Thursday, August 25, 2011

Literature Brings the Physical Past to Life

According to Scott Herring at

Recently, literary theorists have been making another of their occasional efforts to restore a trace of earthly reality to criticism. This time those efforts have taken the form of Darwinian literary studies, which attempt to relate the universal impulse to tell stories to human nature, as shaped by evolution.

My guess is that those theorists are motivated partly by a desperate realization that, in the process of deconstructing the profession, we in the literature business have shot ourselves not in the foot, but in the head. At a time of contracting education budgets, the public is no longer willing to pay for courses titled "Bat[woman] and Cat[man]: Queering the Canonical Comix."

If nothing else, people may appreciate the application of scientific thinking to a field that has known little of it. Americans admire practicality, and our profession has become esoteric and politicized. Today's literary scholarship too often serves as a vehicle for politics, and even professors who care little for public opinion are eager to indoctrinate students in their views. We seem to have given up on the notion that literature itself can be useful. But in doing so, we are forgetting a crucial function of the books we study.

History gives us the facts, sort of, but from literary works we can learn what the past smelled like, sounded like, and felt like, the forgotten gritty details of a lost era. Literature brings us as close as we can come to reinhabiting the past. By reclaiming this use of literature in the classroom, perhaps we can move away from the political agitation that has been our bread and butter—or porridge and hardtack—for the last 30 years.

Besides literary Darwinism, I suggest another way that scholars can ground their studies in reality: Start with a piece of the physical world. I, for example, recently had a major breakthrough that arose from a bit of junk engine iron.

In the autumn of 2009, I was kicking around the high sagebrush desert just inside the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, in Montana, looking over the remains of a ghost town. In the process, I found an old dump. From the condition of the glass and the type of rifle and revolver cartridges lying around, I could tell that it dated back well into the 20th century. In one corner, I found the remains of a day—in about 1945, it seemed—when someone had finally gotten around to cleaning out the garage. Scattered around were a clutch pedal, a differential gear, an axle, a piece of tire, and so forth. The parts must have been old even in the mid-1940s, and should have gone for scrap during the war. Perhaps they had still been in use, driven to death by the car's owner.

One piece was evocative somehow: an engine head, the long, heavy piece of steel that sits on top of the cylinders on the engine block and contains the explosions of volatilized gasoline that drive the pistons up and down. I know a little about cars because before I went to graduate school, I spent some years running a service station and repair shop in Yellowstone, where I'd gotten hooked on the scenery. I took photographs of the engine head. It seemed familiar somehow.

Two days later, I was called home to California. My grandfather, who had just turned 85, was sick. When I visited him at home in the Sierra foothills, he was bedridden but otherwise still himself. We talked about my trip to Yellowstone, and I opened up my laptop to show him the photographs. When I got to the engine head, I asked if he knew what it was.

He squinted at the screen. "That's a head from a 1934 Ford Model B."

OK—more specific an answer than I'd expected. Then he surprised me again: "That's a head from the same kind of car I had during the war. That'd fit any model from a '32 to a '34. Mine was a '34."

I knew the car from family photos. Maybe that is why the head, lying out there in the desert, sparked my memory; it went with much of the other junk, which had come from a Model B. (That model wound up becoming famous. By the 1950s, the cars could be bought for a pittance, and kids began customizing them beyond recognition. They became the little deuce coupe the Beach Boys sang about in 1963—the "deuce" being the "2" in the year the car made its debut: 1932.)

Seeing that piece of the past turned loose a flood of memories in my grandfather. "I left Camp Carson in Colorado Springs—I got transferred to another unit, in Los Angeles," he continued in his Ozark accent. He was speaking, I think, of early 1945, when he drove his Model B with my grandmother and my mother, then a baby, across Tijeras Pass on Route 66. ("Tiger-Ass Pass," my grandfather would forever call it.) It was snowing. One would think the snow would keep the engine cool, but a head gasket blew, and the water supply of the engine spewed out onto the hissing block.

My grandfather hitchhiked and walked into Albuquerque, where he found a junkyard. "The owner had three sons in the service," he explained. "He saw my uniform. He let me have some tools, and I went out and got what I needed. When I tried to pay him, he said, 'You don't owe me anything.'"

The snow continued. He now had to get back to the car on Tijeras Pass, where my grandmother and the baby were stuck. He found a cabdriver who finally agreed to take him back to the Ford, he repaired the engine, and the family limped on toward California.

Then he told me something I'd never heard before. Years before the breakdown on Route 66, his family had been part of the great Okie/Arkie flight to California. They had left Little Rock in 1939, driving a 1937 Oldsmobile, "pretty much a brand-new car, in those days. But the trip destroyed it by the time we made it to Santa Monica. It never ran right again. The heat killed it." They had crossed the Mojave Desert in the usual way, which was to pull up near the California border, wait until nightfall, and make a kamikaze run to the other side. Desert temperatures usually drop after dark, but the Mojave can stay hot even at night.

"Why did the heat do that much damage?" I asked.

"Cars were different then," he explained. "On that Model B, the radiator was never big enough, and the water pumps were never big enough. The head cracked when they got hot. Mine got hot." The Oldsmobile had suffered similarly. As engines heated, every moving part—camshaft, crankshaft, rods, bearings, rings, and all the rest—was stressed and finally warped in ways that spoiled the fine tolerances any engine requires.

At the time, as he spoke, it seemed a minor point. We talked until he was too tired to go on. The disease—leukemia—had done more damage than I thought. He passed away the next day.

While I grieved for my grandfather, my mind kept returning to the way I had touched history that afternoon. I thought, for instance, about the great migration to California that Americans undertook every day during my grandfather's youth. I thought about the most famous document of that migration, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck, we know, had a habit of exaggerating. He made the flight from Oklahoma sound like it involved tens of millions, when in fact the numbers were closer to tens of thousands. Still, scenes in the book came back to me with a vividness they had never possessed before—especially the Mojave Desert, between the town of Needles and the Sierra Nevada, which the Joads had to cross to reach California's Central Valley:

"The truck took the road and moved up the long hill, through the broken, rotten rock. The engine boiled very soon and Tom slowed down and took it easy. Up the long slope, winding and twisting through dead country, burned white and gray, and no hint of life in it. Once Tom stopped for a few moments to let the engine cool, and then he traveled on. They topped the pass while the sun was still up, and looked down on the desert—black cinder mountains in the distance, and the yellow sun reflected on the gray desert. The little starved bushes, sage and grease-wood, threw bold shadows on the sand and bits of rock. The glaring sun was straight ahead. Tom held his hand before his eyes to see at all. They passed the crest and coasted down to cool the engine. They coasted down the long sweep to the floor of the desert, and the fan turned over to cool the water in the radiator."

Generations of high-school and college students have been told that these descriptions are (pause to write on the whiteboard) a literary allusion. The Joads are wandering through the desert of Sinai in search of the promised land. They are like the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, which is in another, bigger book called the Bible.

That analysis is good enough, as far as it goes. But it leaves out an important element: engine coolant.

Drivers during the Great Depression had coolant and antifreeze, but it was primitive stuff compared to the brews available today. Modern coolant, the green fluid that mixes with water in radiators, is part of the armory of sophisticated engineering that has eliminated heat as a threat to automotive engines. Today millions make the drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 120-degree heat with the air conditioner on high, driving way over the speed limit and never giving the heat a thought unless they have to get out and buy gas.

On that last afternoon with my grandfather, he took me to an alternate reality—alternate, but not made up. It was a reality of hardship, suffering, and endurance that we seem to have lost. When his family reached the far edge of the desert in the '37 Olds, my grandfather was so desperately hot that he tried swimming in the Salton Sea. The result made me think of another literary allusion, to Lot's wife. "I come outta there white with salt, head to toe," my grandfather said. "I never suffered like that." He kept suffering until he reached a bathtub in Santa Monica, days later.

That kind of information is in The Grapes of Wrath, but we have a hard time recognizing it. When we read about the Joads' crossing, we assume that the problem is simply that their car is old and overloaded. The truth is that the sum of society's technology was not up to the challenge of moving a family across one of the world's most fearsome deserts.

The past is not another country; it is another life. The texture of daily living is different now than in the past, more different the further back we look, until we find people whose experiences created a psychology we might find baffling or rude. Many details that once made up the daily round are lost to us because people considered them too trivial to write down.

Knowing the past means knowing what people carried in their pockets, what they did with their sewage, where their dogs slept. Those details may seem unimportant, but what they convey is not. My bit of junk from the Montana sage taught me why millions of otherwise-modern people in 20th-century America feared the desert as much as the ox-drawn pioneers had.

Let the dead French theorists lie. Instead, literary scholars can become guides to the physical reality of the past. If you think about it, that's what we've been doing in class for the last hundred years: explaining how to pronounce "Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?" in Early Modern English, for instance, or describing a Boeing B-17 to help students understand Randall Jarrell's poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Once ordinary people note that we're doing something useful again, they might stop looking at us like we're nuts. And maybe we'll even get some jobs back.

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