Sunday, November 16, 2008

# 100 The Magnificent Ambersons – Booth Tarkington

“When I got an automobile of my own and began to drive it, I brought to the enterprise a magnificent ignorance of the workings of a gas engine, and a profound disinterest in its oily secrets.”

So intoned—with comically Freudian overtones—the narrator of “Recollections of the Gas Buggy” in The Saturday Review. The author was
James Thurber, the Midwestern wit who sprang out of the earnest soil of Columbus, OH and then ventured as a young adult to New York (as did the centathlete’s wife, albeit 80 years later).

The centathlete partakes in the “magnificent ignorance” of things automotive. For example, he never learned to drive a standard. This lacuna in his development was remarked upon (typically with one eyebrow or one side of the mouth raised) over the years by friends who seemed to savor this chink in his otherwise impregnable, blinding armor.

One of these very chums once had to pick up his parents at LaGuardia Airport, so the centathlete rode along in his manually shifted Saab. After idling in the pick-up zone, the driver was forced to exit in order to locate said parents at the baggage claim, leaving the centathlete alone, sitting shotgun. In moments a traffic cop was looming at the driver’s window, stridently directing the centathlete to move the car.

He couldn’t do it, he explained, because he couldn’t drive a stick—he was just a passenger. The cop balked and repeated her instruction with a sneer. She thought he was full of it. The centathlete repeated his defense and then blankly watched the harpy write a ticket and slap it under the windshield wiper. In moments after her departure, the chum and parents arrived, and received their municipal paperwork.

The fine was nominal to them but the humor was not. Can’t drive a stick! Hearty laughter ensued at the expense of the centathlete, whose dominant emotion at the time was chagrin. Two decades would pass before this lapse in his unquestionable virility resurfaced and provoked a different response.

Newly married, the urban-dwelling, car-less centathlete had moved to the suburbs and was required to learn to drive his bride’s Honda Civic, a standard. He did so awkwardly and profanely. Stalling dozens of times, grinding gears and enduring horns, and navigating futilely among the jughandles and reverse jughandles of central New Jersey—all prompted such a vituperative state of mind that the centathlete very nearly questioned whether he had chosen the right mate.

At this fraught philosophical moment he resembled Billy Brown, the hero of the 1998 movie,
Buffalo 66, played by the inimitable writer/director/lothario Vincent Gallo, when he kidnaps Layla and gets in her car, to find that he can’t drive it:
“Is this a shifter car? I cannot drive a shifter car, alright, so we got a little situation here. I can’t drive these kinda cars! What the f--- is goin’ on! You think that's funny? Would you like to know, smartass? Would you like to know why I can’t drive this kinda car? I’ll tell you why, I’m used to luxury cars. Have you ever heard of a luxury car? You know what luxury means? Ever heard of Cadillac, Cadillac Eldorado? That's what I drive. I drive cars that shift themselves.”
Cars can make you shift from the ridiculous to the sublime, as evidenced by Roland Barthes’ discourse in 1957 on the Citroën DS. The French semiotician and contrarian likened the DS to a goddess and modern automobiles to the gothic cathedral because they represent the “supreme creation” of their era. Barthes’ perspective is both serious and mischievous as he swings like a manic trapeze artist between the religious, sensual, linguistic, historical, novelistic and cinematic. He comments on the DS’s exterior:
“It is well known that smoothness is always an attribute of perfection because its opposite reveals a technical and typically human operation of assembling: Christ's robe was seamless, just as the airships of science-fiction are made of unbroken metal.”
The seamless garment, referenced in
John 19:23, was expounded on by Saint Cyprian, the third century Christian bishop of Carthage. In opposing schismatics he considered the robe a “sacrament of unity” and a “bond of a concord inseparably cohering.”

According to the Original Catholic Encyclopedia,
Cyprian, in middle age, abandoned the Roman ruling class and its vice, decay, and “hollowness of political success” for a “chaste, prayerful” life. He lived during war and plague and was ultimately beheaded by order of the Emperor Valerian, who himself met a humiliating end at the hands of his Persian conqueror, Sapor.

During wartime not everyone lives or dies by the sword; some daydream, doodle and type far from the frontlines. For two middle-aged Midwesterners, Ohio’s Thurber and Indiana’s Booth Tarkington, the automobile figured centrally in their public reveries that nudged, delighted and preoccupied the American home front during respective world wars.

September 25, 1943 the Soviet army retook the Russian city of Smolensk and German forces retreated behind the Dneiper River. On that day Thurber’s “Gas Buggy” piece appeared. Rather than consider the Eastern Front, Thurber reflected (again with a Freudian vocabulary) on the advent of cars circa 1903, when they puzzled the folks of Columbus: “What is that thing, Mamma? Mamma, what is that thing, huh, Mamma?” Since those days the automotive industry had become a behemoth and inserted itself as a “miracle-worker” into World War II, as Time Magazine observed in February 1942.

More than a generation before, in
1918, after bloody offensives and counteroffensives, World War I ended in November. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons was published that year. Preceding Thurber, Tarkington chose to reminisce about the good old days in the country when the car was a curiosity or, to some like George Minafer, the bitter protagonist of The Magnificent Ambersons, a monstrosity.

Each Midwestern author’s retrospective is in a sense a “car dream.” Oddly, at least to this Northeasterner, racial insensitivity rears up in each. Ambersons includes several cursory references to “darkies” and “Gas Buggy” features a patronizing treatment of the “colored washerwoman.” Today we want to hear their perspectives as well, but only the driver/author sees out of the rear view mirror.

“Automobiles are a useless nuisance… They had no business to be invented,” snorted George Minafer at his family estate in the Midland town that represented Indianapolis. That invention arguably was realized on July 4, 1894, on
Pumpkinvine Pike in Kokomo, IN, when Elwood Haynes and the Apperson brothers tested their gas buggy.

In the immediately following years, likeminded inventors and manufacturers proliferated in Indiana, where “automobiles were produced in more than 40 cities,”
according to the Northern Indiana Center for History. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built in 1909, brought publicity and excitement to the industry. However, in a generation, Ford Motor Company, General Motors and other manufacturers from Michigan superseded the likes of Indiana’s Studebaker, Stutz, Cole, and Haynes-Apperson.

Even a simple history of the early cars, not to mention the superb photos, is inescapably quaint to today’s driver, as can be sensed
“By 1898 the Haynes-Apperson Automobile Company was producing one car every two-three weeks… Soon they were turning out three different models (for 2, 4 & 6 passengers) at a rate of 2-3 cars per week! This production rate also meant the factory was open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, two shifts per day... Haynes-Apperson production numbers increased steadily: five in 1898, 30 in 1899, 192 in 1900 and 240 in 1901. Later that year, the Appersons and Haynes dissolved their business partnership and began two individual companies.” picks up the story of Edgar and Elmer Apperson and their new venture, The Apperson Brothers Motor Car Company:
“The company employed its peak year in 1919, employing about 600 people and producing 3,000 units at the two plants. In the early 1920's, business began to decrease. The Appersons, like many others, were not competitive with the larger manufacturers. Production ceased in 1925, thus ending the pioneering saga…”
This story and others like it, and in fact the birth and childhood of the transformative automotive industry, played out right before Booth Tarkington, who was born in 1869 and grew up in Indianapolis. He would likely have been familiar with the Appersons, as he was actively engaged in Indiana culture and politics—from 1902-1903 he served as a State Assemblyman and he later wrote “In the Arena” about the experience (making him unlike the anti-political Saint Cyprian). Did Tarkington think of “Apperson” when he named his family “Amberson?”

Nephew of a California governor, Tarkington was privileged but not rich growing up in Indiana. He was a popular bon vivant at Purdue and at Princeton, where he was a
founder of the Triangle Club, “the oldest collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the nation.” He no doubt drew on this background in creating Minafer, who shared a fine pedigree but none of his maker’s good humor.

Tarkington made his own fortune as an author, globetrotted in style, and “eventually built an estate, Seawood, in
Kennebunkport, Maine, where he and his second wife, Susannah Robinson, lived from May through December each year..."

One wishes Classic Books Library had used this
photo of Seawood, with its glorious white façade and elegantly aged walkway, for its reissue of Ambersons. It speaks to a defiant magnificence that is completely lacking in the dreary cover of the book.

In Kennebunkport, Tarkington was neighbors with George Herbert Walker, President George W. Bush’s great-grandfather, and
Francis Noble, the editor for many newspapers owned and published by William Randolph Hearst. (Hearst, incidentally, was a cousin of Elmer and Edgar Apperson; his mother was Phoebe Apperson.)

Hearst of course inspired another Midwesterner,
Orson Welles of Kenosha, Wisconsin, to create Citizen Kane, “the greatest movie of all-time” according to the American Film Institute. Released in 1941, Citizen Kane was Welles’s first movie; he followed it up in 1942 with The Magnificent Ambersons.

We can’t see this movie today, due to a toxic
struggle between Welles and RKO Studio. So we have to be content with snippets and commentary at
what a tribute it is!

One Welles fan, Jeffrey M. Anderson, in his
piece on Ambersons, helps us understand why the director was drawn to the story, and how cinema can complement literature:
“One of Welles’ favorite themes is aging—looking back on the past with nostalgia, and noting how things change as one gets older. He opens The Magnificent Ambersons with a sequence showing the fashions and the wisdoms of the times. Everything moves slower, he tells us in his famous baritone narration. These sequences are all framed with a sort of discolored edge, like the brown edge of a faded photograph. (In one scene, Welles even manages to use an “iris-fade,” in which the image fades to black around a circle that grows smaller and smaller, an effect that D.W. Griffith used in the silent days.) From that nostalgic starting point, everything slowly collapses. This is due to the invention of automobiles, with which Eugene is making his fortune.”
The centathlete was not familiar with the term “iris-fade” but his mind’s eye seems to be increasingly prone to the human form of the process. Memories (riding a brown Columbia bicycle over a sewer cover, spilling, and getting a fat lip) collapse into a black hole…so we run the centathlon to keep at least books alive.

The “debacle” of
Ambersons nearly killed Welles’s career: “He was never entrusted with a major Hollywood production again. Welles himself said, ‘They [RKO] destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me.’” reports that the movie “really spelled the end of Welles’s golden period and the beginning of his slow decline.” We might say that Welles resembled in part the tragic hero of his own movie, George Minafer, the bearer of his family’s decline. Life imitated cinema imitated literature.

And then cinema imitated cinema. In 2000 A&E produced a remake of The Magnificent Ambersons, purporting to be more faithful to Welles’s script. The result was a snoozer and a flop. The centathlete is disinclined to agree with the perpetually smug Peter Bogdanovich, but the former Welles
confidante was correct when he said, “It would be charitable to say that the Ambersons remake was “poor.”

The TV movie, filmed in Dublin, Ireland (not Dublin, Ohio) featured the creepy
but spunky Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Minafer and the waxen but spunky Madeleine Stowe as his mother. The fact that the official web site has been taken down is apt.

Dead links aside, we can credit the efforts of studios and accomplished directors and actors to do Tarkington’s tale justice. George Minafer would not have participated in such collective endeavors; they were beneath him.

Driving home now (in an automatic), we acknowledge that the automobile is the symbolic and actual instrument of George Minafer’s downfall. After years of scoffing at the nascent car industry and industrial progress, Minafer is struck by a car and gravely injured at the novel’s close.

Similarly, the questioner of symbols such as the magnificent Goddess Automobile, Roland Barthes, was struck by a laundry van (perhaps transporting seamless robes). But while George Minafer was left in a hospital bed by Tarkington with chances for recovery, redemption and love, Barthes was not so fortunate. He
died a month later.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

# 88 The Call of the Wild – Jack London

The centathlete is a Cat Person.

It figures! you snort—you gregarious, loyal, honest team player who loves to travel, you
Dog Person. Wait—it seems that subtlety, gracefulness and independence do in fact appeal to you—you Cat Person. Don’t they? No? So you yourself are then decidedly a ___ Person.

Cat v. Dog–the dichotomy elicits spot
quizzes and spotty self-analysis (the centathlete actually tested out as a Dog Person). Regardless of our personal biases, we all possess characteristics contrary to our diagnosed pet-hood.

The author Jack London was a Dog Person, some of us will yip, in light of his political team-playing (he was an active Socialist) and his utilitarian, outdoorsy, globetrotting curriculum vitae. Moreover, he gave the world two literary exemplars of canine worship: The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, and White Fang, published in 1906.

Buck, the protagonist of The Call of the Wild, is half-
Saint Bernard and half-Scotch shepherd, or collie. When we meet him at the age of four, he lives a princely, secure life on an estate in California’s Santa Clara Valley, which the narrator describes four separate times as “sun-kissed.” This epithet, recalling the “wine-dark” sea of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in English translation, announces myth-making in the narrative.

In iterating “sun-kissed” London anticipated by five years the aptness of the term for California. In 1908 the advertising agency for the Southern California Fruit Exchange trademarked
“Sunkist” for its oranges and lemons.

Citrus seeds were first planted in California during the 1840’s with the beginning of the Gold Rush, as thousands of early fortune-hunters suffered from
scurvy. London could have used some of those oranges. He developed scurvy while gold-prospecting in the Klondike two generations later, in 1897, and returned debilitated to San Francisco the next year.

Whereas London volunteered for the North, his dog hero Buck is forcibly taken there, recalling the 1886 novel, Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scotsman who for a time lived in San Francisco. In addition to influencing London, Stevenson left a similarly deep cultural imprint on the city by the bay,
according to Janice Albert and Don Herron:

“…only Jack London, a native son, exceeds Stevenson in the number of public tributes: state parks in two counties, a brace of plaques in San Francisco, and a library devoted exclusively to his work in St. Helena.”
The Call of the Wild reads easily as an adventure tale like Kidnapped, but the narrative briskly moves into the aforementioned mythologizing. When Buck is brutally clubbed— broken in order to serve man—the sustained episode of suffering becomes a

Two pre-Christian heroes come to mind as role models in subsequent chapters. Buck is “preeminently cunning,” making him like the man of twists and turns, Odysseus. Sure enough Buck defeats his rival, Spitz, due to his imagination.

In his superior strength and courage Buck resembles Heracles. His “exploits,” such as the pulling of the impossibly burdened sled, recall the warrior’s
12 labors. (The majority of those labors required the canine task of “fetching” and the last entailed wrestling with the hellhound Cerberus.)

Buck’s feats inspire his kind master, John Thornton, to lead a new quest. Through a rough arcadia they search for a “fabled lost mine” and a “Lost Cabin,” combining frontier lore with the imagery of Perceval hunting the grail and visiting the illusory
Grail Castle.

Buck spends his late years running with a wolf pack into myth as a Ghost Dog, witnessed only by the fictional Yeehat Indian tribe, representatives of pre-Western culture. Ultimately then Buck exemplifies heroism for all times: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Biblical Era, Middle Ages and Modernity.

The narration’s self-conscious myth-making and its journalistic treatment of rugged life in the Klondike both support another great process, as the title of the novel suggests. Buck’s transformation from pampered prince to wild warrior, his devolution into a “dominant primordial beast” is the compelling theme on display.

Buck’s voyage “into the womb of Time” to become the alpha wolf-dog, evokes for moviegoers a similar trip for mankind. In 1980’s
Altered States, Eddie Jessup, a medical researcher played by William Hurt, blurts out with pseudoscientific hubris: “I think that that true self, that original self, that first self, is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing—tangible and incarnate. And I’m gonna find [it].”

Let’s award an E for Effort to Hurt, if he was ad-libbing, for “mensurate,” a word the centathlete has never seen nor heard before or since. The O.E.D. labels it a rare transitive verb meaning “to measure.” Jessup’s complete thought suggests he meant “mensurable,” as a highfalutin, academic synonym for “measurable.”

If the script actually called for “mensurate” then qualified kudos may go to
Paddy Chayefsky, but he disavowed screenwriting credit after fighting with the director, Ken Russell. A celebrated dramatist for television and cinema and a three-time Oscar winner, Chayefsky wrote the 1953 teleplay Marty, which featured the following line of dialogue that could belong to a parody of The Call of the Wild: “You know, us dogs aren't really so much of the dogs that we think we are.”

More than two decades later, Chayefsky wrote his only novel,
Altered States. Although he despised the film adaptation, the real scientist who inspired the story liked it fine. “I think they did a good job,” John C. Lilly, the model for Eddie Jessup, told Omni in 1983, “The hallucination scenes are much better than anything ever produced before.”

In 1954 Lilly, a medical researcher,
invented the isolation tank to explore consciousness and sensory deprivation. Ten years later, while floating with three dolphins, he took LSD for the first time. Looking to explore and confirm his prior vision, while unmedicated, that there were “alternate realities,” Lilly incorporated LSD and Ketamine into his research for years to come.

He saw amazing and terrifying things (such as the Earth Coincidence Control Office) that intrigued him much more than the devolution into ape man. That process, the focus of Altered States, was based on an episode that Lilly offhandedly dismissed:
“As for the scientist's regression into an apelike being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly ‘became’ a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, ‘Where the hell were you?’ He said, ‘I became a prehominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away.’ I said, ‘If you do that again, I'll kick you in the ass.’ He laughed.”
Through Chayefsky's dramatization of this curious incident of the ape man in the night-time, Eddie Jessup becomes the “other, more primitive self” through “genetic regression.”

Jessup, during his extended incarnation as Primal Man, is attacked by stray dogs, In warding them off with a pipe, striking out, he is a fearful victim, not a club-wielding “lawgiver” such as the man in the red sweater that breaks Buck. Primal Man then follows the dogs to the zoo.

This last act is re-imagined as a stylized dream by Jessup’s wife Emily, played by
Blair Brown. On a dark Boston street, silhouetted by streetlamps, Primal Man races with two wild dogs at his side—they now work together, as they would have thousands of years ago, chasing down prey or searching for the grazing grounds of big game.

The scene also resonates on another level, suggesting Emily’s “own liberated masculine aspect à la WMN WHO RUN W/T WOLVES [sic],”
according to a writer for, an engrossing site devoted to “movies, dreams, myths and psychoanalysis.” Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, is the original woman who runs with the wolves; worship of her dates back to mankind’s hunter/gatherer days.

If we think of London’s hero Buck running with the wolves, he becomes a male stand-in for Artemis. His omnisexuality as a hero was suggested early in the plot: in myth women (
Europa, Sita, Persephone, et al.), not men, are kidnapped.

The wolf-dog himself, in The Call of the Wild, experiences charged visions of the coexistence of species. By the fire Buck remembers a primitive companion, a “hairy man” who squats, makes strange sounds, and exhibits “perpetual fear.” Later the wolf-dog and hairy man run through the woods.

The fictional treatments of this partnership are grounded in historical fact. The Call of the Wild adds the geographical foundation, at least for North Americans. Some time 10,000-14,000 years ago
or even earlier, “the first dogs crossed the Bering land bridge with a wave of humans occupying North America,” according to one website devoted to huskies.

Many of the novel’s sled dogs, like Spitz, are huskies. Buck himself is not one and, at 140 pounds, he outweighs his coworkers almost
threefold. The introduction of such a stranger into a group of sled dogs would not be that unusual, we can gather from comments made by Doug Swingley, the 1999 Iditarod winner, to Joe Runyan:

“The Alaskan husky is a continuous experiment in breeding and really nothing more than a successful mixed breed mutt. The diverse gene pool is an advantage because it allows mushers to very quickly develop dogs for specific traits.”
The centathlete is reminded of an old friend, Cody, a superior specimen who was happiest when working or exercising outdoors; friendly when meeting people and then mainly aloof; taciturn but not sulky; and calm, with a very long fuse that lead to a dangerous temper. Perhaps you know someone like that.

An Alaskan husky with
glacial blue eyes, Cody belonged to a friend who lived nearby in apartments in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood. You did not “walk” Cody; he strode or trotted ahead, pulling the leash vigorously and steadily like a sled dog. Marveling at his unflagging physicality, you would forget that when Cody was a puppy he fell six stories from a balcony, shattering his hind legs and suffering internal trauma. Surgery was ruled out, yet the bones and organs mended completely, never appearing to trouble him again.

When Cody met humans he was universally admired for his handsome lupine build and markings. Huskies are uncommon in Gotham; Cody was an exotic hunk.

When he met other dogs he was typically proud and indifferent at first. He stood still and permitted sniffing, which he reciprocated briefly, if at all. His apathy was most profound to the centathlete one night by Williamsburg’s industrial waterfront. Walking with Cody, we passed a lot full of buses. Two pit bulls lurched out, roaring and gurgling, suspended in rage by their chains. Less than ten feet away on the other side of the barbed wire fence, Cody continued on without looking at them, without flinching, as if they didn’t exist.

Cody could be rambunctious, though he seemed serious when playing with other city dogs, who could be unfocused and silly, and were usually slower and more beholden to short bursts of energy. Chasing a ball or scampering around the dog run, Cody often looked like a varsity all-star small forward playing pick-up with the JV.

Though he lived in a cramped, hot apartment, Cody did travel often to the woods and to wide-open spaces in New England, Pennsylvania and Upstate New York. The best trip he ever took was out west, to Colorado, the Dakotas and Montana. He walked through a herd of buffalo. He was followed for several days by a lone coyote, though they never met up. The framed photographs from that excursion of Cody in high meadow grass radiate fundamental joy.

Cody went to northern California several times as well, also in wooded areas. He committed a violent crime out there—he ravaged a small dog that may or may not have provoked him.

In his late years Cody remained active and calm, beloved by his neighbors in Gramercy and naturally by his master, whom he in turn loved and in certain aspects resembled.

One day his master telephoned, his voice quavering. Cody had fallen very sick. Before a trip to the vet could occur, he’d fallen unconscious and received mouth-to-mouth. He revived then passed out again. Despite further desperate attempts at resuscitation, Cody, the glacier-eyed husky, passed away.

While dogs enhance our existence with their vibrant activity—evoking recognition of a primitive, shared vitality—they also introduce and continually reacquaint many of us with Death. On account of dogs’ shorter life expectancies (and the reduction in size of human families),
the successive expirations of our numerous pets can define how we cope with the mortality of cherished ones and ourselves.

More than a week had passed before Cody’s master could make that phone call and others bearing the sad news. He was overwhelmed with grief. More than four years later he hasn’t gotten another dog—in visiting pounds and breeders he hasn’t felt a connection strong enough to “replace” Cody.

John Lilly approached The End vocally and philosophically, due to his temperament and near-death experiences, as was manifest when he visited Craig Enright, who’d been in an awful car crash. Lilly held his friend’s hand and
“It's not so bad to die, Craig. I've been to the brink myself a few times, and I've seen over the edge. The Beings have told me on several occasions that I was
free to go with them, but I decided to stay here and continue my work in this vehicle that everyone calls John Lilly; they showed me that I am one of them.
‘You are one of us.’ I know that you know this because we've been there together. Whatever you do, Craig, I love you.”
Enright died the next day. Lilly died years later in 2001; his legacy of pioneering, unorthodox research into consciousness and into
communicating with dolphins, lives on.

Buck lives on too, of course. The alpha dog runs with huskies, then wolves, into the beginning of primordial life.

study of dogs’ DNA affirmed the timelessness and the value of the interaction between man, dog and wolf described in The Call of the Wild:
“Most of the late Pleistocene, humans and wolves coexisted over a wide geographic area, providing ample opportunity for independent domestication
events and continued genetic exchange between wolves and dogs.”
The conclusion offers quite a kicker, as the authors consider other flora and fauna:
“Backcrossing events could have provided part of the raw material for artificial selection and for the extraordinary degree of phenotypic diversity in the domestic dog. Domestic species of plants and animals whose wild progenitors are extinct cannot be enriched through periodic interbreeding, and change under artificial selection may be more limited. Consequently, the preservation of wild progenitors may be a critical issue in the continued evolution of domestic plants and animals.”
Intermingling with the wild, therefore, is critical and enriching for man’s best friend. But man can’t breed with his own hairy progenitors, so he has to be content with their avatars in ancient and modern myths, and in sci-fi movies—and in
Geico commercials.