The food they ate, the poems they wrote

Pre-footnote: after the widely unpredicted Republican victory in the presidential election of 2016, many media organizations in the United States dispatched pundits to rural precincts to learn what they had missed. Soon derided by the pundits themselves as “Cletus-hunting,” these expeditions typically involved respectful interviews with citizens lamenting their loss of economic and cultural status and placing the blame on urban elites. Typically, the pundits then wrote up the color red (as in the citizens’ Donald Trump wear) but not the color black (as in Barack Obama’s unclothed skin).

That coverage was truncated not only spectrally but historically. On the record of American history, the cultural conflict between pastoral and anti-pastoral had begun taking specifically literary form at least as early as Crèvecoeur’s Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, with its fictitious political playlet about the sanctimonious neighbors who in non-fictional actual history forced Crèvecoeur to flee his farm and then stole it. The depiction of helpless fury in the face of cant was to become a distinctive genre trait which reproduced itself throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in such novels as E. W. Howe’s The Story of a Country Town, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and of course Huckleberry Finn. As a mode of reading, the genre remains vigorous. Three anti-Red texts still culturally resonant post-centenary are Willa Cather’s “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” and H. L. Mencken’s “The Husbandman.” Listen, Fox:

And long before Mencken, St. John Crèvecoeur, an eighteenth-century Physiocrat who believed that wealth originated in a pastoral economics of the soil, redefined those who had moved beyond the frontiers of American society as not only post-pastoral but pre-human. More than a century before Max Nordau popularized the term, Crèvecoeur was calling such life forms degenerate. Said he: the degenerates have reverted to an earlier state, of society and of body. Observe what they metabolize, there among the foxes.

After you’ve read this, the Capitol on January 6, 2021, may come to mind, with the shit smeared on the interior walls, the human space. But because there are schools on your side of the frontier, you also have learned to turn off the TV, turn back the clock, and read this twentieth-century poem.

Shreveport (Louisiana) Journal, March 8, 1928, page 2.

Less than two years from this date of publication, the Great Depression will arrive to wipe the dimpled smile off Mr. Blige’s face. But it already looks like a forced smile. Mr. Blige can’t be happy in his apron among the orange squeezers. You see that in the drawing, but you can also hear it in the lyric. Back-translated to prose, O. Blige is proud but poor, loud but little, ever going over his inventory, never peacefully asleep. Rhyming itself into being, his poem has sung him so.

So take the poem seriously, at its rhymes’ words. Don’t let it get its metrical feet on an AR-15. If you do, it will communicate its rhythm to you.

Prepare thy shadowy car

Library of Congress, Color and detail restored.
William Collins, 1721-1759. “Oaten stop” means “tune on a shepherd’s pipe,” “now air is hush’d” means “now that air is hush’d,” “winds” (pronounced like the noun) means “blows,” “car” means “chariot,” and “own” means “acknowledge.”
1930. Color and detail restored.

Explanatory annotation

Aufstieg eines Jagdflugzeuges

Monet’s haystacks are a pastoral technology. Unchanged in form since the mummy god Osiris taught men to plant seeds in the earth, they remain still on the earth while the wheeling light passes over them. It is from such stillness under change that we have become aware of time.

This image is a Monet landscape, but its pastoral imagery is now shrunken almost to unnoticeability. High and large in the foreground and, as the image’s title says, ascending, a new technology is sending unchanging shadow back up to the sky from which changing light once descended unchecked, bringing with it life and death in seasonal alteration. Linear Marinetti history is superseding cyclical Monet history. A hundred years ago, says this historical record, death was on the rise.

Source: Aufstieg eines Jagdflugzeuges (“Ascent of a fighter plane”), Austria-Hungary, about 1917. National Library of Austria, Photoshopped.