review, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 11, January 1980. Unpaginated. Back
  14. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, ‘Repossessing the Word’. In Andrews and Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984). p. x. Back
  15. Steve McCaffery, ‘From the Notebooks’. Ibid., p. 160-1. Back
  16. Mengham, Textual Practice, p. 119. Back
  17. Bruce Andrews, ‘Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis’. Charles Bernstein, ed. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. (New York: Roof, 1990) p. 24. Back
  18. Charles Bernstein, ‘Comedy and the Politics of Poetic Form’. Ibid., p. 236 ff. Back
  19. Charles Bernstein, ‘The Dollar Value of Poetry’. In The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, pp. 138-9. Back
  20. Shelley: Poetical Works, Ed. Thomas Hutchinson (corr. G.M. Matthews) (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1970). pp. 413-4. Back
  21. Bob Perelman, a.k.a. (Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 1984). p. 1. Back
  22. Ray DiPalma, Raik. (New York: Root, 1989) p. 1. Back
  23. The Collected Poems Of Frank O’Hara, p. 370. Back
  24. DiPalma, Raik, p. 38. Back
  25. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, p. 256. Back
  26. Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself. The Complete Poems (ed. F. Murphy) (Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1989 rept.) p. 87. Back
  27. As given in Marjorie Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. (Austin and London: Texas U.P., 1977) p. 141. Back
  28. Stephen Rodefer, Four Lectures. (Berkeley, Cal.: The Figures, 1982) p. 22. Back
  29. Ron Silliman, The Age of Huts. (New York: Root, 1986) p. 32. Back
  30. Charles Olson, The Maxim us Poems. (Berkeley, Cal.: California U.P., 1983.) p. 600. Back
  31. Ron Silliman, what. (Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 1988). pp. 51-2. Back
  32. Jack Kerouac, Heaven & Other Poems. (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1987) p. 17. Back
  33. Ginsberg, Collected Poems. p. 353. Back
  34. Marjorie Perloff, “‘The Sweet Aftertaste of Artichokes”: the Lobes of Autobiography: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life’. fragmente 2, p.54. Back
  35. Lyn Hejinian, My Life. (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1980). pp. 3~6. Back
  36. Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance. p. 213. Back
  37. (Fiona Strachan, trans.) Nicole Brossard, Surfaces of Sense. (Toronto: Coach House Quebec Translations, 1989) p. 31. Back
  38. Diane Ward, ‘Nine-Tenths of Our Body’, Never Without One. (New York: Roof, 1984) p. 46. Back
  39. Ron Silliman, The New Sentence, (New York: Root, 1987) p. 61. Back
  40. Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance, p. 67, pp. xi-xii. Back
  41. Ron Silliman, ‘Canons and Institutions: New Hope for the Disappeared’. In The Politics of Poetic Form, p. 157, p. 164. Back
  42. Philip Foss and Charles Bernstein, eds. Patterns/Contexts/Time: A Symposium on Contemporary Poetry. (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Tyuonyi, 1990). p.10. Back
  43. Ken Edwards, ‘Language: The Remake’, fragmente 2, p. 58. Back
  44. Edwin Morgan, Language, Poetry, and Language Poetry. (Liverpool University, Dept. of Classics & Archaeology: The Kenneth Allott Lectures, No. 5,1990) p. 5. Back

Top of the Page

Richard Walsh, Radical Theatre in the Sixties and Seventies

BAAS Pamphlet No. 24 (First Published 1993)

ISBN: 0 946488 14 2
  1. Introduction
    (Radical aesthetics and politics; holistic strategies;
    contemporary parallels; Happenings)
  2. Performance Theatre
    (The Living Theatre; The Open Theatre;
    The Performance Group)
  3. Political Orientations
    (Black Theatre; Feminist Theatre; Gay Theatre;
    El Teatro Campesino; The San Francisco
    Mime Troupe; The Bread and Puppet Theatre)
  4. Aesthetic Orientations
    (Robert Wilson; Richard Foreman)
  5. Guide to Further Reading
  6. Notes
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.

1. Introduction

The nature of radicalism in the theatre is complex: the aesthetic and political senses of radicalism are not easily reconciled, yet theatre is the art form in which aesthetics and politics are most inextricably linked. R.G. Davis, founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, addressed this issue in his 1975 article, “The Radical Right in the American Theatre”: he distinguished the theatre of the radical left, which engages in picket lines and demonstrations as part of its work”, from that of the radical right, which “is an extension or a deviation from the bourgeois theatre, and is closely aligned with the aesthenc avant-garde”.[1] Davis, as a partisan of the radical left he identifies with die San Francisco Mime Troupe, El Teatro Campesino and the Bread and Puppet Theatre, uses the distinction to repudiate the alternative radicalism of the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre and the Performance Group. All of these groups, and others, are considered in this pamphlet under headings that to some extent acknowledge the opposition proposed by Davis. But underlying these two apparently irreconcilable versions of radical theatre there is, I would suggest, a common set of assumptions and intellectual strategies that inform both political and aesthetic frames of reference. A sense of this fundamental orientation provides the means to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of radical theatre, and the nature of the tension between the two aspects of its radicalism.

I propose to deal with radical theatre groups in three categories. In the first are those who found the experimental theatre group as such to be a compelling model of the structural possibilities for society in a time of revolutionary political visions and proliferating countercultural lifestyles. As a central metaphor for the community as a whole, these theatre groups considered their own structure and working practices, as well as the form and content of their work, to have an exemplary function: their aesthetic principles reached towards political significance in every aspect of their organization. Theatre and its creative and performative activities became in itself a mode of living, expanding under the rubric of performance theatre into a radical subversion of many prevailing assumptions about the concept of theatre and the ways it is produced and experienced. Groups in the second category emerged from specific political contexts to serve political ends: in such cases the role of theatre itself was more narrowly defined, and its forms emerged in a dialectic with the causes they served. in these groups aesthetics followed from politics, rather than vice versa: but their political stance also evoked through this reciprocity between ideological and strictly theatrical considerations. Toward the end of the sixties the always latent individualism in the theatre’s models of communality regained currency, allowing the emergence of a third radical orientation in which aesthetics obscured politics: the social and political dimensions of theatre were truncated to allow an exploration of the encounter between the theatrical medium and the individual perceiving mind.

In all these contexts radical groups confronted the web of formative dualisms that conventionally preside over the creation, production and reception of theatre: text and performance, stage and auditorium, performer and spectator, performer and character, action and dialogue, author and director, author and actor, art and life … Generally, one term in these oppositions is privileged in establishment theatre, so that the other has a subordinate function, serving the ends of or operating within terms defined by its dominant partner. The characteristic feature of the aesthetics of the radical theatre was the attempt to resist the hegemony of many of these dualisms, and to substitute for them a holistic framework by which the inequity of the two terms is overcome. By holism I mean a disposition to reject dualistic models of related phenomena or concepts in favour of a gestalt interpretation which insists upon the unity of the whole and the presence in it of characteristics or values that are destroyed by dualistic (or atomistic) representations. The conceptual whole is regarded as irreducible either because the prevailing dualism is invalid or because it is unable to account for certain features of the whole. Accordingly, the intellectual process by which holistic ends may be approached takes one of two courses. It may subvert a prevailing dualism, denying its polarities and identifying qualities that manifest the continuity between them. Or, it may transcend the extant dualism, asserting a synthetic whole in which the opposed terms remain discrete but are united by qualities to which they have a common relation. in aesthetic terms, these two ways of overcoming hierarchical dualisms were often confused, yet they have very different outcomes. While transcendence achieves an ideal holism, subversion resolves itself into a reductive monism: by obliterating distinctions, a monistic framework can only consolidate or invert (depending which term absorbs the others the inequality of its dualistic equivalent. The contemporary situation of radical politics involved an equivalent confrontation with those dualisms enshrined in the inequalities of the political establishment: but also, and much more immediately, it invoked a repudiation of the monistic response implied by assimilationist and liberal reform. The overriding characteristic of sixties radical politics was therefore separatism, in apparent contradiction to the radical aesthetics with which it nonetheless shared an underlying holistic orientation.

The holistic predilections of the avant-garde theatre groups of the period have numerous analogues in the contemporary political, social, cultural and spiritual climate. in fact the diversity of forms in which such orientations are manifested makes the task of identifying sources extremely problematic. The complex interrelationship between the spheres of culture, politics and aesthetics blurs easy distinctions between the seminal and the symptomatic, and the means of adjudication are beyond the scope of this pamphlet; but certainly the evidence is abundant. Perhaps the most salient feature of the political climate of the fifties is the rigidification of ideological polarities consequent upon the Cold War: the Manichean extremes to which this led political rhetoric, together with its co-option as a tool of right wing conformism, demanded a radical response that questioned the framework itself. The necessarily holistic form such an anti-Manicheanism would take also needed to resist the ultimately monistic homogeneity of a rapidly advancing consumer culture. This was the essential point the New Left extracted from Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man: that contemporary American mainstream culture had developed the capacity to absorb and negate all opposition, obliterating its contradictions in a monism driven by consumer materialism. The fragmentary structure of New Left radical resistance can be understood as resulting from this suspicion of coercive homogeneity, in relation to both the mainstream culture and the liberal co-option of Old Left causes.

The appeal of Zen to the counterculture of the sixties can also be considered in this light. it offered a means of redressing the alienation produced by the prevailing dualisms of self and community (exacerbated by competitive individualism) and mind and body (exacerbated by impotent intellectualism). Zen offered a radical reaffirmation of the unity’ of the practitioner with reality, a perspective accessible to the American sensibility perhaps in terms of a modern, secular transcendentalism. But it did not provide the means to distinguish between the monism of a pure obliteration of differences and the interrelation of discrete particles that would constitute a true holism, and to that extent, as with the emerging drug culture, risked losses as serious as its gains. its influence is nonetheless undeniable, in the realm of art as much as in general culture. The overarching aesthetic imperative of the era, to overthrow the dualism of life and art, is a manifestly Zen aspiration.

If a single figure could be identified in which the aesthetics of holism were encapsulated, it would be John Cage. He was profoundly influenced by Zen and indeed by Thoreau and his presence in the history’ of avant-garde aesthetics is remarkable. Cage’s redefinition of music as (potentially) all sound, and theatre as similarly latent in all visible and audible activity was a vitally enabling (and radically’ holistic) gesture. While at Black Mountain College, Cage introduced Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double, which was translated there by Mary Caroline Richards: when a copy came to the attention of Julian Beck and Judith Malina at the Living Theatre, it precipitated the advent of performance theatre. in the summer of 1952, also at Black Mountain, Cage orchestrated an event retrospectively identifiable as an ur-Happening – a ‘concerted action’ involving simultaneous piano, gramophone, poetry, dance, lecturing, films and slides. Later he taught courses in avant-garde music at the New School for Social Research in New York, and several of his students there made a subsequent impact upon avant-garde aesthetics: among them was Allan Kaprow.

The term “Happening” was taken from Kaprow’s 1959 piece, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, performed for an invited audience in a Greenwich Village loft. The mixed-media performance events that became generically known as Happenings were one of the most vital influences upon the radical theatre of the sixties, but they originated in a series of logical extensions of the scope of art, and evolved towards theatre via a series of synthetic manoeuvres in a contemporary dialectic about the nature of the artwork. in terms of Kaprow’s own artistic development, the emergence of the Happening can be charted through Assemblages and Environments, each category constituting an advance in the attack on prevailing dichotomies. Assemblages, by incorporating everyday objects into sculpture, breached die barrier between the artist’s or spectator’s own context and the realm of art. Environments, which redefined the artwork as the entire physical arena in which it was experienced, overcame the institutionalized anathema of the gallery, space. The general thrust was towards a transcending of all categorical dualisms by which art was opposed to life. in the Happening, this objective was further served by a synthesis of the realms of vision and sound, of the static and the animated, and finally the observer and the participant.

Kaprow indicates that the process of composition remained the same throughout these mutations, being based upon collage, the juxtaposition of discrete elements designed to establish formal continuity with ordinary experience. Michael Kirby, in his introduction to the first (1965) anthology of Happenings, formalizes this characteristic as ‘compartmented structure’, making it crucial to his definition of Happenings.[2] Compartmented structure implies composition with sequential or simultaneous discrete units, devoid of any narrative or causal connection. In Happenings it is linked with what Kirby, calls nonmatrixed performance the performance matrix being, the imaginary, dimensions of time, place and character created within the actual circumstances of conventional theatre. By remaining rigorously in the here and now the action of Happenings refused that duality, as another aspect of the divorce of life and art. Kirby highlights these characteristics to correct the common perception of Happenings as unscripted and improvised. the structural composition of a Happening was always clearly defined, whilst allowing great scope for chance occurrences within that framework; and the concept of improvisation implies ad hoc invention within a matrix, whereas Happenings are characterized by nonmatrixed indeterminacy. There are clearly elements of Dada and Surrealism in this preference for the illogical, collage and the operations of chance; but Kirby’ insists that the indeterminacy of Happenings should not be understood as a programmatic Dadaist attack upon reason, arguing that it is alogical rather than illogical (again, a holistic manoeuvre).

The convergence of art and theatre initially led to Happenings that adopted standard performance conventions, but this tended to truncate the implications of the form, the logic of which soon pushed it beyond theatre. So, Kaprow’s summary of the essential characteristics of Happenings includes the fragmentation of the space and time in which they occur (so refusing the segregated space and time of art represented by an evening at the theatre). In the same way, the original concern with space and sound that prompted Kaprow’ s move into Happenings shifted towards a focus upon audience participation and response. The division between observers and participants had been undermined in the earliest Happenings: the audience were given the opportunity to participate, such audience involvement being provided for by the open structure of the Happening script. Ultimately, however, Kaprow proposed that “audiences should be eliminated entirely”.[3] All those present at a Happening would be participants, and briefed as to the parameters of their role. Essential to this concept of the Happening is the non-professionalism of the performers: they do not in any sense lose themselves in a role, and so remain present to the immediacy of their perceptions and experiences. Such a criterion is indicative of the end to which the Happenings were gravitating: their synthesis of all elements of art and life, including the roles of participant and observer, eventually focused all discrimination upon the one remaining duality – that between perception and the consciousness of it. The significance of the Happenings lies in this attention to perception. Their guiding principles always excluded the possibility of any sort of commentary’ upon life, and to the extent that they could be seen as imitations of their milieu (in their preference for everyday and junk materials, or principles of juxtaposition, for example) this was not a descriptive enterprise but an assertion of continuity. The objective was always to test and explore the nature of perception, not merely in an “artistic” context but as such, and above all to develop a sensitivity to its operations. But while the guiding concept of perception was holistic, the effort to remove their own status as art from the equation led to a monistic reductivism that denied the Happenings any analytical potential, and they quickly outlived the interest generated by their radical originality, becoming repetitious and ordinary’. But given the rationale of a pedagogical mission – the siting of aesthetic experience as a faculty of perception in itself – the Happenings can be understood to have invented their own redundancy.

The Happenings exerted an enormous influence upon the direction of radical theatre in America in the sixties. Their aesthetic project, the location of aesthetic experience, of perception and the consciousness of it, at the heart of their performance rationale, signalled a major development in the idea of theatre as an aesthetic experience that was later to emerge in the “Theatre of images”. But more directly’, their break with the established framework of performance conventions – the separation of performance and audience space, the passive audience – and their exploration of principles of immediacy in performance, multiple focus, variable time and action, and the displacement of language, all became essential concerns of those involved in performance theatre – through whom they gained even wider currency.

2. Performance Theatre

Radical theatre practice in the sixties developed in terms of at least four structural dualism: actor and character; creation and performance; stage and auditorium; and theatre and life. A holistic approach to these oppositions produced “performance theatre”, a concept that came to be defined by the work of three groups: the Living Theatre, led by Judith Malina and Julian Beck; the Open Theatre, led by Joseph Chaikin; and the Performance Group, under Richard Schechner.

The concept of the actor developed by these groups is exemplified in Schechner’s objections to Method acting, and in particular the principle of “affective memory” or “emotional recall” in which an actor finds the emotion required for a particular scene by reliving an equivalent personal experience. The inadequacy of such an approach, he argues, is that it falls to retain both conviction and pretence in acting: “It is wrong to call a feeling aroused by affective memory an ‘illusion’; physiologically it is exactly what it was the first time, only now it is an effect without its original cause”.[4] This absence of illusion means in effect the obliteration of the actor in the character: it is acting as pure conviction. Affective memory therefore dichotomizes the elements of acting: conviction is absolute from the actor’s interior perspective, the awareness of pretence having been displaced onto the preparatory technique. Schechner insists that conviction and pretence must be co-present within the actor’s performance for the concept of acting to have its full meaning. Such co-presence retains the mimetic doubleness lost in Method acting, and is therefore the richer for the “surplus energy” of its simultaneity. He cites Brecht, and the “method of physical action” of late Stanislavski, neglected in American Method training: here the first principle is mimesis, containing both conviction and the awareness of role which is pretence: the actor is both involved and removed from the part.

In this model, the opposed terms “conviction” and “pretence” are held in suspension by a holistic concept of mimesis as self-conscious role play. But the holistic approach that motivated most of the innovations of these theatre groups was often confused with a monistic collapse of opposed terms: and this confusion transformed many of their gains into serious losses. If instead of proposing a conceptual gestalt that contains the dichotomy between conviction and pretence, Schechner had proposed (as he might have done) a direct continuity between actor and character, neither one being the exclusive domain of “self” or “role”, then again the actor’s self-consciousness is the released third term, but this time it is immanent in both the others, and expresses their continuity. Such a model would not be the immersion of self in role of affective memory, nor the dialectic of self and role of the Brechtian model Schechner actually proposes. It would be the obliteration of any distinction between self and role, so that the two become simply coextensIve and there is a loss of mediation between them.

The uneasy proximity of this second holistic stance to the first is apparent in Joseph Chalkin’s writings on The Presence of the Actor which take the form of notes written during his work with the Open Theatre.[5] Chalkin’s thoughts on the actor were first stimulated while doing Brecht with the Living Theatre, but when he sought to extend his ideas in the context of the intensely and explicitly actor centred environment of the Open Theatre, a mutation in his attitude to Brecht occurred: Chaikin’s actor’s perspective substituted a continuity between the actor and the world for the actor’s synthetic position as mediator between the play and the world, and so obliterated, rather than transcending, the dualism of art and reality. Self and role then form a continuum, not a dialectic: rather than the actor as the site of a mediation between self and role, we have the actor as a model of unified personality. The crucial influence is Grotowski’s “Poor Theatre”, which centred upon the internal resources of the actor: Grotowski found the Open Theatre, whose actors shared an exceptionally compelling presence with those of his own Polish Lab, the only American company worthy of his endorsement. But his explanation for the power of this presence also makes clear the cost: “It is because his nature has been unveiled. He is not divided between certain mental conceptions, that is to say, an intellectual ‘me’ and all the rest; he is a whole being. He is at the same time the spirit and the body, the sex and the intellect, the biology and the lucidity, and this ‘and’ is not this and that, it is all one”.[6] The singularity of this “nature” leaves no room In such an actor for any dynamic interaction of conflicting elements: instead of mediation and synthesis, we have an absolute monistic whole. Such singularity is a source of power in performance, but also involves sacrifices that were apparent in the Open Theatre’s The Serpent (1968).

The Serpent originated in acting exercises, but was organized around the story of Genesis, in particular the Fall and Cain and Abel. The first sequence of the play, however, is a reenactment of the assassination of President Kennedy. Two couples kneel on stage as in an open car. An “assassin-director”, pointing an imaginary rifle toward the car, calls the numbers of twelve frames by which the action of the assassination is frozen into a series of iconic moments. The scene shifts instantly to the Garden of Eden. Five actors, holding apples in their hands, form both the Tree of Knowledge and the Serpent. When Eve and Adam have fallen into temptation, apples are scattered across the floor for the actors to gorge themselves upon; the fruit is also offered to the audience. The carnival atmosphere gives way to a crescendo of God’s curses. Then comes the killing of Abel, methodically and ignorantly: “And it occurred to Cain to kill his brother. But it did not occur to Cain that killing his brother would cause his brother’s death”.[7]

The play ends with the “Begat” scene, in which the actors, to the intoning of the relevant verses of the Bible, discover each other and sex, and plunge into an enactment of mass copulation. Finally the men transform into children, the women into mothers, then all decline into old age and death. In dealing with this mythic material, the actors sought to break through the cliche’ images to find authentic personal references. The problem arises when this private authenticity has to be generalized: Chaikin insisted that collaborative work could elicit “deep common references”, but such generalization depends upon a haphazard trial and error procedure arising from the group’s commitment to an acting method based upon the integrity of the actor’s personality. The resultant performance is therefore a fragile and highly contingent whole. Chaikin wrote in the program notes to The Serpent, “Don’t lose any thought wondering what connects the scenes or what logic applies from one scene to the other. The connections are in your head”.[8] The considerable success of the production was attributable to its use of myth as an aid to this reconnection: it allowed the group to achieve a suggestive power that was universally acknowledged. But its non-explicitness was also a fundamental weakness: it rendered the work unable to elicit associations beyond the obvious and familiar. The personal projection of the actors’ selves, while certainly the source of a general resonance, ultimately denied the play any objective framework and limited its capacity to analyze its own material.

The creative procedures used by the Open Theatre in constructing The Serpent are exemplary of the pressure towards a synthesis of artistic forces – a holistic approach to the creative process – that prevailed among those involved in performance theatre. There was a written text for The Serpent, and it was written by a playwright -Jean-Claude van Itallie – but the process by which this text was arrived at differed significantly from the conventional relationship between writer and performers, and from the Open Theatre’s previous work with van Itallie. In writing The Serpent, van Itallie was present from the beginning of the group’s improvisatory exercises, functioning less as the originator of the text than as its scribe, its recorder and orchestrator. Instead of a dualistic model in which the written text stands in opposition to the various aspects of its realization, the Open Theatre adopted a holistic creative method in which the function of playwright is coordinated with those of director, actor and designer into a single artistic endeavour.

This impulse was shared by many of the theatre groups of the time, manifesting itself in various degrees, from revisionary productions of standard texts to a total exclusion of the text as such. The former approach, practised by both the Living Theatre and the Performance Group in their appropriations of Sophocles and Euripides respectively (and generally confined to the work of safely dead playwrights) accorded with Grotowski’s attitude to the dramatic text as pretext. The latter, textless strategy, most comprehensively adopted by the Living Theatre, took to heart Artaud’s call to “renounce the theatrical superstition of the text and the dictatorship of the writer”.[9] There was a certain disingenuousness about this call to creative unity, however: in many cases, underlying the superficial transfer of power to the coordinated collective artistic faculties of the theatre group, was a much more monolithic appropriation of the authority of the writer by the director. Despite the Living Theatre’s organization as an anarchistic collective, its domination by Beck and Malina was never in doubt; Chaikin was discreetly authoritarian in his direction of the Open Theatre; and Schechner has since acknowledged the tendency himself with regret for its consequences in avant-garde theatre. But a distinction also needs to be drawn between the coordination of nonetheless still distinct creative functions in a unified artistic endeavour as practised by the Open Theatre, and the essential collapse of these functions that occurs at the limit of collective creation, the textless, improvisatory events best represented in the Living Theatre’s Mysteries and Smaller Pieces (1964) and Paradise Now (1968).This is a distinction between holistic and monistic practice, and again the benefits of the former prove illusory in the latter. In Paradise Now there was no script. The event, which lasted upwards of four hours, was structured in some detail and that structural outline or map was provided in lieu of a programme. It detailed eight stages of revolution each comprising a rite, a vision and an action leading to the next level. The play begins with actors moving among the audience, whispering a series of plaints: “I’m not allowed to travel without a passport”; “I don’t know how to stop the war”; “You can’t live if you don’t have money ; I’m not allowed to smoke marijuana”. Each one swells in crescendo to a howl. Finally, with the cry “I am not allowed to take off my clothes”, the company does so, and all congregate semi-naked on the stage; members of the audience often joined them. As the play proceeds, rites and visions such as “The Vision of the Death and Resurrection of the American Indian” (in which the company form into a spectacular pyramid), and “The Rite of Universal Intercourse” (in which actors and audience join in a “love pile” on stage, writhing and anonymously caressing anyone within reach), alternate with often protracted debates and confrontations between actors and audience. The event culminates in a procession out of the theatre into the street.

Within this framework is left enormous scope for improvisation, so that the performance is itself the process of creation each time. This absence of fixed form is thoroughly integrated into the intentions behind the piece, as Beck makes clear: “We said in preparing Paradise Now that we wanted to make a play which would no longer be enactment but would be the act itself that we would not reproduce something but we would try to create an event in which we would always ourselves be experiencing it, not anew at all but something else each time”.[10] The Living Theatre’s procedure in Paradise Now conflates the duality of creation and performance, for the fundamental reason that the performance, as an incitement to anarcho-pacifist revolution, cannot be a reenactment but must be “the act itself’. The words “collective creation” at the bottom of the chart provided for Paradise Now referred not to some extant piece, but to the process of the evening’s event, and included whatever contributions the audience themselves could provide. But there remains an element of self-deception in the aspiration of the actors to experience “something else each time”. The alternative Beck rejects, to experience the event anew each time, is the form of scripted performance: there is a tension between the general prescription and the specific realization. In an improvised context, no such tension exists: each occasion is at liberty to define itself entire. The only possible outcome of such an open creative role, and one the Living Theatre were repeatedly found guilty of accepting, is rigidification: an inevitable slide into formula and closing down of possibilities. This applied not only to the options pursued by the actors themselves, but also to the responses they were willing to accept from the audience, so that the apparent openness came increasingly to mask an underlying coercion. At the Open Theatre, actor’s improvisations were as fundamental to the creative process, but they never became a performance strategy. Whereas spontaneity more often than not reverts to conventional formulae, an essential stage in the creative process adopted by the Open Theatre was the weeding out of cliche responses, working through the banalities of improvisation in order to reach its more profound and substantial core. Collapsing the distinction between creation and performance elided the critical reciprocity of this stage of their interaction.

The Performance Group were reprimanded by Grotowski for a similar transgression when they included some of his actors’ exercises at the beginning of Dionysus in 69 (1968), but in fact the play had a mixed economy combining a formal text derived from Euripides’ Bacchae with improvisatory actions among the actors and between actors and audience. Its most important feature was its engagement with the dualism of performers and audience, stage and auditorium. An “environmental”, a theatrical environment embracing the whole performance site, was designed for the play by Michael Kirby and Jerry Rojo: it consisted of a complex of scaffolds, planks, ladders and platforms upon which the actors cavorted and the audience found what vantage points they could. The audience were allowed into the theatre space one at a time, while the actors performed their acrobatic exercises all around. On Grotowski’s advice, parts of the play were performed naked: such was the first scene, the Birth Ritual, in which Dionysus, having introduced himself both as Dionysus and as the actor playing the part, is passed through a birth canal formed from the bodies of five men lying face down, bestridden by four women. Dionysus emerges from between the women’s legs and invites the audience to participate in a celebration of his nativity. There commences a ritualized orgy in which the actors simulate sexual encounters with members of the audience, many of whom participated in the revels. Pentheus, King of Thebes, appears as a conservative figure who is both repulsed and attracted by the proceedings. He confronts Dionysus, but is mocked and humiliated by the Bacchantes, and compelled (offstage) to perform fellatio upon Dionysus. He is then condemned to die, and the women, their hands dipped in red paint, alternately caress and claw him to death. The actors then step out of role, wash the “blood” from their bodies and get dressed, while Dionysus, from the top of one of the towers, announces his candidacy for President and showers the audience with “Dionysus in 69” buttons.

In its environmental incorporation of the audience into the performance space and its powerful appeal to audience participation the play was a notable success. At the same time, it raised some of the fundamental problems in the concept of audience involvement, problems which generated resonances with the exploration of “the politics of ecstasy” that defined the play’s thematic structure. The argument of the play, as illustrated in the brutal murder of Pentheus, was that the ecstasy of liberation can be quickly transformed into tyranny. At the same time, the group clearly aligned themselves with Dionysus against the reactionary Pentheus. The group’s interactions with the audience, mainly on a physical and sexual level, were simulated but designed to break down the distinction between feigned and real response. Having elicited such responses, the group found themselves drawn by the logic of the situation into one of two equally undesired scenarios, as Stefan Brecht argued in his contemporary analysis of the play: if the action concerned goes on to suppress the sexuality and aggression it has aroused, “we have a conservative society or theatre. If it stimulates and uses them, a fascist society or theatre”.[11]

The Living Theatre were the most comprehensive proponents of interaction between audience and performers, particularly in Mysteries and Paradise Now. Mysteries opens with a single actor standing silent and impassive onstage. There he remains until the audience are provoked to action. This was usually confined to a predictable range of jibes and a certain amount of debate within the audience over what they were or were not entitled to expect from a trip to the theatre. The important point is that a degree of hostility was generated, for it was this hostility upon which the Living Theatre’s performance fed. In this they adhered closely to the precepts of their mentor Artaud and his “Theatre of Cruelty” – the performance is a violent therapy for the illness of contemporary humanity, a drawing out of the “plague” by which he signified the disharmonious split between the spiritual and physical self. The process involves transgressing the boundaries between stage and auditorium and a similar conflation of the roles of (active) performer and (passive) spectator. The final scene of Mysteries is an enactment of Artaud’s plague, in which the group, distributed along the aisles among the audience, perform protracted, agonized deaths culminating in a profound rigor mortis. The rigid bodies are then lifted by the neck and ankles, and stacked in layers onstage. The variations of audience response to this scene, which the Living Theatre performed throughout Europe as well as in America, are instructive both in themselves and in the ways they were interpreted by the performers. In Europe, the scene was usually understood as the Holocaust – except in Vienna where it was apparently interpreted as a mass orgasm. The audiences tended to participate by dying with the performers, and those who proved sufficiently rigid corpses were lifted and included in the funeral pile onstage. In America, by contrast, the general audience response was to comfort the dying. Schechner, in an interview with Beck and Malina, offered the interpretation that “Americans don’t like to participate in death. Comforting is a sentimental act; dying is a committed act”.[12] But actually the two forms of participation are different in kind. Dying with the performers constitutes a complete refutation of the dualism of actor and spectator, a form of participation that affirms a monistic community of people, audience and actors, within the theatre. Comforting the performers, on the other hand, shares the effect of a participatory community but retains a sense of separate roles, an irreducible divide between performer and spectator, across which this mutuality of action takes place. To die with the performers is certainly a committed act, for it implies that there is no transaction taking place between actors and audience: there is nothing to be communicated that is not already known and understood, and all that remains is to express solidarity. Malina also records a series of aggressive responses that the scene provoked on their European tour: on several occasions when she died she was kicked and tickled, had her fingers bent back and her hair set on fire; in Amsterdam the audience carried the dead out of the theatre with the intention of dropping them in a canal. Beck’s understanding of this behaviour, that it was “To get the corpse not to be a real corpse”[13] is altogether too confined to the terms of the performance: these audiences had no need to prove anything so self-evident. Rather, this behaviour is a hostile, or at least mischievous message to the group that the audience are not playing; that they do not accept the terms of the performance.

These extremes of response highlight the problems raised by the Living Theatre’s strategy of eliciting hostility from the audience in order to purge and sublimate it into a love compatible with their desired anarcho-pacifist revolution. These problems were exacerbated in Paradise Now, where the revolutionary objective was explicit and singular. Hostility proved rather more intractable than the theory required, and while it was certainly crucial to the theatrical effect of their performances, its significance as a political tool was other than that the group professed to be exploiting. While insisting upon their love for the audience, the group used oppressive and aggressively confrontational tactics. The audience’s concomitantly aggressive responses resolved into either absolute dismissal or uncritical support of the group, according to the direction in which the hostility was channelled. The idea that the expression of repressed hostility leads to a moral catharsis is theoretically suspect and historically contradicted: to the extent that the Living Theatre won their audiences they were susceptible to the charge frequently levelled at them, especially in Europe, of resorting to fascist methods.

The sort of appeal to audience participation that is open to accusations of fascism is exactly that in which the consciousness that it is participation is lost. This loss of awareness, or simple collapse of the distinction between performer and spectator, is the critical factor which allows participation (as a collaboration aware of the difference of the collaborators) to descend into coercion. Unfortunately such a distinction was only drawn by the Open Theatre, whose use of audience participation showed a suspicion of the authoritarianism implied in generating actual physical responses, and extended no further than the distribution of apples after Eve’s temptation in The Serpent. Both the Living Theatre and the Performance Group, on the other hand, were committed to full involvement of the audience, and adopted the means best able to achieve it – forms of direct physical and especially sexual interaction in which the distinction between a participatory role and direct personal involvement is most difficult to sustain. There are numerous recorded examples of the response of the audience at these performances exceeding the bounds of the cast’s toleration, and of the attentions of the actors exceeding the toleration of members of the audience. The Living Theatre were notorious for the psychological and physical harassment to which they could subject any member of their audiences whom they suspected of opinions incompatible with their own. Their invocation of “free theatre” in Paradise Now, when the group and many of the audience were often high on drugs and the fraught atmosphere, produced reports of violent confrontations and even allegations of rape.

During the “caress” in Dionysus in 69, female members of the cast were vulnerable to the abuses of opportunistic men in the audience, who were regularly guilty of a cynical exploitation of the circumstances. But to the extent that these performances collapsed the distinction between role play and direct personal participation, how could such abuses actually constitute a cynical exploitation of the circumstances? The limit case of audience participation is a monistic model of the theatre environment in which the distinction between real behaviour and performance has broken down. This result was actively pursued by proponents of environmental theatre in spite of the complications. Schechner puts just this case when he addresses the problem of conflict between actors and audience arising out of the collapse of the defined territories of stage and auditorium into a single space: “Such conflicts have to be coped with in terms of the performance. They can be turned to a capital advantage if one believes that the interaction between performers and audience is a real and valuable one”.[14] The opportunity for a “capital advantage” – the dividend of a holistic treatment of the terms “performers” and “audience” – is based on what turns out to be a monistic conflation of the ideas of the “terms of the performance” and a “real and valuable” interaction. Schechner records performances of Dionysus in 69 during which members of the audience had to be restrained from responses to the “caress” deemed to be beyond the “terms of the performance“. But when Pentheus attempts to make love to a randomly selected member of the audience, the play itself is built upon the assumption that, at some point, he will exceed the mandate of performance and be repulsed.

If incitements to audience participation succeed in collapsing the distinction between performance and actual involvement, then, its apologists equivocate as to the status of the newly formed whole. But in fact the aesthetic distance between involvement and performance is rarely confounded, and certainly not in the case of those members of the audience who seek to exploit their apparent contiguity. The participation of intelligent audiences remains role play because it is not naive participation: it is not the child’s cry of “Behind you!” or the bumpkin’s advice to Hamlet. The participation of a more sophisticated theatre-goer will always retain a sense of doubleness – as the adoption not simply of a performing role, but of the role of performer. It involves a transcendent perspective, in other words, in which the distinction between spectator and participant remains intact; and the tension between these poles is fundamental to the experience.

Implicit in all these experiments with audience involvement is an attack upon the most fundamental dualism addressed by these groups: that of the categories of theatre and life. The attempt to transcend or subvert that dualism embraces all the more specific applications of holistic methodology so far considered, and is itself symptomatic of the extraordinary presence of theatre and its forms in the countercultural life of the sixties. The Living Theatre was the group most fully committed to subverting the opposition between theatre and life, propounding instead an anti-art aesthetic which rejected the duplicity of representation, stigmatized as “illusion”. Their express objective was to overcome the intrinsic absence in representational theatre by presenting instead the plenitude of theatre as pure event, wholly actual and present to the participants. Membership of the Living Theatre, who lived and worked as a commune, was always likely to involve arrest and periods of imprisonment for offences such as non-payment of taxes or public indecency, and prolonged periods of personal privation such as the group endured on their European tour. Political commitment therefore always took precedence over artistic criteria in the group’s definition of their theatrical objectives.

The solution was to equate artistic functions with personal qualities, and reached fruition in Paradise Now. The rationale for Paradise Now was that the performance was itself an event in which the audience, led by the actors, are actually drawn towards the paradise of permanent anarcho-pacifist revolution. For such an objective to make sense, there could be no barrier between theatre and life, no point at which the revolution is abandoned as a role temporarily explored before returning to everyday reality. Malina explains how the group proposed to ensure the continuity of the performance with the world beyond it: “Anything I say to you in the lobby is very much part of the play. If Paradise Now can be said to have a direction, it is that I don’t have to put on any kind of an act … But it means that if I’m talking to you in the lobby I should have what used to be called a super-objective, taking whatever we’re talking about into the level of what Paradise is as far as I can at that moment”.[15] The actors, then, personally enact the continuity between art and life as it operates in their own lives – in that the orientation towards their concept of Paradise does indeed run through both their personal convictions and their theatrical performance. But Malina’s vacillation between presenting this continuity as “not putting on any kind of an act” and as “very much part of the play” suggests a residual concept of the division of art and life in even this most committed of theatrical events. Paradise Now was originally designed to end with the actors leading the audience out into the street to carry the revolution to the community. When this happened at the end of their first performance in America at Yale, several members of the group including Beck and Malina were promptly arrested for indecency. They were constrained, on pain of further arrests, to accept an undertaking not to accompany the audience beyond the confines of the theatre in subsequent performances. The New Haven Chief of Police commented, “As far as we’re concerned, art stops at the door of the theatre, and then we apply community standards”.[16] The Living Theatre complied.

Nonetheless there remained a general commitment among these theatre groups to an idea of theatre that was not defined by the representational dualism of art and life. The primary influence was Artaud, whose own commitment in The Theatre and its Double was to a theory in which, “between life and the theatre there will be no distinct division, but instead a continuity”.[17] Language in particular imposes a tyranny of representation upon the theatre, and Artaud’s theory involved a reaction against the rupture “between things and the ideas and signs that are their representation”.[18] He proposed that words should be used for their sensual qualities, the shape and sound of their articulation, their physical rather than just their signifying properties. A” three groups experimented with language as pure sound, deforming its signifying function by chanting, wailing, and elongating and fragmenting its syllables. But suspicion of language ran deepest in the Open Theatre, fuelled by the flagrant abuse and manipulation of language in politics and the media and by the inadequacy of words to accurately communicate the personal explorations of the group’s acting exercises. In fact the Open Theatre’s actors’ exercises were originally conceived as a means of “getting away from talking”, and included experiments in breathing rhythm and wordless voice that were designed to explore its non-signifying properties. The ultimate objective was never to reject language completely, however, but to redefine its function in theatre. Chalkin, and for that matter Artaud, proposed that language in the theatre should be utilized for its substance, the physical facts of speech, as well as its meaning.

Despite its suspicion of audience participation, the Open Theatre shared in the aspiration to a theatre beyond the representational dualism of art and life. But their formulation of it, as expressed by Chaikin, was significantly different: “The theatre, insofar as people are serious in it, seems to be looking for a place where it is not a duplication of life. It exists not just to make a mirror of life, but to represent a kind of realm just as certainly as music is a realm”. Here the division between theatre and life is to be superseded by a third “realm” which, like music, possesses its own unique qualities. Chaikin goes on, “But because the theatre involves behaviour and language, it can’t be completely separate from the situational world, as music can”.[19] This realm must be transcendent, rather than autonomous, because its media, unlike the medium of music, are inherently representational. To the extent that performance theatre succeeded in holding the dualism of representation and presence in suspension, it generated a dynamic reciprocity between the two which is absent from much conventional theatre. To the extent that it collapsed the opposition and offered itself as pure presence in its enthusiasm for the immediacy of the event, it lost that depth – and in the process lost consciousness.

3. Political Orientations

In a sense any form of protest constitutes an attack on prevailing dualisms: inequality between races, classes, genders or sexual orientations is the prioritizing of a normative group, just as the privileged interests of such a group rationalize internal policing and foreign wars. To agitate against some aspect of this prioritization is to deny the validity of the hierarchical dualism it implies: the tendency is to assert instead a holistic equivalence of its terms. Such was the nature of the civil rights movement in the fifties and early sixties under the dominant influence of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and non-violent direct action. The main theme was desegregation, its form moral reprehension. In the theatre it was most notably articulated in Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which confronted Broadway audiences with the prejudice by which the integration of a black family into American middle class life is prohibited. Five years later Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) advanced a very different argument in Dutchman and The Slave, marking a transition in the politics of black Americans that can be related to a more general transformation in the politics and theatre of protest in the period. In Dutchman, the middle-class assimilationist Clay is halted on a subway by a sexually provocative white woman, Lola. Clay warns that the alternative to his assimilationism is violence, but is himself stabbed by Lola. The passengers drag him from the train, and the play ends as another young black enters the compartment. The protagonist of The Slave, Walker Vessels, confronts his white ex-wife and her liberal husband Easley in an effort to liberate himself from his assimilationist past. Vessels is accused of inverted racism (a charge he does not answer), and goes on to kill Easley. But as Easley himself makes explicit, this is ritual drama: Vessels’ act is an individual rite of passage, violence a repudiation of the alternative ritual to which Clay is sacrificed.

The shift from integration to militant separatism and black power was a realization that equality could never arise from black assimilation to a social order defined by whites. This was an illusory holism, its collapse of racial dualisms actually producing a monistic social order in which white culture would remain irreducibly proprietary. The value of the civil rights movement was to be seen not in its victories over segregation, but in its demonstration of the possibility of a specifically black empowerment: the pursuit of equal entitlement to universal values was superseded by an anti-monistic assertion of racially specific values. In the theatre, while the Negro Ensemble Company played to integrated audiences, Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem affirmed a nascent cultural nationalism by addressing itself exclusively to blacks. Baraka’s The Baptism and The Toilet, (also produced in 1964, but originating in his Greenwich Village bohemian phase) were cast in universal thematic and aesthetic terms: their preoccupations are personal identity and development, appearance and reality. They engage in social analysis, exploring the conflicting demands of society upon the individual, but they are not racial plays. His shift to cultural nationalism is a recognition that the “universal” is already culturally defined, is in fact an exclusive category operating to marginalize cultural elements alien to the dominant culture. Although the line between cultural nationalism and inverted racism was sometimes blurred in the rhetoric of black power, the conceptual distinction is plain: the objective is not to invert the monism of establishment culture, but to subvert it by consolidating black cultural solidarity. Such is the orientation of Baraka’s Slave Ship (1967), which exploits the form of an Afro-American historical pageant to maxImize its argument for the continuity of a specifically black sense of cultural identity. It is notably the Uncle Tom figure, the black who identifies with the dominant culture and so betrays the interests of his race, who is singled out as the enemy throughout history. To some extent Baraka’s later repudiation of cultural nationalism in favour of communism can be interpreted as a progression beyond anti-monism to the pursuit of a transcendent holism cast in terms of economic equality. Certainly it involved the rejection of much of his earlier work as chauvinistic, and in plays like S-1 (1976), this redefined fight against the capitalist regime produced a previously unthinkable appeal to the assimilationist middle class, now seen as merely lackeys of the system, equally deprived of the means of production. But more probably the economic criteria have here simply obliterated ali other distinctions, instituting a new revolutionary monism: the absence of dialectic in the plays would tend to suggest this latter interpretation.

Ed Bullins, strongly influenced by Baraka, was an outspoken advocate of black power, and briefly Cultural Minister for the Black Panther Party. In his The Gentleman Caller (1969), a black working-class maid forcibly educates the middle-class male protagonist about the falseness of the white values that have seduced him by killing the rich mistress who embodies them. It is a parable, its ritual aspect showing the influence of Dutchman and The Slave. Even the plays of his “Twentieth Century Cycle”, beginning with In the Wine Time (1968), insist upon metaphoric interpretation in their framing and disrupting of naturalistic features, and make cultural signifiers of the everyday rituals of black life around which they revolve. Cultural nationalism is pervasive in Bullin’s plays, but with a critical awareness that is absent from Baraka’s work after 1964. Dialect Determinism (1965), for example, satirizes revolutionary ideologues, its messianic “Boss Brother” evolving through a series of demagogic roles to end as an eager martyr to nationalism. Bullins resists the foreclosure of debate characteristic of agit-prop even when he most imitates the form: in Death List (1970), a revolutionary cleans his gun while reciting a list of black leaders who are traitors to black solidarity; but at the same time a woman harangues him, denying his authority, suggesting extenuating circumstances, questioning the outcome of violence. The play ends with the revolutionary offstage and the sound of a single shot: it has the function of a question. Within this interrogative context, however, his anti-assimilationism remains constant. In The Taking of Miss Janie (1975), inter-racial rape becomes a symbol of the impossible relationship between blacks and white liberals, the inevitable repudiation of a patronizing friendship that could only consolidate the forms of oppression.

Given the frequency with which black separatism exploited the imagery of sexual aggression, black women had a difficult relationship to the feminist debate that began to gather momentum towards the end of the sixties. Being doubly marginalized, black women have a particular insight into the confusion of dualistic, monistic and holistic ideological frameworks. Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) established the traumatized psychological terrain over which the contradictory claims of racial identity and sexual identity fragment the black woman, locating her only resolution in death. As black cultural nationalism and subsequently radical feminism sought to consolidate and affirm the marginalized identities of blacks and women, rejecting the bogus monistic unity of integrationist politics, the black woman encountered a secondary monism perpetuating her oppression within each of these groups. The black feminist debate was energized by Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1975), in which the painful emergence of self-worth in black women is wrested from the oppressions even of language and logic in dance and poem collage. The interference of dimensions of marginality that characterize the black woman’s position leaves no unified site on which to build an identity: instead it must be done on the run (or in a dance), in the gaps of syntax and logical schemata. But this same irreducibly plural identity positively contributes to the suspension of discrete elements in unity that characterizes a genuinely holistic perspective, and forbids any relapse into covertly monistic forms. This potential has to a degree informed feminist discourse in general, and feminist theatre has benefitted from its belatedness among the radical theatres of the period.

The first explicitly feminist theatre in America was established by Anselma dell’Olio in 1969: the New Feminist Theatre addressed feminist issues directly and powerfully within the clearly defined limits of a conventional theatrical structure and aesthetic, and liberal feminist arguments. Indicative was their production of Myrna Lamb’s But What Have You Done for Me Lately? (1969), in which a man implanted with a uterus is subjected to the trauma of unwanted pregnancy. The polemical thrust of this role reversal, its “how would you like it?” rhetoric, implies both its address to an establishment audience and its liberal focus upon the double standards oppressing women. Dell’Olio retained personal authority as a director, and although she went on to produce feminist theatre within a more adventurous aesthetic context In her improvisational Cabaret of Sexual Politics, she continued to seek establishment audiences and resisted the affirmation of any particularized womanhood in her desire for “universality”. The suspicion that this universality in itself deferred to the forms of patriarchy, and that liberal feminism in general aspired no higher than a dubious immanent holism, led to the emergence of a theatre dedicated to an anti-monistic radical feminism.

It’s All Right to Be Woman Theatre, formed in 1970, were a radical feminist collective who rejected the hierarchical group structure retained by dell’Olio as implicitly patriarchal, and instituted an affirmative separatism by restricting their audiences to women only. Their performances originated in improvisations around life material supplied by members of the group, and in performance they retained this orientation towards the expression of feelings rather than theatrical statement. Often this improvisational technique would be explored further in performance, the actors miming dream narratives volunteered by one of the group or a member of the audience. Such an approach was firmly grounded in the methodology of consciousness-raising, developed by Kathie Sarachild and widely adopted as a radical feminist strategy for propagating solidarity and enabling participants to become “woman-identified”. The concept was extended by the Minneapolis group, At the Foot of the Mountain Theatre, in their 1976 production, Raped: the performers interrupted the play with documentary rape testimonies, elevating it to a “ritual drama” in which the audience were also encouraged to participate.

The same radicalization of sexual politics prompted many of the preeminent women in avant-garde theatre to make a decisive break in their careers: Roberta Skiar left the Open Theatre after The Mutation Show to form the Women’s Experimental Theatre; Megan Terry abandoned New York to establish the Omaha Magic Theatre; Martha Keams left the Bread and Puppet Theatre for the Wilma Theatre. Radical feminist theatre appropriated much of the current experimentation of performance theatre to a specifically female aesthetic: groups like the Women’s Experimental Theatre and At the Foot of the Mountain made their plays non-linear, resisted the authority of narrative closure, used documentary style and addressed their audiences directly. The prevalence of these techniques, as well as the importance of consciousness-raising (and its performance equivalents, audience participation and discussion) indicates a concerted effort to subvert the dualisms of art and life, performers and audience. But this underlying holism within the anti-monistic context of radical feminism easily reverts to the forms against which such groups had reacted: the assertion and consolidation of difference tended towards a simple inversion of received gender polarities, and the consequent advocacy of a counter-universalism. Such tendencies are apparent in the way the assertion of female gender values gravitated towards an essentialist concept of “Woman”, the most obvious aesthetic manifestation of which is the advancement of l’ecriture feminine and its associated discursive forms. While radical feminist essentialism was embraced in the context of an urgent political need to affirm sexual difference, it elided any differences that threatened the integrity of womanhood: differences of race, and of sexuality. Feminist separatism led to a politicized idea of lesbianism, but sublimated as female bonding and woman-identification: lesbian sexuality itself was a threat to the homogeneity of womanhood, introducing a multiplicity of sexual roles. More recently, lesbian theatre such as that centred upon the WOW Cafe’ in New York has used just this availability of multiple sexual roles to move beyond radical feminist ideology. Instead of a concept of the female as defined by sexual difference (which remains subordinate to the patriarchal dualism and so abets its mode of gender representation) they enact the female as the site of differences. Performers and audience participate in a foregrounding of culturally constructed gender roles by parading the interchangeability of “butch” and “femme” lesbian roles, generating a theatrical context in which femininity itself is represented as drag. This presents gender as a rigorously holistic site that recognizes the interference of sexual, racial, economic and cultural differences and by denaturalizing them, denies any essentialist concept of identity: it foregrounds the enculteration of gender by showing its polarities in competition with others in the Construction of subjectivity.

Gay theatre, and more particularly the “Theatre of the Ridiculous”, has also made vital use of the affirmation of role in its sexual politics -not that politics as such is manifested in a theatre whose fundamental aesthetic orientation, camp, is an absolute refusal of anything so earnest. The catalyst for this theatre was Jack Smith, whose pop art films Flaming Creatures and Normal Love established the most salient features of its sensibility: a spirit of travesty and the celebration of bad taste, sexual ambiguity and eroticism, and an extravagant flamboyance of manner. The Playhouse of the Ridiculous was established by John Vaccaro and Ronald Tavel in 1966, their first play being The Life of Lady Godiva. In their brief collaboration, Tavel and Vaccaro created a theatre in which contradiction and paradox were constitutive. It nihilistically exposed the pretensions of a humanity conceived of as irredeemably low, sordid and ridiculous, camping the ultimate illusion of love in an avowedly amoral burlesque. At the same time, it sustained a perversely ethical commitment to truth in its refusal of redemptive illusion; its insistence upon universal artifice propagated a resilient aestheticism, a real aspiration towards the beauty it seemed to deny; and out of this emerged an illicit sense of tragedy. Tavel left in 1967 and Charles Ludlam, who had been an actor in the group, became its new playwright. After two productions (Big Hotel and Conquest of the Universe), Ludlam also split with Vaccaro to found the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and launch a new production of the latter play under the title When Queens Collide. Vaccaro’s apparent talent for volatile collaboration was further manifested with the introduction of Kenneth Bernard, whose talents, particularly in The Moke-Eater (1968) and Night Club (1970), brought a nightmarish grotesque to the Ridiculous vision.

The camp sensibility has been well articulated by Susan Sontag, who tempers her appreciation of it with misgivings about its refusal of political engagement. But to withdraw so ostentatiously from the political arena is in itself a very political act, and equates directly with the rejection of condescending assimilation as a political goal by black nationalism and radical feminism. The nurturing of a camp sensibility is a far-reaching affirmation of difference, and the sexual role-play of transvestism and androgyny in which it delights compares with the feminist theatre’s redemption of sexuality from the binary opposition of biological gender. Charles Ludlam has identified the political significance of the Ridiculous theatre in just such terms: “Politics is about spheres of influence, and in that sense it is political. If a man plays Camille, for instance, you begin to think it’s horrible, but in the end you are either moved or won over. You believe in the character beyond the gender of the actor, and no one who has experienced that can go back.[20]

There is no question of disengagement in the Chicano theatre of Luis Valdez, established in Delano, California in 1965 explicitly to support the strike of Chicano field workers and the struggle to establish a farmworkers’ union. El Teatro Campesino recruited performers from among the workers themselves and their performances, usually given from the flatbed of a truck, were aimed unambiguously at sustaining the morale and political commitment of the strikers. Their ‘actos” relied upon broad comedy – slapstick, impersonations – and the use of stereotypes as the vehicle of political satire. Actors performed with signs around their necks designating them as Huelgista (striker), Patroncito (grower), Esquirol (strikebreaker/scab), and Contratista (contractor). The Teatro’s immersion in the community it served made audience participation intrinsic to its aesthetic in a pre-theatrical way It could never be for the East Coast performance groups: this Interactive solidarity is the characteristic vehicle of an anti-monistic, oppositional definition of interests. The actos are particularly concerned to resist any pernicious assimilation to the ideological perspective of the growers: in Las dos caras delpatroncito (The Two Faces of the Boss, 1965) the Esquirol is deluded into a subservient alliance with the Patroncito – whose mask he takes on. In Vietnam Campesino (1970), the Campesinos are shown to have more in common with the Vietnamese peasants than with the Anglos and the military who conspire to oppress them both. The very specific solidarity of the Campesinos took on larger cultural implications for the Chicanos, and an emergent cultural nationalism began to inform the plays. Stereotypes, functioning to define the strikers oppositionally, were supplemented by archetypes serving to reconnect the Chicanos to their cultural heritage. Alongside the actos the Teatro developed the corridos, stylized dramatizations of Mexican ballads, and the mitos, in which contemporary events were represented through ritual, legend and myths that located Chicano culture in a context of Aztec mythology and Mayan philosophy. In 1970, Valdez established El Centro Campesino Cultural as a collective dedicated to the promotion of Chicano cultural nationalism and the celebration of the barrio. But at the same time, the Teatro Campesino maintained a sense of the multiplicity of Chicano identity. The very fact of language guaranteed the prominence of this condition from the earliest actos: they moved freely between Spanlsh and English, accommodating non-English speakers through the transparency of their meaning and the extensive use of mime. Valdez took the syncretism by which Chicano culture contalns both its pre-Columbian and Christian heritages as a defining characteristic, finding parallels between the doubleness of the Mexican-American and that enshrined within Mexican culture itself in the system of Indian mythology. So the figure of Quetzalcoatl and the symbol of the Plumed Serpent come to express the possibility of a holistic reconciliation of the diverse elements of Chicano culture. Nor does this philosophy remain marginalized within that context: Zoot Suit, described by Valdez as an “American play”, reached Broadway in 1979. Valdez has since become involved in the film industry, the 1982 movie of Zoot Suit being a deliberate “mainstreaming” of his concept of Chicano cultural integrity in the furtherance of a holistic multiculturalism in American society at large.

Before forming El Teatro Campesino, Valdez had been briefly a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and had taken with him their concern with mime and commedia dell’arte techniques. The San Francisco Mime Troupe was founded by R.G. Davis in 1959, initially to explore the avant-garde possibilities of mime. The shift to commedia which began with The Dowry (1961) accompanied a movement out into the parks of San Francisco and the need to attract popular interest. Commedia techniques, the use of stock characters defined by masks and set piece situations allowing improvisational comedy and visual jokes (all drawing upon the foundations of the group’s background in mime) enabled the group to draw a crowd, sustain their attention and respond flexibly to the performance situation. Civil rights issues, Vietnam and repeated clashes with the authorities radicalized the group through the sixties, and their performance techniques were turned to political use in such plays as A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel (1965), which addressed racial oppression in Watts in anticipation of the riots there. In L’Amant Militaire (1967), Joan Holden adapted Goldoni to the needs of anti-Vietnam protest, at the same time taking the group beyond its pacifist assumptions towards active resistance. Accompanying this radicalization was a shift in the dynamics of the group itself, and Davis’s loss of authority led to his departure in 1970. The group subsequently became a collective, adopting an increasingly agit-prop stance in its attempts to reach a working-class audience. Instrumental in the split with Davis was an emergent feminist resistance to the patriarchal structure of the group, and their first post-Davis play, The Independent Female, or A Man Has His Pride (1970), articulated this concern in its attack upon male chauvinism; it also marked a further shift towards identification with popular audiences by replacing the stylistic framework of commedia with native melodrama. The group became committed to collective creation, producing didactic pieces on the methodology of subversion such as Meter Maid and Ripping Off Ma Bell (1970), and a further satire of Vietnam, The Dragon Lady’s Revenge (1971), which implicated the CIA in the Indo-China heroin trade. The group dedicated itself increasingly to the objective of political mobilization, explicitly conflating art and politics and regarding theatre as an articulation of political community, while Davis went into print to register his dissent from the group’s post-1970 orientations. Davis’s objections and the group’s responses as articulated by Joan Holden centre upon several aspects of the relation between political theatre and holistic principles. Davis was distressed by the loss of dialectics resulting from the group’s increasing didacticism, distinguishing sharply between their earlier political theatre, which retained an investigative function, and their later agit-prop, which merely supported an established agenda. Holden points out that The Independent Female was drastically revised after discussion with a committed feminist audience in which the play was severely criticized. But this illustration of the group’s continuing openness to political debate is extrinsic to their art, and in fact the criticism centred upon the way the play’s parody of melodrama tended to undermine its feminist message. In accepting the criticism, the group resolved the dualism of art and politics in favour of a monistic suppression of art. The issue of collective creation turned upon the same argument: Davis felt that it could only be a dissolution of specialized talents, the agent of a homogenizing mediocrity in the name of equality. Holden insisted that it did not function in this way, that it implied a levelling not of talents but of power relations: the process did not involve collectivized creative roles but, precisely, a system of “checks and balances”.[21] This appears to be a valid holistic framework, but it is vitiated by the fate of her own script for The Independent Female; and The Dragon Lady’s Revenge, which had five writers, was stylistically fragmentary in consequence. Ultimately, artistic criteria were not balanced by political Imperatives, but checked.

Probably the theatre group most associated with protest against the Vietnam war was Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, whose giant puppets paraded at many of the era’s marches and demonstrations. In the Bread and Puppet Theatre the developments of the aesthetic and political avant-gardes were most fully integrated, and for that reason its relationship to the competing frameworks of monistic, anti-monistic and holistic principles was exceptionally complex. It was founded in 1962, the name expressing Schumann’s belief that “theatre should be as basic as bread”,[22] that theatre should feed the mind just as the bread passed round by the group after performances fed the body. The Christian imagery expresses Schumann’s religious concept of art, its function as the framework for communality that religion once was, and indicates the group’s ambiguously holistic aspirations. In combination with (and perhaps opposition to) the theatre’s bread were its puppets: Schumann experimented a great deal with puppets and masks, from plaster face casts and skull masks to giant caricature figures like the “Shark Plane” and “Uncle Fatso” (instantly identified with Johnson); from Japanese Bunraku puppets to the sad, wise oriental faces and huge expressive hands of the “Gray Ladies”. Schumann has said that “alienation is automatic with puppets”,[23] and their aesthetic importance was fundamentally Brechtian. The group’s puppeteers generally worked in clear view of the audience, sharing with and exemplifying for them a critical distance from the puppets they manipulated. In the sixties the puppets served as vehicles for communication of a political content in allegory, dumb show and agit-prop sketches, and the aesthetics by which this was facilitated were the anti-monistic principles of Brechtian dissociation, resisting the illusionist conflation of life and art, actor and character. This dissociation ought to be assimilable to a properly holistic perspective in which it becomes a dialectic, but the religiosity of Schumann’s art appears to have worked against it. Stefan Brecht has shown that the group’s anti-war agitation was associated with its early liberal-pacifist, Old Left phase: and following the transition to radical resistance with the emergence of the New Left and such associated countercultural movements as the Yippies – the phase which marks the political equivalent of the anti-monism of their aesthetic – the Bread and Puppet Theatre gradually withdrew from the centre of political action. The group’s presence was greatest at the early parades, with Gas for Vietnam in Washington, 1965, or The Shark Plane in the 1966 Fifth Avenue Parade. Their Vietnam plays (Fire, A Man Says Goodbye to His Mother, Burning Towns, Johnny Comes Marching Home) tend to treat the war as archetypal, infused with the desire for transcendence of Schumann’s Christian mysticism. This sat uneasily with a climate of political confrontation, and in 1970 Schumann abandoned New York for a farm in Vermont.

The subsequent development of Bread and Puppet was towards a more and more inclusive concept of theatre. Schumann declared, “We will build a circus … and in the circus we will demonstrate the whole world”.[24] In 1975 Schumann staged a bicentennial “Domestic Resurrection Circus” on his Vermont farm. The event included pageants, processions, tableaux, impromptu and set piece performances, sculpture, dance, music, songs, feasts and circus in a festival based upon the structure of medieval mystery play cycles. Despite the formal diversity, the impetus towards a romanticized idyll of communion was pervasive, and Schumann’s holistic aesthetic seems always to translate into a monistic political idealism. An oppositional politics does remain in evidence: Schumann pointedly centred his bicentennial celebration upon the American Indian, upholding native American cultural and philosophical traditions. But even this is drawn into the prevailing dissolution of differences by an appropriation of the unifying symbolic role of the circle and the principle of oneness with the environment that characterizes American Indian philosophy. This does not function within opposition to serve a sustainable anti-monism, but diffuses into a generalized spirit of affirmation: it is at least questionable whether the anti-monism of political opposition is resilient enough in Schumann’s theatre to prevent its overriding holistic impulse from reverting into an ideologically entopic non-differentiation.

The case of the Bread and Puppet Theatre serves to illustrate a particular dilemma of political theatre. Underlying radical political stances is the ideal of a truly holistic social structure enabling equality without oppressive conformism, whether this is articulated in cultural, economic or sexual arenas. But the expression of political radicalism is necessarily oppositional, characterized by the anti-monistic phase needed to distinguish its always deferred holistic ideals from monistic assimilation to prevailing structures. Because artistic freedom is rather less embattled than certain political freedoms, and because political opposition requires a sense of oppositional community, the aesthetics of radical political theatre very often share the holistic paradigm by which performance theatre sought unity with its audiences. But these holistic paradigms are themselves liable to at least two fatal distortions: to become monistic, and so repeat the power structures they purport to oppose; or to become universal, subsuming political anti-monism in an inevitably premature transcendent unity no longer capable of any opposition at all.

4. Aesthetic Orientations

Radical theatre provided a public forum for the activism of the sixties, but it also fostered a more private aesthetic attuned to the shift in cultural climate that placed the self at the centre of attention in the seventies. Two figures who exemplify this aesthetic orientation are Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman, both of whom established themselves in the late sixties as amateur directors exploring an intensely personal theatrical imagery. In 1968 Robert Wilson set up the Byrd Hoffman Foundation, dedicated to running workshops and giving performances in theatre, dance and related arts. Byrd Hoffman was the name of a dancer who in 1958 had helped Wilson overcome a speech impediment that had afflicted him up to the age of seventeen. The therapy, which was based on the release of tension through physical exercises, was later applied by Wilson in his own work with brain damaged children, and had a significant place in his concept of theatre and the displacement of language within it. Principles of the juxtaposition of images – both simultaneously and sequentially – operate centrally in Wilson’s theatre, as in the Happenings. The plays do often have representational aspects, but these are in the service of an emphasis on the present moment of aesthetic experience. His concerns are form and rhythm, shape and sound, rather than character, plot, scene and dialogue. His performers, like those involved in Happenings, were (at least in the earlier plays) non-professionals, and appear generally as themselves, not in character.

In its visual character, Wilson’s theatre is reminiscent of a masque: he uses the stage as a canvas on which complex images are constructed and presented much as in a tableau vivant. Wilson trained as an architect and aspired briefly to be a painter before settling upon the theatre, and he proceeds in the terms of those disciplines. The space of the stage is primary in his plays: the action is restricted to slow, carefully choreographed movements through the spatial order. These are frequently diagonal traverses of the constructed planes of the stage image, which is formally characterized by a perspectivist layering of visual elements. The temporal dimension of the plays is abstracted from ordinary experience by its lack of causal logic (there is no narrative coherence to their action, formal unity being located in the development of images); by the slowness of the action (performers moving with varying degrees of slow motion); and by the extraordinary length of the performances. Wilson’s early plays each incorporated their predecessors, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969, 4 1/2 hrs) including The King of Spain (1969) as its second act, and the 1971 version of Deafman Glance (8 1/2 hrs) incorporating Freud as its fourth act. The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973) included Freud, Deafman Glance and material from Overture (1972) and Ka Mountain (1972) in its seven acts, and lasted twelve hours. Ka Mountain itself lasted twenty-four hours in Paris, and in Iran extended over seven days. This extraordinary assault on the audience’s capacities of attention is very much akin to the strategies by which the Happenings brought the powers of awareness into question, and the intended effect is the same: to make explicit the operations of awareness in the audience to the extent that this becomes itself the argument of the play, which addresses itself to its reform.

Wilson’s plays make no statements, offer no nugget of meaning: they offer visions, and the sense that they are significant – that they are meaningful, but quite possibly the unique significations of their meaning.[25] This synonymy of the play with its significance contrasts with the dualism of referenial meaning: it is an imminent holism antithetical to the functioning of language. Stefan Brecht has characterized Wilson’s project as the development of a “right~brain dominated theatre”,[26] structured according to the faculties associated with the right side of the brain, which is visual, intuitive, imaginative and synthetic in its operations. Verbal, causal, logical and analytical faculties are characteristic of the left brain, which is therefore commonly the site of language disabilities – and the attempt to create a theatre which circumvents them has direct links with the therapeutic strategies Wilson learned from Byrd Hoffman. The right brain is primarily visual, but also tactile, aural and conceptual: the common feature of its faculties is synthetic apprehension. A right~brain theatre must therefore be pre-eminently holistic, creating and apprehending wholes not by the linear accumulation of discrete units of imagery but as gestallen, in one. This model of theatre involves the displacement of language, and in Wilson’s early plays words are used more as aural phenomena than as agents of meaning. But ultimately a holistic concept of theatrical apprehension must synthesize the right- and left-brain modes themselves. Such is the development in Wilson’s theatre that began with A Letter for Queen Victoria (1974), in which Stefan Brecht, who was directly involved, locates a new concern to engage with linguistic meaning. For this play, as in the subsequent $-Value of Man (1975), Wilson used Christopher Knowles, a brain-damaged boy, as the mediator between play and audience and between modes of understanding. But in his mediation Knowles emerged as a superior-victim, accentuating rather than resolving the opposition: Wilson’s attempt to incorporate language tended to be dominated by the need to subvert its authority. The tension persists through Einstein on the Beach (1976, his best known work, augmented by the music and lyrics of Philip Glass) and the more direct treatment of language in I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating (1977), which ironizes the structure of dialogue. The difficulty would appear to be inherent in the project of a holistic model of theatrical meaning: because of the self-reflexive turn by which Wilson’s theatre addresses the very faculties that conceived it, the holistic model itself is constituted by its dualistic opposition to analytical orientations.

The link between Wilson’s theatre and that of Foreman is quite close: both present an evolving series of complex images upon the stage without recourse to any logic of narrative or thematic unity, or indeed any inherent purposiveness that could imbue it with communicative intent. Both are therefore ultimately concerned with the faculties and nature of awareness. While Wilson’s theatre does not present itself as a specific awareness, however, Foreman’s is offered, by its contextual framing and Foreman’s own presence as the orchestrator of each performance, as the documentation of his own. Foreman’s proximity to Wilson is apparent in his favourable review of The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud in terms of the conceptual apparatus by which he explains his own theatre. Foreman contrasts Wilson’s approach with the traditional concern to evoke specific emotion in response to a specific object, identifying instead “a non-manipulative aesthetic which would see art create a ‘field’ situation within which the spectator can examine himself (as preceptor)”.[27] The role of the spectator, self-consciously formulating a response to non- or multiply-determined phenomena, is synthesized with that of the artist. The resistance to communicated meaning is also a programmatic attempt to transcend the opposition between art and life: Foreman explicitly equates the “real” with the “impenetrable”. This is not to say that meaning, or at least its aura, is excluded: he describes the play’s “most powerful” last act, for example, as a twentieth century nativity scene. But meaning is itself conceived of as a field, evoking a “whole spectrum of feeling”, in which is epitomized “the freedom-bestowing alm of art”.[28]

Foreman’s avant-garde work has been performed under the auspices of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, his first play, Angelface, appearing in 1968. His Ontological-Hysteric style was established in Total Recall (Sophia=(Wisdom): Part 2) (1970), HOTEL CHINA (1971), Sophia=(wisdom) Part 3: The Cliffs (1972), Vertical Mobility (Sophia=(wisdom): Part 4) (1974) and PAIN(T) (1974): visually, it was characterized by an increasingly deep, narrow stage, divided into frames; strings linking props (and sometimes actors); and coloured lights, buzzers, taped dialogues and projected text multiplying the dimensions of the presentation. Foreman’s premise was to break down the theatre into its elemental structure, and treat those elements – story, action, sound, light, composition, gesture – “in terms of the smallest building block units, the basic cells of the perceived experience of both living and art-making”.[29] He has also termed his theatre “polyphonic”, to indicate the way these elements work to fragment each other leaving the spectator “relatively free from empathy and identification”.[30] The continuity with the Happenings is very evident: Foreman’s art is atomized in order to assert a universality of phenomena subject to the synthetic attentions of consciousness with which he is preoccupied. Gertrude Stein was another vital influence upon his concept of theatre, in particular her distinction between “entity” writing and “identity” writing and the whole chain of oppositions it subordinates. Foreman’s allegiance to entity writing is to a concept of art as a pure thing-in-itself, and so characterized by the collapse of traditional theatre’s formative dualisms: it is timeless, present and immediate; a discontinuous, organic process rather than The Slave of causal relations; an actuality rather than a reconstruction; an introspective consideration of the human mind rather than the social dynamics of human nature. The continuous present of Stein’s landscape plays is the space in which his work unfolds; it is also incorporated into his method of composition, which is foregrounded both in the plays themselves and in his considerable theoretical output. One such piece declares his belief in “the efficacy of false starts” – Stein’s “beginning again and again” – a principle which aims at sustaining the field of possibility beyond the process of creation: “My habit is to try and write BEFORE writing … through such an ‘I MIGHT of writing, the rest of the world of the not-written is still somehow available … ” [31] The rationale for sustaining attention to the process of creation within the work itself is precisely that this process is not unique to the artist in question (myself) but typical of the building up which goes on through all modes of coming-into-being”.[32] Foreman’s aim is to show “how it is with us, in consciousness … moment-by-moment”, emphasizing the interaction between consciousness and reality. The general collapse of theoretical dualisms in his art serves to concentrate all dynamic tension upon this relation, which is treated holistically: he locates his plays “where event undergoes its sudden flashlike transformation into idea … there on that level, with the process rather than before (in event) or after (in idea) … in that place where sense arises”.[33]

Behind this orientation lies a polemic against art that “tries to convince (usually in the realm of feeling)” and the imperative towards mastery it implies. Most theatre, he urges, is “subtly enslaving to those who ‘make the effort’ not to be bored by what they already know to be true (i.e. their own emotional responses to murders, loves, betrayals, righteous indignation in the face of injustice, and all those other fine things that classical art is always ‘about’)”.[34] Foreman therefore chooses to locate his theatre at the point “where signification makes its choices,’ and this situation, rather than the hermeneutic activity that would lead beyond it, is its ultimate goal: “The choices themselves aren’t the important thing, but the being there, where everything is available, where all options are still present, that is the DELIGHT! In the MIND! Where one can laugh and be wise and free and in paradise!”[35] This is the highest reach of the holistic aspiration, as a paradise of suspended potentialities, a sort of negative capability, in which is achieved a “distribution of the self over the spread network of what is available”. Implicit in such an approach to theatre is a concept of failure, of which (Foreman acknowledges) his work is itself a document. The fall from paradise is a necessary consequence of the admission that “it ALWAYS makes sense. Sense can’t be avoided”.[36] Themes, conventionally understood, do emerge. Foreman himself identifies as examples the exploration of the relation of knowing and dying to habit and convention in Pandering to the Masses (1975), or the urge to tumescence of “body-things” as they try to swamp mind-things In Rhoda in Potatoland (1975). But more fundamentally, there is a selfreflexiveness in Foreman’s project which must necessarily displace its principles into products: “the writing is generated in a certain way which ends up producing structures with a form and texture which is the very embodiment of the theories and goals which are the ‘reasons for doing the writing”‘.[37] Accordingly, the resistance to “mastery”, to the delineation of specific meaning, becomes in itself “the meaning”. Commenting on his use of disjunction to resist unified meaning by actively engaging the spectator within a polysomic field, he says: “To create that field (rather than allowing the consciousness to be hypnotized) my plays keep ‘changing the subject.’ But is it changed? Since the subject is the field …”.[38] As a record of the impossibility of its own aspirations, Foreman’s theatre is a compelling example of the paralysis of endless self-transcendence induced by a holistic impulse turned inward.

In 1981, Richard Schechner published an important two-part essay entitled “The Decline and Fall of the (American) Avant-Garde”. The essay provoked a vociferous response, to the effect that the avant-garde was very far from in decline. Perhaps Schechner’s title was wrong: what he does describe, with a clear awareness of his own share of the responsibility, is the demise of the holistic aspirations that animated radical theatre in the sixties and seventies. Taking the issue of creative control as his benchmark, he acknowledges a wilful confusion on the part of directors between holistic collective creation and an individualistic appropriation of the creative authority of writers. This paradigm of the individualist canker within communitarianism underlies the decline of performance theatre into the “extreme personalism” of autobiographical solo performance; the increasing marginalization of the theatre as a political forum and model of community; and the introversion of theatrical aesthetics in the apotheosis of subjectivity. But Schechner recognizes, in his own terms, the abused distinction at the root of these transformations: “A director is concerned with the holistic nature of the production … It’s much different to make a part into the whole than to make a whole from many parts”.[39]

Even supposing a decline in radical theatre, at least in terms of the number of significant groups and their level of activity, its worth cannot be measured without considering its relation to the mainstream In American theatre. Sam Shepard, for example, emerged as a major playwright directly out of the avant-garde envIronment off-off-Broadway. He was closely associated with the Open Theatre, and has since collaborated with Joseph Chaikin in Tongues (1978) and Savage/Love (1979). His ironic view of the Happenings and the radical belief in performance as event-in-itself does not diminish the clear parallels in his own work, in which character, action, dialogue are not representational but presented, as material for the engagement of the imagination. His plays are explorations of consciousness his own, as his frequently personal imagery indicates, but also his audiences’, invoked in the process of imposing coherence upon the fields of his symbolic play. This form of audience relation also constitutes his qualification of the more overt strategies of audience involvement practised by performance theatre groups (which was the issue at the centre of his disagreement with Richard Schechner over the Performance Group’s production of The Tooth of Crime in 1973). Again, his concern with language as sound, with its rhythms and with its force as incantation, is recognizably related to the radical theatre’s explorations in language. In this respect David Mamet, by now equally canonical, might be invoked. Mamet’s metatheatrical preoccupations in A Life in the Theatre (1976), which played with the ubiquity of role and performance, responds to (and inverts) the radical theatre’s fundamental insistence upon various forms of the conflation of theatre with life; but a more specific connection may be found in his attitude to language. The naturalistic aura of Mamet’s dialogue should not obscure the fact that he is vitally concerned with language in its own right, and in particular with aspects of its opacity to communication – the same emphasis upon the non-signifying surface that had preoccupied the avant-garde. Mamet’s use of language often subordinates the advancement of the dialogue to essentially musical criteria, especially in such early plays as Duck Variations (1972). The opaque surface of language, divorced from its referents, serves as a defence against problematic emotions in Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974); it furthers the transposition of the rhetoric of business onto the world of crime in American Buffalo (1975); and it facilitates the appropriation of unquestioned values to the salesmen’s patter in Glengarry Glen Ross (1983). Increasingly the dramatic context frames and ironizes linguistic opacity; the theatrical premise remains rooted in the radical loss of faith in language that occurred in the sixties.

The context of political radicalism implicit in that remark is pertinent to other eminent contemporary playwrights. August Wilson, for example, who achieved recognition with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985) and has since won Pulitzer Prizes for Fences and The Piano Lesson (in 1987 and 1990), is a more introspective heir to the angry separatism of the Black Arts Movement. As well as the inevitable, acknowledged influence of Baraka, there are echoes of Bullins’ twentieth-century cycle in his basically naturalistic dramas, which are nonetheless similarly conceived of as an allegorical history of the black experience through each decade of the twentieth century. Wilson’s stature as a playwright rests squarely upon his own talents; but the process of racial self-examination his plays engage in is both more measured and more secure in addressing an establishment audience than would have been possible without the accumulated weight of oppositional radical black theatre. A similar argument might be advanced concerning contemporary women playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein and Marsha Norman: both invoke the material of feminist polemics in their plays without finding it necessary to maintain a stance hostile to the theatrical establishment. Wasserstein, in Uncommon Women and Others (1978) and Isn’t It Romantic (1983), was able to accommodate feminist themes to commercial success by wrapping them in the conciliatory ambience of comedy. Her 1989 Pulitzer Prize winning The Heidi Chronicles makes the same use of collusive wit (rather than the oppositional satire characteristic of radical theatre) to create empathy with a protagonist who functions less as a vehicle of feminism than as an exploration of the individual woman’s problematic relation to that context. Marsha Norman, in Getting Out (1979) and ‘night Mother (1983, Pulitzer Prize), transforms feminist concerns into dramas of the human condition. In this way the establishment’s anti-separatist demand for universalism is satisfied without negating the specificity of the female perspective: despite its exclusive focus upon the drama of a mother-daughter relationship, ‘night Mother was not perceived as a feminist play. While radical feminists remain suspicious of the terms of this canonization (noting, for example, that it depends upon a substitution of the isolated self for the communal emphasis of radical theatre groups), it nonetheless testifies to the effectiveness of their efforts to affirm the autonomy and intrinsic value of woman.

The radical theatres of the sixties and seventies were a vital and significant force for the interrogation of received notions of both the forms and the uses of theatre. Their persistent exploration of the latent possibilities in all aspects of the relation between theatre and life, individual and community, performance and experience, created an environment unusually rich in theatrical possibility. They produced some memorable theatre, and much more that is consigned to obscurity: but they also changed the ground on which theatre in general is created, and it is this enabling function of the radical theatre that is its most considerable legacy.

5. Guide to Further Reading

For full bibliographical details, see the appropriate references in the Notes, as indicated.

The most comprehensive guide to American radical theatre is volume three of C.W.E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), entitled Beyond Broadway, which includes extensive discussion of performance theatre and useful chapters on most of the other theatres treated here. Margaret Croyden, Lunatics, Lovers and Poets,[6] offers a more intimate perspective upon some of the same material, and is particularly good on performance theatre and its sources. James Roose-Evans, Experimental Theatre from Stanislavsky to Today, rev. ed. (London: Studio Vista, 1973), also offers chapters on the influence of Artaud and Grotowski, gives special notice to the Bread and Puppet Theatre, and surveys “America Today”. A more detailed analysis of the range of American radical theatre is Theodore Shank, American Alternative Theatre (London: Macmillan, 1982). John Lahr, Up Against the Fourth Wall[8] is a valuable source for first hand accounts of performance theatre productions. Zoltan Szilassy, American Theatre of the 1960s (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), provides an overview in the context of the Happenings and new performance theories, and takes notice of “regional alternative theatre”. For discussions centred upon the playwright, see Ruby Cohn, New American Dramatists 1960-1980 (London: Macmillan, 1982), who includes the Becks under this heading. A valuable reference work with a similar emphasis upon the playwright is D.L. Kirkpatrick, ed., Contemporary Dramatists.[29] Due to the nature of some of the theatre discussed eye-witness accounts of performances are a vital resource: Croyden, Shank and Lahr are valuable in this respect, as is Leslie Epstein, “Walking Wounded, Living Dead”, New American Review, 6 (1969), 230-51, which is a detailed account of the Living Theatre’s Mysteries, Paradise Now, Antigone, and Frankenstein. A useful anthology is John Lahr and Jonathan Price, eds., The Great American Life Show,[7] which includes The Serpent and the schedule of Mysteries as well as more readily available plays by Bullins and Baraka. TDR (Tulane Drama Review/The Drama Review) is the most important periodical for both contemporary reviews of avant-garde performances and retrospective analysis. Performing Arts Journal has a great deal of valuable material, and Theatre Quarterly is occasionally useful. The New York Times also gave significant notice to many of the groups represented here.

The three essential sources for the Happenings are Michael Kirby, ed., Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology,[2] Allan Kaprow, Assemblages, Environments & Happenings,[3] and Richard Kostelanetz, The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings, Kinetic Environments and Other Mixed-Means Performances (1968; London: Pitman, 1970). Kirby includes an important introduction, statements by artists and descriptions of Happenings (including “18 Happenings in 6 Parts”); Kaprow’s format is similar, but with little overlap of selected material. Both are generously illustrated. Kostelanetz provides a theoretical introduction that follows Kirby and Kaprow, and includes conversations with such figures as Cage, Halprin, Rauschenberg and Kaprow himself. Further contextualization is offered in Zoltan Szilassy, “The European Origins of Happenings and New Performance Theories”, in Tibor Frank, ed., The Orgins and Originality of American Culture (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1984), pp. 431-8.

Two primary texts for the Living Theatre are Judith Malina, The Enormous Despair (New York: Random House, 1972), and Julian Beck, The Life of the Theatre: the Relation of the Artist to the Struggle of the People (San Francisco: City Lights, 1972). TDR published their interview with Richard Schechner, “Containment is the Enemy”,[10] and “Paradise Now Notes”, TDR, 43 (1969), pp. 90107. Another interview was published as “Radicalizing the Classics”, Performing Arts Journal, 14 (1981), pp. 26-40. Periodical criticism includes Saul Gottlieb, “The Living Theatre in Exile”, TDR, 32 (1966), pp. 137-52; Lyon Phelps, “Brecht at the Living Theatre”, TDR, 37 (1967), pp. 125-31; an important review by Stefan Brecht, “Revolution at the Brooklyn Academy of Music”, TDR, 43 (1969), pp. 46-73; and Paul Ryder Ryan, “The Living Theatre in Brazil”, TDR, 51(1971), pp. 21-30. Note also Leslie Epstein, as noted above, who is a valuable witness. Joseph Chalkin, The Presence of the Actor,[5] provides insights into the workings of the Open Theatre. Several Chaikin interviews are also worth consultation: “The Actor’s Involvement”, TDR, 38 (1968), pp. 147-51; interview and “Fragments”, TDR, 43 (1969), pp. 141-7; and “Closing the Open Theatre”, Theatre Quarterly, 16 (1974-5), pp. 36-43. Also relevant are Jean-Claude van Itallie, “Playwright at Work: Off Off-Broadway”, TDR, 32 (1966), pp. 154-78; and Roberta Sklar, “Terminal‘, interview, 149-157. Light on the Performance Group is provided by Richard Schechner’s substantial theoretical writings, collected in Public Domain,[4] and Performance Theory, rev. and expanded ed. (New York: Routledge, 1988). Of particular importance are “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre”;[14] “Speculations on Sexuality, Performance and Politics”, TDR, 44 (1969), pp. 89-110; “Audience Participation”, TDR, 51 (1971), pp. 73-89; and the two-part “The Decline and Fall of the (American) Avant-Garde”, Performing Arts Journal, 14 (1981), pp. 48-63, and 15 (1981), pp. 9-19. Stefan Brecht’s running commentary on Dionysus in 69 [11] is an essential critical review.

A good account of the black theatre of the period is provided by Genevieve Fabre, Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary AfroAmerican Theatre, trans. Melvin Dixon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). Addison Gayle, Jr., ed., The Black Aesthetic (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971), has a useful drama section (pp. 263-330); and Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (London: W.H. Allen, 1969) includes several chapters directly pertinent to the theatre. The development of feminist theatre is charted in Dinah Luise Leavitt, Feminist Theatre Groups (Jefferson: McFarland, 1980), and Elizabeth J. Natalle, Feminist Theatre: A Study in Persuasion (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1985); Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), offers a more sophisticated theoretical analysis. The Theatre of the Ridiculous is most comprehensively treated in Stefan Brecht, Queer Theatre (1978; London: Methuen 1986), one of his series on “The Original Theatre of the City of New York: From the Mid-60s to the Mid-70s”; and a valuable interview with Charles Ludiam appeared in Performing Arts Journal.[20] Renate von Bardeleben, Dietrich Briesemeister and Juan Bruce-Novoa, eds., Missions in Conflict: Essays on U.S.-Mexiean Relations and Chicano Culture (Tubingen: Narr, 1986), includes three essays on El Teatro Campesino, and Luis Valdez’ own perspective in the early years is represented in “Teatro Campesino: Interview”, TDR, 36 (1967), pp. 70-80. An essential source for the San Francisco Mime Troupe is by founder R.G. Davis, The San Francisco Mime Troupe: The First Ten Years (Palo Alto: Ramparts Press, 1975); see also his exercise in self definition against performance theatre, “The Radical Right in the American Theatre”.[1] The causes of his split with the group are set out in “Politics, Art, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe”, Theatre Quarterly, 18 (1975), pp. 26-7; and responded to by Joan Holden, “Collective Playrnaking: the Why and the How”.[21] Holden’s case is supported by Theodore Shank, “Political Theatre: The San Francisco Mime Troupe”, TDR, 61 (1974), pp. 110-17. The Bread and Puppet Theatre is exhaustively treated in Stefan Brecht, Peter Shumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre (London: Methuen, 1988), two fat volumes of Brecht’s dense annotational prose. Peter Schumann’s important interview, “The Bread and Puppet Theatre”,22 can be supplemented by his “Bread and Puppets”, TDR, 47 (1970), p. 35; the same issue includes George Dennison’s review of Fire, pp. 36-43, and a substantial essay by Stefan Brecht, “Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre”, pp. 44-90. See also John Townsen’s review, “Bread and Puppet’s Stations of the Cross”, TDR, 55 (1972), pp. 57-70; and especially Florence Falk, “Bread and Puppet: Domestic Resurrection Circus”.[24]

Robert Wilson’s work is well analyzed from close range in Stefan Brecht, The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson.[25] See also Louis Aragon, “An Open Letter to Andre’ Breton … on Robert Wilson’s Deafman Glance”, Performing Arts Journal 1 (1976), pp. 3-7. Richard Foreman’s own essays are essential to an understanding of his theatre: see Reverberation Machines,[30] which includes playscripts. Kate Davy, Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), is the best critical analysis, including useful illustrations and descriptions of performances. See also Michael Kirby, “Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre”, TDR, 58 (1973), pp. 5-32; and Florence Falk, “Ontological-Hysteric Theater: Setting as Consciousness”, Performing Arts Journal, 1 (1976), pp. 51-61.

6. Notes

  1. R. G. Davis, “The Radical Right in the American Theatre”, Theatre Quarterly, 19 (1975), p. 67. Back
  2. Michael Kirby, ed., Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1965). Back
  3. Allan Kaprow, Assemblages, Environments & Happenings (New York: Abrams, n. d. [1966]), p. 195. Back
  4. Richard Schechner, “Exit Thirties, Enter Sixties”, in Public Domain: Essays on the Theatre (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), p. 7. Back
  5. Joseph Chaikin, The Presence of the Actor (New York: Atheneum, 1969). Back
  6. Jerzy Grotowski, 1969 interview quoted in Margaret Croyden, Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: The Contemporay Experimental Theatre (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 166. Back
  7. Jean-Claude van Itallie, The Serpent, in John Lahr and Jonathan Price, eds., The Great American Life Show: 9 Plays From the AvantGarde Theatre (New York: Bantam, 1974), p. 94. Back
  8. Joseph Chaikin, quoted in John Lahr, Up Against the Fourth Wall: Essays on Modern Theater (New York: Grove, 1970), p. 173. Back
  9. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 124. Back
  10. Judith Malina and Julian Beck, “Containment is the Enemy”, interview with Richard Schechner, TDR, 43 (1969), pp. 24-5. Back
  11. Stefan Brecht, rev. of Dionysus in 69, TDR, 43 (1969), p. 163. Back
  12. “Containment is the Enemy”, p. 35. Back
  13. Ibid., p. 34. Back
  14. Richard Schechner, “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre”, 39 (1968), p. 50. Back
  15. “Containment is the Enemy”, p. 26. Back
  16. Rev. of Paradise Now, New York Times, 28 Sept. 1969, p. 27. Back
  17. The Theater and Its Double, p. 126. Back
  18. Ibid., p. 7. Back
  19. The Presence of the Actor, p. 25. Back
  20. Charles Ludlam, interview, Performing Arts Journal, 3 (Spring/Summer 1978), p. 78. Back
  21. Joan Holden, “Collective Playmaking: the Why and the How”, Theatre Quarterly, 18 (1975), p. 30. Back
  22. Peter Schumann, “With the Bread and Puppet Theatre”, interview, TDR, 38 (1968), p. 64. Back
  23. Ibid., p. 70. Back
  24. Schumann, quoted in Florence Falk, “Bread and Puppet: Domestic Resurrection Circus”, Performing Arts Journal, 2 (Spring 1977), pp. 20-21. Back
  25. Stefan Brecht, The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson (1978; Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989), p. 9. Back
  26. Ibid., p. 10. Back
  27. Richard Foreman, rev. of The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, Village Voice, 1Jan. 1970, rpt. in The Theatre of Visions, p. 425. Back
  28. Ibid., p. 427. Back
  29. Richard Foreman, quoted in D. L. Kirkpatrick, ed., Contemporary Dramatists, 4th ed. (Chicago: St. James Press, 1988), p. 157. Back
  30. Richard Foreman, Reverberation Machines: Later Plays and Essays (New York: Station Hill, 1985), p. viii. Back
  31. Ibid, p. 239. Back
  32. Contemporary Dramatists, p. 157. Back
  33. Reverberation Machines, pp. 190-1. Back
  34. Ibid., p. 235. Back
  35. Ibid., p. 191. Back
  36. Ibid., p. 190. Back
  37. Ibid., p. 238. Back
  38. Ibid., p. 193. Back
  39. Richard Schechner, “The Decline and Fall of the (American) Avant-Garde, Performing Arts Journal, 15 (1981), pp. 11-12. Back

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Ralph Willett, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

BAAS Pamphlet No. 23 (First Published 1992)

ISBN: 0 946488 13 4
  1. Introduction
  2. Dashiel Hammett: Taking the Lid Off Life
  3. Raymond Chandler: The Exaggeration of the Possible
  4. Ross MacDonald: Unhappy Families
  5. Honky-Tonking and working Out
  6. Crime Comes to Harlem And LA
  7. Miami Blues
  8. Urban Deserts and Desert Landscapes
  9. Lay That Pistol Down, Babe
  10. Conclusion
  11. Guide to Further Reading
  12. Notes
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.

hard-boiled fiction: a tough unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction uses graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.
New Encyclopedia Britannica

1. Introduction

Twenty years ago, over-reacting to the popularity of Mickey Spiliane’s books, George Grella announced that the day of the private detective was over[1]: he had been replaced by a monster of sadism and fascism. The recent renaissance of the hard-boiled novel has shown this assertion to be premature. One explanation for the revival is that the termination of the Cold War has brought about the eclipse of the spy thriller creating more space in the market for the fictionalization of crime which, as in the period of Al Capone and Prohibition, fills the newspaper headlines. Another factor is the continued availability of new landscapes and settings: run down, rusty Detroit, the glitzy casinos of Atlantic City and the pastel Art Deco of Miami Beach all feature in the thrillers of Elmore Leonard. Racial and gendered minorities have found voice and visibility in Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Policemen and the homosexual detectives – male and female – of Joseph Hansen, Barbara Wilson, Mary Wings and others. These examples and the creation of a German, American-style private eye Bernie Gunther by the British writer Philip Kerr indicate the extent to which the formulas and restraints of the genre can be stretched for particular purposes and meanings.

Yet perhaps the most compelling reason for the recent popularity is provided, ironically, by Grella himself. Emphasizing the romantic and literary nature of hard-boiled fiction, he refers to it as “an expanding metaphor for universal sinfulness” (a perception especially applicable to the later novels of Ross Macdonald). In the contemporary world a dominant example of such a metaphor is the image of the city as a waste land devastated by drugs, violence, pollution, garbage and a decaying physical infrastructure. Only detectives, cops and their surrogates temporarily check the enfolding chaos, but ancient moral oversimplifications are out of place and the role of the detective figure is increasingly problematized.

Todorov’s claim that to improve upon detective fiction is to write “literature” is a highly questionable and elitist construction of categories of discourse. The process of undermining that position was beginning in the late 20s when Hammett was able to move rapidly from the pulp aura of Black Mask to the respectability of publisher A.A. Knopf. Hard-boiled detective fiction in the twentieth century both emulates High Art Literature and challenges the hierarchies produced by categories through intertextuality. The blurring of the distinction between Popular and High Art in the work of such novelists as Robert B. Parker enables hard-boiled fiction to be regarded as a new hybrid and self-consciously intertextual form.

Hard-boiled fiction has repeatedly acknowledged earlier American literature and culture, in particular the self-reliance and stoicism of the frontier experience and the Puritan perspective of seeing life as moral drama, which animate such works of classic American literature as Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter. The archetype for the hard-boiled detective has been identified by Henry Bamford Parkes as Natty Bumppo in his important essay, “Metamorphoses of Leatherstocking”. In The Drowning Pool (1950) Ross Macdonald’s sleuth Lew Archer refers to himself as Leatherstocking, and in the later novel, The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), uses the name Bumppo. The two idealised figures of detective and pioneer share a multiplicity of characteristics: professional skills, physical courage affirmed as masculine potency, fortitude, moral strength, a fierce desire for justice, social marginality and a degree of anti-intellectualism. Bouncing between two worlds they are fully integrated into neither. However the politics of deference which Leatherstocking represents has long since disappeared. Hard-boiled dicks are conspicuously bloody minded towards official institutions and their agents, such as the incompetent, brutal or corrupt police officers who enforce “the law”.

The antipathy towards the intellectual and the scholarly (implied in the very term hard-boiled) has diminished and been reversed. It was in any case often deflected towards the target of the sexually aberrant or merely effete, such as the men in Chandler’s novels who have carefully manicured nails or who use cologne and jewelry. The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940) provide instances which document this manoeuvre: In the latter novel Marlowe describes the living quarters of Lindsay Marriott (ex-Harvard),

The carpet almost tickled my ankles. There was a concert grand piano closed down. On one corner of it stood a tall silver vase on a strip of peach-coloured velvet and a single yellow rose in the vase…. It was the kind of room where people sit with their feet in their laps and sip absinthe through lumped sugar and talk with high affected voices and sometimes just squeak. It was a room where anything could happen except work.[2]

The hard-boiled detective novel is one of the few fictional genres where the depiction of work is a major concern, sometimes pushing the original crime to the periphery. The central focus becomes the detective at his job, reflecting, phoning, making notes, following leads and suspects, interviewing witnesses – and engaging in violent acts. The fictional PI, Kinsey Millhone, gives an ironic account of herself at work in A is for Alibi (1986): “The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years.” (pp.30-31,) A notably economical use of workplaces is found in Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective (1984) when the print workshops run by a left wing group and a lesbian collective become the setting both for murder and for the exploration of sexual and other issues.

In the case of Hammett’s Continental Op, who skilfully elicits information from telephonists, cashiers, taxi drivers and transport workers, professionalism and satisfaction with the work coincide, as the Op himself announces in “The Gutting of Couffignal” (1925). Unlike his successors, he works for employers, the Continental Detective Agency, a business organization representing in microcosm the capitalist state. It is based on Pinkerton’s for whom Hammett was an agent both before and after World War Two and whose motto “We Never Sleep” along with its logo of a staring eye implied the unseen surveillance of a security network. Cold and cynical, the Op demonstrates how devotion to his job makes him both an ideal employee as well as an amoral, irresponsible manipulator.

Foucault described detective fiction as the discourse of the law; others have regarded it similarly as the re-affirmation of the socioeconomic order. The fictional narrative in the hard-boiled novel reproduces the bourgeois individualistic diegesis of capitalist society, discovering crime but mystifying and concealing class, race and gender relations. Traditionally however the hard-boiled detective has been a kind of people’s champion answering, as Philip Marlowe does, the cries of voices heard in the darkness of night. As the voice of the voiceless he appeared to reverse the powerlessness of his audience and to provide a kind of revenge for the betrayals of the democratic promise which the class system continued to commit. At the end of the nineteenth century, the fervent Populist and dystopian writer Ignatius Donnelly in his novel Caesar’s Column (1891) asserted that “the most utterly useless, destructive and damnable crop a country can grow is – millionaires”. This populist sentiment would not register as incongruous in the hard-boiled novel, a genre in which distrust of the wealthy is a recurrent motif: in Chapter 39 of The Long Goodbye (1953) a character insists there is no honest way to make a hundred million dollars. The hostility of the hard-boiled sleuth has also been directed at both criminals and police. Living in modest circumstances (a sign of probity) and opposed to corrupt politicians, decadent plutocrats, careless industrialists, brutal policemen and slimy hoodlums, he has been the focus for populist resentment towards the power over others and over the material world exercised by authority. The contradiction is evidence of the diversity of the crime novel (often displayed through language). Meanings are not fixed and the text can be appropriated for a variety of ideological and formal purposes.

It is nevertheless legitimate to refer to a hard-boiled tradition, one which is manifest in the way its own conventions are replicated, explored and even interrogated. Pre-existent structures are involved thus foregrounding connections with other texts and authors, especially Chandler and Hammett, but also Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In Paul Auster’s deconstruction of the detective story The New York Trilogy (1985-6), the references (among many) are to Hawthorne and Poe, and thus to the origins of the mystery story in the United States.

The “urban jungle”, vicious, savage, devoid of spiritual values, would become normatively the site for the detective’s quests and discoveries. Hard-boiled fiction writers have depicted the American city in modernist terms as a wasteland or desert ruled by an organized plutocracy and a criminal underworld often in collusion with each other. The glamourous surfaces of this world are specious, concealing danger and deceit: lovers turn out to be murderers (The Maltese Falcon), friends are finally shown to be false (The Long Goodbye), a cop may turn out to be a killer (The Lady in the Lake, 1943). Corruption is general, undermining law and order, spreading without interruption to the suburbs and, in recent novels, to more remote areas such as the Florida Keys (James Hall), Montana (James Crumley), and the bayous of Louisiana (James Lee Burke), though the availability of Florida as a crime novel location was established in the Fifties by John D. Macdonald. The fiction of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald is set in California, the terminus of the frontier journey, described by Chandler in The Little Sister (1949) as the department store state. Thus the disparity between the promise and abundance of the region and the reality of its neon/plastic decadence (symbolized by Los Angeles) is continually present like a dark trace.

The detective then, from our perspective, typifies the alienated urban individual and this constitutes a significant portion of the genre’s audience appeal. The settings in city and suburb and the text’s juxtaposed stories are easily identifiable, and although the PI enjoys a freedom beyond domesticity and routine the reader is provided with a means of interpreting his/her experiences. In their speech, personal style and attitudes the detectives are recognizable American characters. Above all, the brisk, serviceable, colloquial modern style facilitates consumption, avoiding what Jim Collins in Uncommon Cultures calls “semantic imperialism” in favour of a shared language, one with which readers are familiar or which they are willing to learn. It is a language suited to the fast, aggressive modern world of the city depicted so often by movies whose representational style of apparent neutrality informs many hardboiled works of fiction.

Conventional hard-boiled language is terse, laconic, acerbic and witty. One of its enduring vernacular techniques, adopted recently by female PIs, (“I gave him the invitation and drove down the driveway, which was lined by lilac bushes that were about to come into bloom and Mercedes-Benzes that already had”, Judith Van Gieson, North of the Border, 1988, p.63) is the wisecrack, a stylized demonstration of knowledge which expresses an irreverence towards authority and institutional power. Wisecracks put to use as weapons are an assertion of autonomy, a defiant refusal to be browbeaten. They introduce an unsettling element into the interplay of discourses so the chances of the truth gradually unfolding become greater. In novels written in the last quarter of a century characters often employ a language that links detectives, criminals, lawyers and politicos. As professionals sharing wisdom and undergoing similar experiences, they need their own “business” discourse. Wisecracks and verbal toughness are the means of ordering and interpreting experience, marking the investigator out from the crowd. He/she is still an average human being Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone who eats a lot of fast food describes her life as ordinary, uneventful and good – but one who commands and exercises the power of language.

As Scott R. Christianson recently argued, that power is limited since the narrative represents the process of making meaning as a struggle.[3] The detective all too frequently achieves only partial understanding or local effectiveness. Congruent with the ideology of populist cinema (Ford, Capra), evil is resisted but does not entirely disappear. Modern life is fragmented and complex so that the texts of detective fiction can be used deconstructively, undermining efforts at control and closure. Such novels tend towards the feelings of melancholy, regret and emptiness suggested by representative titles: The Big Sleep (1938), The Long Goodbye, The Last Good Kiss (1978). Christianson analyzes the language of hard-boiled fiction as unitary, and numerous texts can be cited in which the detective’s voice is monologically in control. By insisting that detective fiction is a straightforward discourse and (erroneously) that it is not parodic Collins might appear to be lining up in the same camp. However, invoking Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia he adds an important qualification; “In the hard-boiled text, one does indeed find an emphasis on common street language; but one also finds that language set in conflicting relationships with other languages present within the same text.”[4]

Literature in the USA has been a clash of diverse voices. Texts as different as Parker’s A Catskill Eagle (1983), Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Constantine’s Always a Body to Trade (1983) show how Afro-American discourse can challenge the notion of a unitary language system. Street talk in hard-boiled fiction emerges as the privileged voice in contestation with other modes of expression: the cynical misanthropy of Potter in The Long Goodbye, the smooth, devious clubman’s rhetoric of Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, or the nervous sanctimony of Meade Alexander, undermined by Spenser (“I like it. I eat French crap a lot”) at a classy restaurant in The Widening Gyre (1983).

2. Dashiell Hammett: Taking the Lid Off Life

Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, (1929) includes a relevant exchange between the Continental Op and the godfather figure Elihu Willsson who “owned Personville, heart, soul, skin and guts.” Willsson recognizes the Op’s talent for straight talking but initially clings to his own colourful style: “I want a man to clean this pig-sty of a Poisonville for me, to smoke out the rats, little and big…” (p.39) The Op remains unmoved by this “poetry”: he will undertake a reasonably honest job at the right price, “but a lot of foolishness about smoking rats and pig-pens doesn’t mean anything to me.” Willsson cannot get through to the Op until he adopts the agent’s “sense”. There are other voices in Red Harvest, the hoarse whispers of Max Thaler the gangster, the educated tones of Dan Rolff, but the first-person voice of the Op dominates for both formal and ideological reasons, though Willsson’s poetry is retained in order to represent Poisonville’s inhabitants as animals (monkeys, wolves, hogs) and the Op as their hunter.

The Op’s straightforward talking has certain narrational consequences. A direct, neutral observer and an anonymous figure whose motives are vague, he provides minimal interpretation and analysis for the reader. Paradoxically, as Sinda Gregory intelligently shows, the very proliferation of resulting details, such as the names of people and places, only intensifies the situation: “This sheer bulk of facts actually works against our ability to understand and draw conclusions in the novel. We are so overwhelmed by specifics that it is difficult to separate the significant from the trivial or to gain an overview of what is going on.”[5] Understanding, knowledge and “truth” – and the chances of locating it – are major concerns in Hammett’s novels; they are linked to assumptions of cosmic and social chaos, so that Hammett’s metaphysics impinge on his ideology.

The most illuminating account of “reality” in the work of Hammett appears in Steven Marcus’s justly renowned 1975 introduction to The Continental Op. Reality is existential and nominal, created by individuals to satisfy particular needs; in response, the Op has “to deconstruct, decompose, deploy and defictionalize that ‘reality’ and to construct or reconstruct out of it a true fiction, i.e. an account of what ‘really’ happened” (p.xix). Yet the Op’s version is no more definitive or scientific than the discourses presented to him. Hammett too as author is making a fiction, more comprehensive and coherent than those of his characters but similarly restricted as a subjective view of “reality”.

Hammett, who would later serve time in prison for his communist sympathies, still manages to construct in his ambiguous texts critical images of the effects of capitalism. Personville known as “Poisonville”, Red Harvest‘s original title, is an industrial town blighted by greed, obsession and lust for power. Published in 1929 the year of the Wall Street crash and a time of social crisis, the novel is contextualized historically by references to the IWW, Prohibition and President Wilson’s peace conference in Paris. The town had been under the autocratic control of Elihu Willsson, whose power was now challenged by the gangsters he had imported to smash the Wobblies’ strike. Running the city as a “legitimate” crime syndicate, the criminals, like their counterparts in Hollywood movies of the period, offer a type of authority that ironically seems to work, unlike that of Herbert Hoover who has lost both economic control and the nation’s confidence.

Hammett’s text functions less through realism than through parody, irony and incongruity. “The West” historically the region of frontier promise and opportunity is now as ugly and polluted as the rest of the USA; gangsters behave as though still in Chicago, dislocated in their bizarre long black cars. As Red Harvest and other early novels make clear, Hammett is not in the business of developing moral and heroic protagonists. In Red Harvest, the Op shoots two policemen and acquiesces in the killing of the Police Chief (part of the town’s corruption). He is as guilty and morally reprehensible as the gangsters he exposes and helps to destroy. By precipitating over twenty killings, he is Hammett’s means of escalating violence, anticipating the murderous world of the spaghetti western.

The Op’s complicity must be acknowledged in assessing the extent of Hammett’s radicalism. The corruption of capitalist society is exposed in muckraking fashion, though some readers have commented on the limitation of the exposure to a localised system. (Chandler texts are open to the same charge.) However, Steven Marcus has interpreted Hammett’s novel in terms of Hobbes rather than Marx, so that the milieu represented is one of universal warfare. The result is social anarchy and ideological relativism. On the one hand Hammett’s early work was part of the popular culture of the 1920s when violent industrial conflicts occurred regularly, and taking a drink was for ordinary Americans equivalent to breaking the law. Elihu Willsson in Red Harvest, a combination of Rockefeller and Capone, demonstrated the inseparability of business, politics and crime. On the other hand Hammett’s version of the social and political fabric is universalized: corrupt wealth, along with the power it generates, and capitalist democracy are ubiquitous – and permanent. Hammett’s opposition to big business and machine politics resembles populism which typically rejected not the status quo but the corporate interests in control of it. The Op has no commitment, personal or social, beyond the accomplishment of his job. His creator offers no political solution. Politics too implies fictions and systems which can be manipulated for base motives and which are operated by individuals with at best a tenuous hold on ethical and social values.

The Dain Curse (1929), Hammett’s next novel, turned the crime novel genre and its conventional resolution inside out. A “solution” is only one rendering of reality so that Sinda Gregory’s comment is appropriate: “final solutions are merely fictional projections of our need to impose order on an inexplicable and fundamentally mysterious universe.” (p.78) The structure consists of three sequences: successive sections are used by the writer to undermine each arrived at conclusion. Hammett’s parodic action involves the selection of several types of mystery story – the country-house text, the gothic thriller and the rural, small town tale. But although the first section, “The Dains” takes place in a bourgeois domestic setting with the refinements of rugs, furniture, and artworks, there are suggestions of a murky European past. Edgar Leggett, a strange scientist is described as physically ascetic but mentally sensual like characters from Hawthorne, Poe and Brockden Brown. The impression of literary gothic is increased by the name of the supplier of this sketch: Owen Fitzstephan.

Thus Hammett anticipates the gothic element of “The Temple” which includes a grand guignol depiction of Gabrielle Leggett that appears to derive from Poe’s Madeleine Usher: “She was barefooted. Her only clothing was a yellow silk nightgown that was splashed with dark stains…. There was a dab of blood on one of her cheeks. Her eyes were clear, bright and calm.”[6] The titular temple houses a weird cult, the Temple of the Holy Grail which claims a history stretching back to King Arthur. The cult, which proves to be fraudulent prefigures similar California groupings in, for example, Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target (1949).

The final part of The Dain Curse “Quesada” casts the Op in a different role, but one which brings closer no single solution or truth. The Op’s hunt is futile since his discussions throughout the text have been with Fitzstephan (a professional novelist) who proves to be insane and the sought after killer. Hammett’s sleuth admits that one guess at the truth is as good as any other, so he is interested in the fiction that appears to fit and which he can reasonably take to court. Fitzstephan is blown in two (surviving to face trial), suggesting the double consciousness or doppelganger device which recurs in Poe’s tales.

Sam Spade, the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon (1930), is for many Hammett’s most memorable creation and in the company of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe the most famous fictional investigator of the hard-boiled type. Hammett described him in the terms of a masculinity dream: “your private detective … wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to tee care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with. . .”[7] Like Marlowe, Spade has a tendency to provoke cops and politicians, but the similarities have been exaggerated in the general mind by the casting of Humphrey Bogart in both roles in the movie versions of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep; later in 1980 the protagonist of The Man with Bogart’s Face would be named Sam Marlowe. Spade, like Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key (1931), is inclined to lose his poise (voluntarily, as an act, but also involuntarily) a characteristic satisfied by the choice of star. There was in the Bogart persona, a hint of instability, of menace, of being psychologically on the edge which emerged more powerfully in In A Lonely Place and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Unfortunately the film of The Maltese Falcon insisted on neutralizing the textual ending where Effie realizes what a rat her boss is. Although Spade is a near-psychopath, the movie, obeying the imperatives of Hollywood narrative and genre, closes with the scene in which he arranges the distribution of guilt, thus confirming the character as both self-sufficiently potent and romantic; asked about the black bird Spade (Bogart) describes it as the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Continental Op was a two dimensional figure and, although Spade is given a name and a private life, he too is a stylized character, constructed visually in modernist terms:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose…” (p.5, Pan ed., 1975)

Through Spade, albeit using the third person mode for narrative purposes, Hammett exposes the society of which Spade is a mirror image and sets down the themes of his earlier work: the ubiquity of crime, duplicity and corruption, the manipulative but necessary operation of role-playing – and the impossibility in a complex, predatory environment of Fe-imposing order through the solution of crimes.

Spade’s actions derive from a philosophy of the universe as a random series of unrelated contingent events, and some of the features of Spade’s behaviour – impersonality, the concealment of thoughts and information, the need to maintain detachment and control (as in the famous Hemingwayesque account of rolling a cigarette) – are brought into play as he attempts to cope with his situation and his knowledge. While those attempts command respect, they fail to render the character more sympathetic. His long speech offering reasons for turning in the murderer Brigid O’Shaughnessy has been read as constituting a code of honour, morality and professionalism. Morally however Spade is only slightly ahead of his partner Miles Archer and the crooks against whom he pits himself. Critic James Naremore is explicit: “the speech is about nothing more than self-preservation…. Brigid obviously can’t be trusted anyway, and if he did not turn her over he would have no job or anything else.”[8] Like the Op Sam Spade has found a job that suits a temperament which in certain circumstances would allow him to function as a criminal.

The world of The Maltese Falcon encourages its inhabitants to engage in duplicity and false appearances, thus producing a climate of dishonesty and insecurity. Shapeshiftings and masquerades abound, but in this Darwinian universe they are survival strategies. Despite the date 1930 this is no proletarian novel, nor is there any Bakhtinian sense of the carnivalesque in these masquerades, of the overturning of authority.

In the middle of The Maltese Falcon Spade relates the parable of Flitcraft which refers to his own belief system. Flitcraft, an average family man is alarmed by a falling beam. “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” In other words, life is random, unpredictable, arbitrary. He changes his life simply by moving away and taking another wife, but his new life strongly resembles the old. “He adjusted to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted to them not falling.” (pp.59-60) Whatever interpretation is placed on this anecdote, the narrative context is important: Spade tells the Flitcraft tale to Brigid, delivering a warning about his behaviour and intentions – he too will adjust in order to survive – though the warning is characteristically ambiguous.

Spade is also giving a verbal performance to match those of Brigid and the other thieves: a second type of warning. More frequently the pitting of Spade against his antagonists has an international dimension – tough-talking American detective takes on exotic, duplicitous representatives of the decadent Old World. Brigid who poses as a damsel in distress is also known as Miss Wonderly and Miss Le Blanc (the nihilism of whiteness in Melville comes to mind) while her apartment number 1001 suggests Scheherezade and her fictions. Cairo, a fin-de-siecle dandy and homosexual is less powerful, but Gutman, “the Fat Man” resembles Brigid in his deviousness and ruthlessness. Another visually modernist figure composed of “bulbs” and “pendant cones”, the former shifting in movement like “clustered soap-bubbles”, Gutman in his well-cut suits offers a misleading facade, one made more specious by his wit, charisma and hearty clubman banter, the battle between him and Spade being joined at the level of discourse also. The civilized exterior is a sham. Gutman is responsible for the drugging and near-death of his daughter and despite some regrets he agrees to the sacrifice of his “son” Wilmer. His pose of romantic adventurer decorates the murderous scrabbling for The Maltese Falcon as a guest for the equivalent of the Grail.

The falcon itself generates the action and “stands as the most central symbol for … deceptions and contradictions.” (Gregory, p. 114) The removal of the black paint surface reveals not a treasure but a leaden shape. Like the characters in the novel it is counterfeit but it does function to undermine the concept of private property. No one can claim exclusive ownership of the bird; a commodity-oriented society gives rise to anarchistic greedy struggles over loot.

Like The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key portrays a landscape of duplicity and ambiguity, but it also represents a return to the milieu of Prohibition era big-city politics encountered earlier in Red Harvest. This is the world of machine politicians and their tame DAs, mobsters, senators, and lawless policemen, in which the city boss with an immigrant name, Madvig, seeks the respect which support from the WASP aristocracy will bring. Violence, power and corruption are so widespread that in one sense the narrative again constitutes an attack on urban politics. This is also however the bleak, opaque environment of the earlier novels so that the central figure, Ned Beaumont, a gambler and Paul Madvig’s loyal hanger-on, is not provided with a motive for solving the murder of Taylor, son of the powerful Senator Henry. Practical, intelligent and efficient, Beaumont has a sense of manners and etiquette. He is vulnerable to violence and attempts suicide after being at the receiving end of a brutal attack. It is a characterization that anticipates the high society urbanity and sophistication of The Thin Man (1934). Before that in this challenging text, Hammett’s elliptical, neutral style and third person point-of-view delivers bewildered individuals who fail to understand each other or indeed themselves. On the one hand the ordinary ties of family and friendship stay remote from them; on the other the idea of a coherent, consistent psychology remains a chimera. All the characters are too ambiguous to be explained by a single motivation: Beaumont, like Spade an actor, is ultimately inscrutable and the novel’s end in which he participates is far from conclusive.

The Glass Key was made into two films and a radio serial, but it is in the narrative texts themselves that commentators have located the sources of film noir. Hammett’s first four novels comprise several of the techniques found in noir, including first person narration and the expressionism of dream sequences. There exists a persuasive argument however that Hammett’s sinewy naturalism, a language which the German director Wim Wenders called “concrete, hard and sharp”, is further from the mannered expressionism of film noir than the flamboyant prose of such contemporaries as Cornell Woolrich. Despite the merit of this argument, film noir with its metaphysical sense of alienation and doom, its sombre images of fragmentation and violence, its sterile destructive personal relationships and its pervasive pessimism is an accurate visualisation of the Hammett universe. Even film noir language can replicate the mystery of human personality and the provisional nature of truth and reality. In Crossfire (1947, screenplay by John Paxton), Mitchell, an innocent murder suspect meets a man in a girl’s apartment:

Man: You know what I told you. It was a lie. I’m not her husband. Met her the same as you did, at the joint. I can’t keep away from her. I want to marry her but she won’t have me.

Mitchell: Is that so?

Man: Do you believe that? That’s a lie too. I don’t love her and I don’t want to marry her. She makes good money though. You got any money on you?

Mitchell: No.

Man: She makes good money sometimes. Hey, do you suppose I could be a soldier? Maybe I could be in the regular army. Makes a good rating and make some dough by the next war.

Mitchell: Why not?

Man: Why not? because I don’t want to. What would I want to be a soldier for? Aagh! I don’t know what I want to do ….

3. Raymond Chandler: The Exaggeration of the Possible

Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago of a Pennsylvanian father and an Irish emigrant mother. In the mid-50s, after the death of his wife, he lived in London and La Jolla alternately for a time. In the 40s he wrote screenplays for Hollywood, but as a young man in London (1911-1912) he wrote essays for The Academy, having been educated at Dulwich College where one of the school houses is still called Marlowe. This oscillation between American and English culture evident in his style and fused in his admiration for Henry James, is one of several tensions in his literature and personality.

His chosen hero Philip Marlowe is a sensitive decent man operating in a world that is violent and corrupt so that the novels depend upon the interplay of individual idealism and social decadence. Chandler found that corruption in the politics and policing of the tarnished city Los Angeles which he both despised and romanticized. Part of Marlowe’s appeal is that he satisfies a populist disdain for authority while continuing to work for law and order thereby aligning himself with its agencies. That disrespect derives from the brutality and amorality of police officers, though some of Chandler’s fictional lawmen are depicted as tired, overworked and honest – rather like the ex-cop Marlowe himself.

Chandler has often been praised for identifying and through Marlowe confronting the malaise consuming the body of American society. However as the author himself announced, Marlowe exists in a fictional world of stylized characters, whereas the real-life private eye is only “a sleazy little drudge from the Burns agency”. Chandler PI is an idealized figure: originally named Mallory he is a “shop-soiled Galahad”, a status hinted at in the famous opening of The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s old-fashioned chivalry is incongruous in contemporary Los Angeles so an element of self-parody is consciously generated. Instead of concealing genre conventions Chandler draws attention to literary discourse as illusion. In The Little Sister Marlowe speaks of “all the tired cliched mannerisms of my trade”, and when a woman threatens him with a gun in The Lady in the Lake he grins and admits, “I’ve never liked this scene”. It is the combination of realism and self-referential artifice that establishes irony and parody as distinctive features of the Chandler discourse. That discourse expressed in the form of first person narration “encourages reader identification with the detective, and so with an illusion of coherent subjectivity, represented as moral integrity.”[9] However, Marlowe’s unitary power is subject to instability. He remains an impoverished bourgeois figure, his vulnerability shared with other alienated characters in 30s writing, and with the solitary, immobile figures of Edward Hopper’s paintings, discovered, as Chandler located Marlowe, “in a lonely street, in lonely rooms.”

The detective’s marginality and the attention given to his solitary life have the effect of distancing him from the problems and pressures of the lower classes. Ernest Mandel’s general point applies no less to Marlowe: “… the sophisticated thriller’s hero has to be a tragic figure, a petty-bourgeois (in no pejorative sense) rather than a proletarian revolutionary protagonist.”[10] Consequently the standard hardboiled text (especially when dialogization is minimal) cannot rupture or transcend the conventional ideology. Afro-Americans and other minority groups are often described with unexamined prejudice (see “Noon Street Nemesis”, 1936, later known as “Pick-up on Noon Street”, with its anonymous underworld “negroes”, one of them a “big gorilla”) while materialistic Jews in Hollywood are made the targets of Marlowe’s snobbery. Some big bosses are personable and friendly. Laird Brunette, for example, in Farewell, My Lovely is the gangster as businessman, an almost admirable type with “guts and brains.” The principal threats Marlowe faces emanate from dangerous, sexy femmes fatales like Ellen Wade (The Long Goodbye) or Velma Valento/Helen Grayle in Farewell, My Lovely. Such characters were represented as doubly deviant, aggressive in their (female) sexuality, aberrant in their “un-feminine” rejection of male dominance. They provided a site for the cultural practice of evil removed from class conflict.

An illuminating comparison can be made between the representation of women in The Big Sleep and Howard Hawks’ film of the novel. Vivien Sternwood is played less as spider-woman than as “Hawksian woman”, an equal half of the Bogart-Bacall romantic couple in what remains a conventional celebration of heterosexuality and all-American values. Hawks does create a range of female types including the sympathetic female taxi driver and the girl in the Acme bookshop, whose brief interlude with Marlowe is tender, witty and erotic.

Marlowe’s family and class origins are obscured. With an apartment instead of a suburban home, he is, as Chandler insists, destined to be poor. The author’s extravagant tropes endow him with a subtlety of mind, but Marlowe is a reluctant aesthete who embellishes his conversation with allusions to Hemingway, Flaubert, Shakespeare and the subjunctive mood. Reluctant since the tough, hard-boiled populist role demands an anti-literary stance that conflates culture and decadence. In The Big Sleep Geiger’s bookshop which deals in first editions is a front for pornography.

The discrimination, vanity and narcissism exhibited by Marlowe are used to articulate his responses (and thus Chandler’s) to the criminal world in which the PI becomes embroiled; his role involves “maintaining a self-preserving critique … against social evils which, be they blatantly ugly or perversely beautiful always carry with them a fatal beauty that raises his creator’s senses.”[11] In the first paragraph of The Big Sleep Marlowe may be “calling on four million dollars” but his choice of clothes powder-blue suit, dark blue shirt, tie and handkerchief – is evidence of a wry aestheticism. Foul or steamy air, stale smells, sweat, cigarette smoke and liquor fumes all function in the text as signifiers of impurity and moral laxity, what Chandler calls nastiness.

Chandler’s own fastidiousness is glimpsed in his attitude towards Los Angeles, a city in his view with as much personality as a paper cup. He was nevertheless fascinated by its cheapness, by that ambience of tacky flamboyance and seediness located between ocean and desert. Chandler’s representations of Los Angeles appear to have varied according to the mood of the moment. At times he actively hunts down instances of stylization; ultimately he preferred its Art Deco tawdriness to most other spots on the globe. Later in the 1980s Elmore Leonard would draw upon a lifetime’s love of South Miami Beach’s Jazz Age Deco, crystallized in its ice cream coloured hotels, for the landscapes of some of the major crime novels of the decade.

By means of Los Angeles Chandler presented a disturbing vision of falsity and strangeness. Marlowe thought the man who invented neon deserved a monument; the city at night often seems composed of artificial light, dynamic but anarchic, almost beyond control like Joseph Stella’s Coney Island lights in the 1913 painting. Towards the end of Farewell, My Lovely even Bay City appears from the ocean as “a jewelled bracelet” that fades into a soft orange glow but in The High Window (1943) a neon sign illuminates a funeral parlour. Elsewhere the surface images of Chandler’s staged urban settings fall to yield the nourishing depth that would challenge the unreality. That unreality derives to an extent from Los Angeles’ architecture and, therefore, the industrial contrivance of Art Deco and streamlining. Derivative and deceptive in their rupture of form and function, the city’s buildings seem designed to embody fantasies of kitsch. Fast food restaurants masquerade as palaces. In The Big Sleep Eddie Mars’ Cypress Club, a mouldering Victorian pile with turrets and scrolled porches, is, in its latest incarnation, a gambling den. The gaming area (once a ballroom) has no hint of the modernistic, of night-club “moderne”: Mars prefers crystal chandeliers and rose-damask walls, “a little faded by time and darkened by dust.” (Penguin ed., 1971, p.131)

Amorphous and de-centred, Los Angeles has lured the ambitious and discontented seeking new opportunities and therefore new lives, and this magnetic attraction it possesses for immigrants has generated different literary interpretations: the racial anger of Chester Himes, the savage satire of Nathaneal West. The achievement of Chandler has been to map the environment of LA and demonstrate its variety. He is drawn to the great estates of the wealthy, private landscapes whose distinctive atmosphere facilitates the coherent presentation of its inhabitants. For example, in The Big Sleep the family portraits and stained glass windows of the Sternwood mansion signify tradition and respectability Further detail imposes a sense of the Gothic: there are rats lurking behind the wainscoting. General Sternwood, crippled by debauchery, exists on heat “like a newborn spider” and his humid, malodorous orchid house grows plants whose stalks resemble “the newly washed fingers of dead men.” (p. 13)

From this ominous base Chandler proceeds to construct a dark vicious world of closed spaces, widespread crime and guilt, mistaken journeys and. actions. The Big Sleep is peopled by mobsters, small-time losers, sexually aggressive women, alienated lawmen and the omnipotent rich. Justice remains elusive despite the detective’s small, temporary successes. The limitations of Marlowe’s effectiveness are made evident: his powerful denunciation of Eddie Mars fails to win Silver-Wig, Mars’ wife (Cissy, Chandler wife, tinted her hair silver and wore wigs), “You think he’s just a gambler. I think he’s a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops.” (p. 187) Mars is allowed to go free. Here as in other hard-boiled texts Marlowe is unable to make full use of the truths he has exposed.

The pattern is reiterated in novel after novel. Marlowe struggles to separate reality from delusion, then is forced to discredit or suppress his own revelations …. In both The Little Sister and The Lady in the Lake the revelation of the truth provokes a pageant of bloodshed … (and) Marlowe stands powerless in the wings.[12] Permeated by irony (Marlowe re-enacts the recent life – and almost the death – of the man Regan for whom he searches), The Big Sleep concludes in “loose ends, a detective who fails, and a pervasive sense of individual despair, social chaos, and the triumph of evil.”[13]

The brutality Chandler attributes to the police in Bay City (Santa Monica) and its sleazy promenade are the physical counterparts of the area’s spiritual decadence. The small town has “a faint smell of ocean”, faint since it is mixed with the odour of hot fat and popcorn. Los Angeles in the 30s was little better. A corrupt police force, a reactionary WASP merchant class and a powerful newspaper dynasty enabled the city to profit from the theft of water from the valleys of Northern California. (This scenario would be at the centre of Polanski’s movie homage to Chandler, Chinatown, 1974.) Politically Los Angeles has had a long tradition of conservatism – from General Harrison Gray Otis’s union busting at the turn of the century through to Reagan’s kitchen cabinet – and one of violence and lawlessness. By the 1930s when Chandler started writing hard-boiled fiction “Murder Inc.” was in business and organized crime was on the rise. After the end of Prohibition (1933) syndicates in LA moved into drugs, prostitution, unions, the oil business, in which Chandler worked for most of the 20s, and gambling for which the off-shore ships in Farewell, My Lovely provide a venue. Those floating casinos outside the three-mile limit were owned by an ex-bootlegger named Cornero; Chandler changed his name and those of the boats. His descriptions were accurate: ‘The Royal Crown … a converted sea-going freighter with scummed and rusted plates, the superstructure cut down to the boatdeck level, and above that two stumpy masts just high enough for a radio antenna.”[14]

Marlowe may have been a romantic fantasy but Chandler made the urban background to his novels so authentic that Greater LA itself took on the status of a character. The texts constitute a socio-political history of America’s biggest west coast city. Chandler is exact in his use of locales, the naming of streets and shops, the descriptions of sounds and sights including specific makes and models of cars. Los Angeles it has been claimed has no weather except when it rains in February. Weather and climate are crucial to Chandler’s narratives: the persistent rain in The Big Sleep, the fierce sun and burning Santa Ana winds in The High Window when “every booze party ends in a fight.” Sites and events are precisely located: Bullock’s the magnificent department store on Wilshire, bronze-green and multi-towered; the once exclusive Bunker Hill, its gothic mansions (in The High Window) turned into apartment houses; and Central Avenue where Moose Malloy looks for Velma in a “dinge joint” in Farewell My Lovely and which once rivalled Harlem’s 125th Street as the major thoroughfare of Black America. In novels and short stories the landscape is a feature,the foothills, beaches, mountains and flatlands all playing a part in the narrative’s unfolding drama.

This is especially the case in The Lady in the Lake which in its melancholy greyness anticipates The Long Goodbye and the work of Ross Macdonald who used it as the model for The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Much of the novel is set in small town California close to the Sierra Madre mountains. Little Fawn Lake is “like a drop of dew caught in a curled leaf” yet both nature and suburban society are vulnerable to individual evil. The central image of Crystal Kingsley’s body floating in the lake represents unnatural sin staining nature itself. The text produces familiar types: the lookalike blondes are promiscuous, the doctor (Almore) deals in drugs, and the Bay City police are routinely vicious. However the overall treatment of the law through its representatives is complex. Lieutenant Degarmo is exposed as a murderer while the local sheriff, Jim Patton, is identified as a rural figure associated with homesteaders and the frontier past. The town/country contrast underlines the novel’s melodramatic fixity though the abandonment of moral relativism is yet again concealed by duplicity. Chandler lethal blonde Muriel Chess dresses in black and white.

Set in post-war Los Angeles, The Little Sister interrelates family connections, organized crime and the movie capital. It has the best claim to be labelled Chandler Hollywood novel. The motifs of illusion and deceit are squarely located in the cinema industry, so that while analogies to acting recur in Chandler fiction, the need for metaphor is here obviated. Nevertheless, Chandler’s Hollywood characters – Dolores Gonzalez (“I must have men, amigo”) whose life is a B movie, Jules Oppenheimer, the Mayer-like movie mogul who enjoys watching his dogs pee (anywhere…), and Sherry Ballou, the refined agent as decadent aristocrat – are self-indulgent exaggerations, grotesques providing occasions for the author’s irritation. Their artificiality is most evident in Joseph P. Toad and his nephew, based on Hammett’s Gutman and Wilmer: “We’re just a couple of bit players”,insists Toad but the condition is widespread. For example, one cop advises another who is talking tough not to “try to steal the picture with that nineteen-thirty dialogue.” (p.168)

The New York Times Book Review attacked The Little Sister for its “scathing hatred of the human race.” Chandler admitted the book was written in a bad mood, and one of its features is a succession of diatribes aimed at modern civilization. The immediate focus Southern California is also a suburban microcosm of the nation:

A long time ago … Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful … Now we get characters like this Steelgrave [a gambler owning restaurants…. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes.[15]

The bilious onslaughts are continued in The Long Goodbye, especially in the long speech by the ultra-rich reclusive newspaper proprietor Harlan Potter. He delivers a misanthropic tirade criticizing planned obsolescence, mass production and (generally and hypocritically) the desire for material goods. Potter is another of Chandler rich, baleful power men – at his holiday home he is neighbour to a Nevada mafioso – but the tone and content of his philosophy are echoed by others in the novel, including Marlowe who is romantically involved with Potter’s daughter Linda Loring. The condemnations of American culture in the 50s include: “the awful state of American television, the grotesque betrayal of medical and social ethics … and that endemic disease, the stupidity and emptiness of people who run for public office.”[16] In part Potter articulates the views of an ageing suburban Raymond Chandler, a man Billy Wilder summed up as “bad-tempered – kind of acid, sour, grouchy.”

With its ex cathedra denunciations and three selfportraits, The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s most personal and intense novel (his wife was dying at the time of composition) as well as his most ambitious. Inside the tradition it looks back to The Big Sleep which also portrays a millionaire with two errant daughters, to The Maltese Falcon which also features a quest motivated by the murder or disappearance of someone close to the PI, and forward to Ross Macdonald’s explorations of marriages and family histories. Roger Wade, the alcoholic, self-pitying fictional novelist, refers in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald; as a study in friendship and loyalty The Long Goodbye bears a resemblance to The Great Gatsby. The relationship between Marlowe and Terry Lennox recalls that of Carraway and Gatsby. Its centrality is indicated by one of Lennox’s false identities, Paul Marston, which shares the PI’s initials John Marston the Elizabethan dramatist was a contemporary of Christopher Marlowe.)

Chandler worked as a Hollywood scriptwriter in the 40s and The Long Goodbye was influenced by the private eye movies of the previous decade, a connection emphasised in the 1973 film version. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is both an extension of and a satire upon the hard-boiled novel. Its status as film is determined by a flood of references to Hollywood, and the “world” of the film (its diegesis) already made strange is rendered hallucinatory by means of photography, lighting, colour and restless or circular camera movements. Sentimental and decent, Elliot Gould as the detective drifts through the plot lethargically as Marlowe wanders dreamily through LA in the literary text. However the filmic narrative does trace the fate of the man with a strict code of honour in an unethical society. As Marlowe tells Lennox before shooting him (a radical departure from the novel) he is the only one who cares. The ending is bewildering in its referentiality (Chaplin, The Third Man and Hollywood Hotel but in its wit and buoyancy and its optimistic sense of release, it expresses nostalgia (“Hooray for Hollywood”) for a cinema which used to insist on morality and closure, while challenging on grounds of style the artistic simplicities of that cinema.

Gatsby’s “Oggsford” connections and war service are transposed to Lennox’s career and character – he is a World War II hero (in the English army) and counts among his associates the racketeer Mendy Menendez. Both Lennox and Wade are mirrors of Marlowe’s loneliness. Marlowe quotes the line “To say goodbye is to die a little” and the novel ends on a melancholy note. Lennox, “part of the manipulating endlessly fluid world”, as the critic John Whitley puts it, is exposed as unprincipled, and the detective’s faith in this “moral defeatist” and in their friendship is shattered. Loyalty though futile is as necessary as social bonds, and Marlowe’s vision of urban violence and suffering at the end of Chapter 38 ends with a typically ambivalent verbal picture of LA: “A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness” (Ballantine Books ed., 1974, p.224), an emptiness acknowledged in the text by Lennox tapping his chest with a lighter before murmuring: “In here … there isn’t anything.” (p.311)

4. Ross Macdonald: Unhappy Families

From the pages of the magazine Black Mask there emerged in the 1920s a new type of private eye described by Ross Macdonald as “the classless, restless man of American democracy.” In the same essay “The Writer as Detective Hero” (1973) Macdonald refers to Hammett, whose Continental Op stories began to appear in Black Mask in 1923, as the first American to use the genre as a major novelist would, but he addresses himself at greater length to Chandler, while charging that the latter’s vision lacked the tragic dignity of Hammett’s. Macdonald was fully aware of his debt to Chandler and of the urgent need to distance himself and his creation Lew Archer from his Californian predecessor and the Marlowe books. In the 40s he wrote under his real name Kenneth Millar. Subsequently, after a decade of absorbing the Chandler tradition, Macdonald was able to free himself for the expression of his personal perspective.

Just as novelists in the South have sought to acknowledge and evade the posthumous presence of William Faulkner, writers of hard-boiled detective fiction have responded ambivalently to Chandler’s immense influence. His achievement is substantial and visible: by turning the PI of the pulps into a near-mythic American hero, he tested the boundaries of the genre, in the process producing novels of sensibility and compassion set in a corrupt and alienating society. Emphasizing American speech idioms while retaining a formal English structure (his literary heroes included Henry James and Flaubert), he constructed a new colloquial and flexible prose, brisk, witty and evocative. Geared to the physical, the immediate and the sensuous, Chandler’s mixture of slang, wisecracks and similes was responsible for a distinctive modern style, a sort of urban poetry, its mannerisms often close to self-parody. Current writers have perceived Marlowe in terms of ritual and cliche’: “He gets weepy over lost dogs and little kids, he hates authority, he hates big money. He has a witty riposte and an astute sociological observation for every situation that comes his way.”[17] James Ellroy, recalling the films rather than the books, clearly has a preference for a non-heroic and more ambiguous protagonist. As the central figures have shifted so has the urban environment. Novelist Andrew Vachss insists that the term “mean streets” (associated with Chandler) is now historical and totally inappropriate for “these anarchistic places where there’s no law.” The changes can be calibrated in Arthur Lyons’ novels in which a pornographic bookshop, like Geiger’s, now multiplied a hundred fold in LA, has been surrounded by brothels, massage parlours and sex shops. Lyons’ squalid, horrific landscape is peopled by prostitutes, addicts, paedophiles, religious cultists and, a convention of the contemporary genre, serial killers.

Harold Bloom’s theory that poets live anxiously in the shadow of a “strong” poet derives from an Oedipal model of rivalry between fathers and sons. The “son” achieves power and creativity by undermining the father. Ross Macdonald’s detective novels take place in just such a world of patriarchy, Oedipal patterns and intense psychological energy. Indeed, Terry Eagieton’s description in Literary Theory (1983) of Bloom’s poetic battles – “domestic rows, scenes of guilt, envy, anxiety and aggression” (p. 184) – suggest the atmosphere of a Macdonald narrative.

Renegotiating his literary relationship with Chandler the younger writer saw the “detective-as-redeemer” conception (Philip Marlowe) as retrograde, sentimental and melodramatic. His own protagonist was, in contrast, a conduit, a lens:

These other people [Archer’s clients] are for me the main thing: they are often more intimately related to me and my life than Lew Archer is … his actions are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is less a doer than a questioner. … [18]

With the achievements of The Doomsters (1958) and The Galton Case (1959) Macdonald perceived that he was able to break away from the Chandler tradition into a more ambitious psychological and symbolic mode while remaining inside the parameters of the genre. As the Archer series developed professional organized crime featured less and less (Black Money, 1966 is an exception) and Archer was established not as a brash, idealized hunter, but as a sombre mediator between parents and their children, a mixture of social worker and priest, seeking to protect the innocent.

Macdonald’s PI is named after Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon, and his early work Blue City (1947) is patterned upon Hammett’s Red Harvest. The Moving Target (1949) and its immediate successors however are set in a Chandleresque milieu of rich men, starlets, gamblers, gangsters and wisecracks. The Drowning Pool (1950) begins, as The Big Sleep does, with the detective calling on a wealthy invalid. Archer like Marlowe is poor and, after the departure of his wife, lonely; both men penetrate the corruption and greed which pervade Southern California and it is through their journeys and pursuits that the physical and moral landscapes of the region are explored and connected. Chandler’s plot structure – the investigative search that uncovers and generates murders – finds recurrent echoes in Macdonald.

When you slept The Big Sleep“, Philip Marlowe said, oil and water were the same as wind and air; for Macdonald oil and water especially in the form of an oil slick off the California coast constituted a sombre image: the death of nature. A prominent member of the Sierra Club and an ardent conservationist, he expressed his ecological concerns in his novels, notably in The Underground Man (1971) and Sleeping Beauty (1973). Earlier, Macdonald’s preoccupations were clustered in one of his “breakthrough” works, The Galton Case: the sins of the past, the lust for power and money, the condition of poor and rich, fathers and sons (and the quest for the lost father) and the failure of the American family.

Already at that stage Macdonald’s pessimism was well developed. The poet Chad Boiling, standing with Archer and looking down on the city, alludes nostalgically to the nation’s origins in speaking of the creation of “a new city of man on the great hills.” However, Macdonald in his essay on The Galton Case takes a less nostalgic attitude with the reminder that a puritanical society had inflicted “the quiet punishments of despair” on the poor and fatherless. In this novel of dispossession, the historical referents are the Depression (and Prohibition) and the Civil War perpetuated, in Antony Galton’s theory, by class inequality. Galton the rich scion whose disappearance in 1936 is made the occasion for Archer’s search “thought of the poor people as white Negroes, and he wanted to do for them what John Brown did for the slaves. Lead them out of bondage…” (Fontana ed., 1972, p.28) The reward for his idealism is a violent death. Ironically commercial progress – the construction of a new shopping centre – uncovers his skull-less skeleton: radicalism is severed from the body politic in the USA. The Oedipal quest is enacted as Galton’s son emerges under the name John Brown Jr.

The presence of the past is shown to be inescapable. A missing person (or object) is pursued thus generating a multitude of discoveries. In a return of the repressed, history yields its secrets. Macdonald’s villains enact their fantasies and crimes at the expense of others. As in Chandler and Fitzgerald, characters who persistently live in the past are destroyed. In particular, the sequence of novels from The Wycherly Woman (1961) to Black Money (in which all the deaths result from past actions) show the suppression of the truth leading inexorably to crises. The danger of exposure is both motivation and narrative; people murder to protect the duplicity of appearance. Retreating from a rigid melodramatic morality Archer is not without sympathy for certain killers: when guilt is universal murderers are victims too. At the end of The Doomsters the killer goes not to the death cell but to hospital. “With Macdonald, the detective story form becomes a family saga of entitlement, generational conflict, and threats to self identity.”[19] Thus the family is a dense metaphor, the site of misused power through time.

In Sleeping Beauty Elizabeth Somerville makes a connection between a World War II incident and contemporary pollution. “We do things on a grander scale in our family. We burn ships and spill oil. It’s the all-American way.” (Fontana ed., 1975, p.65) Mrs. Somerville’s comment is sardonic, but Macdonald while focusing more and more on the middle classes registers as national the lust for money, and the shame, frustration and ethical obtuseness brought about by its absence; a character in The Goodbye Look (1969) tries a criminal logic: “How can a man help breaking the law if he don’t have money to live on?” (Warner Books ed., 1992, p.99)

Through the 60s and 70s Macdonald’s vision darkens. An earlier decade was subject to deforestation and megapolitan growth, but the ocean, Archer claimed in The Drowning Pool, remained unpolluted. The more the land was despoiled so the greater importance assumed by the ocean (especially the Pacific) as the final instance of frontier wilderness. Sleeping Beauty however opens with Archer’s mid-air glimpse of a huge oil slick which has apocalyptic overtones. The world has been stabbed, made to “spill black blood”. The spectators on the beach are like the stoic, futile watchers in Robert Frost’s “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”. “They looked as if they were waiting for the end of the world, or as if the end had come and they would never move again.” (p.6) While Macdonald’s melancholy deepens through time, corrupt oilmen recur throughout, showing up in The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, and The Instant Enemy (1968) (as well as Sleeping Beau). Indeed his frequent use of oil pollution as a symbol of moral contamination eventually became a mannerism, a target for parody, “Out in the ocean a lone surfer was riding in on an oil slick that lay on the sea like a black stain of sin on a human soul: he was covered with oil too: oil surfing was the latest fad.”[20]

The trajectory of Archer’s career as traced by Eric Mottram is deconstructive and self-effacing. The endings of the narratives often leave Archer bewildered and exhausted. Before the climax he often moves as though in a dream or simply tired of “one-night stands in desolate places.” He is bemused when the murderer citing the wickedness of others undertakes a relativistic defence of his or her crime. At the conclusion of The Chill (1964) the detective is almost overwhelmed by Letitia’s refusal to accept guilt or responsibility. She is “an elemental power”, “greedy for life”. A triple murderer she protects her fantasy of eternal youth by furtive cunning and a discourse of unflinching self-importance: ‘ I won’t permit you to use such language to me. I’m not a criminal.” (Fontana ed., 1966, p.231) This indifference is characteristic of the surrounding society and contributes to Archer’s alienation, which he records towards the end of Black Morney: “a middle-aged man lying alone in darkness while life fled by like traffic on the freeway” (Fontana ed., 1968, p.223) The PI can neither find a nourishing community nor match up law and moral judgment. Ultimately Macdonald is incapable of penetrating the social structure he has diagnosed so incisively.

The Underground Man in which Archer’s moral security is undermined marks a temporary exhaustion of the genre. But there remains The Blue Hammer with its context of the art market, mining companies, the disruptions of war and (predictably) the instability of families. The final pages refer to freeway space, empty rooms and empty people; at this stage in Eric Mottram’s phrase, “the private eye becomes pure form.” In this novel, however, a degree of optimism is injected by the love affair between Archer and the young journalist Betty Jo. The relationship is not resolved within the text, but it counters the absence of affection elsewhere in Macdonald’s work. Betty Jo is no blonde Californian goddess, encouraging dreams and fantasies. Significantly, the title alludes to the blue pulse in her temple, the evidence of life and of the separate selfhood each partner respects and loves.

The sociological and ideological critique begins in the pre-Archer period of the late 40s. Blue City, a tale of corruption and reform exposes American rhetoric. The future is the proletariat’s “freedom” to be work-slaves and to be controlled by the media. The recent war Is acknowledged as an occasion for training in violence but also as the domestic arena where the conflict between the power of business/ crime and democratic ideals takes place. In later novels World War II becomes the personal or familial past of forbidden secrets; successive wars, Korea and Vietnam, are ignored. The change in Macdonald’s novels, as Paul Skenazy persuasively demonstrates, is manifested through absences: civic or police corruption, the lives of the underclasses, detailed racial and class relations, issues of wages and labour. Even the radicalism of Anthony Galton who sees himself as a latter-day John Brown is faintly absurd. The result is that “social factors disappear as motives for crimes” and the repeated plot “deflects class concerns into issues of psychological trauma and youthful family frustration. … Poverty is seen less as a condition of life, or a position in the social order, than as a form of behaviour.”[21]

Behaviour is determined by local as well as national culture. Macdonald’s descriptions of California have been criticized for adhering too closely to the sprawling suburbs of the white middle class. Archer’s weary aloofness spreads a grey pall over the landscape and its inhabitants, characterized in one way or another – crushed, drowned, stiff or frozen – as lifeless. California, in Macdonald’s words, is superficially a “delightful movie-like dream”, but in Black Money a key question is asked, “When you have money to live on, and a nice house, and good weather most of the time, and still your life goes wrong – well, who can you blame?” (p.77) Corpses turn up in cars and motels. Macdonald at least conveys the rootlessness of a mobile society, eager to blot out history and content to make up values along the way. Towns like Oasis in The Way Some People Die (1951), its lights “lost and little in the great nocturnal spaces” are made up in similar fashion. “It’s the opposite of a ghost town, a town waiting to be born”, announces Keith Dalling. (Fontana ed., 1973, p.4l) But Archer, reminded of a wartime army camp, refers ominously to “the skeleton town”. Dalling has invested in Oasis; an accomplice to murder, his dividend is his own death. In Black Monday, modelled on Macdonald’s favourite book The Great Gatsby, the racially mixed Pedro Domingo (Afro-Indian-white) emerges from Panama and, like Jay Gatz, assumes an invented aristocratic role; for a couple of weeks at the state college in Montevista he is taught by a professor with “Scott Fitzgerald good looks.” Domingo is one of that company of “dangerous dreamers” in Macdonald who act out their fantasies. The dream is also embedded in the Californian (and American) psyche so that the writer can imagine Hollywood precisely as “our national capital”.

Macdonald’s use of California beach culture in The Zebra-Striped Hearse provides another example of the ideological difficulties recounted earlier. The liberated surfers who cruise the coast in their psychedelic car are hostile towards adults. They beg food and clothes, and gather around bonfires “like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors.” (Fontana ed., 1985, p. 186) This apocalyptic image registers Archer’s alarm; although the hippies are loyal and peaceful, their challenge to bourgeois conventions is seen as threatening and reprehensible. Their presence is a reminder of enduring conservative elements in hard-boiled narrative. Intertextuality in Macdonald’s novels, while not original, is more developed and varied than in those of his predecessors. The Wycherly Woman contains a reference to Paolo and Francesca and to the second circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. The Chill alludes to Waiting For Godot and describes Zeno’s theory of space (Achilles and the tortoise). Ecology in The Underground Man is traced to a disciple of Louis Agassiz and a 19th century checklist of ornithological species in “Santa Teresa”. Ross Macdonald, a Ph.D. in English, writes in the Archer novels for a sophisticated, college-educated audience. The signs pointing the way towards Murder in the English Department, The James Joyce Murders and the hard-boiled narratives of Robert B. Parker can already be dimly observed.

5. Honky-tonking and Working Out

If the investigator becomes pure form in the later works of Ross Macdonald, this knowledge has escaped a considerable number of post-Chandler detective novelists. The hero with a private code reappears, for example, in the books of Robert B. Parker, but Spenser jogs and has some of the characteristics of a New Man. Elsewhere the code becomes the shared experience that links lawmen and villains. Many elements remain – crime, violence, pain, evidence, revelations – but much becomes changed as writers endeavour to chronicle American culture in the last third of the twentieth century. Other characters fill the structural role of the private eye (cops both male and female, lawyers, professors, even drifters with a past), so the post-Chandler period demands to be examined less through the single author or code hero than through region, class, race or gender.

The multiplicity of signifiers which confronts the reader is not quarantined within mass culture. The explosion of American popular music within this period provides parallel sets of images and atmospheres: urban blues – Gar Heywood; cajun -James Lee Burke; old time Jazz and brass band -Julie Smith (New Orleans Mourning); and country – who else but James Crumley.

James Crumley is one of the educated rednecks of hard-boiled fiction. ”He writes books about troubled macho men … desperately,, romantic novels of the private eye as the last denizen of the old West. (Williams, p.133 ) In Dancing Bear (1983) and his finest work, The Last Good Kiss (1978) he sends his investigators to the dusty bars, truck-stop cafe’s and seedy motels of Montana, Colorado and Wyoming – even in the latter to “the most depressing place in the West”, the Salt Lake City bus terminal.Crumley creates strong, sophisticated female characters, but both novels employ the conventional first person narrative of the (male) private eye. The personal/fictional milieu of Crumley, ex-bartender, ex-soldier, resident of Missoula, Montana, is inhabited by good old boys, rowdy divorced hellraisers who hang out in bars to drink, flirt, smoke a few joints and have a party. They are 60s survivors, “the fortysomething Vietnam generation”, authentically and heroically represented by C.W. Sughrue, the part-time PI in The Last Good Kiss. Crumley likes to fill his books with ordinary labouring folk: truck drivers, barmaids, field workers. In The Last Good Kiss he reports the arrival of construction workers at a bar near Sonoma, men who “were probably terrible people who whistled at pretty girls, treated their wives like servants, and voted for Nixon every chance they got, but as far as I was concerned, they beat hell out of a Volvo-load of liberals for hard work and good times.” (Granada ed., 1979, p.33) Later, Crumley describes a male American fantasy of good times as “unencumbered by families or steady jobs or the knave responsibility”, underlining the point by quoting “Freedom’s just another word for nothing else to lose” from Kris Kristofferson’s melancholy country song, “Me and Bobby McGee”.

Indeed the atmosphere and sensibility of the Crumley canon is that of country music, more specifically that of the Texas honky tonk where the songs express the ambivalence of the working class in the South and Southwest: hedonism and puritanism, sin and guilt, violence and sentimentality. The key scene in which Betty Sue Howers recalls her childhood and her inability to touch “those veins like ugly worms” in the legs of her selfless Granny finds an echo in Holly Dunn’s 1980s hit, “Daddy’s Hands” (“Years of work and worry had left their mark behind”).

A paragraph in the first chapter of The Last Good Kiss alludes to Californian Okies, hot windy plains, orange groves, axe handles – and the Bible. The Steinbeck reference is quickly modified as Sughrue begins his pursuit of the Hemingwayesque alcoholic poet Abraham Trehearne who resembles the writer Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye. There are marked differences between the PIs Sughrue and Milo (in The Last Good Kiss and Dancing Bear respectively) and Lew Archer, but their fictional experiences are far from dissimilar. Like Archer, Crumley’s detective-protagonists are continually deceived, lied to and, in the case of Sughrue, betrayed by what his creator has called the ‘literary arrogance” of Trehearne. Sughrue succumbs to the temptations of violence offered by the job, but remains sensitive enough to describe finding lost people as “the saddest part of the chase” and to admit that he can no longer claim to possess “moral certitude.” Exploding the myth of the ratiocinative investigator who is both brilliant and virtuous, he sums up for all defeated private eyes:

“What a case. Private detectives are supposed to find missing persons and solve crimes, so far in this one I had committed all the crimes – everything from grand theft auto to criminal stupidity – and everybody but poor old Rosie and I had known where Betty Sue Flowers was from the beginning.”[22]

Sughrue is asked by bar-owner Rosie Flowers to look for her daughter missing for ten years in the “Sodom and Gomorrah” of San Francisco. Rosie remembers joining the sad parade of parents searching for their children, “holding’ out their pictures to any dirty hippie that would look at it.” (p.280). As Lew Archer had discerned, parents had no idea why their daughters have run away; Galatea Lawrence in The Way Some People Die always came home for Christmas”, but Susan Crandell in The Underground Man had been “a pampered prisoner” in the affluent cell of her room. These are midnight girls in sunset towns and the search for Betty Sue will uncover drugs, theft and pornography.

The crimes in Dancing Bear are the actions of international arms cartels and the dumping of toxic materials. There arc also misdemeanours on a personal level, especially the exploitation of investigator Milo Milodragovitch by a group of manipulative and committed women: Somehow they would save America from toxic waste and corruption, and I would be their stooge, dance to their lies, dream of love in their arms. I didn’t have the heart to be angry.” (vintage ed., 1984, p.218)

Like Crumley’s first detective novel, The Wrong Case (1975), Dancing Bear concludes in forgiveness. Milo’s relationship with each of the women Is complex and he shares in their concern for the environment. The novel begins and ends with garbage; first, Milo’s own trash can “safe from hungry bears” and collected by automatic trucks, finally the landfills and floating incinerators which enable Tewels the chief criminal to grow rich on junk, sell drugs and pollute America. Milo’s environmentalism does not take an extreme form. He is a modern cowboy with the “hardy pioneer genes” of the old-time frontiersman, one who both approves of wilderness areas and wants chain saws and snowmobiles on his own property. He is aware his land was stolen from Native Americans (“a legal theft”) and the novel chooses for its prologue a Benniwah tale: the origins of the Bear Dance, a fable of ritual, community, sweetness – and forgiveness.

The small town setting, Meriwether, has seen better days. Lumber mills are closing, the pulp mill is on half shifts and the air smells “like cat piss and rotten eggs.” The town is as alienating as Hammett’s Poisonville with its yellow smoke and grimy sky, produced by smelting stacks. To these complaints Milo adds his private laments. His favorite bars are closed or “filled with children” and his stomach can now only tolerate peppermint schnapps. He observes his decline mirrored by the destruction of the land through strip mining and pastel tract houses. Battle-weary, he has learnt one grim post-Vietnam truth: modern life IS warfare without end. Eating the dead (as Chil-a-ma-cho ate Brother Bear) is sound ecology.

At the centre of Robert B. Parker’s hard-boiled narratives is another contradictory figure named Spenser. The signifiers of his toughness are evident – his .38 Smith and Wesson, boxing, weight lifting (Parker is the author of Sports Illustrated Weights Training), jogging (Parker advertises running shoes) and his gumshoe occupation. He resembles Lew Archer and Milo Milodragovitch in seeking to save the innocent from victimization. Caring and sensitive, he embraces Rachel Wallace, weeping with her, after rescuing her from kidnappers. A gourmet cook, he has a steady, semi-domestic relationship with a divorced schools counsellor Susan Silverman, one which makes him in the eyes of his friend Paul, “machismo’s captive. Honor, commitment, absolute fidelity, the whole myth.” “Love,” I said. “Love’s in there.” (The Widening Gyre Severn House ed., 1991, p.160)

These qualities modify and challenge the traditional hard-boiled image of a patriarchal masculinity. As David Glover shows, Parker explores the meaning and limits of masculine experience; “… the Spenser books are divided between a world of men and a world of women, moving relentlessly from one to the other. This makes them far less stable than they seem at first.”[23] This instability can surface through the interrogation of Spenser’s profession and his exuberant violence by either Susan or, in Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), by that novel’s eponymous lesbian activist. Feminist commentary on Parker has found this approach more progressive than the unexamined replication of (male) violence in the private eye texts of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton.

As the series develops Susan becomes Spenser’s emotional anchor and it is when she goes to Washington D.C. as a pre-doctoral intern in clinical psychology that her absence highlights the true nature of his self-sufficiency. His surrogate son, Paul Giacomin, elucidates the situation in The Widening Gyre “You were complete, and now you’re not. It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you wonder if you were ever right. You’ve operated on instinct and the conviction that your instincts would be right . But if you were’ wrong, maybe your instincts were wrong.” (p.73) A discussion of the progress of Spenser’s current case, particularly if gender relations are involved, usually becomes an examination of their own relationship and their respective value systems. In The Widening Gyre Susan argues that given the alternatives of dropping out of the Senate race and permitting his wife’s participation in a sex orgy to be exposed, Meade Alexander will have to make the sell-serving decision. Here Susan takes the pragmatic position since ethical judgments are not crucial in her work which is orientated towards results. For his part Spenser, according to Parker, does what he can rather than what he should. While accustomed to the use of violence in solving problems, he also finds it necessary to speculate upon the determinants of behaviour and adopts a more generous attitude towards Alexander.

Susan is aware that she is in the process of creating a self. “I never had a center, a core full of self-certainty and conviction. I’ve merely picked up the colorations of [others].” Earlier she had protested in language which articulates the problem for gender representation of first person male narration. “Always me was perceived through you – you my father, you my husband, you my friend.” (pp. 110, 109). Now missing Spenser is the price she will gladly pay to find her identity. In these circumstances Spenser too pays – for loving Susan totally and without reservation, for living too long with a single dream like Jay Gatsby.

In his work as detective he is aware that some puzzles fail to produce wholly acceptable solutions; such wisdom can be applied to his personal life. His feelings for Susan emanate from his own core and conviction. They cannot be compromised and could, he now realizes, exist without her. At the end of The Widening Gyre Spenser looks down on her in bed as Lew Archer had looked tenderly on Betty Jo’s “blue hammer” and records that he “watched her with the growing certainty that some of her would always be remote, away from me, unknowable, unobtainable, never mine. Watched her and thought these things and knew, as I could know nothing else so surely, that it didn’t matter.” (p. 183)

Elmore Leonard’s Detroit novel City Primeval which negotiates intertextually with the movie High Noon includes a critique of the protagonist Raymond Cruz, accused by a woman journalist of trying to “look like young Wyatt Earp … the no-bullshit Old West lawman.” Leonard’s literary career began with Westerns and in his Boston University Ph.D. Parker presented the hard-boiled private eyes of his predecessors as modern versions of the Deerslayer archetype. The Judas Goat (1978) is crammed with western references, the most significant being Richard Slotkin’s study of the hunter as American mythic hero, Regeneration Through Violence. The attainment of spiritual renewal through self-testing and serving God and nature which Slotkin proposes is denied in the urban thrillers of Parker, Macdonald and others. Violence removed from the wilderness is non-regenerative. Slotkin also alludes to the hunter’s natural humility and self-restraint. That potentiality for Spenser is embodied in his lover Susan; the opposite quality of excess, violent excess is projected through the AfroAmerican enforcer Hawk who saves the PI’s life in Valediction (1984) and, possibly, in Promised Land (1986). He plays Chingachgook to Spenser’s Natty Bumppo.

Parker’s titles alone, The Widening Gyre (Yeats), A Savage Place (Coleridge), A Catskill Eagle (Melville) bear witness to the influence of the western literary tradition upon his writing. Promised Land and Ceremony (1982) allude to Thoreau; Gatsby and Prufrock are evoked in A Savage Place (1981). These references are a signal to the reader that he/she is in the presence of Serious Literature and provide the educated bourgeois audience with a manufacturer’s guarantee that a Spenser thriller does not insult the reader’s intelligence. In populist fashion however Spenser is cool even disapproving towards academics since they are part of a system of professionals which threatens the exercise of private moral judgment. Students are often portrayed negatively: the campus radicals in The Godwulf Manuscript (1974) are vicious while the college boys in The Widening Gyre who deal drugs and call their orgies with middle-aged women “granny parties” are puerile and corrupt. More recently Playmates focused on the seamy side of college sport.

“Respectable” hard-boiled fiction often recalls the literary past: Spenser and Marlowe from the English Renaissance, and the world of chivalric romance in The Big Sleep and The Godwulf Manuscript. Thus Parker and others are able through particular “high art” signifiers (Spenser like Marlowe enjoys the paintings of the Dutch realists such as Rembrandt) to make functional references to several areas of cultural practice. It is however Ross Macdonald’s books that Parker’s narratives bring to mind most readily especially those (God Save the Child, Early Autumn, and Promised Land which explore the breakdown of the modern family. The prising apart of affluent life is given a broader sociocultural context of dreams unfulfilled, most obviously in Promised Land, the title providing the name of Harvey Shepard’s “vacation-land” housing development temporarily sustained with embezzled money.

As the classic writers of hard-boiled fiction anatomized their special corners of California, so Parker sets his “romantic adventures” in Boston and New England whose historically resonant names (Bunker Hill, Plymouth Plantation) can be used to contrast the lost agrarian America of the Founding Fathers and the innocent young Republic with the garish commercial USA of the 1980s. Spenser’s sentimental reverence finds voice in The Widening Gyre. Upon returning from a trip to Washington D.C., the seat of government and its scheming politicians, he looks up

to the top of State Street where the old South Meeting House stood, soft red brick with, on the 2nd floor, the lion and unicorn carved and gleaming in gold leaf adorning the building as they had when the Declaration of Independence was read from its balcony and, before it, the street where Crispus Attucks had been shot. It was a little like cleansing the palate.[24]

6. Crime Comes to Harlem – and LA

Gar Haywood is the Afro-American author of a prize-winning hard-boiled novel, Fear of the Dark (1988), set in the huge ghetto of South Central Los Angeles. Interviewed by John Williams, Haywood admitted that if he made his principal character a policeman, the visible contradictions would entirely disable him as a writer. For the literary Afro-American the whole concept of law and order is problematic, “You can’t expect the cop on the beat to change the system The changes that have to be made to make law and order mean something in this city have to come from a lot farther up.”[25]

Chester Himes had his own reasons (a spell in Ohio State penitentiary, brushes with law officers) for sharing Haywood’s attitude, but he was persuaded in the 1950s to create as the protagonists of his hard-boiled “detective tales” two black “Harlem sheriffs”, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Like their white counterparts, they are figures of social dominance and personal strength, but paradoxically as servants of an hierarchical system, their power is severely constrained. Their condition as Afro-Americans underlines this contradiction and motivates their anger and aggression, the kind of rage kept simmering in Harlem by squalor and oppression and articulated by Violet Mills in “Mad Mama’s Blues” (“Yes, I’m gonna wreck the city, gonna blow it up tonight”).

Quintessentially an American product, the hard-boiled novel, Himes has argued, is “plain and simple violence in narrative form.” Coffin Ed and Digger are hard, at times brutal, and their faces especially Coffin Ed’s, bear the marks and scars of life on the ghetto streets. They are intimidating, cruel and vengeful. Deliberate and detailed violence contributes to the naturalism of their portrayal but they are also, as successors to the Continental Op and Marlowe, fantasy figures. They function symbolically enjoying the cultural role of the bad nigger of folklore like Stagolee; as men of power they demonstrate that even the weak and impoverished can instil fear and terror.

Himes’s cops adopt a melodramatic perspective, dividing the local inhabitants into good and evil, innocent and criminal. This rigid morality produces self-righteous judgments which are acted upon vigorously and – in the manner of Hammett’s Op – excessively, impinging on both the blameless and guilty, men and women alike. The excess could be interpreted as a means of challenging aspects of the genre, such as hard-boiled philosophy and the mystification of the romanticized detective. Other explanations can be argued: for example, violence is a technique of communication and survival. It is also Himes’s method of bestowing humanity and dignity on certain characters both lawmen and lawbreakers. In My Life of Absurdity (1976) he explained that he was protesting against a racism that excused all the sins and faults of soul brother criminals who were as vicious and dangerous as any other criminals. Only by bending the law (non-violently or otherwise) can Harlem’s detectives achieve the cosy resolutions which feature in many of Himes’s crime novels. In All Shot Up (1960) the stolen money ($50,000) is seized by the two officers and sent to the New York Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund which arranges summer vacations for (New York) city kids of all races.

Coffin Ed and Digger are dispensing justice on behalf of a poverty-stricken community threatened by criminal activity and oppressed by extremes of weather. They identify strongly with the black underclass whose lives they attempt to ameliorate, though the area around Eighth Avenue and 112th Street is presented in Cotton Comes to Harlem as close to irredeemable: “the neighbourhood of the cheap addicts, whisky heads, stumblebums, the flotsam of Harlem; the end of the line for the whores, the hard squeeze for the poor honest labourers and a breeding ground for crime.” (Penguin ed., p.47) As Raymond Nelson argues, “it is one of the brilliant ironies of the Harlem Domestic stories that the detective-heroes can express their genuine love for their people, their altruistic hopes for communal peace and decency, only through the crude brutality that has become their bitter way of life.”[26]

It is not violence alone which identifies these texts as part of the hard-boiled tradition. Coffin Ed and Digger are quick-thinking professionals, incorruptibly honest, loyal to each other and brave. Driven by a central quest, the plots tend to imitate Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon which was recommended to Himes by Marcel Duhamel who commissioned the novels for “La Serie Noire”. The resemblance is closest in the first novel For Love of Imabelle (1957) – Himes’s preferred title was The Five-Cornered Square – where the ore in the padlocked trunk turns out to be fool’s gold. As in Hammett’s novel the lure generates capers, intrigues and savage even spectacular violence on both personal and public levels.

Himes does not employ the characteristic first person narrative mode. Instead he offers a number of viewpoints which, along with the exercise of time inversion, produces a text conveying the disjointedness, the messy and turbulent atmosphere of the black community. The surreal dynamism of this teeming ghetto world with its flamboyant, ribald individuals is rendered in a realistic style which draws upon laconic speech forms and Afro-American vernacular. However Himes maintained that he never really knew what it was like to be an inhabitant of Harlem, claiming in My Life of Absurdity that he was as much of a tourist there as “a white man from downtown changing his luck.” His knowledge of the criminal underworld, its styles, its spoken language, and of the lives of ghetto dwellers in other American cities, especially Cleveland, Ohio, fully compensate for any lack of direct experience of New York. The fictional Harlem is a self-contained society: the reader encounters its restaurants, foods, music, entertainment, churches, clubs and tenements. While its people are deprived, sinful and resilient, black America’s capital is, like Chandler’s LA, mysterious, exotic, intricate and enigmatic. Himes captures the sights of shop windows and graffiti, the sounds of jazz from neighbourhood bars and, in The Heat’s On (1967), the smells “of sizzling barbecue, fried hair, exhaust fumes, rotting garbage, cheap perfumes, unwashed bodies … and all the dried-up odours of poverty.” (Panther ed., 1969, p.28)

The details of a crowded, colourful city provide the anchor for the exuberance of fantasy. In his essay “City of Harlem” Leroi Jones reported that the mythology of the ghetto supplied different images, “the pleasure-happy center of the universe” and “the gathering place for every crippling human vice.” Yet Harlem as Jones insists, eludes definitions, changing continually, questioning the stereotypes of glamour and desperation. In that “milling population of preachers and politicians, sober matriarchs and mock religious prophets, pimps and their chippies, drug pushers and wheel thieves, transvestites and con-men, and shysters of every kind and sex” anything might happen.[27] Himes’s Harlem witnesses racketeering, drug-dealing and hustling in general, so tension, fear and violence – from acid-throwing to stabbings – suffuse the textual material.

New York’s black community has been called Southern in its memories and its culture; The Crazy Kill (1960) contains a complete soul food menu. In Cotton Comes to Harlem (1966) Himes juxtaposes two political projects one of which is the racist movement led by the neoConfederal Colonel Calhoun known as Back-to-the-Southland. This is symbolized by a bale of cotton carrying suggestions of slavery – which more or less describes the conditions awaiting those Harlemites who join up. On the other hand black militancy is represented by the Back-to-Africa movement of the slippery, despicable Deke O’Hara, an ironic reference to Marcus Garvey’s nationalist organization in the 20s which “doesn’t make any sense now.” The irony is reversed in the book’s conclusion: an old junk collector does travel to Ghana with the $87,000 he finds in the cotton bale – money stolen from the O’Hara group’s “Last Chance Rally” by the Colonel’s men. The Colonel who, with his nephew, is guilty of murder evades justice; a deal is struck so that the robbed Harlem families will receive $87,000 (from Back-to-the-Southland) while Calhoun and Ronald Compton return to Alabama which refuses to extradite them for the crime of killing a “Negro”.

The limits of justice, particularly as experienced by Afro-American police officers, become increasingly obvious to Himes, and this theme is developed in the ambitious hard-boiled narrative, Blind Man With a Pistol (1969), a de-centred anti-novel in which the failure of the genre is central to the meaning. Harlem which in Plan B (published in French, 1983) experiences a black revolution, becomes completely anarchic and meaningless. The cops’ investigations are blocked because they would uncover an interracial homosexual scandal embarrassing to the white establishment. So the extreme point of absurdity is reached: crime can no longer be solved for criminality is all-pervasive, generated by urban decay. Similarly the disease of institutional racism in the ghetto is too widespread for any remedy.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are here ineffective comic characters with greying hair and middle-aged spread. As riots and demonstrations proliferate, they are no longer able to impose order. Parades representing different ideologies converge and collide. The Black Muslim Michael X tells them, “You don’t really count in the overall pattern.” (Panther ed., 197 l, p. 174) The parable of the blind man with a gun provides the appropriate epilogue, an image – as Himes’ preface warns – of the unorganized violence that connects the Middle East, Vietnam and America’s ghettoes. Himes’ black detectives adjust to impotence and irrationality, taking pot-shots at rats in a building demolished by urban renewal.

Himes’ Black Power militants reappear two decades later in Fear of the Dark. The Brothers of Volition attempt to provoke a bloody civil war but are frustrated by Haywood’s PI, aging balding Aaron Gunner. The lesson for Gunner (and for Afro-America) is to keep alive the dream of a society without racial bigotry and oppression, to relinquish suicidal fantasies of vengeance. The author’s second novel Not long For This World (1990) describes the desperate world of LA’s street gangs: ‘We’re talking about kids that from day one have had no hope of anything, they have totally lost faith in their own future,” (Williams, p. 102) Haywood deplores black and white indifference and politicians with their bland advice, but Gunner’s increased awareness of the dimensions of the problem only constitutes a repetition of the bewildered liberal’s announcement that attention must be paid…..

Walter Mosley sets his crime novel Devil in a Blue Dress (1991) in the Los Angeles of the 1940s when racial conflict gave rise to the Zoot Suit notes, an occasion when, as Chester Himes wrote at the time, the US army, navy and marines “contacted and defeated a handful of youths with darker skins.” Mosley chooses the post-riot date of 1948, one which can evoke the Chandler milieu of the early 40s; the opening scene in Joppy’s Bar in Watts is an interracial inversion of the first scene of Farewell, My Lovely. Historical and geographical intersections authenticate the actions and thoughts of his private eye, Easy Rawlins. The author’s interest in Albert Camus (who earlier had influenced another black writer deeply interested in crime, Richard Wright) becomes evident as Rawlins endeavours to resolve moral dilemmas and to create his identity through his experiences and through the assumption of a professional role. “It was as if for the first time in my life I was doing something on my own terms. Nobody was telling me what to do. I was acting on my own.” (Serpent’s Tail ed., p.131 Becoming a detective vanquishes fear and boredom. The right technique, with a glance at Ralph Ellison, is to act “sort of invisible”. Rawlins is a black Marlowe, tough, hard up, relentless, but without the neuroses and isolation. The denouement however recalls Hammett when Easy with the backing of the rich and powerful Carter concocts a fiction to satisfy the police.

In 1948 the Afro-American and the “Mexican” were on good terms, just “another couple of unlucky stiffs left holding the short end of the stick.” (p. 182) Rawlins who was among the GIs who evacuated the Nazi concentration camps contemplates the historical fate of another marginalized figure – the European Jew. His knowledge helps him to ward off racial self-pity; he still needs to survive while attaining dignity, though in his circumstances he relies upon the assistance of the gun-happy, murderous Mouse, a friend/enemy from earlier days in Houston “where men would kill over a dime wager or a rash word.” (p.40) The racial theme is also developed through Daphne Monet, the mysterious woman of the title. Changeable like the chameleon, sexually generous, dangerous to know, she is the exotic femme fatale of film noir. In addition her fake French accent, her blue dress (as worn by French giris – and by Ilsa Lund in Casablanca – in wartime Paris) and her mixed racial origins suggest the tragic octoroon of Southern literary culture.

Mosley excels in language which describes the characters of LA’s postwar black areas, and the atmosphere of hustling: “There’s no time to walk down the street or make a bar-b-q when somebody’s going to pay you real money to haul refrigerators.” (p.56) A variety of locations borrowed from Chandler fills in the panorama. The canyon roads, Hollywood Hills, and the corporate offices recur. Mosley also transports his protagonist from Joppy’s evil-smelling bar in a butcher’s warehouse to John’s place (a grocery front for an illegal nightclub), Daphne’s one-story duplex on Dinker Street, and Ricardo’s Pool Room on Slauson, “a serious kind of place peopled with jaundice-eyed bad men who smoked and drank heavily while they waited for a crime they could commit.” (p.129)

7. Miami Blues

Billy Wilder’s film Some Like It Hot associated Chicago with night, violence and swift death. Miami, by contrast, stood for sunshine, vitality and fun. Such a polarization was a fictional device as the film tacitly admitted when the plot moved the gangsters south in search of the two musicians who had witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Miami Beach already had a history of Mafia domination with Al Capone settling there for a time during Prohibition as an “antique dealer” and pronouncing Miami the “Garden of America”. In the 30s gunfights between G-men and smugglers were common. So Miami’s assumption of the title “Murder Capital USA” in the early 80s was actually an exercise in continuity.

The prevalence of criminality, intriguingly mixed with the Florida postcard attributes of surf, sun, beach and lush tropical plants, made Miami as dangerous and exciting as Chicago. Miami, like New Orleans, was exotic by virtue of its links with other races, languages and cultures, but it was literally colourful capitalizing on the exuberant surfaces of its South Beach Art Deco hotels. In TV’s Miami Vice the colours are pastel and incandescent, constitutive of a city that is post-industrial, vibrant and stylistically ambitious. The artificial settings are complemented by atmospheric, natural ones. “Teeming with images of nature – parrots, flamingos, water and speed, women’s bodies, flaunting sensuality – Miami is our heart of darkness.”[28] Maurice Zola, the old hotelier in Elmore Leonard’s La Brava (1983) repeats the rumour that the east bank of the Apalachicola River between Bristol (where Noah may have built the Ark) and Chatahoochee is the site of the original Garden of Eden. Miami is both heart of darkness and fallen world, its paradisal luxury resting on credit and drug money, the profits from which have criminalized businessmen, politicians and police officers. Moral distinctions are obliterated in a democracy of desire and consumerism.

By the 80s Miami and Florida had taken over from Los Angeles and Southern California in the American consciousness as lotus land, the site of opportunity and easy living. Still evolving and changing, Miami promoted itself as the pioneer centre of a new international arena of leisure. Dreamlike and romantic, Miami had become a place where any possibility could be accommodated. These possibilities would increasingly partake of violence and vice. A clearing house for Immigrants and refugees, Miami was becoming an entrepot for weapons and drugs as well, a city of touts and pimps and middlemen bringing in or delivering whatever the world wished to purchase. Its internationalism would embrace not only cafe society Europeans like Regine but Colombian cocaine cowboys, French-speaking Haitians and the Marielitos tossed out by Castro in 1980 and reckoned to be the most ruthless criminals ever seen in the USA. Many of those involuntary immigrants were drug addicts, prostitutes and homosexuals; among the rest were large numbers of petty crooks, usually brutal, and about two thousand hard core villains. Together they would send Miami’s crime figures through the roof: “The boat-lifters and dopers come in, half the neighbourhood’s already down the toilet”, laments Maurice in LaBrava (Penguin ed., 1985, p.68).

Specific events carried their own meanings. The Liberty City riots were yet another example of the violence waiting to be triggered by Southern racism, while the Suniland shoot-out exposed the dark underside of Middle America. Matix and Platt were army veterans from the Midwest, patriotic, garden-loving, pious suburbanites who killed their wives for the insurance money before or after moving to Miami. When Platt received his money he at once took his kids to Disney World. The two men used the flamboyant cars of young Hispanic males they had murdered to commit armed robbery and were finally shot in a black and gold Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Chunky Gorman, a drugs dealer in Elmore Leonard’s Stick (1983) warns Moke, a young redneck working for a Cuban outfit, that he has seen “white boys … take on that greaseball strut, that curl to the lip and land in a federal correction facility for showing off’. (Penguin ed., 1984, p.21) Part of the fascination of the Miami crime novel is this clash of cultures and the way power depends on images and their manipulation.

Nestor, Chucky’s associate in crime, is Hispanic Cuban, but stories tag him as part Lengua Indian from Paraguay, “raised on the alkaline flats and fed spider eggs” (p.120) to make him evil. He is able to terrify Chucky through references to santeria and animal sacrifice, having known for a long time “gods can scare the shit out of anyone” (p.125). Nestor apart, Cubans usually fill the reductive roles of small time hoods in these texts and are the targets of racist sentiments (“that greaser goon Chavez”, “fucking Cuban hotshot”). Cundo Rey the glitzy go-go artist in LaBrava at least gets to say “I steal cars in darkness, I dance in lights” but needs little invitation to “act crazy”. Jesris Bernal, the incompetent letter bomber in Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season (1986), is a similar figure ending up as the wild Cuban, a mixture of clown and loose cannon.

In a TV series Matix and Platt might have been cast as the exterminators, agents of law enforcement. They lived and died in Kendall, described by T.D. Allman in Miami: City of the Future (1988) as “a churchgoing, Little-League, nine-to-five kind of place.” It is in an expensive Kendall condo that Freddy ‘Junior” Frenger, the psychopathic protagonist of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues (1984) holes up with his “platonic” wife Susan. The apartment complex in the novel exemplifies the contradictions and volatility of Miami life in the early 80s. Chic and tropical, it is for the most part unpainted or unfinished as construction prices and interest rates on loans have escalated. A Cuban rides round in a jeep to prevent vandalism. The ironies contained in the Kendall Pines Terrace are repeated elsewhere. Miami with its lush vegetation, its shimmering skyline and its aura of glamour may seem the antithesis of the mean streets of criminality and sudden death found in film noir and the classic hard-boiled thriller. David Buxton in ‘From “The Avengers” to ‘Miami Vice”: form and ideology in television series’ (1990) has brilliantly analyzed the discrepancy between extravagant materialism and incorruptibility in Miami Vice up to 1988. The ambiguous Reaganite package of harsh moralism and conspicuous consumption with its cops as “style heroes” eventually collapses; it is a safe bet that Miami’s flashy cops in three piece suits and Gucci shoes are moonlighting for drug barons. There remains however a degree of Thirties urban realism in Leonard and Willeford, while Stick includes a mansion sufficiently grand to rival earlier monuments belonging to the Grayles and the Sternwoods:

an assortment of low modules stuck together, open sides and walls of glass set at angles, the grounds dropping away from the house in gradual tiers, with wide steps that might front a museum leading down to the terraced patio and on to the swimming pool. A sweep of manicured lawn extended to a boat dock and a southwest view of Biscayne Bay… (pp.82-3)

What has changed is that the democracy of violence and crime has expanded. When Freddy Frenger breaks a Hare Krishna’s finger, observers break into applause and laugh. The wounded beggar who dies of shock turns out to be the brother of the young hooker Frenger shacks up with. Susan and Marty Waggoner were saving up for a Burger King franchise in Okeechobee: “He’ll be the day manager and I’ll manage nights. We’ll build a house on the lake, get us a speedboat and everything.” (Ballantine ed., 1985, p.31) Marty was cheating the Hare Krishnas. As a child he liked to bend back Susan’s fingers and when puberty struck the pair he made her pregnant. So much for the American Dream. But it has appeal for Frenger too. “What I want is a regular life. I want to go to work in the morning or maybe at night, and come home to a clean house, and a decent dinner, and a loving wife like you.” (pp. 143-4) In this quotation Frenger sounds like Matix and Platt. He’s the deadly suburban monster, dream and nightmare made inextricable.

Miami’s amorphousness offers space in which to hustle and rob, to maim others or yourself. “Nothing about Miami was exactly fixed or hard”, Joan Didion noted in her essay Miami (1988), an observation which touches the crux of the Miami novel. Criminality in these books is closely linked to lack of place and roots, lack of traditions except of lawbreaking itself. One consequence of Miami’s status as haven for thousands of travellers and transients is the decline of family life. Watching “Family Feud” on TV Frenger observes that there are no mothers and fathers on the show, only cousins, uncles and perhaps a kid borrowed from the neighbours. The cynical reflection of Police Officer Hoke Moseley on the Waggoners makes an epitaph for the 80s – and for Miami: “That’s some family isn’t it? Incest, prostitution, fanaticism, software.” (p.157) For reasons already acknowledged, the detective (male) of classic hard-boiled fiction is without family. His distance from “family” and the location of crime including murder within the family contribute to the construction of such fiction as literature of resistance.

Instead of family life the Miami novel produces representations of lifestyles linked somewhere by crime. Just as a palm tree, jacuzzi and red staircase seem suspended in the space in Arquitectonica’s Brickell Avenue condominium, so characters in books by Leonard, James Hall and Joseph Koenig float in their individual ways. Koenig’s Floater (1986) is a corpse; the book’s major criminal dumps one, but ends up the same way in the Tamiani canal. Miami’s topography functions as a watery cemetery. Although the Everglades bleed Miami from the rear-view mirror as motorists on the Tamiani Trail approach the Big Cypress Swamp and the Gulf Coast, the wilderness area shares in the ambivalence of the city. Alice in Floater calls her family hunting lodge, with its Spanish moss in the front yard and its freshwater lagoon in the back, “the honeymoon cottage”, but her partner Norodny drowns his first victim in an Everglades guest house. If the Everglades National Park supplies a mythic image of pre-lapsarian nature, it is also a source of Southern Gothic, a miasmal, haunted setting of swampland, mosquitoes, alligators and white trash.

A discourse of the gothic can function as the expressive medium of a nostalgic, even obsessive environmentalism. Skip Wiley’s self-imposed mission in Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season (1986) is to wreak vengeance on the boosters, wheeler-dealers, bankers and developers who with dredgers and bulldozers have not only turned Miami into “Newark with palm trees” but have made it an environmental disaster area. Ecology is also fundamental to James Hall’s Under Cover of Daylight (1987), its action taking place in the environmentally fragile islands of the Florida Keys. Hall is interested in dealing with the issue of a human being pushed into a situation where his life and values are seriously threatened. So his central character an existentialist-loner called Thorn who lives in a remote Key Largo stilt house and ties flies for a living bears the traces, extended to parody, of a Hemingway figure. The epigraph however is from A Writer’s Journal and Thorn tries to live according to the rhythms of nature, like Thoreau on the shores of Walden Pond. At the book’s conclusion Thorn is purged of guilt and exorcizes the memory of killing his lover’s father. Finally floating he cleanses himself in Lake Surprise, becoming as Thoreau predicted “a still lake of purest crystal.”

Hiassen’s forte is black humour: “Sparky” Harper the President of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce is choked to death with a 79c. rubber alligator – still displaying its price tag. The crusaders responsible are eager to make a point. The body chopped off at the legs and dressed in a Jimmy Buffett shirt and Bermuda shorts is stuffed in a suitcase, the Royal Tourister naturally… Hiassen’s later and more coherent novel Double Whammy (1987), (the title is the name of a lure for bass) is an expose’ of fraud and murder among redneck fishermen In the South-Eastern states, especially Florida. In this case the environmentalist response to real estate development on the edge of the Everglades, where the state fish the largemouth bass is dangerously polluted, is divorced from the text’s imaginative gothicisms. Thomas Curl, a foul-mouthed killer, is savaged by a pit bull terrier with a “supernatural” grip. Unable to release from his arm the “demonic mandibles” of the dog (killed by the thrust of a screwdriver), Curl severs the head, still attached as though in symbiosis, and continues his murderous journey. The symbolism – Curl’s bestiality, the moral corruption made physical by infection – is crudely obvious, but is pursued with grim panache through the redneck’s explosive death and a feast for buzzards who reduce the dog’s head to a bare yellow skull.

Chucky in Stick once killed a dog and was moved out of Georgia because of his “mental” problem. His diet of Valium and ‘ludes causes him to float among the coloured lights in his head “swimming under water only without any water.” His own violence remains latent until the narrative reaches its climax, but he belongs nevertheless to that company of psychopaths (Frenger in Miami Blues, Louden in Sideswipe, Norodny in Floater, McMann in Under Cover of Daylight) which surfaces throughout the Miami/Florida intertext. The blankness of tone in Miami Vice (what Fredric Jameson defining postmodernism calls waning of affect) is, in these characters, translated into abnormal psychology so that moral vacancy replaces conscience. Committing one of his murders Norodny has “the disinterested gaze of a man preoccupied with other things as if he might be expecting an important phone call” (Penguin ed., 1989, p.70). For this unreachable type killing is work, a business: “What I did I did to eat, to eat well. It’s not my hobby.” His self-image of average citizen precludes guilt and remorse: “I like kids, a day at the ball park. I pay my taxes on time.” (p.273)

The alternative to floating Chucky-style is a form of existentialism, establishing your identity, your personal style, or just playing a role. The performance often relies on language. For example Latins in Stick dress up, pose and throw out TV lines like “What’s happening, man?” Chucky on the other hand uses hats to change his mood, to psych himself up with fantasies. In LaBrava, as the eponymous photographer derisively observes, Richie Nobles’ act is based upon a stereotype of masculinity, specifically the all-American boy: “Hometown boy – the hair, the toothpick, the hint of swagger in the set of silver-clad shoulders. What an asshole. How did they get so sure of themselves, these guys, without knowing anything? Like people who have read one book.” (p. 133) To Cundo Rey, the “boatlifter” from a Cuban prison and Nobles’ partner in crime, his own style is more authentic; it is Nobles the Florida redneck, the swamp creature who is the alien, Cundo the real American, the man of the city.

In Floater Norodny uses a stolen plane ticket to Hollywood (Florida). The complete narrative is Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt remade by Brian de Palma and ending with a car chase. It is in Leonard’s novels where characters often fail to distinguish between movies/TV and life (Split Images, Get Shorty) that role playing is most frequently associated with the cinema, and Hollywood is a major influence on style as well as material, especially cutting from one centre of consciousness to another. A fan of the movie star since the age of 12 Joe LaBrava is blocked in his attempts to “read” Jean Shaw by desire and memory and by the star’s ability to “act her way out of a safe deposit box” (p. 162). Since most of her lines are from Fifties movies (in which she played Women as Destroyer) LaBrava’s talent for photography, his ability to pierce the facade of contemporary street life is irrelevant and he can only act along in the part provided for him. Like the spider woman she used to portray Jean Shaw is “disillusioned but knows she has to play the game” (p.183)

The intertextuality here is book/movie and literary genre/film genre. LaBrava wrenches his imagination back to the present, persuading himself Jean Shaw is the victim in a “real” drama. He misplaces the knowledge he has that the star has always played the same part, in this instance a member of a trio involved in an elaborate swindle. Leonard refuses to submit to generic determinism. LaBrava ends not with the film noir elimination of the spider woman, but with her marriage to Maurice Zola whom she sought to dupe. In Miami, anything can happen.

8. Urban deserts and desert landscapes

Accounts of recent crime fiction identify a preoccupation with the darker irrational side of “human nature”, with the morbid, the malicious and the sadistic and, correspondingly, a movement away from realism. “Realism” in an old-fashioned sense continues to flourish, often in a complex manner, in the novels of George V. Higgins and Ed McBain. However in an era of post-structuralism and postmodernism, when “history”, “text”, “author” and “closure” have all been questioned, less confidence attends the use of such terminology and the implied transparency of its literary techniques.

The absence of certainty in society and the resultant moral confusion may be seen as part of a new kind of weary post-Vietnam, post-counterculture cynicism. “My books end in ellipses”, says the hardboiled novelist Jonathan Valin, though irresolution and unpunished criminals go back as far as Ross Macdonald and the Chandler of The Long Goodbye. The wit and wisecracking are retained in sharp and abrasive vernaculars, shaping obscenity into rhythmic patterns and often blackly comic. Speech forms are authenticated by being set against each other: in Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1971) the language of the narrative argues its own limitations, its aspiration to authority checked by other language, other people’s stories. K.C. Constantine’s Always a Body to Trade sets different verbal styles side by side within the discourse of law and policing to establish levels of experience and ignorance. The police chief Balzic and the Deputy U.S. Attorney Feinstein, engaged in the trading of the novel’s title, operate pragmatically: “For God’s sake, man, what the hell do you think the law is all about? It’s trade, it’s bargain, it’s compromise; it’s negotiate, it’s deal, deal, deal.” In response the mayor Strohn can only offer the politician’s cliche’s of “law and order” and “a better place to live”. Ironically he knows less about the system of law and its workings than the dope dealer Leroy whose acceptance into the federal witness programme is being negotiated with Feinstein and Balzic. Leroy’s functional street language is admirably geared to the expression of his “pri-or-i-ties.”: “I don’t care how long it takes. I do care how soon we begin. And the sooner the better. Like now! We got the righteous shit, man, and we’re lookin’ to move it. What more you want?”[29]

Heroes and villains, cops and criminals share knowledge – and specialist skills. Peter Letkemann in Crime as Work (1973) showed that criminal life shares the structure and goals (e.g. success through professionalism) of “straight” society. Leroy and Balzic start building a relationship through the discussion of restaurant food as befits men accustomed to making journeys, getting out on the street. Detectives, thieves and con artists are linked in a world where both crime and its detection are work. Thus the reassuring and defining separation of reader (normal) from criminal (abnormal) is elided. Elmore Leonard has his heroes and villains circling each other in mutual pursuit, a process often concluded merely through chance. Simplistic ethical distinctions are rejected in such novels as Hall’s Squall Line (1989) where all the characters are morally compromised, all looking for a place in the sun, or Higgins’ A Choice of Enemies (1983) in which Benny Morgan while thoroughly corrupt is more honourable than his detractors. Leonard avoids “sneering ugly” villains preferring to show their human side. Conversely he will give one of his heroes a prison record (Stick). His shifting use of the third person perspective is radical and disturbing: “In Elmore Leonard’s society, both evil and good have become equally respectable alternative points of view from which a story can be told.”[30]

Use of the same urban (or suburban) setting reassures readers and marketing managers especially when, as in the case of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books, the characters fail to age or change. Historically hard-boiled authors have frequently sought to appropriate a particular fictional territory in which streets, districts and public buildings are authentic. Jonathan Valin’s novels are mappings of his home town Cincinnati where the external social landscape of civic achievement and parochial respectability merely conceals sexual predators and psychopaths. In other respects also Valin is formulaic: “I don’t have a whole lot of respect for the rich and the content. I have much greater sympathy for the people who have nothing or very little.”[31] Influenced by Poe and Hawthorne, Valin individualizes his work by mixing horror and comedy, notably in Life’s Work (1986), a black comedy version of Farewell, My Lovely, and in Day of Wrath (1982) where the private eye Harry Stoner finds a severed hand in the refrigerator during a gun battle.

The latter novel features a 1960s style commune, and the recent Fire Lake (1987) examines Sixties types and values both as part of and from the vantage point of the 1980s. Stoner had been both a cop and a hippie; Day of Wrath is evidence of a baffled, ambiguous attitude towards the past. Annie, one of the groupies at Theo’s farm (the scene is music, drugs and sex) attempts to describe the atmosphere. “Instead of money and rules and all the crap you’re taught in school, we had love.” (Futura ed., 1986, p. 152) Earlier Harry suspects that the counterculture of the Sixties and the adolescent’s dream of freedom are the same thing. One of the bands in Day of Wrath is The Furies; the book’s structuring myth is Orpheus and Eurydice – so it ends in Hell with naked bodies, madness and bloody carnage presided over by the mutilated body of the guru/musician, Theo Clinger, tied to a chair with chicken wire and wearing a brown paper crown.

Altamont and Charles Manson displace Woodstock and Timothy Leary. Stoner however also wants to distance himself from the middle class respectability represented by Eastlawn Drive (where Valin grew up), a “never-never land of hollow prosperity.” His pessimism is wide-ranging because he finds a “red, lubricious thread of selfishness” wherever his enquiries take him. It is a selfishness abetted by “a world full of love’s failures”, the inexplicable human urge to destroy the grounds of happiness. With a sentimentality redolent of Marlowe, Stoner resolves to rescue the Eastlawn Drive runaway and thus honour the dead boy who loved her, “If she hadn’t meant a thing to anyone else, she meant the world to him. And that made her worth saving.” (p.201) In Stoner who equates justice with vengeance, the sentimentality is combined with puritanism. like Amos Walker, Loren Estleman’s Detroit shamus, he represents the detective as brutal vigilante, his options closed down by the decadence and amorality of Reagan’s America.

Police officers Leaphorn and Chee in the novels of Tony Hillerman also bend the law in order to bring about justice but without the bitterness of some of their Anglo counterparts. The conventional image of tension, violence and paranoia in an urban wasteland gives way in Hillerman’s fiction to scenes of matchless beauty in Arizona and New Mexico, on and near Navajo, Hopi and Zuni reservations. This unique environment can play an active role often by means of weather. Rain is so infrequent it is mistrusted and revered; in The Dark Wind (1983) lawman Jim Chee is saved by a rain so violent there are no words to describe it. Weather and terrain combine to create a dramatic sense of landscape, a grandeur and immensity congruent with Amerindian cultures and their deep roots in nature.

The southwest wind … made a thousand strange sounds in windows of the old Hopi villages at Shongopovi and Second Mesa. Two hundred vacant miles to the north and east, it sandblasted the stone sculptures of Monument Valley Tribal park and whistled eastward across the maze of canyons on the Utah-Arizona border.” (Listening Woman. Harper ed., 1978. p1)

In both structure and characterization Hillerman acknowledges the tradition of hard-boiled fiction. The elements of crime, clues, evidence, investigation, danger and resolution are contained in a narrative where the “detective” achieves feats of intelligence, endurance and courage, like his predecessors in the genre. Hillerman’s indictment of the failure of the American family and his portraits of lost adolescents recall similar themes and motifs in Ross Macdonald and Valin. People of Darkness (1980) echoes Chandler as well as Macdonald. It discovers evil in the figure of a wealthy man Benjamin Vines who uses his economic and political power to silence those with dangerous information about an oil well explosion years ago. The detective figure in the Hillerman tales however (Leaphorn or Chee) is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police Force and the gumshoe’s code of ethics is replaced by the tribal policeman’s Navajo code. So the term “metamorphosis of Leatherstocking” assumes an ironic meaning, one underlined by the circumstance that Hillerman’s cops professionally uphold laws unrelated to, or in conflict with, Navajo sensibility and culture. Both Leaphorn and Chee are expert trackers taught by their forbears, and in People of Darkness Chee rehearses parts of the Stalking Way (“As I, the Black God, go toward it./ As the male game of darkness comes toward me.”) before starting out on his quest. One of Leatherstocking’s names is Pathfinder, but after the recession of warfare against the Amerindians, the “Indian fighter” was replaced in story papers and dime novels by the detective so that criminal whites and Mexicans could be (fictionally) apprehended.

Joe Leaphorn is a cross-cultural figure, a participant in the contemporary crime fighting world of short wave radios and pickup trucks, and the contemporary Amerindian world of poverty, alcoholism and white racism. Although his grandfather was a singer of curing rituals, his interest in Navajo folklore is professional and academic, having been like his fellow officer Jim Chee a student of anthropology. “He may well be a religious man,” Hillerman says of Leaphorn, “but he’s going to see mythology in a more abstract, poetic sense.”[32] Joe’s success can in part be attributed to his ability to understand and balance different cultures. He provides an interesting contrast to those rootless outcasts, in the work of Silko, Momaday and others, caught between the destructive modern values of whites and traditional Native American structures of belief that remain too distant. A Navajo librarian tells Hillerman: “We read Welch and Silko and we say, ‘That’s us, they really understand us, that’s us and it’s beautiful, but it’s so terribly sad.’ Then we read you and we say, ‘Yeah that’s us too, and we win.”‘ (Williams, p.80) Hillerman’s narratives too contain characters caught between cultures, sad bewildered individuals, often adolescents, seeking a personal identity, or dehumanized irredeemable figures such as Goldrims in Listening Woman. Disloyal and beyond culture, Goldrims scorns Anglo culture, desecrates Navajo land and exploits the militant Buffalo Society.

Crime in this world is a rupture of harmony, especially when the transgressions of criminals are parodies of authentic ceremonies. Metaphorically evildoers in Hillerman whether Navajo or Anglo are represented as Navajo Wolves: rejecting beauty and order these “witches”, cousins to the psychopaths of the Miami novel, embrace wickedness, spreading the sickness and darkness of which they are agents by means of sacrilege and murder. Leaphorn acts on his knowledge of Navajo culture and its healing ceremonies to establish clues and discern motives. As the individual Navajo aspires to a state of harmony, so the lawman searches for meaning and tries to restore order. The lesson of the Navajo Way is central, both for life and policing: “Interdependency of nature. Every cause has its effect. Every action its reaction. A reason for everything. In all things, a pattern, and in this pattern, the beauty of harmony. Thus one learned to live with evil, by understanding it, by reading its cause.” (Dance Hall of the Dead, Harper ed.,1973, p.55)

Leaphorn (and Chee, who is studying to be a ritual singer) accept the Navajo Origin Myth with its explanation of evil: that which is unnatural. The Navajo holds that evil can be turned against itself and thus be destroyed; Hillerman frequently dramatizes this concept, notably in the violent climax of People of Darkness. There can be only one punishment for the heinous crime of murder, heinous since death is just unrelieved horror. This eschatology differs from that of the Plains Amerindians, the Zuni or the Hopi. In Dance Hall of the Dead the murderer is beyond the reach of Anglo law but his sacrilege is punished by Zuni tribesmen during the Shalako ritual; he simply disappears.

The two Navajo lawmen need to understand the practices and beliefs of various cultures. Chee, seeking to penetrate Hopi culture in order to pursue his enquiries, secretly visits a Hopi village during an initiation ceremony (The Dark Wind); similarly in Dance Hall of the Dead Leaphorn has to deal with his feeling that Zunis consider themselves superior to Navajos. The honouring of a custom, for instance staying outside a hogan waiting for an invitation to enter, can be practical. Ghosts would lack the patience to wait so would not be around to follow the visitor into the hogan of the host.

Hillerman’s research is in part informal, the benefit of living close to Navajo country, but it also relies on anthropology and on the University of New Mexico’s extraordinary collection of Native American materials and Western Americana. His acknowledgments – from Navajo schoolchildren to members of the US Park Service and Smithsonian curators – are extensive, creating the impression of a collective text. Aware that there is more to Navajo culture than the shamanism and mysticism embraced by New Age people, Hillerman has a certain didactic propensity but one kept under control by the imperatives of storytelling.

9. Lay That Pistol Down, Babe

Although the first feminist detective, Amelia Butterworth, appeared in the last years of the nineteenth century, the roles played by women in hard-boiled fiction have until recently been severely circumscribed. The demands of popular culture ideology have been responsible for the representation of women as both attractive and desirable on the one hand, amoral and predatory, the embodiment of male fantasies and fears, on the other. A conservative social order exhibits alarm and panic when female activities such as attempts to acquire wealth and influence are seen to be motivated by desires not in accordance with patriarchal definitions of the feminine. Such women must be controlled through assault, arrest or killing. Thus the violence of the private eye often has a misogynistic core: “the intense masculinity of the hard-boiled detective is in part a symbolic denial and protective coloration against complex sexual and status anxieties focusing on women.”[33]

As a result of the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the increased visibility of women in public life and the proliferation of books for, by and about female experience, American women writers have absorbed and transformed the genre’s conventions. Through the creation of young, independent, resourceful female detectives – professional and amateur, hetero and homosexual – they have offered alternatives to the aggressive macho prototype who has traditionally patronized women. This has been achieved despite an abiding masculine belief that “woman’s proper sphere” lies in the domestic home and that detecting is, as the P.D.James novel ironically suggests, “an unsuitable job for a woman”.

The feminist thriller must function on a tightrope: continuing to observe characteristic devices, motifs and mannerisms while expressing a challenge to sexism and masculinist values. The best known detectives, V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone, are urban women who drink, talk abrasively and carry a gun. Like their male counterparts they endure acute physical suffering and danger; at the end of C is for Corpse (1986) for example Kinsey Millhone is “sick as a dog” in hospital, recovering from barbiturates injected by a murderous doctor, while in B is for Burglar (1985) she winds up with bruised cheeks, a swollen mouth and bullet wounds in the arm. Millhone’s creator Sue Grafton also acknowledges the male tradition by setting her novels in Ross Macdonald’s Santa Teresa. Maureen Reddy has shown that A is for Alibi (1982) reverses the plot of The Maltese Falcon with Kinsey Milihone shooting the killer, a man with whom she has had an affair. The new breed of female detectives express themselves sexually, but the threat sex poses is usually to their independence. Their life-styles are subject to invective by men since they challenge notions of male superiority and female subordination. It is to preserve such independence that the heroines in the Grafton and Paretsky books work alone; both are orphans, both divorced and have cut or lost most formal family ties.

The choice of profession implies the reversal of that passivity imposed on hard-boiled fictional women. Millhone jogs, as does Warshawski, taking her exercise with the dog Poppy which saves her life in Toxic Shock (1988). They avoid unnecessary violence, Paretsky having campaigned within MWA against the representation of sadism in crime fiction. Guns are used in self-defence or to save a friend, and female detectives are more willing to admit physical weakness and vulnerability as well as fear. Paretsky in particular, while refusing to document sexual attacks, conveys the fear experienced by women living and working in the savage American cities of the Eighties. Although there is no single pattern in the fictional behaviour of male and female characters, it is a feminist perspective (whatever their differences) which links V.I. Warshawski, Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler and lesbian sleuths such as Mary Wings’ Emma Victor. In the Cross books the university stands in for the country home of classic English detective fiction and similarly exhibits the social and sexual attitudes of the surrounding civic landscape. Thus the investigation of a crime encompasses such issues as the significance of gender, women’s work and sexuality and – especially in The Question of Max (1976) – male elitism and sexism.

Some of the Amanda Cross mysteries have been received with caution by women readers who have found the detective’s feminism occasionally flawed and who have realized she has no strong relationships with other women. However, Death in a Tenured Position (1981) it could be argued, far from copping out by having its victimized female professor commit suicide, demonstrates that she is “murdered” by an unresponsive patriarchal society. In that respect it can be seen to share with the lesbian thriller the hypothesis that the ideological basis of crime is located in the very system that claims to enact justice and to protect women.

Like the professional PI, the amateur lesbian detective is cut off from “respectable” society (a situation ameliorated by the support of other women) and adopts a critical stance towards that society. One of the challenges posed by women, and lesbians in particular, is that “of radically altering radical power relations through a moral vision that does not assume the value of hierarchical order.”[34] The literary expression of that challenge questions the assumptions of traditional hard-boiled fiction. Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective (1984) is here relevant in several ways:

1) It rejects the fast-paced action plot of hard-boiled fiction in favour of the de-centring procedures of character analysis and the investigation of relationships.

2) It emphasizes a female independence that also allows for interdependence. Thus consciousness, it is held, can be developed by means of participation in a collective enterprise.

3) By exploring ideologies of gender, race and class it interrogates the role of the detective.

In Wilson’s novel, the murdered man Jeremy is exposed as a CIA informer, a blackmailer of Filipinos in exile who has threatened them with deportation and death at the hands of Marcos’ agents. His killer is Zenaida (Zee), his Filipino ex-wife, whose deed is contextuaiized with revelations about the sexual exploitation of Filipinos by US armed forces. Pam Nilson “surrenders” her role as detective, impressed by the behaviour of June (Jeremy’s wife) towards Zee: “she’d confronted her like a woman and stayed to comfort her like a friend” (Women’s Press, p. 179). Nilson’s decision is supported by other members of the collective (including June) and this defiance of the genre is strengthened by an additional text, an authentic list of books, periodicals and organizations giving further information on Filipinos in America and the position of women in the Third World.

The success and popularity of She Came Too Late (1986) derives from its combination of recognizable hard-boiled fiction motifs and the persuasive depiction of lesbian desire and consciousness. Emma Victor can play the tough detective, hard-drinking, laconic and witty (“Hugo had an expression like a cross between Timothy Leary and Bambi”, Women’s Press, pp. 117-8). She finds her investigations taking her to the Glassman mansion, home to the rich and famous where stained glass leaded panels adorn the back door and porch. The difference between this visit and similar scenes in Chandler is that Emma Victor in black dress, tights and high heels is performing “in drag”. Her lesbian perspective provides the ambivalence with which Stacy Weldemeer – a dubious, success-hungry feminist and an Eighties version of the femme fatale – is viewed. Weldemeer is boss of a women’s health clinic and it is through her that Wilson raises the question of restraints upon women in an economy controlled by men. Along with power the book explores work, sexuality, fertility and squeezing the unions, and has an agenda of political issues comparable to those in Paretsky’s novels, which were generated by a need to oppose the construction of gender in traditional hard-boiled texts. “I had always had trouble with the way women were treated as either tramps or helpless victims who stand around weeping. I wanted to read about a woman who could solve her own problems.”[35]

Paretsky’s problem-solving detective with her empty fridge, whisky bottles and Bruno Magli shoes, fights in a series of novels both for justice and her identity. The various names by which she is addressed illustrate the latter struggle. V.I. stands for Victoria Iphigenia, the Greek reference implying the possibility of death (sacrifice) and rescue (divine intervention). To her friends such as Lotty Herschel, she is Vic; lieutenant Bobby Mallory, her dead father’s best friend patronizes her with the name Vicki; while her family who share Mallory’s disapproval of V.I.’s profession (“playing police”) irritate her with “Victoria

The family is a recurrent theme in the Warshawski novels, V.I.’s ancestry being working class Polish/Italian and her roots the blue collar community of Hegewisch in Chicago, to which she returns in Toxic Shock (Blood Shot, US). The older generations (parent and grandparents) are relatively untouched by modern mass culture and cling to the belief system brought over from Europe – and the accompanying prejudices. By local standards, V.I. and the girl she used to baby-sit Caroline Djiak, a social worker, should have settled down and had children. V.I. recoils from the demands and cajolery of the remaining members of her original family. Dead (Boom Boom her cousin in Deadlock) or alive (Aunt Elena in Burn Marks), they also draw her into life-threatening scenarios. She has, instead, her own surrogate family in which the principals are Mr Contreras, a sympathetic neighbour and Lotty Herschel, a doctor and, like V.I.’s mother, a refugee from fascism. The need for the warmth of human contact this group can provide is sometimes emphasized in the denouement of a novel. In Deadlock (1984) V.I.’s nightmares are assuaged by Bledsoe’s love-making, while in Toxic Shock V.I. and Caroline Djiak embrace as sisters after an estrangement. On Mallory’s sixtieth birthday, V.I. gives him her father’s old police badge (Burn Marks, 1990).

V.I.’s beat is Chicago with its grim, desperate south and west side ghettos and its history of political and institutional corruption. Paretsky recalls a newspaper contest on whether Chicago or New Jersey had more public officials under indictment. The city then is once more a moral landscape with each book devoted to a specific social injustice variously caused by greed, malice and injustice: hospital malpractice, securities scams, toxic waste poisoning, redevelopment fraud. In Bitter Medicine (1987) the personal becomes political when Lotty Herschel’s clinic is attacked by pro-life militants, and the plot brings together blacks, Jews and women to confront the white male medical establishment. The challenge offered to the corporate rich – to big medicine, big business, big shipping, etc. – sustains the populism found in much hard-boiled fiction and also its contradictions. The social criticisms of the Warshawski novels are constrained by the nature of the genre. As Paretsky concedes, V.I. is only capable of doing “some very small things” for individuals.

10. Conclusion

In the hard-boiled genre deconstructive procedures are especially relevant since the detective’s quest is by analogy the attempted establishment of meaning and the re-ordering of the “real” world. Deconstruction however, with its proposal that language is a play of signs, challenges conventional ideas of truth, certainty and reality. When all text is discursive, meaning and identity, it is claimed, dissolve. Hard-boiled texts, like popular culture itself, remain a site of struggle and negotiation. Edward Said has denied the possibility of a textual universe with no connection to actuality. Such a statement supports an argument that part of the struggle derives from the status of the crime novel as mimesis – that is, as registering a definite sense of the American urban scene, salient examples being Bitter Medicine, Day of Wrath and LaBrava.

Language functions variously in that registration, bonding heroes and villains and providing the verbal component of personal roles; Leonard refers to “street-corner styles” and “wise-guy overtones”. In Higgins the repetition of “fuckin”‘ can create meaning separate from the relation between signifier and signified, a Derridean “surplus” extending beyond the basic connection. In Ishmael Reed’s intertextual Mumbo Jumbo, the search for ‘Jes Grew’ and its Text encompasses (and criticizes) both black and white forms and conventions. “Both a book about texts and a book of texts, a composite narrative composed of sub-texts, pre-texts, post-texts and narratives-within-narratives”, it demonstrates its intentions in its very title, a vulgarized Anglo version of Swahili: “‘Mumbo jumbo’ is the received and ethnocentric Western designation for the rituals of black religions as well as for all black languages themselves.”[36] The plot – in various senses – of Mumbo Jumbo is couched in the form of a detective novel. Its narrative materials include good and evil organizations, corpses, clues, the exploration of the past, arrests and, of course, a detective Papa LaBas who is also an African-American trickster. A series of mysteries create suspense in the plot, but the novel denies the conventional ending of resolution. Jes Grew’s Text (of blackness) disappears, never to be found.

Indeterminacy also characterizes Jerome Charyn’s extraordinary tetralogy The Isaac Quartet (1974-78). In the last novel Secret Isaac, Isaac Sidel now “Deputy Commish” of Police for New York, “both perceives the futile madness of the surrounding world, and defies it.” His vain attempt to solve a crime “becomes a profound and doomed search for coherence and meaning.”[37] The search does have a conclusion, the killing of the corrupt ex-Chief Inspector Coote McNeill in Ireland. Isaac does not triumph; he is merely “the great survivor”. His vengeance stems from his guilt at failing to protect Annie Powell, though he is already consumed by the guilt which comes with allowing “his blue-eyed angel” Coen to be killed. Like his predecessors in the works of Chandler and Macdonald, Isaac combines remorse, suffering and failure. He has Marlowe’s belief in redemption, but this extensive narrative of questing fathers and runaway children inevitably recalls Ross Macdonald; in his introduction Charyn cites The Galton Case as the stimulus for Blue Eyes, the first of the series to be published.

Mike Wooff’s ground-breaking article on these books is entitled “Exploding the Genre”. Thus Isaac is not merely a conventional gumshoe but a succession of identities; “at times the grieving father searching for his lost daughter and his dead, surrogate son, [Coeni and, at times, a wounded prophet, a protector-defender of the dispossessed, and a dark angel bringing death.”[38] Some of these descriptions have a mythic resonance and there is in the quartet an attention to ethnicity and the spiritual that makes a link with Tony Hillerman’s narratives. Charyn however is more radical in style; he writes a poetic prose that defamiliarizes his unstable world of law, policing, desire and violence into sketches of dreamlike, surreal disconnections. It is as though George V. Higgins had been rewritten by Stephen Crane, also in his time a recorder of New York life: “Please, Isaac, lemme pop this Jorge once behind the ear. We’ll see what flows out, water, piss or blood.”The Chief closed Brodsky’s face with a horrible scowl. He wasn’t looking for company. He sat at the back of the car. He could have taken off Brodsky’s lip with the heat spilling from both his eyes. “Esther”, he muttered. He was sick of a world of lollipops.”[39]

The Isaac Quartet which contains references to Saul Bellow, Soldiers’ Pay and Joyce’s Dublin is enriched by its intertextuality. It is at the same time less abstract and cerebral than Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy which challenges traditional elements of crime fiction and parodies the genre of romance, with which hard-boiled novels share the single quest and the restoration of order.

Quinn in City of Glass (1985) is writer, detective and protagonist. In these roles – he is “private eye”, “I” and the observer’s seeing eye in a fiction about who sees what – he endeavours to impose sense and order on his “world”, but the language games and mirror images (Quinn’s pseudonym is William Wilson) frustrate the effort to arrive at truth. Quinn vanishes from the text into the city walls. In Ghosts (1986) where Blue is lured by White to follow Black, language is pared down even further. Blue will feel himself merging with Black and this instability of names extends to the names of places which exist only provisionally in language, specifically the language of travel narratives. The travel, mental and physical, of Auster’s searchers never “ends” since language is indeterminate, lacking a single meaning.

The temporary or partial nature of resolution is also to be found in conventional crime fiction where the “reality” is chaos, disruption and resolute criminality, the spectre that shadows the American Dream. Social dislocation, excesses of power and wealth and what Mandel calls the diffused violence of late capitalism provide the conditions for a radical mode of hard-boiled fiction, exploring tensions within bourgeois society. A writer such as Dashiell Hammett exhibits a conscious radicalism, albeit marked by pessimism and irony. Ideologically one of his successors has been ex-student activist, Gordon DeMarco, whose October Heat (1979) described the efforts of the Mob and big business to prevent the socialist author Upton Sinclair becoming governor of California. DeMarco is a rare case and one of the features of comment on radicalism in the crime novel has been the necessary attention given to European writers; the Italians Fruttero and Luchentini (Night of the Grand Boss, 1979), Leonard Sciascia, and Sjowall and Wahloo whose analysis of mechanized bureaucratized policing as a function of decadent capitalism reveals the political limitations of the Ed McBain novels.

Radicalism in American crime fiction is most visible currently in feminist and gay versions of the genre which have suggested new fictional models of behaviour and sexuality. The durability and flexibility of the genre will continue to be tested as parts of urban America, what Andrew Vaches describes as the cutting edge of Darwinism, become terminal landscapes of razor wire fences, junk-yards and toxic waste dumps. Vachss’ own novels, brutal nightmare visions of garbage and graffiti, violence and drugs in the desolate wastes of New York city have moved the genre towards the cyberpunk wing of science fiction. The indictment of American society is that the fiction of Vachss, Patricia Cornwell and others (novels of child abuse, pornography and serial killers) are based on authentic cases. Real life materials will continue to permit a discourse of contradictions and irony: Al Goldstein, America’s best-known pornographer is about to stand for election as a public official in Fort Lauderdale on a law and order ticket.

11. Guide to Further Reading


Despite its premature announcement of the demise of the hard-boiled dick, George Grella’s “Murder and the Mean Streets: the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel” remains essential if melancholy reading not least for the American Studies scholar. Its most accessible location may be Robin Winks’s excellent edition of general essays, Detective Fiction (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1980). Another starting point must be the relevant sections of John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1976) which explores the psychological and cultural significance of the genre. Geoffrey O’Brien, Hard-Boiled America (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1981) is a book for fans as its subtitle, “The Lurid Years of Paperbacks”, suggests. More concerned with books than texts it does fill a gap.


Recent collections of essays are more specialized than Winks (1980). They include Brian Doherty ed., American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre (London: Macmillan, 1988) and Ian A. Bell and Graham Daldry eds., Watching the Detectives: Essays on Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1990). My interest in the period after Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald was first aroused by the surveys in David Geherin, Sons of Sam Spade: The Private Eye Novel in the Seventies (New York: Ungar, 1980) and The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction (New York: Ungar, 1985). That interest has recently been revived by John Williams’ interviews with contemporary American crime writers in his exhilarating Into the Badlands (London: Paladin, 1991) which offers as a bonus a roller coaster tour of the USA in the late Eighties. David A. Bowman, “The Cincinnati Kid: an interview with Jonathan Valin”, Armchair Detective, Summer 1987, 20/3, 228-238 is one of those rare interviews which deserve the title “in depth”. Stephen F. Mullken, Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976) provides an exploration of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger in their Harlem setting. Jim Coffins’ emphasis on diversity of language and intertextuality endeavours to appropriate the form for postmodernism in Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism (New York, London: Routledge, 1989).

Chandler and Hammett

The fine essays on Hammett by James Naremore (“Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of Hard-Boiled Detection” in Bernard Benstock, ed., Essays on Detective Fiction, London: Macmillan, 1983, 49-72) and by Steven Marcus (“Dashiell Hammett and the Continental Op”, Partisan Review XLI/3, 1974, 362-77) complement each other. Hammett criticism flourished in the Eighties, although Peter Wolfe, Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U.P., 1980) is weak on The Maltese Falcon and is generally inferior to Sinda Gregory, Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois U.P., 1985). The authorized biography, Diane Johnson, Dashiell Hammett: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 1984) is by turns sentimental and sensational. Frank McShane’s painstaking biography, The Life of Raymond Chandler (London: Cape, 1976) and essays by Russell Davies – in Miriam Gross ed., The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977) – and Fredric Jameson (“On Raymond Chandler”, Southern Review 6, Summer 1970, 624-50) are intelligent and trenchant, but the definitive critical study of Chandler is still to be written. One candidate would be Stephen Knight: see his Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan. 1980) and “‘A Hard Cheerfulness’: An Introduction, to Raymond Chandler” in Docherty ed., American Crime Fiction, 39-53 (cited under Contemporaries). The Simple Art of Murder (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950) by Chandler himself, and Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker eds., Raymond Chandler Speaking (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962) are essential reading. He remains a fertile source of parody as Liz Lochhead’s sketch, “Phyllis Marlowe: Only Diamonds Are Forever”, True Confessions and New Cliches (Edinburgh: Polygon Books, 1985) and the comic-book version of The Waste Land (Martin Rowson) in which T.S. Eliot finds himself in Marlowe’s mean streets, testify.

Ross Macdonald

Jerry Spier’s Ross Macdonald (New York: Ungar, 1978) is highly readable. Peter Wolfe, Dreamers Who Dream Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald’s Novels (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U.P., 1976) has the scope of a reference book; it is diffuse but often perceptive. Most stimulating of all is Eric Mottram, “Ross Macdonald and the Past of a Formula” in Benstock, Essays on Detective Fiction, 97-118.


Collections of essays on feminism and literature frequently contain an entry on contemporary female sleuths: the most impressive and persuasive work can be found in Anne Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990). An excellent monograph on the subject is Maureen T. Reddy, Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel (New York: Continuum,1988). One of the best introductions remains Marilyn Stasio’s “Lady Gumshoes: Boiled Less Hard”, New York Times Book Review, 28 Apr. 1985, l, 39-40.


Its Marxist orientation has not prevented Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (London, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984) from being described as the best introduction of its kind. It is certainly personal and refreshingly demystifying, and also, at times, mistaken. For a similar perspective, Denis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven, London: Yale U.P., 1981) and Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (cited under Chandler) should be consulted. Porter employs a solid American culture context, while Knight is penetrating on McBain and on the concept of justice.

12. Notes

  1. George Grella, “Murder and the Mean Streets” (1970), in Robin W. Winks, ed., Detective Fiction (Englewood Cliffs NJ.: Prentice Hall, 1980). Cf. Geoffrey O’Brien, Hard-Boiled America (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981), “By the early Fifties, the private eye had pretty well run his course”, p. 119. Back
  2. Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p.46. Back
  3. Scott R. Christianson, “Tough Talk and Wisecracks: Language as Power in American Detective Fiction”, Journal of Popular Culture, 23/2 (Fall 1989), pp.151-162. Back
  4. Jim Collins, Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism (London, New York: Routledge, 1989), p.67. Back
  5. Sinda Gregory, Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammell (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U.P., 1985), p.42. Back
  6. Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse in Dashiell Hammell: The Four Great Novels (London: Picador, 1982), p.257. Back
  7. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (New York: Modern Library, 1934), p.ii. Back
  8. James Naremore, “Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of HardBoiled Detection” in Bernard Benstock, ed., Essays on Detective Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1983), pp.63-4. Back
  9. Anne Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), p.154. Back
  10. Ernest Mandel, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (London, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984), p.125. Back
  11. Russell Davies, “Omnes Me Impune Lacessunt” in Miriam Gross, ed., The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), pp.41-2. Back
  12. Liahna K. Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies” in David Fine, ed., Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Original Essays (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), p. 126. Back
  13. Peter J. Rabinowitz, “Rats Behind the Wainscoting: Politics, Convention and Chandler’s The Big Sleep“, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 22/2 (Summer 1980), p.230. Back
  14. Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, p.211. Back
  15. Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp.181. Back
  16. John S. Whilley, Detectives and Friends: Dashiell Hammell’s The Glass Key and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (Exeter: American Arts Documentation Centre, University of Exeter, 1981), p. 23. Back
  17. James Ellroy in John Williams, Into the Badlands: a Journey through the American Dream (London: Paladin/Grafton, 1991), p.90. Vachss’ assessment is on p.229. Back
  18. Ross Macdonald, “The Writer as Detective Hero” in Winks, Detective Fiction, p. 185. Back
  19. Paul Skenazy, “Bringing It All Back Home: Ross Macdonald’s California”, South Dakota Review, 24/1 (Spring 1986), p.89. Back
  20. Richard Lingeman, “The Underground Bye-Bye” Dew York Times Book Review, 6 June 1971, p.6. Back
  21. Skenazy, pp.78-80. Back
  22. James Crumley, The Lost Good Kiss (London: Granada, 1981), p.171. Back
  23. David Glover, “Higgins, Leonard, Parker, Inc”, OVERhere, 8/1 (Spring 1988), p.88. Back
  24. Robert B. Parker, The Widening Gyre (Wallington: Severn House, 1983), p.153. Back
  25. Williams, p.100. Back
  26. Raymond Nelson, “Domestic Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes”, Virginia Quarterly Review, 48/2 (Spring 1972), p.270. Back
  27. A. Robert Lee, “Harlem on my Mind: Fictions of a Black Metropolis” in Graham Clarke, ed., The American City: Literal and Cultural Perspectives (London, New York: Vision Press/St Martins Press, 1988), p.80. Back
  28. Kathleen Karlyn Rowe, “Power in Prime Time: Miami Vice and LA Law”, Jump Cut 33, p.20. Back
  29. K.C. Constantine, Always A Body to Trade (London: Allison & Busby, 1986), pp.197, 188. Back
  30. Glen W. Most. “Elmore Leonard: Splitting Images” in Barbara A. Rader & Howard G. Zettler, eds., The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution and Current Trends in Detective Fiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988), p.106. Back
  31. David A. Bowman, “The Cincinatti Kid: An Interview with Jonathan Valin”, Armchair Detective, 20/3 (Summer 1987), p.236. Back
  32. Alex Ward, “Navajo Cops on the Case”, New York Times Magazine, 18 May 1989, p.56. Back
  33. John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mister and Romance: Formula Stories as Art & Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p.154. Back
  34. Maureen T. Reddy, Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel (New York: Continuum, 1988), pp.130-131. Back
  35. Marilyn Stasio, “Lady Gumshoes: Boiled Less Hard”, New York Times Book Review, 28 April 1985, p.39. Back
  36. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The blackness of blackness: a critique of the sign and the Signifying Monkey” in Gates, ed., Black Literature and Literal Theory (London, New York: Methuen, 1984), p.299. Back
  37. Mike Woolf, “Exploding the Genre: The Crime Fiction of Jerome Charyn” in Brian Doherty, ed., American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp.138, 137. Back
  38. Ibid., p. 136. Back
  39. Jerome Charyn, Mariyln the Wild (1976) in The Isaac Quartet (London: Zomba Books, 1984), pp.77-78. Back

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John Dumbrell, Vietnam: American Involvement at Home and Abroad

BAAS Pamphlet No. 22 (First Published 1992)

ISBN: 0 946488 12 6
  1. Chronology
  2. List Of Acronyms
  3. Introduction
  4. Origins Of The War
    i. From Containment to Dien Bien Phu: 1946-1954ii. From Geneva to the 1963 Assassinations
  5. The Tragedy Of Lyndon Johnson
    i. Escalation and Americanisation: 1964-1967ii. Tet and After: 1968
  6. Nixon And Kissinger
    i. Nixon’s Strategyii. Widening the War: 1969-1972iii. The Peace Process; 1972-1975
  7. Interpreting The War
    i. Explaining American Involvement: Quagmires and Turning Pointsii. Explaining American Failure: The Debate over Military Strategyiii. American Public Opinion and the Antiwar Movement
  8. Conclusion
  9. Guide To Further Reading
  10. Notes
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.

1. Outline Chronology

1945-1953: Presidency of Harry Truman

August: Viet Minh comes to power after Japanese surrender
November/December: War begins between French and Viet Minh
May: Truman Administration now clearly backing the French war effort

1953-1961: Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower

7 May: French defeated at Dien Bien Phu
8 May 21 July: Geneva Conference: Vietnam divided
June: Diem forms government in South
April: Final French withdrawal
20 December: Establishment of National Liberation Front (NLF)

1961-1963: Presidency of John Kennedy

July: Neutralisation of Laos
19-25 October: Taylor-Rostow mission
November: Military coup against Diem

1963-1969: Presidency of Lyndon Johnson

7 August: Gulf of Tonkin resolution
24 February: Rolling Thunder bombing begins
8 March: 3,500 US Marines land at Danang
April and October: Mass antiwar rallies in US
30-31 January: Tet offensive begins
26 March: “Wise Men” meeting
31 March: President Johnson announces bombing limit and withdraws from Presidential race

1969-1974: Presidency of Richard Nixon

Troop withdrawals
18 March: Secret bombing of Cambodia begins
4 August: Kissinger begins secret meetings with North Vietnamese leaders
October-November: Mass antiwar protest in US
March: Thieu’s “land-to-the-tiller” reforms
30 April: Cambodian invasion
4 May: Kent State killings
8 February: South Vietnamese army (ARVN) invade Laos
30 March: Beginning of the North Vietnamese army’s Easter offensive
18 December: Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong begins
27 January: Peace agreement signed

1974-1977: Presidency of Gerald Ford

30 April: Fall of Saigon


2. List of Acronyms

AID Agency for International Development
ARVN Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnamese army)
CIA Central Intelligence Agency
CORDS Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support
MAAG (American) Military Assistance Advisory Group
MACV Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (successor to MAAG)
NLF National Liberation Front (South Vietnamese communist organisation)
NVA North Vietnamese Army
PLAF People’s Liberation Armed Forces (NLF military wing)
PRG Provisional Revolutionary Government (post-1968 name for NLF)
SEATO South East Asia Treaty Organisation


3. Introduction

The Vietnam war divided American society at every level. Received truths about the conduct of American foreign policy, about Presidential power, about America’s role in the world, about the entire national purpose, were all called into question. An identifiable “Vietnam generation”—former student radicals, yes, but also military and business leaders, academics and creative artists, representatives of “middle” and of “fringe” America, even Presidential candidates -emerged to shape and question American cultural and political values. The Presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush offered different responses to the memories of Vietnam. The need to recognise Vietnam’s “lessons”, or alternatively to exorcise the “Vietnam syndrome”, hovered above Carter’s foreign policy, Reagan’s reassertion of American power in the early 1980s, and George Bush’s handling of the 1990-91 crisis and war in the Persian Gulf.

The passions and divisions generated by the war have still to collapse into purely academic and scholarly debate. Much of the war’s history has, in fact, been written not by academic historians, but by journalists, political memoirists and polemicists of various kinds. Some basic questions have still to attain any consensual resolution. How and why did the United States become so deeply immersed in so unlikely and remote a place as Vietnam? Why did America lose? (Did America lose?) To what extent were particular patterns and structures of decision-making to blame? Was the war lost by civilian or by military leaders? What would have constituted a winning military strategy? Was the war lost through domestic dissent? Was American involvement morally justified? Perhaps, above all, there remains the question as to what kind of a war it really was. At one level, this is a military question; the debate among rival military theorists has been particularly intense. Was it essentially a conventional war or was it, after all, a guerrilla-based insurgency? Was it a civil war? In political and moral terms, was it in any sense a war for freedom? A war against international communism? Against “the people”? Against North Vietnam? Against North and South Vietnam?

We shall return to the central questions in Sections 5 and 6, after surveying the course of US-Vietnamese relations between 1946 and 1975. Before embarking upon this survey, however, it is essential, by way of introduction, to draw attention to two major features which shaped the backdrop to the war: the legacy of French colonialism and the development of the American doctrine of containment.

Vietnam did not uccumb to European imperialism until the mid­19th century. French colonialism involved a familiar alliance between missionary zeal and politico-economic aggrandisement. Saigon emerged as a cosmopolitan financial centre and hub of rice exports to Japan and China. The French sought to exploit the ethnic, dynastic, religious and geographical divisions within the country. Vietnam was divided into three separate administrative units: Tonkin in the North, Annam in the centre and Cochinchina in the South. Colonial rule rested upon coercion and on the immiseration of the peasantry through land seizures and punitive taxation. Shortly before his death in 1945 President Franklin Roosevelt remarked to former Secretary of State Cordell Hull:

France has had the country for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were in the beginning. France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indo-China deserve something better …[1]

The French colons were backed by elements from the Vietnamese mandarin class and by the (often Chinese) commercial sector. Yet Vietnamese nationalism grew: initially under the tutelage of scholar­leaders; but—against a background of a disaffected peasantry and social dislocations caused by urbanisation—increasingly associated with the Indochina Communist Party, founded in 1930.

As Roosevelt’s comment showed, there was considerable American sympathy in the 1930s and early 1940s for the anti-imperialist cause. The nationalist and communist opposition was allied with the US in the struggle against Japanese forces which, in concert with French collaborationists, controlled the area between 1940 and 1945. (In 1945, the “August revolution” brought Vietnamese communists temporarily to power). The American Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA, worked closely with anti Japanese communist guerrillas in this period. FDR’s scheme for a postwar Indochina centred on the idea of “trusteeship”, a phased transfer of power to anticolonial forces. However, the unpredictability of China’s future cast a shadow over this idea and, under his successor, President Harry Truman, it was abandoned. The US was not directly involved in the re-establishment of French rule in 1945-46, although it acquiesced in it. The return of French power was facilitated in the South by the British, who were concerned about their own postwar imperial future. (British troops occupied Saigon and environs between September 1945 and March 1946). In the North the French comeback represented part of a bargain made with China.[2]

In a speech to Congress on March 12, 1947, in what became known as the Truman Doctrine, the President announced that nations were now faced with a clear choice between communism, a system “based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority”, and freedom.[3] Containment of communism, a doctrine originally conceived by diplomat George Kerman as a policy for Europe, was to become America’s global priority. Asian communism, despite its infinite complexity and interpenetration with anticolo­nialism, was seen as merely the Eastern flank of expansionary world communism. To many Republicans the “fall” of China to communism in 1949 sugested that traitors were at work in Washington. For virtually all US policy-makers the “fall” reinforced arguments for global containment. In April 1950 National Security Council Resolution 68 was forwarded to Truman. It outlined a worldwide policy of militarised containment, “a policy of calculated and gradual coercion”. In the same month the joint Chiefs of Staff declared Southeast Asia to be “a vital segment in the line of containment of communism”.[4] Two months later, the North Korean invasion of South Korea seemed to confirm all America’s worst fears. Small countries, even those with little obvious significance for US interests, must not be allowed to “fall”. Once the row of dominoes—small countries and large—began crashing, then liberty, even American liberty, was in danger of extinction.

Detailed exposition of the developing Cold War and of containment theory is beyond the scope of this pamphlet. Suffice it to say that, between 1946 and the early 1960s, the US became in large degree a “national security state” rooted in the doctrine of anti-communist containment. The doctrine permeated public and private belief systems. Thus, a West Virginia carpenter, interviewed in 1963 as part of the first Harris survey of opinion on Vietnam, declared: “If we don’t stand up for people oppressed by Communism, we’ll soon be oppressed ourselves”.[5]

4. Origins of the War

From Containment to Dien Bien Phu: 1946-1954
Between 1946 and
1954, the containment of communism became the fundamental stated purpose of US foreign policy. Against this background, the United States slowly became implicated in the war being fought in Indochina between the French colonial power and Viet Minh nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh. A formal declaration of Vietnamese independence, consciously modelled on Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of 1776, was promulgated by Ho on September 2, 1945. In leading the war against France, Ho stood in a long line of Vietnamese nationalists, promising to rid Vietnam of foreign inter­lopers and to institute the “mandate of heaven”. Ho, however, was also a communist and the Viet Minh a communist organisation. As the Pentagon Papers, the US Department of Defence study of Vietnam policy commissioned in 1967, were to note, the Viet Minh had been formed and led by the Communist Party in Indochina. This fact, however, did not prevent Ho and his organisation from being regarded in Indochina as the authentic voice of Vietnamese nationalism. The Pentagon Papers concluded that the “Viet Minh was irrefutably nationalist, popular and patriotic”.[6]

By the early 1950s, the United States was solidly backing the French cause. In May 1950, President Truman undertook to provide 750,000 dollars in economic and ten million in military aid. A year later, the US was underwriting approximately 40 per cent of French war costs; by 1954, the figure was nearer 80.

As noted above, the period before 1950 had seen some indications of an alternative policy. In the late 1940s, American diplomats in Vietnam, along with the State Department’s Far Eastern bureau, agreed that Soviet links to Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist movement could not be detected. Ho himself in the mid-1940s felt that the US was independent Vietnam’s best hope as a backer. Ho repeatedly requested American help, even promising that an independent Indochina could be a “fertile field for American capital and enterprise”.[7] By 1950, however, the American die had been cast in favour of French colonialism. The desire of the Truman Administration (and especially of Secretary of State Dean Acheson) to be seen in the face of domestic criticism to be applying the doctrine of world communist containment to Asia clearly underpinned these decisions. The Chinese revolution of 1949 was rapidly followed by Chinese and Soviet recognition of Ho’s regime. These events hardened American attitudes. As war broke out in Korea in June 1950, Vietnam was already being incorporated as part of the Asian sector of the Cold War battlefield.

The United States was also anxious to augment French governmental authority for reasons not directly connected with events in Asia. The power of the French Communist Party (of which Ho Chi Minh, incidentally, was a founder-member) was a factor here, as was the need for French help in establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. French and American interests in Vietnam, however, by no means coincided. France was fighting to retain and re-establish its empire; any concessions it made, such as the 1948 installation of the Ammanese Bao Dai as head of the “State of Vietnam”, were simply cosmetic changes designed, at least in part, to make it easier for Americans to back the war.

US policy-makers continued to favour an independent, non­communist Vietnam. Rather than to a restoration of French imperialism, they looked to an economically resurgent Japan becoming, in Acheson’s phrase, the “workshop of Asia”. The likelihood of Japan emerging as the fulcrum of a new liberal capitalist regional order was seen to depend upon access to Indochinese raw materials and markets. The immediate concern for US policy-makers was the military containment of communism. A State Department working group reported in February 1950:

… failure of the French Bao Dai “experiment” would mean the communization of Indochina. It is Bao Dai (or a similar anti­communist successor); there is no alternative.[8]

President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sought to square the circle of anti colonialist modernisation and anti­communism in their “liberation” doctrine, which had anti-imperialist as well as anti-communist overtones. In the short term, however, Ike and Dulles were prepared to fund the French effort, with no guarantee that such backing would entitle the US to dictate the war’s terms. Soon France’s inability to hold up the falling Vietnamese domino became apparent. The siege and impending French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in early 1954 triggered a major debate within America’s political leadership over the nature of the Indochinese commitment. Eisenhower himself agreed with General Matthew Ridgway that an open-ended US ground force commitment, especially so soon after the achievement of peace in Korea, was unacceptable. The President further dismissed the possibility of once again using nuclear weapons in Asia, and argued that unilateral American military intervention would “lay us open to the charge of imperialism or colonialism …”.[9]

The Dien Bien Phu hawks were led by Admiral Arthur Radford and Vice-President Richard Nixon, who subsequently was consistently to hold that American inaction in 1954 set the stage for all future difficulties. Congressional and allied doubts over military action also affected the eventual decision. No doubt Dulles would have liked the British to have, in Anthony Short’s phrase, signed “his shotgun permit”.[10] However, there was no concerted American enthusiasm in 1954 for rescuing the French from an embarrassing imperialist nemesis. Vietnam was to become the object of American nation-building.

From Geneva to the 1963 Assassinations
With America providing
neither air nor ground support, the French garrison surrendered on May 7, 1954. French withdrawal, and the creation of a political vacuum which the US was likely to occupy, appeared imminent. At an international conference in Geneva (April July 1954), eventual agreement was reached on the partitioning, on a provisional basis, of Vietnam along the Seventeenth Parallel. Viet Minh and French forces were to regroup North and South of the line respectively, observing an indefinite ceasefire. The Final Declaration at Geneva (to which only France, Britain, the Soviets and China gave nequivocal support) required that free elections be held, North and South, by July 1956; and that neither sector was to join any military alliance nor receive any significant outside military support. To the Viet Minh the settlement was a disappointment. It effectively involved a retreat from areas in the South which had long been under communist/nationalist control. They were pressured into cooperating with the settlement by the Soviets and China, who wished to avoid provoking the United States, and contented themselves with the prospect of victory in the elections. The initial American reaction was to oppose the “loss” of North Vietnam. Dunes and Radford concocted another plan of intervention (July 1954) only to have it vetoed by Ike and Ridgway. Official US policy emerged in a promise not to “disturb” the settlement by threat or the use of force. Slowly, the Americans turned to the consolidation of anti-communism in the South: notably around the figure of Ngo Dinh Diem.

An autocratic, anti-French Catholic nationalist, Diem was asked by Bao Dai to form a government in June 1954. (He deposed Bao Dai the following year and proclaimed the “Republic of Vietnam”). Progressively, the Eisenhower Administration—most famously through the offices of Colonel Edward Lansdale, working through the CIA station in Saigon—insinuated American influence in the interstices of the Diem regime. Consolidation of Diem’s authority, notably against non-communist sectarian opposition, was complemented by the drawing-in of South Vietnam into SEATO, a new American-dominated military alliance. This, along with the US military presence (coordinated, from April 1956, through the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), set up to train Diem’s army) demolished any remaining American commitment to the Geneva agreements. Protesting that free elections would be impossible in the North anyway, Diem and his American sponsors abandoned any prospect of free elections in the South as well. These developments, along with increasing repression of former Viet Minh sympathisers in the South, provoked a communist response. Northern communist leaders were preoccupied with consolidating their rule above the Seventeenth Parallel; however, they also began to accede to requests from Southern party members and supporters—never an organisationally separate body—to re-prioritise the “Southern revolution”. In September 1960, the Hanoi leadership endorsed plans to set up the National Liberation Front (NLF) in the South to lead the “people’s democratic national revolution” there. (In February 1961, various armed units were combined into the People’s Liberation Armed Force (PLAF), the NLF’s military wing).

When John F. Kennedy became President in 1961, he inherited an American commitment in Vietnam which was institutionalised and even, to a degree, militarised. The Eisenhower Administration had injected about one billion dollars into Indochina—most of it into Vietnam—since 1955. Kennedy inherited the CIA and MAAG presences in Vietnam, with between 800 and 900 American “advisers”. Alternative policies had been abandoned: not only the embryonic anti colonial, pro-Ho policy from the 1940s, but also the view advanced by Eisenhower era doubters like General J. Lawton Collins and Secretary of Defence Charles Wilson, who either distrusted Diem or feared the implications of an open-ended American commitment.

To the Vietnam problem, summarised for the new President in a pessimistic report from Colonel Lansdale, Kennedy brought considerable personal knowledge. JFK had visited Vietnam in 1951 and had concluded that America had allied itself “to the desperate efforts of the French regime to hang on to the remnants of an empire”. During the Dien Bien Phu debate in Congress, Kennedy had stated:

I am frankly of the belief that no amount of American military assistance in Indo-China can conquer … “an enemy of the people” which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.[11]

Kennedy believed that Vietnamese hearts and minds could be deflected from communism and towards the viable nationalist alternative offered by Diem. Central to this project were the doctrines of counter-insurgency and pacification. Communist-inspired “wars of national liberation” were to be met and defused by American nation­builders. During Kennedy’s Presidency, a version of this was attempted, with some success, by the elite US Green Beret forces among the montagnards of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. In the long run, however, hearts and minds could not be won without thoroughgoing, democratic political reform and economic (primarily land) reform. And this Diem would not countenance, dismissing all reform as a sign of weakness. As the war deepened, the activist, technocratic attitudes of the Kennedy Administration appeared increasingly lame. Adam Yarmolinsky, Special Assistant to Robert McNamara (Kennedy’s technocratic Secretary of Defence) later characterised them as follows:

…. all we were going to have to do was send one of our Green Berets out into the woods to do battle with one of their crack guerrilla fighters and they would have a clean fight, and the best man would win and they would get together and start curing all the villagers of smallpox.[12]

For all this adrenalin-inducing New Frontierism, JFK’s initial instincts tended to be cautious. He sought to do enough to keep Diem afloat, while maintaining pressure on the regime to reform. Diem, for his part, was anxious to protect his independence, telling Vice­President Lyndon B. Johnson in Spring 1961 that he did not want US ground troops. Better than his American backers, Diem knew the domestic danger of being seen as the agent of a new colonialism. Returning from Saigon in May 1961, Johnson told Kennedy that, if Indochina were not protected from communism, the US might as well pull its defences back to San Francisco. In October national security adviser Walt Rostow and General Maxwell Taylor reported that Diem would sink in the face of communist opposition unless US assistance were dramatically increased.[13]

Although not fully in line with the Taylor-Rostow recommendations, Kennedy’s late 1961 decision to escalate was pivotal. By 1963 over 16,000 US troops—now organised under the auspices of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and headed by General Paul Harkins—were in Vietnam. By November of that year there appear to have been at least 63 American combat deaths. Three of these occurred during US helicopter involvement in the January 1963 battle of Ap Bac; PLAF guerrillas (now commonly known as “Viet Cong” or, in the case of Harkins and his NIACV staff, “raggedy-ass little bastards”) defeated a far larger and better equipped force from Diem’s army.[14]

Before Ap Bac, it was the complex situation in Laos—a threeway struggle between the communist Pathet Lao, CIA-backed rightists and neutralists—that commanded Kennedy’s attention. His favoured solution, “neutralisation” of Laos, formed the basis of American policy at a further Geneva conference in 1962. In General Maxwell Taylor’s words, there emerged a “tacit understanding” that the fate of Laos, the backdoor to South Vietnam, would be “resolved in Vietnam”.[15] The result of the “tacit understanding” was effectively a partitioning of Laos. Throughout the war, the North Vietnamese, despite direct and indirect American incursions, were able to keep the Laotian backdoor open. From a primitive route the Ho Chi Minh trail was developed into a year-round access to South Vietnam. By the early 1970s, tanks were moving along what American soldiers nicknamed the “Averell Harriman Freeway” (after JFK’s chief negotiator at Geneva in 1962). Kennedy’s policy in Laos also had a more immediate effect on Vietnam. As Paul Nitze (Assistant Secretary of Defence under Kennedy) recalled:

After our shift in Laos, the executive branch decided that if we then appeared to give up in Vietnam, the Kremlin was likely to doubt that we intended to stand firm anywhere.[16]

Meanwhile, the relationship between Diem and the Americans began to evolve like a Jacobean tragedy. At times, and not for the last time in the war, the South Vietnamese puppet appeared to be controlling the American puppeteer. The litany of Diem’s excesses became familiar to sections of the American public now becoming sensitised to events in Vietnam: corruption and nepotism; the flamboyant posturing of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Madam Nhu; the Strategic Hamlet Programme, wherein peasants were forcibly moved from their lands to “protect” them from communists; the intense and unpredictable repression, especially of Buddhists; and the 1963 Buddhist self-immolations (Madam Nhu’s “monk barbecue”). When Henry Cabot Lodge replaced the pro-Diem Frederick Notting as US Ambassador in Saigon in August 1963, he quickly made his view known that Diem was the problem. What followed was, in the words of William Bundy (another assistant to McNamara in this period), a confused but basic American decision:

…. in effect to recognise, and to some extent help create, a situation where a military coup was entirely possible, and then to acquiesce in it.[17]

Leading American policy-makers had come to the view that Diem’s “penchant for self-destruction”[18] should be allowed to run its course. On the first day of the month that was to witness JFK’s own assassination, Diem and his brother were murdered in a military coup.

Much speculation centres on what would have happened had Kennedy lived. He inaugurated a high-level review of Vietnam policy shortly before he died. However, as William Bundy noted, “there really was no significant discussion of the option of withdrawal”.[19] Kennedy was capable of acute insight into the nature of the American dilemma in Vietnam. He was also capable of transgressing his own analysis and of basing policy on a facile optimism.

5. The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson

Escalation and Americanisation: 1964-1967
The ousting of
Diem simply exchanged compromised nationalism for political instability and uncertainty; military and other cliques vied for control. Alarmed by CIA reports, President Lyndon Johnson set his face against Vietnamese “neutralisation”, which he saw as simply “another name for a Communist take-over”.[20] Soon after he assumed office, LBJ was told by McNamara that “the situation has … been deteriorating in the countryside … to a far greater degree than we realised …”.[21] Though not publicly criticised, the blandly optimistic Harkins was made a bureaucratic scapegoat and was replaced at MACV in June 1964, by William Westmoreland. By the end of 1964, the number of American military personnel in Vietnam had risen to 23,300.

Escalation in Vietnam contrasted sharply with Johnson’s portrayal of himself in the 1964 Presidential election campaign against Republican Barry Goldwater as the peace (though as he reasonably pointed out in his memoirs, not at “any price”) candidate. Speaking in Ohio in October 1964, LBJ famously promised: “… we are not about to send American boys … to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”.[22] By this time Johnson had acquired what he was to interpret as a Congressional carte blanche for expanding the war: the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (August 1964). The resolution represented a kind of declaration of war manque. Opposed in the Senate only by Wayne Morse (Oregon) and Ernest Gruening (Alaska), the resolution was a response to reports of North Vietnamese torpedo attacks on American warships. The precise degree of Administration deception regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incidents remains in doubt; it certainly seems likely, for example, that the attack reported as having occurred on August 4 never actually took place. Johnson and McNamara succeeded in eliciting from Congress (with the strong support of the still-loyal Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, William Fulbright) permission to take “all necessary measures”. In retaliating against North Vietnamese shipping and bases, LBJ set the war’s pattern, declaring: “… our response … will he limited and fitting”.[23]

Political instability in Saigon and apparent enemy breakthroughs set the seal on the crucial 1965 escalation decisions. An attack on the US base at Pleiku in February 1965 occasioned the launching of what was to become Rolling Thunder, the air bombardment of North Vietnam which continued intermittently until 1968. As conditions in the South deteriorated, Westmoreland, in March 1965, concluded that it was time “to put our own finger in the dyke”. On March 8, Danang witnessed the first open commitment of US combat forces on the mainland of Asia since the Korean war. Almost immediately, Westmoreland asked Maxwell Taylor to support a request for more marines to protect radio relay units and airstrips at Phu Bai.

Concerned to keep commitments limited and to preserve the Great Society domestic reform programme at home, LBJ refused to accede fully to Westmoreland’s and the Joint Chiefs’ troop requests. In a speech at Johns Hopkins University in April 1965, he announced an economic investment programme, a kind of Great Society for Indochina. Troop levels were raised: to 125,000 in July and to 160,000 by the end of 1965. McNamara informed the President on July 28:

Our objectives … are quite limited in Vietnam. They are, first, to permit the South Vietnamese to be independent and make a free choice of government and second, to establish for the world that Communist externally inspired and supported wars of liberation will not work.[24]

Undoubtedly, commitments were limited. Yet insufficient attention was paid to ascertaining exactly how limited a commitment could secure McNamara’s objectives. Significant casualty levels, moreover, were now inevitable. US personnel previously restricted to patrolling were now to engage in “search and destroy” missions against enemy main forces. The first major confrontation occurred in the Central Highlands (Ia Drang valley) in November 1965. The conflict followed a soon to be familiar pattern: the PLAY took heavy losses but finally retreated into Cambodia to regroup.[25]

Westmoreland’s war of attrition was no more efficacious than that waged by his predecessor, Harkins. It had simply become more thoroughly Americanised. Commenting on the 233 American deaths in four days of fighting at la Drang, US Marine Corps general, Victor Krulak noted that Vo Nguyen Giap (the North Vietnamese military commander):

… was sure that if the cost in casualties and francs was high enough, the French would defeat themselves in Paris. He was right. It is likely that he feels the same about the U.S.A.[26]

By the end of 1967, the US was sustaining significant losses without any outstanding compensatory gains. The antiwar movement was erupting on American college campuses, whose male inhabitants now faced the prospect of being drafted; by mid-1967, some 30,000 draft calls per month were being issued. In South Vietnam, two new leaders had emerged in the persons of Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu; by late 1967 their hold on power was being guaranteed by almost half a million US troops. President Johnson found himself wedged between military demands for all-out war, involving mobilising the reserves and invasion of Cambodia and Laos, and increasingly doveish noises emanating from Pentagon civilians. Characteristically, LBJ continued to oppose total war while sanctioning incremental troop increases. His San Antonio speech of September 1967 indicated that some kind of mutual de-escalation, and even communist participation in a postwar South Vietnamese government, might be acceptable. The current military and political situation was not improving, however. Elections were held in September 1967, but failed to establish wide legitimacy for the Ky-Thieu regime. The annual cost of the American commitment was now approaching 30 billion dollars. In October 1967, McNamara warned LBJ that, if current strategy were held, the President would have to face fatality levels of between 24 and 30,000 by early 1969. The next month, McNamara moved quietly to the Presidency of the World Bank. The divisions in the Pentagon became apparent on 21 November when Westmoreland told the National Press Club that the end of the war was in sight. In fact, Westmoreland’s famous “crossover point”—where communists were being killed faster than they could be replaced—appeared as far away as ever. Moreover, communist forces simply refused to play along with Westmoreland’s big unit war. American use of defoliants, napalm and designation of “free fire zones” further alienated, destroyed and made homeless much of the rural population.

Tet and After: 1968
Between 1964 and 1968, Johnson undertook over 70 peace initiatives, involving 16 bombing pauses. Hanoi never indicated, however, that it would settle for anything less than domination of the entire country. As the 1968 US Presidential election season opened, world attention focused on the remote outpost of Khe Sanh, near the Seventeenth Parallel. Here, US Marines (“like antichrists at vespers”, in Michael Herr’s phrase [27]) were defending themselves under siege conditions, attempting to prevent a replay of Dien Bien Phu. The siege, which lasted until April, now appears to have been a successful diversion, drawing American attention away from the cities. During the late January New Year (Tet) holiday, communist forces launched a coordinated attack on these urban areas. (At the time, Westmoreland interpreted the offensive as an attempt to divert resources from Khe Sanh).

Just as perceptions of the Khe Sanh siege have changed, so it is now clear that at least one of Westmoreland’s military judgements of 1968 was correct: the Tet offensive was a military defeat for North Vietnam. The offensive seems to have been launched with a variety of motives. Hanoi wished to restore declining morale and to demonstrate to the US that the war was unwinnable. It also looked to the precipitation of a general uprising—a “people’s war”—in the South. This manifestly did not occur. Indeed, with approximately one million South Vietnamese made homeless by the offensive, there was even some evidence of a rally towards Thieu and the South Vietnamese government. Westmoreland, claiming that North Vietnam had now cashed all its “military chips”, proposed a strategy to end the war: a troop increase (including reserve mobilisation) of 206,000, an attack on communist sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, and an amphibious assault on bases in North Vietnam, all accompanied by intensified bombing.

The view from home, however, was very different. Television coverage of the war stunned an American public which had so recently been assured that all was proceeding according to plan. The communists, after all, were able to assault even the US embassy in Saigon and to hold Hue until Feruary 24. Massive US firepower had to be deployed to recover the cities; (the offensive involved some 36 provincial capitals and 64 district towns). The battle for Ben Tre provoked the most notorious of all American military pronounce­ments: “We had to destroy the town to save it”.[28]

Lyndon Johnson was being buffeted on all sides: by antiwar protesters, by journalists, by blacks in inner city riots, by the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy candidacies, even by his Treasury Secretary Joe Fowler, who warned him about the war’s impact on confidence in the dollar. Westmoreland’s strategic proposals were handed over for appraisal by Clark Clifford, the new Defence Secretary. Instructed to give LBJ the “lesser of evils”, Clifford and other Pentagon civilians embarked on a full-scale review of Vietnam policy. Clifford was deeply disturbed by domestic strife, elite doubts about the war, and also by the apparently poor economic prospects occasioned by the conflict.[29] His report amplified McNamara’s 1967 doubts and urged delegation of military responsibilities to the South Vietnamese themselves, as well as a move away from Westmoreland’s war of attrition. The US should direct its efforts at achieving security for the people in South Vietnam and at urging political and land reform. Total victory, conventionally defined, was seen as an impractical goal. With Eugene McCarthy gaining a 42 per cent vote in the New Hampshire primary on 12 March, there ensued a battle for the soul of Lyndon Johnson. On the one side were Westmoreland, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Walt Rostow, and his old associate Abe Fortas. According to the latter, “unless we `win’ in Vietnam, our total national personality will … change”. America would succumb to “self-doubt and timidity”.[30] On the other side stood Clifford and White House aide Harry McPherson, who by now were, in effect, urging LBJ to disengage. Even now, however, Johnson was sticking to his middle ground. By 22 March he had decided against Westmoreland’s strategy on the grounds that the situation in South Vietnam was stabilising and the “middle way” was still viable. On 26 March, however, there occurred the crucial meeting of Johnson’s irregular elite advisory group, the “Wise Men”. Dean Acheson told the President that “we can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left and we must begin to disengage”.[31]

From Johnson’s vantage point, he had been undercut by “establish­ment bastards”.[32] His speech of 31 March gave recognition to what LBJ now saw as inescapable political reality. Johnson announced that bombing would be strictly limited to an area north of the demilitarised zone. Peace overtures would be begun and Johnson himself would step down from the Democratic nomination race. The “bastards” may have got him, but still Johnson was not prepared to abandon his “middle way”. The peace process initiated in Paris indicated that LBJ had departed very little from his original agenda. He envisaged a peace settlement without significant prior American troop withdrawals and with a post-settlement allied force left to defend South Vietnam.

General Creighton Abrams, who succeeded Westmoreland in mid­1968, carried on the war of attrition and the “search and destroy” missions. Not only was this strategy now effectively discredited, but it was being increasingly used to draw off American units into prepared killing grounds.

6. Nixon and Kissinger

Nixon’s Strategy
The self-laceration of the Democratic party continued into the tumultuous Chicago convention and culminated in Hubert Humphrey’s November 1968 defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon.

In Vietnam, President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger sought “peace with honour”, a “reasonable chance” for South Vietnam’s survival—generally thought to require the exclusion of communists from participation in government—or at least a “decent interval” (between US disengagement and communist takeover of the South). The new leadership saw itself as. realist in every sense of that word; unencumbered by moralism, it would attune US policy to US interests and secure a new balance of power. The United States should not be seen to have abandoned an ally in the face of communist expansionism. Defined in these terms, Vietnam policy came to shape the whole of the Nixon-Kissinger “grand design” in foreign policy. Detente with the Soviets and with China was, at one level, designed to bring great-power pressure on North Vietnam to come to terms. The Nixon Doctrine, promulgated at Guam in July 1969, attempted to spell out to Asian countries that the United States was no longer prepared to take on the role of military defender. The Guam remarks clarified and extended Nixon’s answer to the Vietnam puzzle: the policy of Vietnamisation. Described by Ambassador Bunker as an attempt to change the colour of the corpses, Vietnamisation involved the handing over of defence responsibilities to a beefed-up South Vietnamese army (the ARVN). By the end of Nixon’s first term, a series of phased withdrawals had seen US ground troop totals decline from a peak of 543,000 (April 1969) to 25,000. Draft calls were reduced steadily from mid-1969.

Alongside Vietnamisation, Nixon committed himself, characteristi­cally, to not one but two peace processes. Protracted meetings between the combatants occurred not only in the official Paris talks, but also in parallel clandestine talks. Nixon and Kissinger sought to influence and orchestrate such negotiations by, on the one hand, controlled and decisive displays of intense force and, on the other, by threatening to unleash uncontrolled force: the threat of “mad bomber” Nixon. The threat of disinterring the “old” Nixon might help Hanoi see reason. The President instructed Kissinger in the early part of 1972 to:

… tell these sons of bitches that the President is a madman and you don’t know how to deal with him. Once re-elected I’ll be a mad bomber.[33]

In retrospect, the Nixon-Kissinger strategy on Vietnam (“walk [sic] softly and carry a big stick”[34]—as Nixon described it at the 1968 Miami convention) appears more carefully thought out than it probably was. As in other areas of Nixon’s foreign and domestic policies, there is a danger of attributing too much coherence to what was often a combination of muddled calculation, short-term reaction and (unintentional, as well as intentional) transmission of mixed signals.

Widening the War: 1969-1972
American troops in
Vietnam took high casualties during the communist offensive launched in February 1969. Nixon’s response was to combine peace feelers and Vietnamisation with the drawing up of plans for what essentially amounted to all-out war. Without the knowl­edge of Secretary of State, William Rogers, or Defence Secretary, Melvin Laird, a secret plan, Duck Hook, was drawn up. It would have combined a ground invasion of the North with massive bombing (notably of the Northern dyke system) and mining. The plan envisioned the destruction of the Ho Chi Minh trail, possibly through the use of nuclear power. It was never implemented. Kissinger received the plan (drawn up by his military aide, Alexander Haig, and the Pentagon Office of the Chief of Naval Operations) in July 1969. On October 17, Kissinger recommended against it and on November 1, Nixon himself decided to abandon it. At one level, Duck Hook represented a coherent “win-the-war” strategy; twenty years later, Nixon described his rejection of it as the worst decision he made in the White House. The reality was, however, as Nixon and Kissinger appreciated at the time, that Duck Hook threatened a disruption to American domestic peace greater even than the turmoil of 1968. The White House could not rely even on its “silent majority” (much less the elite groups whose support had already cracked) to back a course of action, which would have involved high US losses and whose short-term military success could not be guaranteed.

Despite the Duck Hook confusion and the huge antiwar demonstrations in the US of October/November 1969, Washington was able to take some comfort from the way events were moving in South Vietnam. The communist overextension of 1968 was still being felt, with PLAF combat strength now in decline. In particular, MACV calculated that Southern recruitment to the PLAF was tailing off. Perhaps the war of attrition/ “crossover point” strategy—in abeyance since the onset of Vietnamisation—was beginning to work after all? In addition, President Thieu, under American pressure and with US financial backing, was at last addressing the issue at the heart of rural discontent: land reform. The communists had long exploited the hostility of landless and tenant farmer-peasants to the corrupt Saigon institutions which controlled rural credit, as well as to those landlords against whom various South Vietnamese governments had refused to act. Approximately two-thirds of the rural population in South Vietnam were tenant farmers, many of whom worked extremely small holdings. The communists’ policy of distributing land under their control had long formed the basis of their appeal; it was effected by a subtle marriage of the idiom of Marxian socialism to that of Vietnamese village communal traditionalism.[35] Thieu’s “Land-to-the-Tiller” law (March, 1970) promised to eliminate tenancy and to break—or at least rival—the communists’ ability to use the trump card of land reform. Pacification and rural development programmes also appeared to be making some headway at last, as did political reforms at village level.[36] At a cruder level, the Phoenix programme, a “hit” operation to eliminate civilian communist cadres was (it is now clear) having a devastating impact. Yet the upshot of all this should not be exaggerated. Thieu’s government had not suddenly become legitimated, popular and democratic. The ARVN, in particular, was still unreliable. However, any notion of reviving the Tet people’s rising idea was now ended. The Americans were now fighting the North Vietnamese army (NVA).

Many American lives, and many more Asian, were lost between 1969 and 1973 in pursuing the Nixon version of the “middle course”. Henry Kissinger correctly points out that not “even the strongest critics in the mainstream of American life”[37] wished to imperil US credibility by pulling out in 1969. American public opinion also, between 1969 and 1973, broadly favoured “peace with honour” over immediate withdrawal. The fact still remains, however, that the “middle course” -in effect, troop withdrawals accompanied by tough, periodic military action—simply was never going to result in a peace settlement which amounted to anything more than an American defeat.

Nowhere was the bankruptcy of the Nixon-Kissinger approach made clearer than in the 1969-1971 extensions of the war into Cambodia and Laos. The Cambodia incursions provoked the most severe public and Congressional criticism, and domestic discord, of the entire Vietnam era.

Under LBJ, American transgressions of Laotian and Cambodian neutrality had been confined to CIA-backed anti-communist adventures and B-52 bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail. In April 1969, Nixon ordered the more concerted (and equally illegal) “secret” (MENU) bombing of communist sanctuaries in Cambodia, which was to continue into 1973. Senior Air Force personnel were ordered to falsify information, even concealing from the pilots themselves exactly upon whom the bombs were dropping. On April 30, 1970, Nixon launched an actual invasion. ARVN and US forces went into Cambodia with the intention of destroying the PLAF “headquarters” there. This action was occasioned by the overthrow, with American complicity, of the (relatively) neutralist Prince Sihanouk by the more pliantly pro-American Lon Nol. Nixon and Kissinger took their chance to wield the “big stick”. They felt, of course, that the communists had long seen Indochina as one battlefield; it was the Vietnamese communists who had first violated Cambodian neutrality, and who now threatened to topple Lon Nol. Domestic protest in the US was inevitable, and both Secretary of State Ropers and Secretary of Defence Laird opposed the invasion. For Nixon and Kissinger, however, the invasion was a test of strength against the despised antiwar movement. Kissinger “knew that … another round of domestic acrimony, protest, and perhaps even violence was possible”.[38] Though American and South Vietnamese forces did come close to the PLAF bases, the invasion was a military fiasco. No communist “headquarters” were unearthed, while enemy forces were able to evade the American advance. It is true that the shifting of communist sanctuaries to more remote areas in Cambodia did reduce the PLAF threat to the heavily populated Mekong delta region. However, the Ho Chi Minh trail remained intact. Moreover, the invasion pointed up the limitations of the ARVN. After 1970, the real threat was clearly from the North, over the demilitarised zone. But the locally-supported, family­oriented ARVN simply could not be successfully removed from the Mekong delta to defend the Northern provinces.

At every level, the Nixon-Kissinger decision to expand the war stood condemned. Domestic violence came as students, recently described by Nixon as “bums”, were shot dead at Kent State University in Ohio. The destabilisation of Cambodia, of course, was soon to usher in the (increasingly anti-Hanoi and eventually US­assisted) Khmer Rouge regime, which effectively declared murderous war on the Cambodian people. On June 30, 1970, the Senate passed the Cooper-Church amendment, barring US military from further fighting in Cambodia. By this time, troops were already withdrawing, having failed to “search and destroy”. Nonetheless, Cooper-Church, along with the full Congressional repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in December 1970, served notice that the legislature was no longer willing to defer to the President’s war-making prerogative.

The ARVN’s invasion of Laos in February 1971 completed the undermining of the White House strategy. The massive military and non-military spending associated with Vietnamisation was having a positive, albeit often grotesquely distorted, effect on the South Vietnamese economy. At the level of the ARVN, however, it was simply not working. The ineptness of the Laotian invasion convinced North Vietnam’s Foreign Minister, Nguyen Co Thach, that here “was the defeat of Vietnamization”.[39]

When the NVA launched its massive offensive against the Northern provinces at Easter 1972, the ARVN did better and the invasion was turned away. However, the crucial allied victory at Kontum (in the Central Highlands) was achieved only after America’s “civilian general” John Paul Vann had substituted US for ARVN leadership. A similar picture emerged from the battle at An Loc, where US Air Force fighter­bombers and Army attack helicopters rescued the ARVN.

The Peace Process: 1972-1975
The peace talks between the US and North Vietnam were among the most tortuous in the history of warfare. By 1969, a succession of disputes deadlocked negotiations: wrangles over who could participate, over the postwar role of the PRG (the Provisional Revolutionary Government, as the NLF was now called), the US and South Vietnamese refusal to accept anything smacking of coalition government for the South, disagreements relating to prisoners-of-war, bombing pauses and American attempts to secure promises from Hanoi regarding its postwar behaviour. In public, the most obvious dispute revolved around political-military linkage. In essence, the North Vietnamese were willing to cooperate with what they saw as the ineffectual policy of Vietnamisation. They would not, however, remove NVA troops from the South, nor (in any meaningful sense) guarantee their conduct subsequent to the American withdrawal. As Kissinger later wrote:

The North Vietnamese considered themselves in a life-and-death struggle; they did not treat negotiations as an enterprise separate from the struggle; they were a form of it.[40]

Yet the Americans also were fighting while negotiating. Nixon’s response to the Easter 1972 NVA offensive was not simply defensive. With a considerable degree of public support, he ordered the mining of Haiphong harbour and the intensive bombing (long urged by General Abrams) of Northern cities. If this meant endangering detente—a summit meeting with Soviet leader Brezhnev was in the offing -then so be it. In fact, the summit went ahead and Moscow made little objection even when it lost a ship in Haiphong harbour. Moscow wanted the North Vietnamese to come to terms, but the truth was that Hanoi was relatively immune from great-power pressure.

In private, Kissinger was prepared to confide to the North Vietnamese that America was sick of the war, but that its hands were tied by the need to win Thieu’s support for any settlement, as well as by US concern for its international credibility. By the Autumn of 1972, the White House had decided to take a different tack. Some things appeared to be going reasonably well. After all, the Spring invasion had been held back and the post-1968 security, pacification and spending programmes were undoubtedly having an effect. Yet many heavy NVA divisions had simply withdrawn back across the demilitarised zone, or into Laos or Cambodia—the 1970 and 1971 invasions had actually made this easier—to await American withdrawal. Moreover, the Presidential election was imminent, (the Democrat George McGovern was in effect an antiwar candidate) and the peace talks were deadlocked. US policy thus entered a new phase: intense, destructive bombing of Northern targets (Linebacker I), the offer of significant reconstruction aid to post-settlement North Vietnam, and moves towards the achievement of joint concessions over the political future for the South. Against the wishes of Thieu, Kissinger accepted the idea of a three-part electoral commission (involving Saigon, the PRG and neutralists). Hanoi did indeed seem prepared to accept an arrangement which, although leaving Thieu in power, granted political status to the PRG. On October 26, 1972, Kissinger announced: “peace is at hand”. The massive victory over McGovern was now only a formality. Yet peace was not at hand. Thieu’s opposition to the agreement was an important factor in the post-election collapse of the October settlement. Too much has been made of Thieu’s opposition, however. Nixon was not above threatening him with the fate of Diem if he became too obstructive.[41] New American military aid (Enhance Plus) also took the sting out of Thieu’s opposition. Kissinger’s “peace is at hand” statement was part bureaucratic gaffe, part election ruse. Nixon himself had grave doubts about the settlement, with its overtones of coalition government and implications (as a Kissinger aide put it) of having “flushed Thieu down the election drain”.[42]

The demise of the October settlement had been the responsibility of the United States and South Vietnam. Now, however, North Vietnam began to backtrack on previous concessions regarding prisoner-of-war exchange. This further deadlock stimulated what was to become, after the Cambodia invasion, the most controversial act of Nixon’s policy in Vietnam: the 1972 Christmas LINEBACKER II bombings. Following his election victory, Nixon sought solitude at Camp David. Privately disturbed by early signs that the Watergate scandal at home might veer out of control, he now sought to end the war. He turned to the “mad bomber” strategy. Between December 18 and 30, over 2,000 sorties were flown. Nixon berated Admiral Thomas Moorer:

I don’t want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one. This is your chance to use military power effectively to win this war … [43]

“Smart” bombs, of the type later employed in the 1991 Gulf war, were used to obliterate military and communications systems. Inevitably, there were civilian casualties: most famously the Bach Mai hospital in Hanoi.

The final Paris agreement was signed in the wake of the bombing on January 28, 1973. US troops were to leave within sixty days; NVA troops in the South (at least 150,000) were to remain. To the South Vietnamese leaders the agreement’s asymmetry amounted to a betrayal. Thieu took comfort in promises, contained in letters that he concealed in his bedroom, that the US would not simply leave Saigon to its fate. The cease-fire was soon violated by all parties. As one South Vietnamese official put it: “The only provision of the Paris Agreements that was observed was the removal of foreign troops from Vietnam, namely American troops”.[44]

As US air bombardment on Cambodia and on NVA forces in the South continued, Congress moved to cut off funds for the war. On July 1, 1973, President Nixon, unable to battle it out with Congress on Vietnam as well as over Watergate, signed a bill which effectively ended American military involvement in Indochina. The end-game was a mismatch, distinguished by spectacular reversals of strategy on Thieu’s part. For the ARVN, Operation Enhance Plus had come too late and too abruptly; the South Vietnamese army lacked the expertise to use much of the equipment. As a highly disciplined communist force surrounded and (on April 29, 1975) occupied Saigon, Kissinger declared: “The Vietnam debate has run its course’’.[45] The post-Watergate Congress was in no mood to redeem promises made by Nixon and President Ford. Journalist John Pilger’s last memory of Vietnam was of a US admiral’s voice anticipating his ship’s return to the Philippines:

Well folks, that just about wraps up Vietnam. So let’s all have a party and get outta here, so we can mosey on back to Subic Bay and get ourselves a genuine Budweiser beer.[46]

7. Interpreting the War

Explaining American Involvement: Quagmires and Turning Points
Vietnam had little obvious or direct economic or strategic significance for the United States. The importance of South East Asian raw materials was, it is true, considered by officials within the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations.[47] Yet any imputation to the United States of direct economic interest in Vietnam is mistaken. As Harry McPherson, aide to President Johnson, declared in 1985, his boss “did not go in to save iron ore”. He “went in to try to prevent Asia from being rolled up by the Chinese Communists”.[48]

The Vietnam war was fought within the ideological parameters of containment theory. By the late 1950s, the United States stood at the apex of a hegemonic world system, based on liberal free trade doctrines and American-guaranteed mutual security pacts. Successful protection of this system in the face of expansionary communism was held to depend on the maintenance of American “credibility”. As Thomas McCormick has put it, the US was “acting for the whole system rather than [for] immediate American interests”.[49]

Especially after 1960, American preoccupation with “credibility” was evident in both the private and public pronouncements of decision­ makers. In November 1961, national security adviser Walt Rostow identified the “gut issue” in Vietnam for John Kennedy’s benefit. This was “not whether Diem is or is not a good ruler”. Rather it was:

… whether we shall continue to accept the systematic infiltration of men from outside and the operation from outside of a guerrilla war against him …. The whole world is asking a simple question: what will the U.S. do about it?[50]

In July 1965, Johnson replied as follows to George Ball’s case against escalation:

But George, wouldn’t all these countries say that Uncle Sam was a paper tiger, wouldn’t we lose credibility breaking the word of three presidents, if we did as you have proposed?[51]

Nixon, according to Kissinger, was convinced that precipitate withdrawal would “dishearten allies who depended on us and embolden adversaries to undertake new adventures”.[52]

Policy-makers during the Vietnam era were instinctive globalists. True, perceptions of Vietnam were situated within concern for the regional SEATO security system. Yet this was but part of the non­communist world system, defined by the theorists of globalised containment as a seamless web where a threat to one part constituted a threat to the whole. The problem with post-Kennan containment theory was that it offered no criteria whereby commitments could be prioritised, or American interests ranked. It rested on the fallacy that the United States could and would intervene to protect any threatened facet of the system, however remote and peripheral to traditional US security priorities.

In a sense, of course, the United States was fighting world communism in Vietnam (despite the existence of significant non­communist opposition to the various Saigon regimes). The poor human rights record of the revolutionary Vietnamese regime has, along with the collapse of bureaucratised command communism in Europe, lessened the temptation to romanticise America’s adversaries in the war. Vietnamese communist sources have also shed light on this issue. Such testimony needs to be treated with caution, and read in the light of the Vietnamese victors’ immediate political concerns. Nevertheless, it now seems clear that insurgent forces in the South were directed from Hanoi. The idea, dear to liberal antiwar opinion, that there was an autonomous, “democratic” insurgency in the South, now stands in need of extreme qualification, if not outright abandonment.[53] Hanoi received perhaps 85 per cent of its oil and almost all its sophisticated military hardware from the Soviet Union. Chinese aid may have amounted to somewhere in the region of ten billion dollars.[54] Even the Sino-Soviet split (which US policymakers undoubtedly underestimated) to some degree worked to Hanoi’s advantage, as Moscow and Peking competed to help North Vietnam’s cause. Nevertheless, the great-power support for Hanoi was in no way equivalent to US support for Saigon. Chinese-Vietnamese relations were permeated by a venerable tradition of mutual suspicion, while the limits to Moscow’s influence were clearly demonstrated during the peace negotiations. North Vietnam was not merely the creature of Moscow and Peking. Hanoi’s nationalist credentials had a profound appeal throughout Vietnam, while the primarily communist-directed revolution appealed to both the idealism and the self-interest of the South Vietnamese people. Writing in May 1965, John Paul Vann (then employed by the US Agency for International Development) captured this well in a letter to General Robert York:

I am convinced that, even though the National Liberation Front is Communist-dominated, that the great majority of the people supporting it are doing so because it is their only hope to change and improve their living conditions and opportunities.[55]

The abstract injunctions of globalised containment caused US policymakers to ignore Vann’s concern, or to marginalise it in the sideshow of pacification. Attitudes towards Vietnam were also shaped by a peculiar kind of cultural conditioning which inclined American decision-makers against serious engagement with the issues raised in Vann’s letter. At one level, there was the unreflecting “can-do” optimism of the Kennedy and Johnson advisers. This was allied (as Patrick Lloyd Hatcher has demonstrated) to the misapplication by America’s internationalist elite of concepts of collective security and economic intervention designed for European conditions.[56] Cultural misunderstandings proliferated. Pacification officers in the late 1960s had to complete Hamlet Evaluation System questionnaires designed to elicit how many televisions were in each village.[57] The US effort was driven by the ideology of American democratic liberalism and the assumption that American democratic capitalist history provided a model for the world. To quote Loren Baritz:

… our national myth showed us that we were good, our technology made us strong, and our bureaucracy gave us standard operating procedures. It was not a winning combination.[58]

Early (usually disaffected liberal) critiques of the war advocated a “quagmire” interpretation of Vietnam. US policymakers, locked in cultural misunderstanding and incremental decision-making, were seen as having stumbled unwittingly into the Indochinese swamp. To some extent, American involvement was the result of a series of small, incremental decisions which failed to address fundamental questions. Yet there were clearly major “turning point” decisions: for example, the 1950 decision to aid the French, to back Diem in 1954, to increase the number of advisers in the early 1960s, the decision not to oppose Diem’s overthrow, the 1965 escalation and “limited war” decisions, Johnson’s 1968 refusal of Westmoreland’s troop increase requests, Nixon’s Vietnamisation and Cambodia invasion decisions. These “turning point” decisions were not taken in isolation: either from prior Indochina commitments, or from concerns not directly related to Vietnam (such as LBJ’s desire to save the Great Society or Nixon’s calculations about detente). Some “big” decisions, such as to commence bombing, were probably seen initially as little more than tentative experiments. Even allowing for all this, the “quagmire” paradigm seems inappropriate. American leaders were aware of alternatives to the courses of action they took, although they obviously did not foresee the dire consequences of the preferred alternatives. At least six close advisers—not just George Ball—alerted Johnson to the dangers of graduated escalation during the first half of 1965. Sycophancy and “groupthink” do operate at high decision-making levels. However, it would be quite wrong to imagine that Presidents were not exposed to conflicting views and fundamental questioning. Chester Bowles, Kennedy’s Ambassador at Large, provided a thoroughgoing review for the President in April 1962. He outlined various scenarios and forecast that current policy would lead to “an uneasy fluid stalemate”.[59] In 1965, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey warned LBJ that he was taking “big historic gambles” in Vietnam without any clear, “politically understandable” rationale.[60] As Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts have argued, Kennedy and Johnson opted for limited objective alternatives in Vietnam wittingly. They decided on measures to “hurt the enemy but not destroy him” in order to escape the political costs either of “losing” Vietnam or of full-scale national mobilisation.[61] Under Nixon, the decision-making structure was excep­tionally and dangerously elitist. Alternative views were insufficiently aired at the highest level. Ropers and Laird were excluded from key discussions. Yet there can be no question that Nixon and Kissinger were aware of the possible consequences of their policies, and of alternatives to them.

Examination of Vietnam decision-making also reveals the extent to which the Cold War consensus had emasculated the US Congress. Some individuals played roles of importance. Senator Mike Mansfield furnished his friend Lyndon Johnson with dissenting views. Senator William Fulbright, after breaking with the Administration in 1965, provided elite critics with a platform in the 1966 and 1968 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. Congressional investigations illuminated some dark areas: for example, war crimes (especially the 1968 massacre at My Lai), and the plight of refugees in South Vietnam. In the last resort, in the Spring of 1973, Congress actually ended the war. However, the abdication of responsibility enshrined in the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution stands as a warning against passive legislative acquiescence in Presidential war-making.

Explaining American Failure: The Debate over Military Strategy
Many of the
reasons for American failure are implicit in the preceding narrative: underestimation of the enemy and its ability to sustain massive losses, the mismatch between US “limited” and communist “total” war, the failure or inability to generate popular support for the Saigon regime, the opening and maintenance of the Ho Chi Minh trail and so on: perhaps, above all, the failure to develop, and sell to the American public, a coherent “win-the-war” strategy. Such explanations tend to assume, as does the entire debate over military strategy to be considered below, that victory was possible had different decisions been taken. Before discussing the military issues, it is important to examine this assumption.

Essentially, “victory” would have consisted in the military defeat of North Vietnam (and the Chinese if they had intervened), combined with the generation of popular support for the non-communist government in the South. Political and public opinion in the US would have had to have been mobilised behind the effort, and have been prepared to support (physically and financially) security arrangements agreed with the post-war South. Such a “victory” is not inconceivable. The gains made after 1969 in generating at least some popular support for Thieu’s regime indicates that at least some progress along these lines was possible. There was nothing foreordained about the communists’ triumph. Given their nationalist credentials, however, it was always very likely (as the population of South Vietnam well appreciated); and its likelihood was compounded by the way the Americans understood and fought the war. America was not simply defending South Vietnam from an attack from the North. Contrary to the situation in Korea in the early 1950s, the US in Vietnam was placing itself in the path of an ongoing national revolution that had already achieved power in the North. This was the case even in the early 1970s when the military picture was much more one of a conventional war against the NVA. The American effort and Thieu’s reforms did dent the communists’ revolutionary and nationalist legitimacy. However, they failed to replace it with anything resembling popular confidence in and support for the Saigon regime.

Should the United States simply have acquiesced in a communist victory some time during the Eisenhower, Kennedy or Johnson presidencies, not so much letting the domino fall as recognising the national legitimacy of Ho’s movement? Such an outcome would not have guaranteed peace and liberty to the people of South Vietnam. It would, however, have represented a mature, flexible interpretation of containment theory, and would have spared the US the misery of the war. After all, in the long term, acquiescence in a communist victory was actually all that Nixon and Kissinger achieved in 1973, with only a “decent interval” sparing America’s blushes. (The above interpretation is open to the objection that post-Kennan containment theory demanded that the US draw a line somewhere in Asia: that some kind of “Vietnam war” be fought (and maybe lost) at some point. Such reasoning, however, simply leads us into an impenetrable labyrinth of counter-factual speculation).

In actuality, their interpretation of containment theory and concern for US credibility prevented American leaders from acquiescing in a communist takeover before 1973. This being the case, American “victory” would have required fundamental, and culturally appropriate, political and economic reform in the South, combined with the extension of non-coercive security to the Southern population. The South Vietnamese had to come to see Saigon and its American sponsors as the guarantor of reform and security, rather than as an alien force whose rule guaranteed disruption. If this analysis is at all correct, it follows that even those “pacification” measures which fell short of thoroughgoing political and economic reform, in a context of non-coercive security, were unlikely to produce the desired results. Nevertheless, they were, from the viewpoint of feasible American “victory” as sketched above, at least on the right lines. In point of fact, the American pacification efforts were fractionalised and marginalised. The various agencies (AID, CORDS and the marines’ Combined Action Platoons, for example) were not subjected to even formalised central coordination until the early 1970s. Pacification never formed a priority for MACV, which remained wedded to firepower and “search-and-destroy”. Westmoreland was openly hostile to the Combined Action Platoons. To a degree, pacification did attempt to deal with the problem of peasant disaffection. But it was also seen as part of the process which was creating dislocation. Pacification officers were, in the words of one ARVN officer, “rich soldiers with luxury stereo musics, C-Rations, all types equipments”.[62]

Not only pacification, but the entire US effort was characterised by inter-service rivalries, bureaucratic battles, poor tactics and byzantine command structures.[63] Again, some improvement was made in the early 1970s with General Abrams’ “one war strategy”; but, as Andrew Krepinevich has argued, the extent to which this effected real changes on the ground is debatable. Institutional fractionation reinforced strategic confusion.[64]

Within LBJ’s general “limited war” constraints—no mass mobilisation, no ground offensive outside South Vietnam—the ground war generals were largely allowed to develop their own strategies and tactics. The resulting, misconceived war of attrition was kept afloat by an almost liturgical recitation of enemy “body counts”. Estimations of enemy strength and casualties were immensely difficult in a war where the enemy was so often invisible. “Good” intelligence (for example, on the futility of Rolling Thunder) was often ignored. The extent to which the military may have deliberately falsified “body count” and order of Battle figures has probably been exaggerated. What is certain, however, is that the whole “numbers mill” had, by 1968, become dangerously misleading.[65]

A host of alternative, “winning” strategies have been advocated in the postwar years. Many of these embrace some kind of enclave strategy.[66] Attempting to protect the whole of South Vietnam, American ground forces did become desperately overextended, almost aimlessly deployed across the whole country. The battles for Hue and Khe Sanh, at the very least, could have been avoided. Enemy­influenced rural areas of South Vietnam were devastated by mass bombing and herbicide attacks. Concentration on providing physical security for the wide Mekong delta (III and IV Corps) region might have mitigated some of this suffering, as well as the attendant alienation of so much of the South Vietnamese peasantry. Further strategic disputes centre on the question of whether the war was insufficiently or excessively Americanised. In retrospect, however, a major failure appears to have been the neglect (until too late) of developing the ARVN as a disciplined, quasi-independent force capable of defending South Vietnam. Most military figures agree that the prior ruling out of open intervention beyond South Vietnam’s borders sent dangerous signals to Hanoi. Others have argued that counter-insurgency, far from being underprioritised, actually diverted attention from the need to provide physical security for the South Vietnamese population.[67] Colonel Harry Summers has gone still further, claiming that the war should have been conceptualised in conventional terms—an attack from the North—from the outset. This writing-out of any significant guerrilla/insurgency dimension appears bizarre and is persuasive only in relation to the war’s final phase. It is probably best understood as a contribution to postwar military rehabilitation. [68]

The war in the air was micro-managed by civilian leaders to a far greater degree than its ground counterpart. It was equally misconceived. Johnson’s Rolling Thunder bombing was confused as to objectives and counter-productive in its effects. The Johnson Administration seems to have conceived of the campaign as a means primarily of communicating with the enemy—convincing Hanoi that the US meant business—while simultaneously lifting South Vietnamese morale. Graduated “ouch warfare”[69] proved impossible to orchestrate successfully. The effect on the citizenry of North Vietnam was, if anything, a hardening of resolve. Despite target limitation, collateral civilian damage was inevitable and world opinion was alerted.

As the bombing developed, so did the US Air Force move to demonstrate its capacity to unleash “technowar”;[70] the scientific application of force would not only break Hanoi’s will, but would also destroy North Vietnam’s capacity to support Southern insurgents. In fact, the North Vietnamese infrastructure was undeveloped. Interdiction and infrastructural destruction strategies conceived for the European theatre were simply inappropriate. As noted above, the massive bombing of South Vietnam was entirely unproductive. Any case for the efficacy of airpower in Vietnam rests not on Rolling Thunder, but on Nixon’s air campaigns: Freedom Train (April 1972), Linebacker I (May October 1972) and Linebacker II (the 1972 Christmas bombing). Freedom Train, designed to break civilian morale, failed. A case can be made for the effectiveness of the Linebacker attacks: accurate bombing primarily directed at military targets. Any such effectiveness derived from the fact that North Vietnam was by this time essentially fighting a conventional war and hence was more vulnerable to air attack. Yet even with Linebacker II, the point must be made that the agreement which it “forced” upon Hanoi was one very similar to that made in October 1972 and also one which Hanoi had no intention of honouring.[71]

American Public Opinion and the Antiwar Movement
It is misleading
to suggest that it was the unsticking of US public and Congressional opinion which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the period 1972-1975. Thieu’s post-1969 reforms were too little, too late. However, it is the case that American public anxiety about the war effectively ruled out the only course of action which might have secured the gains made after 1969: an expanded American underwriting of the radical economic and political transformation of South Vietnam.

The Vietnam war demonstrated the unwillingness of US public opinion indefinitely to tolerate a conflict which appeared to lack clear objectives and which was producing high casualty rates. This is not to deny that, at times, public opinion was extraordinarily hawkish. In June 1965, for example, the weight of poll evidence indicated a clear public preference for sending in more troops. With the exception of the 1972 Christmas bombing (opposed 51-37 per cent), the major escalatory decisions were supported. Even the 1970 Cambodian invasion initially elicited a narrow majority in favour. Yet the public were continually frustrated by lack of progress and appear to have been deeply disturbed by media coverage of the Ter offensive. Only 23 per cent agreed with Westmoreland’s view that Ter constituted an American victory. Gallup data showed almost one person in five switching from a “hawk” to a “dove” position between early February and mid-March 1968.[72]

Despite his private opposition to the conflict, Hubert Humphrey’s greatest handicap in the 1968 Presidential election was his link to Johnson’s failed war policy. 82 per cent of Americans in 1968 saw Nixon as truly committed to a Vietnamese peace. Nixon appreciated the complex structure of public opinion, in which a “silent majority” was prepared to support Presidential initiatives. By late 1971, polls recorded a record low level of confidence in political leaders and a generalised opposition to the war. But such opposition tended to be diffuse and ill-informed. Nixon was able to buy time by his troop withdrawal and draft decisions, as well as by his exploitation of the prisoner-of-war issue. Above all, the McGovern candidacy in 1972 was a gift to Nixon. Convinced that peace would come anyway, voters would not support a candidate widely perceived and portrayed as “extreme”. For many Americans, moreover, Vietnam was not the most important issue facing the nation. A December 1971 poll revealed that only 15 per cent thought that it was. Nevertheless, by this time, White House perceptions of both potential and actual public opposition were clearly constraining policy.[73]

One of the most tricky areas of interpretation concerns the interaction between public opinion, media coverage and the activities of the antiwar movement. The myth of the oppositional media destroying Presidents and altering the course of the war remains strong. LBJ gave it credence in his attack on the National Association of Broadcasters on the day after his March 31, 1968 speech. However, the postwar notion that public opinion swung away from the war because of crusading journalism and vivid photography is largely myth. Some newspapersnotably the Los Angeles Times and New York Times—were schizophrenic in their coverage; the tatter’s 1971 serialisation of the Pentagon Papers (leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon civilian) represented a key stage in the unravelling of consensus. Generally, however, the media were instinctually pro-war and only shifted when sharp elite divisions had already become apparent. Undoubtedly, the famous photographs and film footage of napalm and bomb damage did have an impact. Analysis of television and press coverage, however, does not support Nixon’s charges of antiwar bias. White House communication failures -especially Johnson’s failure to create an effective “rhetoric of limited war”[74]—were more damaging to the Administration cause than any activities of crusading journalists. Coverage of the 1970 Kent State killings certainly affected public opinion quite deeply; however, media treatment of the antiwar movement was almost entirely hostile. In April 1967, for example, Time poked fun at “Vietniks and Peaceniks, Trotskyites and potskyites”.

Time’s depiction of the antiwar movement was, of course, grossly unfair. Charles Chatfield’s description sets the record straight:

Liberals and leftists, men and women, blacks and whites, students and established intellectuals, clergy and laity: countless citizens passed in and out of the antiwar movement. Its core was indelibly middle class and well educated. It was a typically American reform effort—a voluntary crusade attracting adherents and impelling them to act out of a felt personal responsibility for social wrongs.[75]

The movement had its roots in the American civil disobedience tradition and in the middle class activism that had mobilised for disarmament causes prior to the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty. Deepening involvement and the imposition of the draft coalesced with generational changes to produce the variegated movement described by Chatfield. Familiar American institutions and movements became polarised between pro- and antiwar opinion. Trade unions, universities, professions, political parties, churches, even—to an extent—the army itself, were all affected in this way. Many African-Americans supported Martin Luther King Jr.’s criticism of the war (and of the draft process which discriminated against blacks); more conservative civil rights leaders, however, were cautious about breaking with Johnson. A body of elite dissidents—Senators, writers, entertainers, disaffected bureau­crats—constituted a kind of disembodied superstratum. Different groups and individuals, of course, opposed the war for different reasons: pacifism, opposition to American imperialism, realist calculation that American interests were no longer being served in Vietnam, and so on. Such divisions were reflected within the movement, especially after 1965 when it began to attract New Left radicals and counter-culturists. Between 1965 and the splintering of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, the movement witnessed extended debates between advocates of electoralism such as Allard Lowenstein and radical direct action supporters like David Dellinger. The shambles of the 1967 National Conference for New Politics, and also the antagonism between the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and the more radical “New Mobe” in 1969, illustrated these divisions. The New Left was weak on theory; it had enormous difficulty in giving re-birth to American leftism; and undoubtedly it did exhibit, to a destructive degree, what Todd Gitlin has called the histrionic “politics of spurious amplification”.[76] However, despite the excesses of the New Left and the intramovement divisions, impressive mass marches and demonstrations were organised. The movement’s impact on public opinion was complex and to a certain degree counter-productive. It undoubtedly contributed to the develop­ing bunker mentality in the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. This mentality was evidenced in the vindictive and illegal harassment visited by the Johnson and Nixon Administrations on the movement. To an extent, antiwar activities contributed to Nixon’s “silent majority” backlash. Yet, marches, petitions, occupations and teach-ins did shake complacency and slowly alter the decisional climate. In various walks of life, influential opinion leaders were alerting sections of the population to antiwar ideas.[77] In helping turn Nixon against Duck Hook  in 1969, the movement achieved perhaps its most specific (though at the time unnoticed) success. From about 1967, war managers were confronted not only by a public whose unquestioning acceptance of official versions of the war could no longer automatically be assumed; but also by a potentially alienated generation of young, well educated Americans, who appeared increasingly reluctant to serve the recruitment needs of corporate capitalism.

8. Conclusion

“Limited” war in Vietnam was devastating in its impact on all parties. American deaths totalled over 58,000; over half of these died after 1968. Over 150,000 were wounded. Compared with their numerical strength in the population as a whole, black and Hispanic death and casualty rates were disproportionately high. Possibly two million Vietnamese were killed (between 850,000 and 950,000 of them Viet Cong or NVA personnel). By the war’s end there were about 21 million bomb craters in South Vietnam. Some ten and a half million South Vietnamese people were turned into refugees by the war. By the war’s end South Vietnam’s natural forest-cover had been reduced by about 60 per cent. Forces supporting the Americans—especially the ARVN and the South Koreans, but also Australian, New Zealand and Thai forces—suffered significant losses. US Vietnam veterans have been prone to suicide and psychic disorder. When Congress set up readjustment counselling centres in 1979, some 200,000 Vietnam-era veterans sought help in the programme’s first three and a half years. The direct financial cost of the war to the US was between 112 and 155 billion dollars, with indirect costs estimated at 925 billion. Both in political and economic terms, the war marked the beginning of the end of the (short) “long cycle” of American international domination dating ‘from World War II. Within the US, the war stimulated a loss of confidence in governmental institutions, a new public scepticism about the entire “national security state” and a collapse of the consensus that had dominated US foreign policy since 1946.[78]

We are now in a position to return to the questions raised in the Introduction. The United States became involved in Indochina knowingly and consciously, and essentially for reasons connected with what was perceived to be necessary to contain communism and protect America’s hegemonic status. The notion of protecting American credibility underscored pivotal decisions on the war. The United States lost the war; Nixon’s attempts to resurrect 1973 as the year of victory rest on unrealistic assessments both of the Paris agreement and of the success of Vietnamisation. American decision-making structures performed poorly, but they did serve the immediate political purposes of successive Presidents. Washington’s secretive, politicised, elite direction of the undeclared war compounded difficulties, rather than facilitating their resolution. The war managers were forced, eventually, to take the threat of domestic protest seriously. Post-1970 public unwillingness to sanction a further expansion of commitments constituted an important constraint upon elite decisions. The military performed poorly and adapted neither its procedure nor its doctrine in any coordinated fashion to the requirements of what was part- guerrilla insurgency, part- conventional war. But the war was lost essentially through civilian, rather than military, misjudgement. The reluctance of US policymakers directly to tackle the question—especially before 1969—of the Saigon regime’s unpopularity was crucial.

American involvement was morally ambivalent. US credibility was the dominant concern, yet American decision-makers certainly did see the containment of communism as in the interests of the South Vietnamese people. As noted in the Introduction, events since 1975 have done nothing to burnish the reputation of neo-Stalinist communism, whether in the Third World or elsewhere. Nevertheless, this should not obscure the fact that the US was (even in the early 1970s) defending a reactionary, unrepresentative and undemocratic elite in South Vietnam. In a profoundly disquieting sense, America’s war was one against the people of South, as well as North, Vietnam—a war waged as part of a futile and misconceived attempt to force them to be free.

9. Guide to Further Reading

Anyone approaching the subject anew would be well advised to begin not with a conventional history, but with the following highly personal accounts: Frances Fitzgerald, Fire In The Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972); Tim O’Brien, IfIDie In A Combat Zone (London: Paladin, 1989); John Balaban, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam (New York: Poseidon, 1991); and the works by Sheehan [14] and Herr [27] cited in the notes.

Among the best single volume histories are those by Herring 7; Kolko 2; Lewy [36]; Palmer [19]; Turley [53]; Brown [2]; Lomperis [36]; and Wintle [18], as well as: Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991); and James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell- America and Vietnam 1945 to 1990 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991). These volumes cover just about the full range of possible interpretations. R.B. Smith’s An International History of the Vietnam War (3 vols., London: Macmillan, 1983, 1985 and 1991) should also be consulted. Many “first generation” Vietnam books are still valuable, for example B.B. Fall, The Two Net-Nams (New York: Praeger, 1967). However, especially on the years before Kennedy and on LBJ, there are some outstanding recent histories. On the war’s origins, see Rotter [8]; Short b; George McT. Kahin Intervention (New York: Knopf, 1986); and Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From World War II Through Dienbienphu (New York: Norton, 1988). On the Eisenhower-Dulles period, see David L. Anderson, Trapped By Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953-1961 (.New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); G. C. Herring, “‘A Good Stout Effort’: John Foster Duller and the Indochina Crisis”, in R.H. Immerman, ed., John Foster Duller and the Diplomacy of the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); and R.H. Immerman, “The United States and the Geneva Conference of 1954: A New Look”, Diplomatic History, 14 (1990), pp.43-66. On Kennedy, see Timothy P. Malta, John F. Kennedy and the .New Pacific Community, 1961-1963 (Basingstoke Macmillan, 1990); and L J. Barren and S.E. Pelz, “The Failed Search for Victory: Vietnam and the Politics of War”, in T.G. Paterson, ed., Kennedy’s Quest for Victory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). On Johnson, see the two Berman volumes [24],[30]; Barrett [60]; VanDeMark [13]; Cable [20]; and Turner [74]; also H.Y. Schandler, The Unmaking of a President. Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). Good secondary sources on Nixon and Kissinger are: Hersh”; Morris”; Robert D. Schulzinger, Henry Kissinger.- Doctor of Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); and William Shaweross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979). See also Frank Snepp A Decent Internal, (New York: Random House, 1977); and G.C. Herring, “The Nixon Strategy in Vietnam”, in P. Braestrup, ed., Vietnam As History (Washington DC: University Press of America, 1984).

Among many outstanding memoirs are: Nixon [43]; Kissinger [52],[37] Taylor [15]; Colby [67]; Cooper [65]; Clifford [29]; Frederick Molting, From Trust to Tragedy (New York: Praeger, 1988); William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (New York: Dell, 1980); Harry McPherson, A Political Education (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988); and Dean Rusk (as told to R. Rusk, ed., D.S. Papp), As I Saw It (New York: Norton, 1990). See also Eugene E. McCarthy, The Year of the People (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969) and Geore McGovern, Grassroots: The Autobioraphy of George McGovern (New York: Random House, 1977).

Debates on strategy and the role of the US military may be followed in Krepinevich [14]; Petersen [62]; Clarke [64]; Kinnard [64]; Summers [68]; Matthews and Brown [66]; Thayer [63]; Grinter and Dunn [68]; and Clodfelter [71]. See also P.B. Davidson, Vietnam at War (Novato: Presidio, 1988) and John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam: The Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1988). Mueller [12] is indispensable on public opinion. See also Harris [5] and H.S. Foster, Activism Replaces Isolationism: US Public Attitudes, 1940-1975 (Washington DC: Foxhall Press, 1983). On the antiwar movement, see DeBenedetti [39]; Small [77]; and Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963-1975 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984). See also Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1987); and Edward P. Morgan, The 60s Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991). On the war’s domestic impact, see McPherson [18]; D.C. Hallin, The `Uncensored War’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Peter Braestrup, Big Story (Vol. I) (Boulder: Westview, 1977); and L.M. Baskir and W.A. Strauss, Chance and Circumstance (New York: Random House, 1978).

US policy-making is discussed in: David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972); Komer [63]; Gelb and Betts [61]; J.P. Burke and F.I. Greenstein, How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam, 1954 and 1965 (New York: Russell Sage, 1989); and G.K. Osborn, et al, eds., Democracy, Strategy and Vietnam. Implications for American Policy Making (Lexington: Heath, 1987). Among many excellent studies of Vietnam at war are: Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971); James W. Trullinger, Village at War (New York: Longman, 1980); and Eric M. Bergerud, The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (Boulder: Westview, 1991). The war has produced many fine oral histories, for example: Wallace Terry, ed., Bloods.’ An Oral History of the War by Black Veterans (New York: Random House, 1984).

Lastly, on the cultural background and impact of the war, see: Baritz [58]; John Hellman, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); and Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich, eds., Vietnam Images: War and Representation (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989).

10. Notes

  1. Cited in Christopher Hitchens, Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo­ American Ironies (London: Vintage, 1991), pp.253-254. Back
  2. See T. Louise Brown, War and Aftermath in Vietnam (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 1-23; P.M. Dunn, The First Vietnam War (London: Hurst, 1985), pp.167-183; Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of War 1945-1975 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), pp.13-61. Back
  3. Cited in Stephen E. Ambrose, Rise to Globalism (5th. ed., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), p.78. Back
  4. Cited in Norman A. Graebner, “Introduction” to N.A. Graebner, ed., The National Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp.3-36, 32. See also Richard Crockatt, The United ,States and the Cold War 1941-53 (BAAS Pamphlet No. 18, 1989), p.34. Back
  5. Cited in Louis Harris, The Anguish of Change (New York: Norton, 1973), pp.53-54. See generally Crockatt, The United States and the Cold War and Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the American National Security State (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980). Back
  6. The Pentagon Papers (Senator Gravel Edition) Vo1.I (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p.47. See also Anthony Short, The Origins of the Vietnam War (London: Longman, 1989), Ch. 1. Back
  7. Cited in George C. Herring, America’s Longest War The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975 (New York: Knopf, 1986), p.10. See also Scott L. Bills, Empire and Cold War- The Roots of US-Third World Antagonism, 1945-47 (London: Macmillan, 1990), pp.144-5. Back
  8. Gareth Porter, ed., Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation of Human Decisions, VoI.I (London: Heyden, 1979), p.227. See also Andrew J. Rotten The Path to Vietnam: Origins of the American Commitment to Southeast Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987). Back
  9. Cited in Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: The President (London: Allen and Unwin, 1984), p.182. Back
  10. The Origins of the Vietnam War, p.148. Back
  11. William C. Gibbons, The US. Government and the Vietnam War. Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part 1, 1945-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp.93, 204. Back
  12. Michael Charlton and Anthony Moncrieff, Many Reasons Why: The American Involvement in Vietnam (London: Scolar, 1978), pp. 60-61. Back
  13. See Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp.7-10. Back
  14. See Andrew F. Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), p.62; Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (London: Picador, 1990), pp. 201-67. Back
  15. See Maxwell Taylor, Swords and Ploughshares (New York: Norton, 1972), pp.218-219; also, Norman B. Hannah, The Kg to Failure: Laos and the Vietnam War (Lanham: Madison Books, 1987), p.60. Back
  16. Paul H. Nitze, From Hiroshima to Glasnost (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), p.255. Back
  17. Kenneth W. Thompson, ed., The Kennedy Presidency.’ Intimate Perspectives (Lanham: University Press of America, 1985), pp.261-2. Back
  18. G.C. Herring, “`Peoples Quite Apart’: Americans, South Vietnamese, and the War in Vietnam”, Diplomatic History 8 (1989), p.2. Back
  19. Thompson, (note 17), p.262. See also Bruce Palmer, The 25 Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam (New York: Da Capo, 1984), pp.24-25. Back
  20. See Larry Cable, Unholy Grail: The US and the Wars in Vietnam 1965-8 (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 11-14. Back
  21. Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p.376. Back
  22. Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p.68; Gibbons, The US Government and the Vietnam War, Part 2: 1961-1964, p.357. Back
  23. L.A. Sobel, ed., South Vietnam, VoI.P 1961-65 (New York: Facts on File, 1973), p.116. Back
  24. Cited in Larry Berman, Planning A Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: Norton, 1982), p.142. Back
  25. See Robert Mason, Chickenhawk (London: Corgi, 1989), Ch.5. Back
  26. Cited in Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p.630. Back
  27. Dispatches (London: Picador, 1979), p.89. Back
  28. Cited in Kolko, Vietnam, p.309. Back
  29. See Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President (New York: Random House, 1991), Ch.28. Back
  30. Cited in Larry German, Lyndon johnson’s War. The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam, (New York: Norton, 1989), p.185. Back
  31. Ibid, p.196. Back
  32. Roger Morris, Uncertain Greatness: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p.44. Back
  33. Seymour M. Hersh, Kissinger.- The Price of Power (New York: Summit Books, 1983), p.568. See also H.R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power (New York: NYT Books, 1978), p.83. Back
  34. Cited in S.E. Ambrose, Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 (London: Simon and Schuster, 1989) p.224; also, Raymond L. Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation (Washington D.C.: Brookings 1985), p.70. Back
  35. See Nancy Wiergersma, Vietnam: Peasant Land, Peasant Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp.4-10. Back
  36. See Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp.186-189; Samuel L. Popkin, The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979); Timothy J. Lomperis, The War Everyone Lost—and Won (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), p.104. Back
  37. See H.M. Kissinger, White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), pp.288, 286. Back
  38. Ibid., p.481. Back
  39. Cited in Hersh, Kissinger, p.311. See also Charles DeBenedetti (with Charles Chatfield), An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), Ch. 10. Back
  40. White House Years, p.260. Back
  41. Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schechter, The Palace File (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), pp.73-74. Back
  42. Allan E. Goodman, The Lost Peace (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1978), p.145. Back
  43. Richard M. Nixon, RN.- The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1978), p.734. Back
  44. Stephen T. Hosmer et al, The Fall of South Vietnam (New York: Crane, Rusak, 1980), p.30. See also Bui Diem (with D. Chanoff, In The Jaws of History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). Back
  45. Herring, America’s Longest War, p.266; David Butler, The Fall of Saigon (London: Abacus, 1985), p.514. Back
  46. John Pilger, Heroes (London: Pan, 1989), p.229. Back
  47. See, e.g., William J. Miller, Henry Cabot Lodge.’ A Biography (New York: Heineman, 1967), p.372; R.B. Smith, An International History of the Vietnam War.’ The Kennedy Strategy (New York: Macmillan, 1985), p.143. Back
  48. Cited in Kenneth W. Thompson, “The Johnson Presidency, and Foreign Policy”, in Bernard J. Firestone and Robert C. Vogt, eds., Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Uses of Power (New York: Greenwood, 1988), p.291. See also David DiLeo, George Ball, Vietnam, and the Rethinking of Containment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). Back
  49. T. J. McCormick, ‘“Every System needs a Center Sometime”’, in Lloyd Gardner, ed., Redefining the Past: Essays in Diplomatic History in Honor of William Appleman Williams (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1986), p.215. Back
  50. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Tool. I Vietnam (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1988), p.602. Back
  51. Cited in Yuen Foong Khong, “Credibility and the Trauma of Vietnam”, in L. Carl Brown, ed., Centerstage: American Diplomacy since World War II (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990), p.243. Back
  52. H.M. Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982), p.88. Back
  53. See, e.g., Truong Tang, “The Myth of a Liberation”, New York Review of Books, 21 Oct. 1982, pp.31-36; William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), pp.40-44; Carlyle A. Thayer, War By Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Viet-Nam 1954-60 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1989), pp.190-196. Back
  54. Lomperis, The War Everyone Lost—and Won, p.75. Back
  55. Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p.524. Back
  56. P.L. Hatcher, The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists and Vietnam (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), (e.g., p.296). Back
  57. David Donovan, Once a Warrior King (London: Corgi, 1990), p.188. Back
  58. Loren Baritz, Backfire (New York: Morrow, 1985), p.54. Back
  59. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Vol. Il Vietnam (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1990), p.301. Back
  60. David M. Barren, “The Mythology Surrounding Lyndon Johnson, his Advisers and the 1965 Decision to Escalate the Vietnam War”, Political Science Quarterly, 103 (1988), pp.637-663, 646. Back
  61. L.H. Gelb and R.K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington DC: Brookings, 1979). Back
  62. Cited in Michael E. Petersen, The Combined Action Platoons: The US Marines’ Other War in Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1989), pp.93-4. Back
  63. See Thomas C. Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam (Boulder: Westview, 1985); Robert W. Komer Bureaucracy at War.’ US Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder: Westview, 1986); and David H. Hackworth, About Face (London: Pan, 1991), p.614. Back
  64. See Krepinevich, The Army in Vietnam, pp.252-257; but see also Jeffrey J. Clarke, Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965-1973 (Washington DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1988), pp.303-308; also, Douglas Kinnard, “The ‘Strategy’ of the War In South Vietnam”, in J.F. Veninga and H.A. Wilmer, eds., Vietnam in Remission (Salado: Texas A. and M. University Press, 1985), p.23. Back
  65. See Berman, Lyndon Yohnson’s War, pp.20, 163-4; Chester Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970), p.427; James J. Wirtz, “Intelligence to Please?”, Political Science Quarterly, 106 (1991), pp.239-63; Cable, Unholy Grail, Ch.7. Back
  66. See, e.g., Hung P. Nguyen, “Communist Offensive Strategy and the Defense of South Vietnam”, in Lloyd D. Matthews and D.E. Brown, eds., Assessing the Vietnam War (Washington DC: Pergamon-Brasseys, 1987), pp.101-121; AJ. Joes, The War for South Vietnam, 1954-1975 (New York: Praeger, 1989), p.113. For a strategy based on massive US deployment South of the demilitarised zone and interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh trail, see Palmer, The 25 Year War, pp.182-88 and Richard M. Nixon, No More Vietnams (London: W.H. Allen, 1986), pp.80-82. Back
  67. See Hatcher, Suicide of an Elite; William Colby, Lost Victory (New York: Contemporary Books, 1989). Back
  68. Harry G. Summers, On Strategy (San Rafael: Presidio, 1982). See also N.C. Eggleston, “On Lessons”, in L.E. Grinter and P.M. Dunn, eds., The American War in Vietnam (New York: Greenwood, 1987), pp. 111-123. Back
  69. Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, p.214. Back
  70. See James W. Gibson The Perfect War. Technowar in Vietnam (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986). Back
  71. See R.A. Pape, “Coercive Air Power in tile Vietnam War”, International Security, 15 (1990), pp.103-46; Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power. The American Bombing of Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989); Lewy, America in Vietnam, pp.412-14; and E.H. Tilford, “Air Power in Vietnam”, in Grinter and Dunn, eds., The American War in Vietnam, pp.69-83. Back
  72. See J. Dumbrell, “Congress and the Antiwar Movement”, in John Dumbrell, ed., Vietnam and the Antiwar Movement (Aldershot: Avebury, 1989), p.108; DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal, p.298; Lewy, America in Vietnam, p.434; Harris, The Anguish of Change, pp. 71, 75; VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, p.163; John E. Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973). Back
  73. DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal, p.322; Harris, The Anguish of Change, p.69. Back
  74. Kathleen J. Turner, Lyndon Johnson’s Dual War. Vietnam and the Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p.6. Back
  75. DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal, p.390 (also p.177). Back
  76. T. Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p.285. Back
  77. See Melvin Small, Johnson, Nixon and the Doves (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988). Back
  78. Statistics from: Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp.193-95; Lewy, America in Vietnam, pp.445-50; Gibson, The Perfect War, p.225; W. LaFeber, The American Age (London: Norton, 1989), p.608; Robert W. Stevens, Vain Hoes, Grim Realities: The Economic Consequences of the Vietnam War (New York: New Viewpoints, 1976), p.187; Myra McPherson, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984), p.230; Justin Wintle, The Vietnam Wars (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991), p.187. See also Richard A. Melanson, Reconstructing Consensus (New York: St. Martins, 1991). Back

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John White, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement in America

BAAS Pamphlet No. 21 (First Published 1991)

ISBN: 0 946488 11 8
  1. Chronology
  2. The Civil Rights Impulse, 1932-1954
  3. Martin Luther King And Civil Rights In The South 1955-1965
    i. King and “Non-Violence”ii. Sit-Ins and Freedom Ridesiii. Albany and Birminghamiv. St. Augustine and Selma
  4. Beyond Civil Rights, 1966-1968
    i. Civil Rights and Civil Disordersii. Chicago and Black Poweriii. Vietnam and Poor People
  5. The Man And The Movement
  6. Guide to Further Reading
  7. Notes
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1. Chronology

Martin Luther King, Jr., born in Atlanta, Georgia, 15 January.

Inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Implementation of the New Deal.

A. Philip Randolph calls for a March on Washington.
Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the defence industries. Japanese attack U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbour. U.S. Congress declares war on Japan. Germany and Italy declare war on U.S. Congress adopts war resolutions.

James Farmer, secretary of the Quaker/Pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation initiates the formation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Creation by Harry Truman of the Presidential Committee on Civil Rights.

Truman addresses NAACP rally in Washington, D.C.

Martin Luther King ordained as a Baptist minister.
King graduates with a BA in sociology from Morehouse College.
Truman issues Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
Formation of the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party, pledged to uphold racial segregation, with Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its presidential candidate.

Blacks boycott buses in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
King marries Coretta Scott in Marion, Alabama.
Supreme Court in Terry v. Adams, rules that segregated primary elections violate the fourteenth amendment.

Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Organization of white “Citizens Council” in Mississippi to oppose desegregation.
King takes up pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery.

Supreme Court orders “prompt and reasonable start” toward school desegregation.
King receives Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University.
Mrs Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, is arrested on 1 December in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refuses to relinquish her seat to a white passenger.
Montgomery boycott begins. King elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

Bombing of King’s home in Montgomery.
King arrested on speeding charge.
MIA files suit against city’s bus segregation laws. Boycott leaders indicted by grand jury. 100 senators and congressmen issue the “Southern Manifesto” pledging to use “all lawful means” to overturn the Brown decision.
King convicted of leading an illegal boycott.
Federal district court rules in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s bus segregation laws are unconstitutional; decision upheld by Supreme Court in November.
End of Montgomery boycott, 20 December.

Founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King as president.
Eisenhower uses paratroops during Little Rock school desegregation crisis.
1957 Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing blacks the right to vote.

King arrested in Montgomery.
Publication of King’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom.
King survives a stabbing in New York City.

King visits India.

Beginning of the “sit-in” movement, Greensboro, N.C.
Founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina, addressed by King.
Civil Rights Act of 1960 provides for court enforcement of voting rights.
King arrested and jailed after a sit-in at an Atlanta store; freed after intervention by the Kennedy brothers.
Election of John F. Kennedy.

CORE-sponsored “Freedom Rides” met with white violence in the South.
Arrest of King in Albany, Georgia.

Federal troops sent to University of Mississippi after riots over admission of James Meredith.
FBI begins “Communist infiltration” surveillance of SCLC.

SCLC demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.
King writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
The march on Washington and King’s “I have a Dream” oration.
Voter registration drives in the South.
Assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.
Bomb kills four black girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama.

Three civil rights workers-James Chaney (black), Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (white)-abducted and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
SCLC campaign in St. Augustine, Florida.
Passage of 1964 Civil Rights Act.
King receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.
J. Edgar Hoover publicly condemns King.
Riots in Harlem, Jersey City and Philadelphia.

Assassination of Malcolm X.
SCLC voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama.
“Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus bridge, 7 March.
Lyndon Johnson addresses the nation and declares “We Shall Overcome”.
Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Passage of 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Racial riot in Watts, Los Angeles.

SNCC condemns U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
SCLC and King in Chicago.
Shooting of James Meredith on his “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.
Emergence of the “Black Power” slogan during SCLC, SNCC and CORE continuation of the Meredith march.
Major “civil disorders” in Cleveland and Chicago.

King opposes the Vietnam war and joins the peace demonstrations.
Further “civil disorders” in Newark and Detroit.
King’s announcement of the projected “Poor People’s Campaign”.

Lyndon Johnson declares that he will not seek re-election.
King leads sanitation workers march in Memphis, Tennessee. King returns to Memphis and is assassinated by James Earl Ray on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, 4 April.
Ralph D. Abernathy succeeds him as SCLC president.
Riots across America, resulting in thirty-nine deaths and 14,000 arrests.
Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in housing. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders reports “white racism” as the cause of urban riots.
“Resurrection City” erected and dismantled in Washington, D.C. End of Poor People’s Campaign.

Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously to Dr. King.

Martin Luther King’s birthday observed as an American national holiday.

2. The Civil Rights Impulse, 1932-1954

The civil rights movement—the concerted effort to gain greater social, political and economic equality for black Americans—was one of the greatest reform impulses of the twentieth century.[1] Among its seminal victories were the Supreme Court decision of 1954, which declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56, subsequent demonstrations throughout the South against persisting racial discrimination, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The civil rights coalition included the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Operating at the local and national levels, these organizations (and their affiliates) employed various strategies-litigation and lobbying, the registration and mobilization of black voters, and various forms of direct action-aimed at effecting social change. During the 1960s, as civil rights strategy shifted from the legalism and pressure group tactics of the NAACP and the NUL to the direct action campaign of CORE, SCLC and SNCC, serious rivalries developed among what were, in effect, competing elements of an uneasy alliance of disparate groups, united only in their concern for racial advancement. The movement had its greatest impact in the South, where under the inspirational and unifying leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., African-Americans (and their white allies) employed the tactics of “non-violent” confrontation against the enforcers of racial segregation and white supremacy. Initially concerned to achieve civil (and constitutionally sanctioned) rights for Negroes that were regarded as legitimate by many white Americans, some elements of the movement came to demand less readily attainable (and more resolutely resisted) measures involving housing, welfare and employment policies. Black militants also began to formulate incisive-and un­popular-critiques of American capitalism and militarism.

The career of Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplifies this shift from reformism to radicalism in the dynamic of a crusade which directly and indirectly inspired other notable protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s: the campaigns for Indian, Chicano, Gay and Womens’ rights; the anti-poverty and anti-war movements. The civil rights movement, often dated from the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56, was, in fact, a consequence of the New Deal administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and events during and immediately after World War II.

New Deal legislation and the proliferation of relief and welfare agencies—improvised but innovative federal responses to the crisis of the Great Depression—brought tangible benefits to blacks in the North and the South, secured their future loyalties to the Democratic party, and prompted them to demand such additional measures as improved recreational and educational facilities, federal legislation to outlaw lynching, the elimination of discrimination in the civil service and armed forces, and the unrestricted use of the suffrage. On the eve of American involvement in World War II, black protest organizations united in demanding full and equal participation in the military, and an end to discriminatory practices in the defence industries. Early in 1941, the black socialist leader and labour organizer, A. Philip Randolph, called for an all-black march to Washington, D.C., to exert mass pressure on the administration for an end to all forms of racial discrimination. Roosevelt, faced by this prospect, issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, which only stipulated that there should be no discrimination in the defence industries “because of race, creed, or national origin”. But the March on Washington Movement, an index of black militancy during the war years, anticipated later forms of black protest, as did the Detroit race riot of 1943, a portent of the urban “civil disorders” of the 1960s. Again, CORE, an interracial pacifist organization, founded in 1942, pioneered later forms of non-violent direct action when in 1943 it staged a “sit-in” at a Chicago restaurant which had refused to serve blacks. In 1947, CORE sponsored a “Journey of Reconciliation”—a forerunner of the 1961 Freedom Rides-through the Upper South, to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s 1946 ruling in Morgan v. Virginia, prohibiting segregated interstate bus transportation.

Within the South itself there were also signs of black assertiveness during the war years. A report by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics observed that in one Mississippi county, there was “a feeling of discontent and a growing consciousness of exclusion from social, economic, and political participation.” Black preachers were taking the lead and their churches had “become the means here and there for encouraging Negroes to resist the controls which the land lord has held over them. Ideas about ‘rights’ are being introduced in a few instances to Negro sharecroppers through Negro preachers and their educated white and Negro friends.”[2] Demographic shifts of the New Deal and World War II years underwrote and intensified African-American demands for change. The migration of blacks out of the rural South to the urbanized-industrialized Northern states increased their economic opportunities, and strengthened the more progressive wing of the Democratic party in sympathy with Negro aspirations. During the war, the black press in America adopted the “Double V” slogan-calling for victory abroad over the Axis powers, and victory at home over racial discrimination.[3] Most importantly, after 1945, demobilized black veterans (over 1 million served in the segregated armed forces between 1941 and 1945), were not prepared to return to the racial status quo, and took full advantage of the educational and welfare provisions of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944-the “G.I. Bill of Rights”. But in the South, schools and most educational facilities were rigidly segregated. As Constance Baker Motley, an attorney for the NAACP Defence and Educational Fund, recalled:

The issue of segregation loomed large during the war and the war effort. Here we were as a nation involved in a war to make the world safe for democracy, and one of the embarrassing features was that blacks were segregated in our armed forces, and they resented it . . . After World War II, as a result of the activity of black servicemen, really, the whole attitude in the country about the race relations problem changed. The NAACP’s strategy for attacking segregation through the Legal Defense Fund was revitalized and extended after World War II. . . Eventually it led to the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case in 1954.[4]

World War II created a climate in which blacks (and some whites) perceived possibilities for decisive changes in the pattern of American race relations that had remained virtually frozen since the late nineteenth century. From the 1890s until the 1940s, southern blacks were, for all practical purposes, power less and frighteningly vulnerable to white aggression. Excluded from decision-making positions in all institutions and agencies which served the white community, they were segregated in all public facilities, deprived of the franchise by intimidation and fraud, and became the victims of lynch mobs. (Between 1882 and 1953, at least 3,275 blacks were lynched in the South). Whatever influence black spokesmen and women exercised was channeled through white intermediaries, who offered only minimal concessions to requests for better facilities and services. After 1945, black aspirations—which had risen higher and faster than actual black advances—began to embrace goals which ran directly counter to accepted southern white mores and customs.

Increasingly, southern blacks (and their northern allies) protested against segregation and the grosser forms of racial etiquette which relegated all blacks (regardless of age, sex or occupation) to a permanently subordinate position within a rigidly defined caste system. Returning veterans supported voting campaigns in the South, and between 1940 and 1947 the number of blacks registered to vote increased from 2% to 12% (although black voting was primarily an urban phenomenon). Outside the South, the black vote had become an important factor in national elections, and in 1940, the Democratic party platform contained a plank which addressed the issues of due process and equal protection under the law for Negroes. Postwar executive leadership was provided by Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman who, out of expediency rather than personal conviction, supported measures to abolish the poll tax, the passage of anti-lynching legislation and the creation of a Committee on Civil Rights. In its report, the Committee dennounced all forms of segregation and discrimination, and proposed laws to protect the rights of qualified voters and the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission. Truman—the first president to address the NAACP—endorsed these proposals but in the 1948 Presidential Election tried to appease southern white Democrats on racial issues. He also campaigned in Harlem, and won his (surprise) election with decisive black support in California, Illinois and Ohio.[5]

Truman’s commitment to civil rights was actually very thin. Despite his issuance of two executive orders in 1948—calling for an end to segregation in the military, and creating a fair employment board to eliminate segregation in the civil service-little was achieved in the short term. Despite southern influence in Congress (due to the seniority system, southern congressmen were regularly returned by their white constituents and chaired the most important committees), more could have been done under Truman to bring about the rapid desegregation of the armed forces and, through the use of justice Department attorneys, to prosecute violators of black civil rights in the South.

But, during the same period, the United States Supreme Court was beginning to take steps on behalf of blacks. In 1938, the Court had made an intitial move against the doctrine of “separate but equal” (enshrined in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision), when it ruled that, in failing to provide a law school for blacks, the state of Missouri was in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution; in a 1950 decision, the Court ordered the state of Texas to admit blacks to the university law school. NAACP attorneys, together with sympathetic (black and white) historians and sociologists, pushed the Court increasingly on the “separate but equal” principle. In 1954, Earl Warren, appointed as Supreme Court justice by President Eisenhower, handed down the historic Brown decision which held that separate educational facilities for white and blacks were “inherently unequal” and, in the following year, ordered school desegregation to proceed with “all deliberate speed”. These rulings provoked determined and well­organized opposition in the South, where Virginia took the lead in devising a programme of “massive resistance” to school desegregation. Southern conservatives opposed to racial change correctly saw the significance of Brown, a decision more sweeping in its implications than earlier Court rulings on desegregation in higher education. As the southern white historian C. Vann Woodward—who assisted the NAACP attorneys in the case—comments, Brown “appeared to remove the constitutional underpinnings of the whole segregation system and strike at the foundations of Jim Crow law. It was the most momentous and far-reaching decision of the century in civil rights.”[6]

Unfortunately, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was himself largely indifferent if not actively hostile to civil rights for blacks. In 1956, he campaigned in the South in an attempt to win segregationist votes in his (successful) bid for re-election. Ironically, given his lack of enthusiasm for the Brown decision, Eisenhower was compelled to use executive power to implement the ruling when, in September 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas carried defiance of the Court to the point of using state militia to halt token integration at Little Rock High School. Faubus withdrew the troops on court order, but when hysterical white mobs forced the removal of nine black children, Eisenhower ordered in federal troops to enforce the law. Yet, despite the use of force, Little Rock high schools were closed in 1958-59, and blacks were never actually admitted until August 1959. During the last three years of Eisenhower’s administration, the number of southern school districts desegregating even in token ways fell sharply, as state governors employed a variety of means-providing state funds to enable any white student “threatened” with integration to attend a private school, allowing any school district to close its doors if integration occurred against community wishes—to circumvent and effectively nullify the Brown rulings.[7]

In contrast, blacks welcomed Brown and were encouraged to press not only for its full implementation but for other civil rights demands. Bayard Rustin, the first field secretary of CORE, and later adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that:

when the Supreme Court came out with the Brown decision in ’54, things began rapidly to move . . . What made ’54 so unusual was that the Supreme Court . . . decision established black people as being citizens with the rights of all other citizens. Once that happened, then it was very easy for the militancy, which had been building up, to express itself in the Montgomery bus boycott of ’55-’56 [8]

During the early 1950s, public opinion polls revealed that blacks were generally optimistic that their condition would improve markedly within a short time. From 1947 to 1954, according to a United States Census study, the median income of black families more than doubled, while increasing numbers of blacks attended college. Yet those gains were largely confined to the black middle class, who were also the main supporters of such established and “traditional” civil rights organizations as the NUL and the NAACP (Some critics remarked that the second acronym stood for the “National Association for the Advancement of Certain people”). Within the South, however, there were signs that a more militant black leadership was emerging that was also beginning to attract mass support.

Sociologists, historians and political scientists have offered differing interpretations of the underlying impulse behind the civil rights movement which accelerated (and became increasingly visible) after 1954. Richard King, for example, accepts the conventional explanations for the emergence of the civil rights movement after Brown: continuing out-migration of southern blacks, increasing prosperity and growing urbanization within the South itself, the greater involvement of black churches and colleges in civil rights issues, the militancy of a younger generation of student activists, the continuing pressures of the NAACP and CORE. However, he has argued persuasively that “what was unique about the civil rights movement was not just that it sought to destroy segregation and disfranchisement in the South. Rather, the uniqueness of the movement lay in its attempt to establish a new sense of individual and collective self among Southern black people through political mobilization and participation.” Psychological “freedom”—from fear, oppression and release from the “invisibility” forced on African­Americans by their separate but decidedly unequal status in the eyes of most whites—was “the animating impulse behind and within the actions of the movement.”[9] Other commentators have suggested that because of its ability to mobilize external resources—those of philanthropic foundations, organized labour, existing black organizations (particularly churches and colleges), political elites, the courts and, utimately the federal government—a civil rights coalition, employing a variety of strategies, emerged during the mid-1950s. Another view, premised on classical theories of collective behaviour, asserts that the civil rights movement was the consequence of strains and tensions within the existing socio-political system, which produced relatively spontaneous and disorganized action in response to particular situations.[10]

None of these explanations are mutually exclusive, and need to be applied to particular situations. Other scholars have demonstrated that at the local level, black movements developed and operated independently of the national civil rights organizations, producing their own self-reliant, indigenous leaders who pursued goals and formulated strategies often at variance with those of the nationally—known black leadership.[11] Again, the inception of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, which brought Martin Luther King to international attention, has frequently been credited entirely to his initiative. In fact, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, the assertive and active head of the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery, together with E. D. Nixon, president of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, were the prime movers in calling for a one-day boycott of the city’s bus lines following the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks (herself a civil rights activist) on 1 December, 1955, when she refused the driver’s order to vacate her seat to a white man. A group of local ministers then formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to direct and coordinate what became a 382-day boycott of the City Lines bus company, owned by the Chicago-based National City Lines. Robinson and Nixon shrewdly recognized that Montgomery’s blacks could be more effectively organized for mass protest through the indigenous black church-which bridged social classes and political factions, and provided meeting places and fund-raising facilities-than through a purely secular movement. But, in effect, Montgomery’s black clergy were presented with a fait accompli—a mimeographed leaflet calling for a boycott of the bus company had been distributed among the black community—and as Mrs. Robinson later reflected after her circular was made public:

It was then that the ministers decided it was time for them, the leaders, to catch up with the masses . . . Had they not done so, they might have alienated themselves from their cong­regations.[12]

After some discussion, Martin Luther King, Jr., a twenty-six-year-old minister of the black middle-class Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, who had arrived in Montgomery only a year before, was unanimously elected to preside over the MIA. A month before this momentous nomination, King (who was anxious to complete his doctoral dissertation at Boston University) had refused the presidency of the city chapter of the NAACP, had not engaged in any civil rights activity, and had not even met Mrs. Parks. Yet on several counts, as E. D. Nixon recognized, the young minister was an ideal choice: as a relative newcomer, he was not involved in the factionalism of local black politics, and had therefore not been compromised by any dealings with the white community. Again, he was seen to possess personal and educational qualities essential in a leader who would have to conduct negotiations with the white establishment. In other respects, however, King was an unknown quantity, and was certainly surprised to be chosen as the MIA’s chief officer. As he later wrote, the election “caught me unawares. It happened so quickly I did not even have time to think it through. It is probable that if I had, I would have declined the nomination”.[13]

King’s inspirational direction of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the events which followed from it, made him the most famous-and increasingly controversial-black leader of the civil rights movement in America.

3. Martin Luther King and Civil Rights in the South, 1955-1965

King and “Non-Violence”
Throughout the Montgomery bus boycott, King, as leader of the MIA—whose initial requests, reflecting those of the boycott two years earlier by blacks in Baton Rouge, were for the improvement rather than the abolition of segregated seating arrangements on the city’s buses—stressed that the protest, whatever the provocations, must be peaceful. Many commentators have observed that King fashioned his concept of non-violent resistence to unjust laws from his undergraduate reading of Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay Civil Disobedience and his later awareness of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s campaigns against British rule in India. These ideas and examples, it is suggested, were grafted on to King’s fundamental belief-partly based on the writings of the Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch and the teachings of Benjamin E. Mays at Morehouse College in Atlanta-that the church should concern itself with social conditions, as well as with the salvation of souls. Other authorities argue that King’s philosophy of non-violent resistance derived essentially from his African-American Baptist heritage and belief that, through collective and redemptive suffering, blacks would demonstrate the morality of their cause and convert their oppressors.[14] Although non-violence was to prove effective as a strategy in limiting white violence against civil rights demonstrators, King’s insistence on the need to love one’s oppressor was misunderstood—or rejected—by many blacks. In the event, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated by the Supreme Court’s affirmation of a decision by the United States District Court that Alabama’s local and state laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional. King viewed the decision as a victory for the strategy of non-violent protest, and in 1957, along with other black clergymen and with the advice of Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison (a white New York attorney), formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to spread and coordinate nonviolent civil rights protest across the South.[15] Rooted firmly in the black church, the SCLC was the institutional embodiment of King’s belief in non-violent protest, while the organization itself deliberately capitalized on his growing fame and prestige.

Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides
The SCLC’s original aim of spreading the Mongomery example by supporting similar boycotts in other cities met with little success, while in Montgomery itself, the MIA was largely ineffective in challenging other forms of discrimination. It was the “sit-in” movement, pioneered at Greensboro, North Carolina in Februrary 1960, when four black students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and demanded service, that inaugurated a new (and more aggressive) phase of civil rights struggle. The Greensboro strategy quickly spread, and there were “wade-ins” at municipal swimming pools and segregated beaches, “pray-ins” at segregated churches and “stand-ins” at theatres which refused admission to blacks. Many of the young activists had been inspired by the example of Montgomery’s blacks in sustaining their 382-day boycott, and had read King’s account of the protest, Stride Toward Freedom. The SCLC itself was unprepared for the sit-in protests, but their attendant publicity convinced King that other forms of direct action could be used to defeat segregation in the South. The founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed by leaders of the student protest after consultation with King and SCLC leaders in April 1960, added another element to the movement and, for a time, appeared to indicate that his pacifist approach was endorsed by the younger generation of activists. The SCLC was again taken by surprise when in 1961 CORE sponsored and directed a series of “Freedom Rides” into the South—to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which extended its earlier ruling against segregation on interstate transportation to cover terminal accommodations and facilities. The Freedom Riders met with white violence in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and, in the last instance, prompted a reluctant Kennedy administration to mobilize 600 U.S. marshals to protect the demonstrators. James Colaiaco observes that:

The Freedom Rides supplied an important strategic lesson for King and the SCLC: in order to arouse public sympathy sufficient to pressure the federal govenment to enforce civil rights in the states and localities, white racists had to be provoked to use violence against non-violent protestors.[16]

The Freedom Rides also exacerbated growing tensions between SCLC and SNCC concerning the viability and efficacy of non-violent resistance in the face of white aggression.

Albany and Birmingham
During 1961-62, SCLC (already engaged in an ineffective voter registration drive under the leadership of its temporary executive director, Ella Baker), was invited to Albany, Georgia by Dr. William G. Anderson, the leader of the “Albany Movement”, to assist a local protest campaign aimed at ending segregation in all the city’s public facilities and securing fair employment opportunities for blacks. SNCC field workers, already active in Albany, did not welcome the SCLC presence and were openly critical of King’s “charismatic” leadership style. Uninformed about the situation in Albany, King and the SCLC were shrewdly outmanoeuvered by police chief Laurie Prichett, who exercised restraint against the protectors and, on several occasions, arranged for King’s release from jail, thus depriving the protest of vital publicity, and precluding any prospect of federal intervention. David Lewis notes that: “In Laurie Pritchett, King met a travestied image of himself-a nonviolent segregationist law officer.” As Andrew Young, who had recently joined the SCLC staff, later conceded:

The weakness of the Albany Movement was that it was totally unplanned and [SCLC] were totally unprepared. It was a miscalculation on the part of a number of people that a spontaneous appearance by Martin Luther King could bring change . . . It was the planning, the organizing, the strategy that he brought with him that brought change.[17]

The lessons of Albany were well-learned, and carefully implemented during the SCLC’s 1962-63 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the most rigidly segregated city in the South (and its largest industrial centre). When the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, invited King to the city, the SCLC leadership, now under the able direction of Wyatt T. Walker, planned to create a crisis that would compel the city fathers to negotiate four basic demands: desegregation of lunch counters and store facilities, amnesty for protestors already jailed, the hiring of blacks in local government and businesses, and the formation of a biracial committee to devise a timetable for the complete desegregation of remaining segregated facilities. Boycotts and sit-ins of downtown stores were to be combined with disruptive marches, and Walker collected the names and addresses of over 300  Birmingham residents prepared to go to jail. A. G. Gaston, a local black entrepreneur, provided the campaign with rent-free accommodation at his hotel, nightly mass meetings were held in the city’s black churches, and outside support was organized by the actor Harry Belafonte. What the Birmingham campaign needed, however, was publicity and media attention. Eugene “Bull” Connor, the commissioner of police-who had earlier closed the city’s parks to blacks in order to prevent their integration-obliged with arrests of hundreds of demonstrators (including King) and vicious attacks with police dogs and fire hoses on the black schoolchildren recruited by SCLC’s James Bevel. American public opinion was outraged by the events in Birmingham depicted on television and, with the arrival of Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, a compromise settlement (opposed by Shuttlesworth but endorsed by King) was reached. The agreement fell short of the original SCLC demands; but there is strong evidence to suggest that Birmingham businessmen, fearful of the disruptive effects of continuing demonstrations, persuaded city leaders to agree to the gradual desegregation of facilities in shops and stores. Again, the SCLC’s campaign persuaded the Kennedy administration of the need for civil rights legislation. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, ultimately secured passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, provisions of which gave the executive powers to withdraw federal funds from state and local governments practicing discrimination.

It was during the Birmingham demonstrations that King, in his famous “Letter from Birmingham jail”, castigated eight of the city’s white clergymen who had published a statement attacking the SCLC’s campaign as unnecessary and ill-timed. A classic explication of civil rights and nonviolence, King’s “Letter” reiterated his belief in resistance to unjust laws, denied that non-violence was synonymous with extremism, and warned that black disaffection had already produced such separatist groups as the Black Muslims [the Nation of Islam], composed “of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable ‘devil”‘. In contrast, King presented himself as a responsible moderate, standing between “these two forces saying that we need not follow the ‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.”[18] The Birmingham campaign increased King’s stature as perceived by whites and blacks. A Newsweek opinion poll revealed that 95% of blacks now regarded King as their most successful spokesman. King’s presence and his oratorical skills were both dramatically demonstrated during the March on Washington of August 1963, the climax (to its critics, the nadir) of the civil rights movement, when a quarter of a million people converged on the capital to pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill. (Originally conceived by A. Philip Randolph as a two-day mass protest to dramatize black unemployment, the projected “March” became a one day rally which passed off without incident). On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his “I have a Dream” oration—one of the great speeches of the twentieth century. Although he had made use of the “dream” imagery in a speech in Detroit two months earlier, the cadences of King’s delivery, and the repetition of its central image-rather like that of a skilled jazz improviser—visibly moved his audience. William H. Johnson, a World War II veteran and New York City policeman, who acted as a security guard during the March, remembered:

I was enthralled by Dr. King’s speech . . . It made me reflect upon my army service. It made me angry about what I had suffered overseas at the hands of my white compatriots . . . But Dr. King brought to life the hope that . . . one day we could smooth out our differences.[19]

Others disagreed: Julius Lester, a field secretary of SNCC, later scathingly observed that the March on Washington and King’s keynote address were:

a great inspiration to those who think something is being accomplished by having black bodies next to white ones. The March was nothing but a giant therapy session that allowed Dr. King to orate about his dreams of a nigger eating at the same table with some Georgia cracker, while most black folks just dreamed about eating.[20]

In 1964 King appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and in the accompanying article was credited with “an indescribable empathy that is the touchstone of leadership”—an opinion which the Luce publication, in the light of King’s later critique of American involvement in Vietnam, would severely modify. In the same year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Significantly, in his Nobel acceptance speech King linked the American civil rights movement with the larger causes of world peace and human rights. Ironically, he was already under investigation by the FBI following J. Edgar Hoover’s directive to keep the SCLC under close surveillance because of its alleged infiltration by Communists (and because of King’s extra-marital activities). Attorney General Robert Kennedy, convinced that Stanley Levison, King’s associate and advisor, was an active member of the American Communist party, authorized FBI wiretraps on King.

St. Augustine and Selma
King’s “dream” of racial harmony received a rude awakening with the defeat of the proposed civil rights bill by a southern filibuster, and by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham on 15 September, 1963 which killed four young black girls. But following the assassination in Dallas of President Kennedy on 22 November, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, asked Congress in January 1964 to pass the stalled civil rights bill as a memorial to the late President. The civil rights coalition resolved to put added pressure on Congress to adopt the measure by further demonstrations in the South. The SCLC selected St. Augustine, Florida—the oldest community in America—and already in the news because of its approaching 400th anniversary celebrations, as its target. As in Birmingham, SCLC’s strategy was to apply economic pressure that would force the business community and local authorities to desegregate the city’s public accommodations and institute fair employment policies—including the hirings of blacks by the police and fire departments. But the collusion of local law enforcement officers (some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan) with white mobs who attacked King and the Reverend Andrew Young as they led the protests, and the refusal of the Florida state governor to obey a federal court injunction protecting the right of peaceful protest in St. Augustine, effectively weakened the SCLC campaign. Again, despite his announced sympathies for civil rights goals, Lyndon Johnson feared that federal intervention in St. Augustine would hurt the Democratic party in the forthcoming national election at a time when the ultra conservative Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, was gaining the support of Democrats in the Deep South.

Although the SCLC’s St. Augustine campaign did not achieve its immediate goals, it kept black protest at the forefront of national (and international) attention—Izvestia, the Soviet newspaper, featured a photograph of the violence in St. Augustine-and further dramatized the need for passage of civil rights legislation. King himself witnessed the signing of the historic Civil Rights Act by President Johnson in the White House on 2 July, 1964. Covering all areas of life and concerned with de facto as well as de lure segregation, the 1964 act—the public accommodations sections of which were confirmed as constitutional by a Supreme Court decision of 14 December—was regarded by the SCLC as a victory for direct action protest. It quickly became evident, however, that such devices as the poll tax, literacy tests and actual intimidation were making it difficult (and dangerous) for blacks attempting to register to vote in the South. Early in 1963, the various elements in the civil rights coalition joined with the National Council of Churches to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to help blacks register in Mississippi. The murders of three SNCC student workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, served notice that many southern whites remained implacably opposed to political equality for African-Americans. It also increased tensions between SCLC and the more radical elements—SNCC and CORE—involved in voter registration campaigns, tensions that were to become increasingly evident during SCLC’s campaign in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

Already ridiculed by SNCC activists for what was regarded as his excessive religiosity, his insistence on non-violent protest and tendency to compromise, King was also regarded as remote from the local, grassroots protests that were escalating across the South. Again, the SCLC was alleged to promote confrontations between civil rights protestors and southern authorities, gain valuable publicity in the media, and then leave the scene with local demands unresolved.

In Selma, King and the SCLC hoped to provoke local law enforcement officials—notably the brutal and avowedly racist sheriff Jim Clark—into attacking and arresting demonstrators. After armed posseemen and Alabama State troopers charged marchers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday”, King issued an appeal for help, and hundreds of clergymen and lay persons from all over the country joined the protest. When King complied with a federal court injunction against a proposed march from Selma to Montgomery, SNCC field workers were appalled. When the injunction was lifted, and after President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, King led the historic march to Montgomery, where on 25 March he spoke to 25,000 people from the steps of the state capitol. The violent events in the Selma campaign-including the fatal beating by whites of a Unitarian minister, James Reeb, a participant in the march, and the murder by four Klansmen of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife and mother who had driven some marchers back to Selma, caused national outrage, and prompted President Johnson to convene a joint session of Congress and announce his intention of sending it a voting rights bill. His televised assertion that “it is not just Negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome!” thus appeared to vindicate and endorse the strategy and objectives of militant non-violent direct action in Selma. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated literacy and other “tests”, southern blacks—95 years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution-were finally guaranteed the fundamental right to register and vote. The Selma campaign, in retrospect, was King’s finest hour, and as one of his biographers observes:

The march from Selma had brought the Negro protest movement full circle, since it had all begun with the Montgomery bus boycott a decade before.[21]

The legality, morality and justice of the movement’s struggle for civil rights and liberties, personified by the example of King’s leadership, appeared to many Americans as incontrovertible. Moreover, the unremitting hostility of southern whites to even minimal changes in race relations had brought the powerful support of the Lyndon Johnson administration to the cause of civil rights for African-Americans. But with their appeals for constitutional rights largely secured, blacks came to demand more fundamental changes which challenged both American domestic and foreign policies, and threatened the continued existence of the civil rights coalition itself. By 1965, some members of the SCLC appeared uncertain of what direction they should now take. James Bevel sums up this feeling with his observation that: “There is no more civil rights movement. President Johnson signed it out of existence when he signed the voting-rights bill.”[22] Public opinion polls indicated that increasing numbers of whites believed that blacks ought to be satisfied with their recent gains. Aware of these trends, King commented that: “The paths of Negro­white unity that have been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge.”[23]

4. Beyond Civil Rights, 1966-1968

Civil Rights and Civil Disorders
By 1966, what Milton Viorst has called the “reformist phase” of the civil rights movement was over.[24] The formal practices of segregation had been ended by the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act appeared to guarantee that blacks could no longer be denied the ballot in the South. But King was to complain that the Voting Rights Act did not receive adequate federal support and enforcement, while the SNCC became committed to independent black political organizations like the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. During the Selma protest, following the murder of a black youth, Jimmie Lee Jackson, in Marion, Alabama, King made a cutting reference to the “timidity of the federal government that is willing to spend millions of dollars a day to defend freedom in Vietnam but cannot protect the rights of its citizens at home.”[25] SNCC and CORE were also to denounce American policy in Vietnam; the older members of the coalition—the NAACP and NUL—regarded the war as irrelevant to the movement and (correctly) argued that opposition to it would alienate President Johnson’s support for civil rights. At the same time, King was also expressing concern about the poverty, despair and anger of urban blacks, who cited federal indifference, exploitation by white merchants and police brutality as major grievances.

In August 1965, following an incident in which a policeman attacked a bystander on the edge of a crowd which had gathered to protest a traffic violation arrest, the black ghetto of Watts, a suburb of Los Angeles, erupted in a racial riot. Thirty-four people were killed, 900 injured, and damage to property was estimated at over $40 million.

(When King visited the scene of the rioting, he discovered that many of Watts’ residents had never heard of him and regarded his attempts at mediation with hostility). The following year, forty-three more urban riots occurred, with the most serious disturbances in Cleveland and Chicago. In 1967, there were eight major riots, the worst of which were in Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Otto Kerner, a former governor of Illinois, reported that the riots were not the result of organized conspiracy but of black unemployment, inadequate housing and educational facilities and oppressive police tactics. It recommended massive federal spending to improve the conditions and quality of life for ghetto residents, and asserted somberly:

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it. Our society is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate but unequal.[26]

For the three remaining years of his life,. King concerned himself with the issues of persis