What lasts: an atlas of culture

In the 1920s, when Indiana was under the political control of the Ku Klux Klan, the Hoosier bard James Whitcomb Riley’s home town of Greenfield was one of the “sunset towns”: towns where no black person could safely be after dark.

In 1964 and ’65, when I resided in Greenfield (“lived” would be the wrong word), it was linguistically different from Indianapolis, just a few miles to the west. In Greenfield coffee was served in a two-syllable coo-up, what swam in water was a feesh, and if your car got stuck you’d have to give it a poosh. Also, at the time in Greenfield, everybody had to count their change after every purchase, because if they didn’t they’d be shorted every time.

Fifty-six years afterward, the New York Times reports this.



And Greenfield, here’s your money shot.


News from the twentieth century: topless is fine as long as you aren’t Allen Ginsberg

It also helps not to be unwhite.


For several days after this story broke, the reading was front-page news in the Star. The Star’s analysis two days later (March 4, pages 1 and 4) explained:

The_Indianapolis_Star_Fri__Mar_4__1966_4 clip

In all that time, the poet’s name never sullied the whiteness of the Star’s newsprint. On March 11, page 21, a reader complained:

The_Indianapolis_Star_Fri__Mar_11__1966_ clip

Ginsberg’s own record of the event is the poem “Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington,” collected in his 1972 City Lights volume The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971. It mentions the “tower walls” of the Eli Lilly & Co. plant in Greenfield where I read the Star’s coverage in a break room,

and figured out the poet’s name,

and came with a sinking feeling to the realization that I was the only person in the complex who would know or care. About that, a line from Hart Crane’s The Bridge may have the grammatical distinction of being the only factually incorrect imperative ever written:

Come back to Indiana — not too late!

It is not possible to set foot too late in Indiana.