Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
Joyce Carol Oates’s National Book Award–winning novel, them (1970),1 concludes with an apocalyptic account of the 1967 Detroit riot that indicts the Community Action Program’s participatory professionalism. The riot, Oates suggests, is a planned event, partially orchestrated by a group of New Left radicals who run an antipoverty agency called United Action Against Poverty. The organization’s spokesman, a sociologist named Mort Piercy, confides to an associate, “The riot is set for this weekend, we’re almost certain, Saturday night. Unless it rains or something” (421). He uses government funds to purchase guns and plans on “blowing up the bridge and the tunnel and the expressway intersection” (447). His goal, he explains in a television panel after the riot, is to clear the way for white and black radicals to build a new world: “Our society must be leveled before a new, beautiful, peaceful society can be erected. This means the end of the world as we have known it, we middle-class whites” (472). As the novel heavy-handedly underscores, Mort cannot really see the ghetto that he claims to represent. After the riot, his glasses are broken when he tries to interview a group of black youth (477).
Oates’s account has little basis in the actual etiology of the Detroit riot, which began when police raided an unlicensed drinking club during a party celebrating two black GIs returning from the Vietnam War.2 Instead, it echoes many of the War on Poverty’s late 1960s critics, who similarly linked Johnson’s domestic policies with inner-city violence. According to these critics, the riots were collaborations between two increasingly vilified social groups: white middle-class liberals and the urban underclass. Daniel Moynihan became the most articulate spokesman for this point of view. In Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, he offered a postmortem of the Community Action Program, based on his insider’s knowledge of the deliberations leading to its implementation in the Johnson administration.3 The book provided a liberal imprimatur for the Nixon administration’s partial dismantling of the War on Poverty, which Moynihan helped oversee in his role as one of Nixon’s domestic advisers. According to Moynihan, there was no grassroots pressure for a national antipoverty program in the early 1960s: “The American poor, black and white, were surpassingly inert.” The pressure to institute the program came from professional reformers: social scientists studying juvenile delinquency, who came up with the idea that the War on Poverty should encourage the poor to challenge local welfare institutions. Once up and running, the Community Action Agencies were staffed with radical intellectuals like Oates’s Mort Piercy: “young idealists suffused with what Norman Mailer terms the ‘middle-class lust for apocalypse.”4 These idealists aroused unreasonable expectations among the poor and stirred up hitherto dormant racial tensions, provoking the confrontations that exploded into riot.
For Moynihan, the solution to late 1960s urban unrest was to replace participatory professionalism with a much more limited model of social scientific intervention in the ghetto. Social science, he believed, should serve a strictly critical role, assessing the effectiveness of government programs and chastening reformers’ expectations.5 By the late 1960s, most liberal social scientists agreed, although for different reasons than the ones Moynihan articulated in his book. For these social scientists, the problem did not lie with poverty warriors’ middle-class radicalism. Rather, it lay with their class and racial disconnection from the ghetto. After the controversy that surrounded Moynihan’s use of the culture of poverty thesis in The Negro Family, liberal poverty theorists questioned “their own use of the cultural framework, believing that it had been hopelessly corrupted in what had degenerated into a debate over the ‘undeserving poor.’”6 This framework was so entrenched as to endanger any ethnographic representation of the poor, leading social scientists to abandon the richly detailed studies that proliferated in the United States during and immediately after the War on Poverty: books like Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto (1965), Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner (1967), and Lee Rainwater’s Behind Ghetto Walls (1970).7 Instead, poverty researchers turned to policy analysis: quantitative studies evaluating the successes and failures of government programs aimed at helping the poor.8 According to Herbert Gans, an early proponent of the culture of poverty thesis who renounced it after the Moynihan controversy, “if the prime purpose of research is the elimination of poverty, studies of the poor are not the first order of business at all.”9 Social science, Gans concluded, should retreat from direct engagement with the ghetto into the less contentious ground of political economy.
As I argue in this chapter, this crisis in participatory professionalism afflicted late 1960s literary representations of the ghetto, especially those that directly responded to the Community Action Program. I focus on two influential texts from this period: Oates’s them and Tom Wolfe’s New Journalistic Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970).10 Each book draws on a tradition of urban writing that resists the process imperative to break down barriers between author, audience, and urban subject matter. Oates’s working-class chronicle draws on the naturalist tradition—a tradition that insists on the novelist’s empirical detachment from her subject matter. Wolfe’s book, which brings together two essays about the War on Poverty, similarly insists on its journalistic objectivity: Wolfe’s capacity to remain clinically removed from the people and situations he observes. This formal insistence on the writer’s removal from the inner city reflects the shared concern that animates Moynihan and Gans’s respective critiques of social scientific activism during the War on Poverty. Oates and Wolfe distrust white liberals’ claims to identify with and speak for the ghetto. At the same time, both writers complicate their literary objectivity by incorporating aspects of the very participatory professionalism that they seek to delimit. At strategic moments in them, Oates includes metafictional interludes that draw attention to her own experiences teaching first-generation students at the University of Detroit. These interludes at once enable and disrupt the naturalist objectivity that she tries to establish throughout the novel. Wolfe’s New Journalism, meanwhile, is rooted in his own version of process art, stylistically and thematically influenced by Kerouac and other Beat writers from the 1950s.
As the novels’ diverging politics highlight, this twin exclusion/incorporation of participatory professionalism ranged across the political spectrum during the Nixon era. Oates’s book heralded her emergence as the foremost writer in a new generation of feminist realists concerned with inequality in post-1960s America. Wolfe’s book marked his transformation into America’s most prominent conservative satirist. Indeed, the two novels demarcate liberals’ and conservatives’ respective responses to white writing about the underclass from the 1970s onward. After the Moynihan report, liberal social scientists like Gans abandoned their epistemological certainty that they could speak for the ghetto, viewing their own knowledge of it as inevitably compromised. Echoing this uncertainty, Oates’s book undermines its representational conditions of possibility, ultimately calling into question any white writer’s capacity to describe Detroit’s underclass. Her novel articulates a version of literary identity politics, whereby no writer can be certain of her authority to write about any experience different from her own. In contrast, in the 1970s and 1980s, conservative writers gained confidence that they could displace liberals as authoritative experts on the inner city. While Wolfe distrusts liberal efforts to speak for the ghetto, he similarly attempts to ground his journalistic project in his process-based, intuitive knowledge of it.
Naturalism and the Detroit Riot
Two-thirds of the way through them, Oates interrupts her narrative with a pair of letters from one of her white working-class characters, a troubled young woman named Maureen Wendall. The novel’s metafictional conceit, established in its prefatory “Author’s Note,” is that Maureen was one of Oates’s students at the University of Detroit, where Oates taught between 1962 and 1967. The letters became the genesis for them; after reading Maureen’s story, Oates subjected it to “careful research,” correcting it whenever its “context was confused” (6). The result, Oates claims, is a “work of history in fictional form” (5), rooted in a “naturalistic” (6) strand of empirical storytelling. On a formal level, the novel fits into the naturalist tradition stretching back to Émile Zola, foregrounding the accumulated realist detail and sensationalistic violence typical of the genre. Oates’s metafictional framework, however, at once enables and frustrates any effort to read them as a naturalist novel. The literary naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries typically depended on the author’s distance from his or her materials. For Zola, this distance was ensured by the author’s application of the experimental method: “We should operate on the characters, the passions, on the human and social data, in the same way that the chemist and the physicist operate on inanimate beings, and as the physiologist operates on living beings.”11 Few of Zola’s American imitators went so far in insisting on their work’s scientific accuracy. However, in trying to understand the turbulent changes wrought by the American Industrial Revolution, they too established and then mediated a carefully calibrated distance between themselves, their readers, and their (usually) lower-class subject matter. In Jude Davies’s terms, American naturalists set out “to interpolate readers as fellow members of the middle-class and offer them access to the public, domestic, and laboring spaces of those who work manually or who are unemployed.”12 According to Oates, however, them never achieves this distance. Rather, the novel originates in her uncontrolled absorption in her materials. As Oates writes the Wendalls’ story, their “lives pressed upon mine eerily, so that I began to dream about them instead of about myself, dreaming and redreaming their lives. Because their world was so remote from me it entered me with tremendous power, and in a sense the novel wrote itself”(6).
This account of Oates’s absorption in her lower-class characters’ lives gestures toward the process aesthetic that, I have been arguing, characterized an important strand of postwar literature. That aesthetic sought to bridge the gap between middle-class writers and the poor by calling into question the formalism characteristic of post–World War II academic poetry and fiction. Oates’s account of her writing process sometimes resembles that of writers like Kerouac and Baraka. In interviews shortly after them made her a literary celebrity, Oates admitted that she “doesn’t do much rewriting” and that she writes her books quickly.13 However, Oates’s inability to achieve authorial distance from her characters in them has little to do with process art’s participatory impetus. Both Kerouac and Baraka viewed the poor as bearers of an antiformalist aesthetic that they tried to channel through their improvisatory art. Oates, in contrast, conceives of poverty as a formal threat to art. That threat is exemplified by Maureen’s childhood as a sensitive, bookish child subjected to the brutal violence of a dysfunctional working-class family. When Maureen is a teenager, she is attracted to Jane Austen, whose novels seem more “real” (166) to her than her own family. However, after being pushed into prostitution by her mother and savagely beaten by her stepfather, she learns that reality cannot be found in books. “This is not important,” she reflects as Oates reads Madame Bovary to the class, “none of this is real” (312). Maureen brings to Oates’s classroom the same challenge that process artists brought to postwar academic art. When Oates explains that “literature gives form to life,” Maureen asks, “What is form? Why is it better than the way life happens, by itself?” (318). Maureen’s problem, however, is that having discovered that life resists literary form, she is left with no resources for making sense of it. While Oates knows “so much that never happened, in a perfect form,” Maureen has “lived a lifetime already and turned myself out and got nothing out of it” (320).
Literary form, for Oates, is a protective barrier against the antiformalist suffering that prevents Maureen from gaining knowledge from experience. This barrier, however, is dangerously thin; Maureen’s suffering continually threatens to break through Oates’s art. “Everybody,” Maureen insists, “is flawed with it, a crack running through them. In you it is filled for a while. You feel no pain” (317). Oates’s representational problem is that Maureen’s young adulthood is both like and utterly unlike her own. In Freudian terms, Maureen is uncanny, or Unheimlich, in the etymological sense that she reminds Oates, who grew up in a working-class home, of the class origins that she tried to leave behind. As Maureen puts it, “I am writing to you because I could see, past your talking and your control and the way you took notes carefully in your books while you taught, writing down your own words as you said them, something that is like myself” (309). Literature, for Oates, is the means that she uses to impose form on her life; she achieves the class mobility that allows her to avoid Maureen’s fate by reading and writing books. When Oates gives Maureen a failing grade for her course, she offers only the following comment: “lack of coherence and development” (315). Maureen is an incoherent, undeveloped version of Oates—someone who lacks the luck, talent, and willpower to force her way out of the working class. The novel thus stages what McGurl calls Oates’s “class shame,” her feeling that “class identity (who you feel yourself to be) lags behind class positionality (where you currently stand).”14 For McGurl, the primary site of this class shame is the literature classroom, the place where Oates, as a student at the University of Syracuse in the 1950s, began her literary career. In them, the literature classroom actively engenders shame, thereby enforcing class distinctions between teachers and students. When Oates fails Maureen, she becomes an agent of the middle-class institutions that have kept Maureen poor.
Oates’s metafictional frame underscores her major concern in them, which encompasses both her attempt to create a new kind of naturalist novel and her critique of the War on Poverty. Oates’s encounter with Maureen sets up the novel’s recurring interclass dynamic, whereby middle-class characters confront lower-class characters who embody the kind of pathologies that 1960s social scientists similarly attributed to the poor. These pathologies, however, closely mirror ones barely (and sometimes not at all) kept in check by the middle class themselves. Moreover, any attempt to make sense of or help alleviate those pathologies through literature or welfare activism risks amplifying them for both classes. Oates’s chronicle of the Wendall family addresses one of the central problems of postwar poverty discourse: how to explain the persistence of poverty (especially white poverty) in an affluent society. As Maureen’s mother, Loretta, puts it, the postwar “world was pulling into two parts, those who were hopeless bastards and weren’t worth spitting on and those who were going to get somewhere” (12). For most of the novel, the Wendalls belong in the first category; they exemplify the “case” poverty that John Kenneth Galbraith claimed resisted postwar affluence: poverty “related to some characteristic of the individuals so afflicted,” such as “mental deficiency, bad health, inability to adapt to the discipline of industrial life, uncontrollable procreation, alcohol, . . . or perhaps a combination of several of these handicaps.”15 These dysfunctions, 1960s sociologists argued, are passed down from generation to generation. In Oscar Lewis’s La Vida, the Ríos family has a history of female prostitution; in the Moynihan report, single mothers pass on their own deficient impulse control to their delinquent sons and promiscuous daughters. The Wendalls, similarly, are afflicted by a recurring propensity for male violence and masochistic, female submission to that violence. The boys become delinquents while the girls become prostitutes or battered wives. This cyclical pattern prevents the family from taking advantage of the postwar economy and welfare state. During the 1930s, Americans “began getting jobs again, back from government projects and optimistic from government checks that became as regular and permanent as the cycle of the seasons itself” (18). Loretta’s father, however, loses his job in construction, never recovers from the Great Depression, and never works again. The entire family seems trapped in that era; Maureen’s brother, Jules, “has the look of being permanently out of the sunlight, a depression baby” (424).
Oates thus draws on 1960s sociological accounts of intergenerational poverty to provide the deterministic framework typical of naturalist fiction, replacing the hereditary and environmental determinism characteristic of Progressive-era naturalism with a psychological determinism adapted to postwar conceptions of urban poverty.16 This deterministic framework provides the form that allows Oates to make sense of the Wendalls’ lives. Each generation of Wendalls seems doomed to repeat the catastrophes of the previous one, in a pattern that resembles the cycles of poverty described by Lewis, Moynihan, and others.17 This cyclical repetition especially afflicts the Wendall women: Maureen and her mother, Loretta. The novel opens in 1938 with Loretta’s traumatic entry into womanhood at the age of sixteen; she is startled awake by a gunshot and finds herself lying next to the corpse of her teenage lover, Bernie. The murderer is her brother, Brock, whose motivations for killing Bernie are opaque; nobody in the family really cares about Loretta’s chastity. The act thrusts Loretta into a hitherto unseen world of male violence. Looking around her family’s cramped apartment, she becomes aware for the first time of “all the unconscious living that had gone on in it!—all of those years, unconscious” (33). This unconscious life frustrates Loretta’s attempts to improve her circumstances. When Loretta takes a police officer—her future husband, Howard—into her home to help her deal with Bernie’s corpse, he succumbs to a lawless passion similar to the one that drove Brock to kill the boy; he rapes Loretta in her kitchen. The scene establishes the pattern for Maureen’s adolescence. Attempting to escape from her dysfunctional family, she turns to public, educational institutions—the library and the school—as mechanisms of upward mobility. Both institutions, however, fail to counter the familial dysfunctions that similarly doomed her mother. Loretta stigmatizes Maureen’s attraction to the library and school, insinuating that her good behavior is a front for shoplifting and sex with boys.18 This assumption drives Maureen to realize Loretta’s perverse reading of her behavior; she prostitutes herself to older men while wearing her school uniform, then hides the money she earns in a library book. Through this prostitution, Maureen regresses to her mother’s occupational horizons; Loretta also tries to earn money as a prostitute when her first husband, Howard, is away in World War II. When Loretta loses her virginity to Bernie, she is working in a laundry; when Maureen loses hers to her first client, she compares him to “a machine, one of those machines at the Laundromat where she dragged the laundry” (194). In a traumatic repetition of her mother’s coming of age, this promiscuity invites masculine violence; when Maureen’s father-in-law discovers her prostitution, he beats her into unconsciousness. This cyclical repetition, the novel suggests, continues to haunt Maureen even after she establishes a toehold in the middle class at the novel’s end. As Jules warns her when he visits her suburban house, “Don’t forget that this place here can burn down too. Men can come back in your life, Maureen, they can beat you up again and force your knees apart, why not?” (478).
However, even as Oates depicts the cycle of poverty that traps the Wendalls, she also undercuts one of the central assumptions shared by 1960s poverty theorists and the naturalist tradition within which she locates the novel. In addressing itself to a middle-class audience, naturalist fiction invited that audience to see itself as fundamentally different from the mostly lower-class characters it portrayed. In Davies’s terms, “The naturalist text differentiated its readers from its typical subjects precisely by virtue of their implied capacity for self-determination, in contrast to the Maggies, McTeagues, Carries, Hurst-woods, and others, whose narratives are determined by social and biological forces.”19 Poverty theory in the 1960s, similarly, drew a distinction between the present-oriented poor and future-oriented social scientists and their readers. In contrast, them refuses its readers this assurance that they are immune to the problems that afflict the novel’s characters. While sitting in the library, writing her letter to Oates, Maureen realizes that all of the people around her, silently reading books, are barely restraining the same violent and masochistic impulses that culminated in her hospitalization and madness: “Those people would like to throw the books out of the windows, break the lamps and chairs, hit one another over the head with anything they could grab” (310). The novel is filled with wealthy characters who cannot maintain this restraint. When Maureen’s brother Jules, who drops out of school and becomes a delinquent, tries to abduct an upper-class teenager named Nadine, he discovers that her family history is just as dysfunctional as his own. Her uncle deserts his wife to become a gangster and ends up dead in a downtown rooming house. Nadine herself helps Jules steal her parents’ car, abandons him when he falls sick, and eventually tries to murder him. As Oates similarly emphasizes in her society satire, Expensive People (1968), the major difference between the suburbs and the slums is that the wealthy are better at hiding their dysfunctions and much better at covering the costs. Oates herself, Maureen warns, has a crack in her life that is only “filled in for a while” (317). This crack risks opening once more as Oates writes the novel. Her claim that the Wendalls’ world “entered me with tremendous power” (6) echoes Jules’s insistence on the fragility of Maureen’s suburban home, which men can enter at any time.
This insistence on universal pathology seems like it might enable a version of process art’s attempted eradication of the distance between author, reader, and lower-class subject matter. In them, however, it achieves precisely the opposite result. As Adolph Reed Jr., points out, one of the most enduring characteristics of poverty discourse is its creation of social categories like the underclass that “exist only in the third person.”20 These categories are terms of abjection used to demarcate groups whose lives supposedly do not match the behavioral norms of middle-class America. Ultimately, they undermine public support for the welfare state, turning underprivileged groups against each other. With its lower-case, third-person title, them exemplifies this process of abjection, which it insists derives from psychological and cultural similarities between insider and outcast groups. These similarities alternately give rise to feelings of disgust and fetishistic desire for people who belong to a different class or race. As Loretta, for instance, collects AFDC after the birth of her fourth child, she complains about black welfare mothers: “Them niggers have a birth rate twice as much as white people, or ten times, I forget which, and they’re all on ADC and play poker with the checks” (117). The obvious irony is that the behaviors she attributes to black single mothers (prostitution, cheating the system, drinking welfare money) are ones that she also exhibits. Nadine, meanwhile, worries that Jules has been contaminated by his proximity to inner-city blacks: “I’ve always been afraid that you might have some kind of disease. . . . I was thinking of where you lived, the way things are in the city, and Negro women, girls” (352). However, this very proximity makes Jules an object of fetishistic desire. Echoing 1950s Beat mythology, Nadine imagines Jules as a white Negro, a rootless drifter who lives closer to his skin than suburbanites like herself. All her life, she explains, she has seen poor men hitchhiking on the highways: “They seem very wise, very nasty. They put their thumbs out and wave for a ride, watching everything, mocking. They’re very dangerous, I think” (368).
Instead of enabling cross-class and cross-racial identifications, universal pathology leads to an atomized aesthetic, one in which any attempt to write about members of another class or race risks making them abject. Oates is intensely aware of this risk in them, and she takes steps to limit it. In her preface, Oates insists that them “is truly about a specific ‘them’ and not just a literary technique of pointing to us all” (5). This specific “them” is that section of the white working class unable to take advantage of the postwar affluent economy. This focus on the white working class complicates the novel’s claim to be a “history in fictional form.” Critics generally praise them for its attempt to understand the tensions that led to the Detroit riot; the novel conveys “an exhaustive—if necessarily partial—view of the urban experience that culminates in the social unrest of 1967.”21 The riot marks the moment when, in Lukácsian fashion, personal destiny intersects with broader historical events.22 During the riot, Jules shoots and kills a police officer, enacting symbolic revenge on his abusive father, who worked for the police, and on an officer who beat him as a teenager. On a broader scale, the riot manifests many such grievances; in concluding with the riot, Oates implies that her family chronicle will help readers understand mass violence as a culmination of tensions building in the ghetto since the Great Depression. This apparent etiology, however, is undermined by the fact that Jules is white; the Detroit riot was a race riot, provoked by specifically African American concerns about employment discrimination, segregated housing, and police brutality. The novel allegorizes its own distorted etiology in the television panel that follows the riot. After interviewing Mort, the moderator asks one of his coworkers to provide the ghetto’s perspective: “The camera moved to show a young Negro dressed in a suit, but this must have been a mistake—the Negro shook his head, frightened to indicate that he wasn’t one of the co-workers” (473). The camera then moves to Jules, who becomes the voice of Detroit’s inner-city poor. The scene reflects a broader pattern in the novel; the only nonwhite character who speaks more than a few words is a pimp who lets Jules know that the girl he has been prostituting needs bail money. Indeed, the entire novel originated in an act of racial substitution. According to Greg Johnson’s biography, Oates came up with the idea for them after a series of conversations with novelist Daniel Curzon, who told her about a black student who visited his office at Wayne State. The student, who had “been raped by somebody and had gone into a decline, a semi-coma for a year or more,”23 became the basis for Maureen.
However, even as them whitens its cast of characters, it also foregrounds the problem of race; while there are few black voices in the novel, race is omnipresent. As McGurl comments, the novel problematizes the category of whiteness itself; them deprives “the privilege of whiteness the further privilege of presenting itself as an unmarked universality.”24 The Wendalls, in particular, are intensely aware of their racial privilege. When Jules and his mother, Loretta, visit his uncle Brock in the hospital ward, she comments, “Aren’t you glad you’re not a nigger, at least? . . . Jesus, how’d you like to be a nigger and sick on top of it?” (322–323). Throughout the novel, Loretta and other white working-class characters insist on their difference from African Americans, generally at moments when they are most in danger of being lumped in with them. This difference is, in fact, one of the Wendalls’ only assets. In spite of the repeated disasters that befall them, the Wendalls achieve some degree of middle-class respectability by the novel’s end. Maureen seduces and marries her college English teacher, Jules is heading to California to work with Mort, and Loretta is poised to marry her third husband—a postal worker she meets in an emergency shelter after her home is bombed in the riot. All three characters exemplify a pattern repeated throughout Oates’s fiction; the story that she returns to again and again is that of a white-working class protagonist escaping, often irreparably damaged, from his or her class origins. This basic story, however, is usually set against a background of black working-class characters who do not achieve similar success.25
Oates, in short, pointedly avoids the kind of cross-racial literary representation that characterizes the work of white process writers like Kerouac and Mailer. Throughout her massive oeuvre, she predominantly focuses on characters who come from a background similar to her own; she is the premier novelist of the American white working and lower middle class. Oates wrote them at a time when American writers were becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of white appropriation of black voices. American novelists went through their own version of the Moynihan controversy after the publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a novel that ventriloquized the nineteenth-century slave revolt leader. Black reviewers criticized the novel for many of the same reasons that black social scientists attacked the Moynihan report. The novel, Lerone Bennett Jr. complained, pathologizes Turner in terms inspired by Moynihan, imagining him as the “impotent” son of a fatherless, “ADC slave family.”26 More broadly, an emerging generation of African American intellectuals claimed authoritative knowledge about black literature, culture, and history, rejecting white interpreters who had hitherto dominated these fields. As Oates’s metafictional frame highlights, this same problem of appropriating another’s voice informs Oates’s effort to depict the pathologies that afflict the class from which she arose; Oates renders the Wendalls abject by writing their story. As McGurl points out, Oates’s work returns again and again to figurations of whiteness as an atomized identity. “I am only a writer,” Oates lamented in a 1993 letter after hearing that Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature; “I have no socio/historical definition; no ‘constituency’; I represent no one & nothing—not even (I suppose) myself.”27 The phrase underscores the reductio ad absurdum logic implicit in Oates’s radical rejection of process art. That rejection finally dissolves the authorial self, an entity that inevitably crosses class and cultural boundaries over the course of its history.
The pattern of shared pathology giving rise to abjection in them finally informs Oates’s distrust of Community Action as a solution to the urban tensions that she traces throughout her novel. As Oates’s parody of United Action Against Poverty makes clear, members of the professional class who try to intervene in the inner city end up playing out their own pathologies. Through Mort, for instance, Jules seduces Vera, a middle-class girl who reads Frantz Fanon in Mort’s introduction to sociology course and relocates to the ghetto to work for his agency. Vera is tormented by her anxiety that she does not really fit into the middle class that she belongs to by way of her family and education: “I failed English composition,” she confesses, “I couldn’t organize my thoughts” (436). Under Jules’s tutelage, she lives out this anxiety, becoming his prostitute and letting him beat her with a coat hanger when she fails to bring in enough money. Indeed, the novel suggests that any attempt to improve conditions in the inner city is doomed because of the pathologies that afflict both reformers and the people they would like to help. In the post-riot television panel, Mort and an Anglican priest offer the typical range of late 1960s left-liberal explanations for Detroit’s urban unrest. For Mort, the riot dramatizes the need for a complete reordering of society. For the priest, the riot reinforces his belief in piecemeal, liberal reform: “My total commitment is for education, enormously enlarged funds for education and the cleaning up of slums, in order to bring about a new America for all our children” (474). Both panelists interpret the riot instrumentally, as an irrational outpouring of violence by the urban poor that they can direct or chasten. Mort and his fellow academics hope to use the riot to help foment a revolution, imagining themselves as “generals, guiding everything” (447). The priest hopes to use it to create an expanded welfare state. Jules, in contrast, rejects his copanelists’ instrumental interpretations:
I would like to explain to everyone how necessary the fires are, and people in the streets, not, as Mort says here—Dr. Piercy—so that things can be built up again, black and white living together, no, or black living by itself, by themselves—no, that has no importance, that is something for the newspapers or the insurance companies. It is only necessary to understand that fire burns and does its duty, perpetually, and the fires will never be put out. . . . Violence can’t be singled out from an ordinary day! . . . The rapist and his victim rise up from the rubble, eventually, at dawn, and brush themselves off and go down the street to a diner. Believe me, passion can’t endure! It will come back again and again but it can’t endure! (473–474)
The riot, for Jules, is an expression of human passions—the same passions that drive Brock to kill Bernie, Howard to rape Loretta, and Pat to brutalize Maureen. No one can channel or control these passions; they appear and disappear in a mercurial fashion.
Jules’s speech highlights the strangely apolitical nature of Oates’s novelistic response to urban politics in the late 1960s. Her novel insistently gestures toward political themes—like the racial tensions that gave rise to the Detroit riot—only to fold them back into her characters’ dysfunctional family dynamics. When Jules insists that “fire burns and does its duty,” for instance, he alludes to a childhood experience when he discovers his own capacity for unruly violence by accidentally burning down his in-laws’ barn. He also alludes to Vinoba Bhave, Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous disciple. Jules discovers the quote in the mid-1950s, when he takes his grandmother to a welfare clinic and picks up a recent issue of Time magazine. The first article he reads is about “the Negroes of America—‘A Decade of Prosperity’—the achievement of equality, of justice, affluence in Harlem” (95). The second is a profile of Bhave. The two articles present an idealized picture of an early moment in the civil rights movement, which mainstream news outlets like Time interpreted as a peaceful movement toward black integration, led by a responsible middle class. However, Bhave’s pacific aphorisms haunt Jules as he tries to make sense of his own poverty and Detroit’s racial divisions: “We are all members of a single human family. . . . My object is to transform the whole of society. Fire merely burns . . . Fire burns and does its duty. It is for others to do theirs” (95). In proclaiming universal membership in a common family, Bhave affirms the politics of sympathy that subtends both the civil rights movement and the welfare state that provides at least a limited degree of care for Jules’s grandmother. That politics encourages observers to imaginatively inhabit the lives of another race or class. In the novel’s context, however, belonging to a family does not guarantee sympathy; instead, it lays you bare to the destructive unconscious life that runs through all families and that erupts in the fires that burn in 1967 Detroit. The aphorism captures the reason why Oates connects the Wendall family chronicle to the Detroit riot and why Jules imagines that the post-riot rapist and his victim will “brush themselves off and go down the street to a diner” (474). All of the riot’s participants—white and black, wealthy and poor—belong to the same human family, and Oates envisages the riot as a species of domestic abuse.
Even as Oates’s insistence on universal pathology dismantles the categories that conservatives would use to render the poor abject from the late 1960s onward, it lends itself to deeply pessimistic conclusions about the middle class’s responsibility toward the ghetto. Jules’s final claim that Maureen’s suburban house “can burn down too” (478) leaves the reader with three options. First, the reader can welcome the inevitable destruction of the social order, becoming a rioter and murderer like Jules. Second, the reader can cling to that order at all costs, becoming a law-and-order conservative, which is what Maureen morphs into by the novel’s end. Pressed on her opinion about anti-Vietnam protests, Maureen responds, “People like this shouldn’t make trouble. Marching around like that, it makes things confused” (412). Last, the reader can therapeutically attend to his or her own pathologies. The last option seems to be the one tacitly recommended by them. It is an option that cedes the ghetto as a space of political engagement, which is the course pursued by many white liberals after the crisis that befell participatory professionalism in the late 1960s.
Limousine Liberals and Ghetto Pimps
Even more so than them, Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers consolidated many Americans’ distrust of the kind of cross-racial identifications that characterized late 1960s liberalism; it popularized the term “radical chic” and became a favorite text for conservative intellectuals.28 The book combines two essays. The first describes a 1970 fund-raising party that the conductor Leonard Bernstein held for the Black Panthers in his thirteen-room Park Avenue penthouse. The second collects a series of vignettes about confrontations between ghetto residents and OEO bureaucrats in San Francisco’s poverty program. Both essays reinforce the conservative narrative about racial liberalism first articulated in Moynihan’s Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: that it furthers the interests of “limousine liberals” (9) and black radicals without doing much to improve conditions in the ghetto. At Bernstein’s party, wealthy liberals indulge in “nostalgie de la boue” (27), romanticizing revolutionaries like the Black Panthers to reinforce their own class standing. The Black Panthers and other militant groups, meanwhile, play into this romanticization to get the funds they need to establish their street cred and compete with other black organizations. In “Mau-Mauing,” a militant leader coaches his followers before heading to the poverty office: “When you go downtown, y’all wear your ghetto rags. . . . You wear your combat fatigues and your leather pieces and your shades” (85). According to Wolfe, liberals and black militants never actually communicate with each other at the level of ideology; as a Panther representative explains the party’s ten-point program, one of Bernstein’s guests interrupts: “I won’t be able to stay for everything you have to say . . . but who do you call to give a party?” (24). Instead, the two groups communicate at the level of style. Bernstein organizes his party to differentiate himself from the middle class; by inviting the Panthers, he conveys “the arrogant self-confidence of the aristocrat as opposed to the middle-class striver’s obsession with propriety and keeping up appearances” (27–28). The Panthers, meanwhile, stylistically differentiate themselves from middle-class organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the Urban League. “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big” (5), Bernstein’s guests enthuse as they observe the Panthers’ unkempt Afros.
This perception, that Bernstein and the Black Panthers are playing different games, intersecting only at the level of style, derives from Wolfe’s social theory, which conceives of American society as a series of distinct but interlocking strategies for acquiring in-group status. Surveying US culture at the beginning of his journalistic career in the early 1960s, Wolfe observed that America underwent a fundamental transformation after World War II. The war “made massive infusions of money into every level of society. Suddenly, classes of people whose styles had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles.”29 Whereas status games used to be restricted to wealthy elites, they now became universally available to Americans of all classes. The result was a proliferation of lower- and middle-class subcultures, which Wolfe set out to document in his early journalism, writing about phenomena such as stock car racing, surfing, teenage disk jockeys, and California hippies. Each subculture developed an idiosyncratic style, and each embodied an alternative status structure, or “statussphere.” This explosion of pop styles ultimately reshaped the upper class itself, as the rich drew on those styles in their own efforts to establish status within fashionable society. Wolfe thus articulated an exceptionalist vision of postwar American affluence, in which class conflict gives way to stylistic play enabled by mass consumerism; the United States, he insisted, had become the worker’s paradise envisaged by nineteenth-century utopian thinkers.30
This vision relied on a series of obvious omissions. Beginning with Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, most accounts of America’s postwar wealth acknowledged the persistence and indeed retrenchment of severe forms of poverty. For Wolfe, however, even the poorest Americans are remarkably privileged compared to their counterparts in Europe and the third world; they experience only “relative poverty.”31 Even more obviously, before Radical Chic, Wolfe’s exceptionalist vision ignored race; all of the subcultures that Wolfe wrote about were white.32 Wolfe parenthetically addressed this gap, acknowledging that America’s “happiness explosion” was racially specific: “World War II and the prosperity that followed pumped incredible amounts of money into the population, the white population at least, at every class level.”33 However, this erasure of race skewed Wolfe’s thesis about subcultural styles and statusspheres, insofar as most of the subcultural art forms and styles reshaping American mass culture in the 1960s were originally black. Unlike Las Vegas and demolition derbies, these styles were not the products of mass affluence wedded to proletarian and lower-middle-class tastes; rather, they were innovative efforts to make do with limited resources.
Radical Chic is Wolfe’s attempt to rectify this erasure; for the first time, he traces stylistic play in the ghetto. While the Black Panthers dress in militant garb to differentiate themselves from middle-class civil rights leaders, most inner-city youth affect what Wolfe calls the “pimp style”: “The pimp is the dude who wears the $150 Sly Stone-style vest and pants outfit from the haberdasheries on Polk and the $35 Lester Chambers-style four-inch-brim black beaver fedora and the thin nylon socks with the vertical stripes and drives the customized sun-roof Eldorado with the Jaguar radiator cap” (113). As Wolfe makes clear with his priced catalog, the pimp style is not a manifestation of material lack. Rather, it is the product of African Americans’ ability to benefit from an affluent society overflowing with consumer goods, even when that society denies them gainful employment. In the ghetto, “it seemed like nobody was going to make it by working, so the king was the man who made out best by not working, by not sitting all day under the Man’s bitch box” (113). African Americans are not an exception to Wolfe’s theory that American society is fragmenting into a series of alternative statusspheres; rather, they are the ultimate proof of that theory. Denied access to the normal status system, they develop an alternative one, which consists of conspicuous displays of consumer goods acquired through illegal hustling. Indeed, urban blacks more perfectly realize the proletarianization of aristocratic style than any other social group. In the 1960s and 1970s, while white college students were dressing “like the working class of 1934,” unemployed black youth had “become the Brummels and Gentlemen of Leisure, the true fashion plates.”34
Radical Chic thus arrives at much the same perception that governs Oates’s critique of racial liberalism in them, albeit from a completely different direction; for both writers, poverty warriors’ cross-class and cross-racial identifications disguise more basic affinities between them and their clients. Like Oates, Wolfe undercuts the culture of poverty thesis that dominated most liberal and conservative accounts of the urban underclass. However, whereas Oates universalizes that thesis, attributing its pathologies to everyone, Wolfe discards its basic terms. The opposition between present and future orientation is null in a society in which everyone, regardless of his or her class or race, is struggling to define his or her place in one or more status hierarchies by drawing on the endless resources of a leisure society. This nullification is especially evident in Wolfe’s depiction of delinquent teenage subcultures, like the surfer gangs that he writes about in “The Pump House Gang” (1968). For most postwar sociologists, delinquent violence was a response to limited occupational opportunities; deprived of a middle-class career by virtue of their class or racial origins, delinquents seek criminal shortcuts. Wolfe’s delinquents, in contrast, are post-career and post-class. Buoyed by the West Coast’s “magic economy,”35 they form juvenile communities defined by their in-group argot and dedication to aristocratic leisure. In Radical Chic, Wolfe underscores the similar conditions that shape limousine liberals and the underclass by bookending the collection with two scenes of gluttony. In “Radical Chic,” the partygoers enthuse over the Bernsteins’ appetizers: “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty” (2). “Mau-Mauing” ends with an OEO applicant bringing an army of ghetto children to the mayor’s office, armed with “the greatest grandest sweetest creamiest runniest and most luscious mess of All-American pop drinks, sweets, and fried food ever brought together in one place” (125). Both Park Avenue and the ghetto are awash in consumer goods and the status competitions they enable.
Indeed, as the mayor’s terror in the face of the junk food riot that threatens to engulf San Francisco’s City Hall demonstrates, the problem with liberalism is its failure to understand the nature of consumer culture. The War on Poverty, Wolfe suggests, is the product of American politicians and intellectuals’ inability to come to terms with a society that makes the means to pursue status available to all. Faced with a culture dedicated to unlimited “ego extension,” they retreat to “the old restraints, the old limits, of the ancient ego-crusher: Calamity. . . . I was impressed by the profound relief with which intellectuals and politicians discovered poverty in America in 1963, courtesy of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America.”36 Liberals are concerned about poverty because it seems like a real issue that transcends the play of style that marks 1960s culture. Their attraction to African American causes comes from the same impulse; Bernstein’s guests fetishize the Black Panthers because they seem more real to them than other civil rights activists: “The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone” (4). This belief in the reality of poverty and black militants derives from liberals’ attempt to impose an old-fashioned model of status on the ghetto. Liberals, Wolfe suggests, imagine that all ghetto residents want the straight jobs that whites themselves find inadequate vehicles for expressing status in a leisure society; the War on Poverty’s emphasis on job training, however, will never help the ghetto, since there are “so many kids who—rather than have job training so they could get some job paying $75 or $80 in an office, at a low level, some routine repetitive work—would rather live the street life.”37 Liberals also imagine that the ghetto’s status hierarchy is a singular system, with identifiable leaders and followers. Faced with the need to cool down the summer riots, War on Poverty officials seek out “the ‘real leaders,’ the ‘natural leaders,’ the ‘charismatic figures’ in the ghetto jungle” (105), whom the officials imagine belong to gangs. This conception overlooks the atomization of the ghetto, which mirrors the atomization of society at large. Although the ghetto produces militant organizations like the Black Panthers, the majority of ghetto residents are “individualists” (112), more interested in the pursuit of status than in political causes. In spite of liberals’ misconceptions about the ghetto, the War on Poverty cannot escape the play of style. Instead, by feeding more money into the ghetto, the poverty program accelerates urban minorities’ hunt for subcultural status in a style-driven, affluent society. The War on Poverty will never help ghetto children get jobs, but it might lend a degree of official respectability to the street life itself for those cunning enough to get OEO funding: “As a job counselor or neighborhood organizer you stood to make six or seven hundred dollars a month, and you were still your own man. . . . You were still on the street, and you got paid for it” (120).
However, even as Wolfe’s critique of the War on Poverty, like Oates’s, draws on his perception that white liberals and the urban underclass are psychologically identical, he draws opposing conclusions about that perception’s implications for his own writing. For Oates, universal pathology threatens to disable literary representation. Wolfe, however, encounters no explicit representational crisis when writing about people who belong to a different race or class; indeed, his signature accomplishment as a New Journalist is his ability to enter into his subjects’ heads by using third-person-omniscient techniques more commonly found in fiction. Wolfe opens “Radical Chic” with a dramatic example of this technique, narrating Bernstein’s late-night vision of one of his concerts being interrupted by an unnamed black man who exposes the flimsiness of Bernstein’s liberal pieties. Elsewhere, Wolfe addresses the reader in the second person, so he or she becomes, first, a guest at Bernstein’s party and, second, an applicant for poverty funding: “Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? . . . Deny it if you wish, but such as the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings” (2–3); OEO bureaucrats “sat back and waited for you to come rolling in with your certified angry militants, your guaranteed frustrated ghetto youth, looking like a bunch of wild men” (83). As James Stull points out, this capacity for narrative omniscience derives from Wolfe’s careful manipulation of his status theory. Everyone is engaged in the pursuit of status, and Wolfe’s authority derives from his construction of himself as “the only player—the omniscient narrator—who has full knowledge of the social game.”38 This conception of himself as an outsider informed his reportorial technique; he established a calibrated distance from his subjects symbolized by his tailored white suits, which he wore regardless of his assignment. This distance, Wolfe claimed, ensured his journalistic objectivity; the New Journalism’s advantage over fiction lies in “the simple fact that the reader knows all of this actually happened.”39 Wolfe, in other words, achieves the clinical distance between author and subject that eludes Oates’s naturalist narrator in them.
At the same time, Wolfe’s narrative omniscience draws on the resources of process art in ways that strategically eradicate this distance. Like many experimental writers of the 1960s, Wolfe was influenced by the antiformalist prose style popularized by Kerouac in the 1950s. Although he insisted that he was “an outline man,” for whom “spontaneous writing is a waste of time,”40 his idiosyncratic journalistic style originated in an act of automatic writing akin to Kerouac’s liberation from New Critical formalism when he wrote On the Road. His first New Journalist article, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” began with a case of writer’s block, as he tried to fit his material into the formal requirements of feature writing. In a marathon overnight session, Wolfe wrote out his impressions of American hot rod culture, which Esquire published with almost no edits. In this article and other early pieces, Wolfe fashioned an oral style, one that threw aside the stodgy conventions of news writing and aimed at immediate communication with the reader.41 At the same time, Wolfe developed a process conception of his relationship with his subjects. Reflecting on his technique for writing The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,42 his in-depth account of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Wolfe described how he would “review my notes for a certain chapter, then I would close my eyes and try to imagine myself, as a Method actor would, into the scene . . . going crazy, for example . . . how it feels and what it’s going to sound like if you translate it into words—which was real writing by radar.”43 This confidence in his ability to replicate his subjects’ consciousness differentiated Wolfe from contemporaneous New Journalists like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, who were intensely aware of the potential distortions implicit in the journalist’s narrative voice.
Wolfe counterposed this reportorial practice against the formalist aesthetic that he believed dominated postwar fiction. He associated this aesthetic with the academy, an institution that he left behind in 1957 after completing his doctorate in American studies. Conflating all postwar fiction with the 1940s and 1950s “new fiction” that Malcolm Cowley criticized in The Literary Situation, Wolfe insisted, “Almost all ‘serious’ American novelists today come out of the universities,” and they create “a puzzling sort of fiction . . . in which the characters have no background, no personal history, are identified with no social class, ethnic group or even nationality, and act out their fates in a locale that has no place name.” According to Wolfe, these novelists abandoned social realism due to their perception that “bourgeois society was breaking up, fragmenting.”44 This left fertile territory for the feature writers who invented New Journalism in the 1960s, who took for granted the disappearance of bourgeois society and explored the subcultural fragments that it left behind. Wolfe’s account of the New Journalism’s genesis parallels the career trajectory of process writers like Kerouac and Baraka, who similarly fled institutional confinement in the academy to cultivate a new kind of literary expertise outside it. For Wolfe, the New Journalist was uniquely poised as an expert interpreter of popular culture, capable of articulating its logic in a way that its unconscious practitioners could not; in spite of its sophistication, the hot rod culture he described in “Kandy-Kolored” is inaccessible to most outsiders, since its teenage enthusiasts “are not from the levels of society that produce children who write sensitive analytical prose at age seventeen.”45 At the same time, the New Journalist’s anti-academic expertise threatened the literary establishment, shattering the status system that had governed it since the nineteenth century and exposing it to its outside. In that system, novelists and poets were the aristocrats, critics were the middle class, journalists the proletariat, and feature writers the “lumpenproles.” With the rise of the New Journalism, the lumpenproles challenged novelists at their own game, dismantling “class lines that have been almost a century in the making.” His bid to revolutionize the literary field was announced with his editorship of The New Journalism (1973), literary journalism’s first anthology. Commenting on the institutionalization that usually goes hand in hand with anthologies, Wolfe hoped that New Journalism’s revolution would be permanent: “With any luck at all the new genre will never be sanctified, never be exalted, never given a theology.”46
In “Mau-Mauing,” Wolfe extends this reportorial revolution to the ghetto, usually regarded as a privileged site of the real in American journalism and fiction. According to Wolfe, the problem with the bureaucrats who run the OEO is similar to the one that plagues postwar writers. Embedded in the self-perpetuating institutions of the federal government, they have no conception of an outside world. The poverty program is the federal government’s attempt to force some sort of contact with this outside, creating opportunities for confrontation with ghetto leaders who will tell the government what to do. The program, however, perpetuates the very autotelic system that it tries to disrupt. Cunning game players, ghetto leaders reinforce bureaucrats’ stereotypes about racial minorities, enacting their “deep dark Tarzan mumbo jungle voodoo fear of the black man’s masculinity” (103). The result is the practice of “mau-mauing,” whereby minorities ritualistically play the savage to intimidate government officials. Wolfe’s literary example of mau-mauing is Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. In one of the essay’s set pieces, a white female teacher ritualistically reads Cleaver’s memoir to her English students at San Francisco State, closing the book “very softly under her chin, the way a preacher closes the Bible.” Wolfe’s point, articulated by the classroom’s sole black student, is that the memoir does nothing to disrupt the classroom’s circulation of educational capital. The book is “written for the white middle class. They published it and they read it” (110).
The War on Poverty’s participatory professionalism, in other words, does not close the gap between government and the ghetto. Indeed, Wolfe insists that the War on Poverty’s confrontations are carefully managed to have as little impact on government operations as possible. Wolfe’s account of San Francisco’s poverty program leaves out the young idealists drawn to many Community Action Agencies. In their place, Wolfe constructs a new caricature, distinct from both the radical chic liberal and the minority pimp: the flak catcher. In “Mau-Mauing”’s first fully realized scene, a multiethnic group of militants descends on the office of a flak catcher: an OEO bureaucrat whom they hope to intimidate into giving them more Community Action Program funding. The flak catcher, in Wolfe’s scenario, has no social work expertise and offers no pretense of wanting to encourage lower-class participation in the poverty program. The only trace of the Community Action Program’s participatory imperative is the bureaucrat’s stance as he listens to the militants: he sits “backwards, straddling the seat and hooking his arms and his chin over the back of the chair. . . . It’s like saying, ‘We don’t stand on ceremony around here’” (93–94). His sole function is to gauge the frustration of the War on Poverty’s clientele, acting as an intermediary between the politicians and intellectuals who create the poverty program and the underclass who benefit from it. This flak-catching function, Wolfe suggests, pervades the entire bureaucratic corps of the US government. Flak catchers are not unique to the poverty program; they staff all offices where the government interfaces with the public: “Poverty, Japanese imports, valley fever, tomato-crop parity, partial disability, home loans, second-probate accounting . . . whatever you’re angry about, it doesn’t matter” (95).
The flak catcher is an ironic counterpoint to Wolfe, who similarly presents himself as an intermediary with the ghetto. Like Wolfe, the flak catcher stands outside the status games that the ghetto residents play. Unlike the radical chic liberals who support the poverty program, he has no personal stake in those games. His purpose is to sacrifice personal status to protect the government he serves; he absorbs assaults on his “dignity” and “manhood” (96) to allow the militants to feel like they have successfully challenged the system. This lack of status is reflected in his absence of style, which stands out in a society entirely dominated by it. His clothes are “stone civil service,” permitting no deviation: “wheatcolor Hush Puppies” that “cost about $4.99” and a “wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeved white shirt” (93). His bureaucratic speech is similarly bland:
At this point I see no reason why our project allocation should be any less, if all we’re looking at is the urban-factor numbers for this area, because that should remain the same. Of course, if there’s been any substantial pre-funding, in Washington, for the fixed-asset part of our program, like Head Start or the community health centers, that could alter the picture. (95–96)
This abandonment of style and status allows the flak catcher to channel information to his readers; by absorbing assaults to his dignity, he communicates the relative militancy of different ghetto groups to the government without endangering any elected officials or the liberals who vote for them. Wolfe underscores this juxtaposition between the flak catcher and the reporter through a bravura display of New Journalistic style, as he describes the bureaucrat’s shirt: “Sticking out of the pockets and running across his chest he has a lineup of ball-point pens, felt nib, lead pencils, wax markers, such as you wouldn’t believe, Paper mates, Pentels, Scriptos, Eberhard Faber Mongol 482’s, Dri-Marks, Bic PM-29’s, everything. They are lined up across his chest like campaign ribbons” (93). This catalog contrasts with the flak-catcher’s dry bureaucratic speech, dramatizing the journalist’s superior command of language. At the same time, the pens and pencils underscore the fact that the flak catcher is a kind of writer, charged with transforming the ghetto into written reports for the benefit of white readers. He is, however, a petty, restricted version of the New Journalist—as evidenced by the difference between his mass-produced white shirt and Wolfe’s custom-made white suits.
This juxtaposition buttresses Wolfe’s authority to write about the ghetto, but it also betrays anxiety about his success in this endeavor, suggesting that like the flak catcher, he acts more like an information buffer than an in-depth reporter. Although Wolfe presents himself as a confident expert on the inner city, “Mau-Mauing” does not, in fact, get inside the heads of its minority subjects; the story is surprisingly devoid of details about status conflicts as experienced by the minorities themselves. Indeed, only one of the story’s set pieces is actually set in the ghetto; the remaining scenes take place in downtown offices where would-be ghetto leaders meet the bureaucrats. Even when the story does venture into the ghetto, Wolfe’s reportorial eye remains safely shielded within the autotelic enclosure created by the OEO. The story’s singular ghetto scene is a meeting between gang leaders and OEO bureaucrats at the gang’s clubhouse. The bureaucrats wait anxiously in the building listening to the muffled thuds as gang members beat a wino in the alley outside. “Mau-Mauing” prefigures a problem that beset Wolfe when he wrote his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).47 As Joshua Masters observes, Wolfe describes the bonds between tradesmen and lawyers in this novel “by way of their class standing and status symbols,” especially their clothing. In contrast, when describing minority characters, he relies on a “semiotics of the body which translates physical differences into moral and intellectual signifiers.”48 Similarly, in “Mau-Mauing,” Wolfe constructs a ghetto bestiary, in which different races become caricatures based on their physical differences from whites. Samoans are “Polynesian monsters” (99), each with a “skull the size of a watermelon” (92). The black gang members sit at their clubhouse meeting “like a bunch of secretary birds” (114). When Wolfe uses these metaphors, he abandons the second-person point of view, instead presenting them as stereotypes invented by white observers unfamiliar with the ghetto. Wolfe describes the Samoans from the flak catcher’s perspective; he describes the birdlike pimps from the point of view of the bureaucrats at the clubhouse. At one point, Wolfe itemizes the fears that different races evoke in the white psyche: “The white man pictured the Chinese as small, quiet, restrained little fellows. He had a certain deep-down voodoo fear of their power of evil in the Dark” (91). By characterizing ghetto residents in this way—as figures who embody white fears—Wolfe performs the same function for his readers that the flak catcher performs for the OEO. Rather than channel the consciousness of ghetto dwellers, he registers the degree of terror they instill in the white mind.
Wolfe’s tactic—claiming an intuitive knowledge of the ghetto while recycling primitivist tropes—is not especially new. The same tactic is central to Jacob Riis’s 1890 journalistic book, How the Other Half Lives, which provides a taxonomy of the different races and ethnicities that inhabit New York’s tenement districts. Similarly, the journalists who wrote in-depth exposés on the underclass in the 1980s, such as Ken Auletta in The Underclass (1982), drew on a primitivist terminology extending back to the nineteenth century. The underclass, Auletta argues, “usually operates outside the generally accepted boundaries of society. They are often set apart by their ‘deviant’ or antisocial behavior, by their bad habits.”49 Wolfe’s use of primitivist metaphors, however, stands out because it jars with his ostensibly universalistic theory of human nature. Jacob Riis’s taxonomy, which ranks New York’s races hierarchically from the Chinese at the bottom to the Germans at the top, is rooted in his implicit reliance on a late nineteenth-century social evolutionist paradigm. Auletta’s work draws on the equally deterministic, conservative version of the culture of poverty theory outlined by Edward Banfield. Both of these paradigms assume that the poor are essentially different from the white middle class. Wolfe, in contrast, assumes that the poor are tactical game players just like other Americans; their crimes are merely further convolutions of the universal search for status. Unable to observe those games, Wolfe nevertheless presents himself as an omniscient guide to the ghetto.
The apparent confidence with which he does so registers conservatives’ increasing dominance of poverty discourse after the War on Poverty. Devoid of Oates’s anxiety about appropriating others’ voices, Wolfe uses a revised process aesthetic to construct himself as an inner-city expert. This confidence underlies a project that similarly insists that the ghetto be left to its own devices. For Wolfe in Radical Chic, the Community Action Program does nothing to create lasting wealth in the inner city or alleviate its violence. It merely goads the underclass to invent con games that play on white liberal anxieties and sympathies.
1. Joyce Carol Oates, them (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969). All subsequent page references to this book are to this edition and noted parenthetically in the text.
2. See Sidney Fine, Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2007). Most of the 1960s riots similarly began with unplanned confrontations between police and ghetto residents. None were orchestrated events.
3. Moynihan fashioned this book out of a series of articles that he published in the Public Interest throughout the late 1960s. In this period, the Public Interest was the best-known vehicle for neoconservative critiques of the Great Society.
4. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 24, 163.
5. Ibid., 192.
6. O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge, 209.
7. See Clark, Dark Ghetto; Elliot Liebow, Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (1967; repr., Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); and Lee Rainwater, Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum (Chicago: Aldine Transaction, 1970).
8. O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge, 213–241.
9. Quoted in ibid., 209.
10. Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970; repr., New York: Bantam Books, 1999). All subsequent page references to this book are to this edition and noted parenthetically in the text.
11. Émile Zola, The Experimental Novel and Other Essays, trans. Belle M. Sherman (New York: Cassell, 1893), 18.
12. Jude Davies, “Naturalism and Class,” in The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism, ed. Keith Newlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 307.
13. Joyce Carol Oates, Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Lee Milazzo (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), 4.
14. McGurl, The Program Era, 301.
15. Galbraith, The Affluent Society, 236.
16. Since Donald Pizer’s Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), critics have rejected the notion that American literary naturalists merely applied deterministic theories to their fiction. Pizer instead discovers an active tension in naturalist fiction: “The naturalist often describes his characters as though they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct or chance. But he also suggests a compensating humanistic value in his characters or their fates which affirms the significance of the individual and of his life” (11). Oates’s novel embodies a similar tension; in spite of the setbacks they suffer, many of their own making, the Wendalls keep on striving for a better life.
17. Many of them’s early critics questioned whether the novel demonstrates the kind of determinism characteristic of classic naturalist novels. For Steven Barza, the novel affirms “the importance of individual caprice. The Uncertainty Principle has arrived at the human laboratory.” “Joyce Carol Oates: Naturalism and the Aberrant Response,” Studies in American Fiction 7, no. 2 (1979): 142. Ellen Friedman similarly calls attention to the apparent randomness of the novel’s events: “Rather than describing an environment that willfully oppresses the poverty-stricken, Oates is describing a universe of pure accident, in which contingency dominates.” Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980), 81. However, even as critics have characterized the Wendalls’ history as random, they have also underscored its cyclical regularity. As Joanne Creighton points out, there is a “recurrent sameness to their lives a disturbing replay of experiences in the lives of succeeding generations.” Joyce Carol Oates (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 65.
18. Joanne Creighton and Kori Binette argue that Loretta’s unstated desire to see Maureen repeat her own traumatic entry into womanhood exemplifies a recurring pattern in Oates’s depiction of mother/daughter relationships: “The mother passes on her acceptance of female subjugation to the next generation,” initiating her daughter “into a world where men are all-powerful and women are the victims.” “‘What Does It Mean to Be a Woman?’: The Daughter’s Story in Oates’s Novels,” Studies in the Novel 38, no. 4 (2006): 444.
19. Davies, “Naturalism and Class,” 308. June Howard similarly observes that although authors and readers of naturalist fiction “explore determinism, we are never submerged in it and ourselves become the brute.” Form and History in American Literary Naturalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 104.
20. Reed, Stirrings in the Jug, 17.
21. Susana Araújo, “Space, Property, and the Psyche: Violent Topographies in Early Oates Novels,” Studies in the Novel 38, no. 4 (2006): 404.
22. In an interview, Oates agreed that her “most inspired area for long fiction” can be summed up by Gyorgi Lukács’s account of realism’s “exploration of the links between individual destinies and large historical events.” Gavin Cologne-Brooks, “Written Interviews and a Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates,” Studies in the Novel 38, no. 4 (2006): 550.
23. Greg Johnson, Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Penguin, 1998), 155.
24. McGurl, The Program Era, 317.
25. This pattern is especially clear in two of Oates’s later novels that address American race relations: Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (New York: Plume, 1990); and Black Girl / White Girl (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006).
26. Lerone Bennett Jr., “Nat’s Last White Man,” in William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, ed. John Henrik Clarke (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 8, 9.
27. G. Johnson, Invisible Writer, 396, quoted in McGurl, The Program Era, 318.
28. For many of Wolfe’s readers, the book outed him as a social conservative. Wolfe’s stylistic eccentricities, one reviewer commented, masked the fact that he was an “old-fashioned moralist.” Quoted in Thomas Hartshorne, “Tom Wolfe on the 1960’s,” in Tom Wolfe, ed. Harold Bloom (Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2001), 86. Meanwhile, Radical Chic found an appreciative audience among conservatives, who claimed Wolfe as their own; William Buckley’s National Review published two positive reviews (ibid.).
29. Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), xiv.
30. Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968), 6, 11.
31. Tom Wolfe, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976; repr., New York: Bantam Books, 1977), 105.
32. Before Radical Chic, Wolfe wrote only one profile of a black celebrity: an article on Cassius Clay (“The Marvelous Mouth”). He later acknowledged that this was one of his weakest pieces. Conversations with Tom Wolfe, ed. Dorothy M. Scura (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990), 11.
33. Wolfe, Pump House Gang, 14, 23.
34. Wolfe, Mauve Gloves, 184.
35. Wolfe, Pump House Gang, 19.
36. Ibid., 9.
37. Wolfe, Conversations, 21.
38. James Stull, “The Cultural Gamesmanship of Tom Wolfe,” Journal of American Culture 14, no. 3 (1991): 26.
39. Tom Wolfe, “The New Journalism,” in The New Journalism, with an Anthology, ed. Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 34.
40. Wolfe, Conversations, 260.
41. Thomas Hartshorne similarly observes Wolfe’s reliance on a process aesthetic. His 1960s work calls attention to “writing as performance” and exhibits “an improvisational quality . . . that puts him in tune with the sensibility of the 1960’s in its emphasis on the importance of immediate inspiration.” “Tom Wolfe on the 1960’s,” 86.
42. Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968; repr., New York: Bantam Books, 1999).
43. Wolfe, Conversations, 212. This method acting technique, Daniel Lehman argues, opens up an “epistemological break” in Wolfe’s reportage, one that he tries to arrest by insisting on the objectivity of his work. “‘Split Flee Hide Vanish Disintegrate’: Tom Wolfe and the Arrest of New Journalism,” Prospects 21 (October 1996): 399.
44. Wolfe, “The New Journalism,” 40, 28.
45. Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored, 79.
46. Wolfe, “The New Journalism,” 25, 35.
47. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (New York: Picador, 1987).
48. Joshua Masters, “Race and the Infernal City in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities,” in Tom Wolfe, ed. Harold Bloom (Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2001), 183, 184.
49. Auletta, The Underclass, 28.