Part I: The Low Grade Fever
Books can be a burden and a privilege. They are a literal weight that must be carried over miles and across years. I have books lost and books found, but the majority of them are unread. This is the curse of the reader. Books are acquired in anticipation of a thousand year reign on earth, collected in the belief that one day you will find a place where no one will interrupt you. You will be Montaigne in his tower for centuries: reading, writing, maybe staring out the window. If you happen to write your thoughts, then they are just the exhaust of the reading process.
Readers seem gentle, but they are bent on conquest. They are greedy for space and time, and they acquire books as if on a march. I have bought and will buy more books than I will ever read. I have no intention of stopping. Someday I’ll get that long winter with a fireplace and a big chair, an island in the Pacific, a ranch in Montana, an apartment in Paris. Then I’ll have the time to read everything I own. For now, I just do a bit at a time and dream of more shelving.
Some of my best lifetime purchases came from gnawing on the corpus of the late, great, Whistler’s Books in Westport. As the store slowly died of Barnes and Noble induced wounds, I bought volume after volume at ridiculous discount. In my joy, I failed to see how the loss of this store would permanently affect my quality of life, but at the time I was happy for bargains. Most of the books have been shuffled around with my moves and dispossessions, and most are unread. But I also believe that books will wait for you if you have them, and then they will find you when the right time comes.
This is the case of Mark Twain’s America by Bernard DeVoto, a Bison paperback I picked up in Whistler’s last days. DeVoto is one of those authorial names that resonates for some. He is best known for editing the journals of Lewis and Clark, and the poet Ed Skoog told me one of DeVoto’s pieces was essential for some reason; I can no longer remember which one or why, but it may have been the impetus to buy DeVoto’s book in the first place.
I think I have had the book for over ten years, but I don’t know if I ever opened it. I have tried to finish the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges more than once always failing. On my latest attempt, I saw DeVoto’s Mark Twain’s America referenced in his story “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell;” I put down the Borges and started to read DeVoto, and my understanding of the world changed. DeVoto was a writer I needed.
I don’t know if the work would have had the same impact had I not moved to Missouri. The majority of my life has been lived adjacent to the state, often with multiple daily visits across the state line. But I was born in Kansas and have lived in Kansas, and waking up day after day in Missouri has wrought changes. Though the state line is arbitrary and invisible, the two states are different. My experience is even more extreme due to my living in the area of Westport – once the last stop on the edge of the known world.
Westport was designed as a disembarkation point and a destination point. It had been so for the French in the 18th century, and for Americans in the 19th century. What surprises me is that it still serves this same function. This spot on the earth is still a crossing, but DeVoto made me understand that what was taken or deposited or what simply passed through was not the whole story. The people were their own tale. Going to Westport every day for coffee has led to peculiar observations. What has struck me over the years of doing so, first from Kansas and now living in Missouri, is the preponderance of those who can most gently be called “characters.” On the sidewalks of Broadway there seem to be all different kinds: some appear when it is cold; some when it is hot; some when dry; some when wet. The seasons alter their appearance or disappearance. Where they go, I cannot say, but new ones arrive, and old ones depart. These characters are not simply those who suffer from mental illness, those with addictions, those who are homeless, or those who attend art school. Income or insanity does not seem to be the salient issue. It is more that the place itself seems to do something to them.
In my examination, the percentage of concentrated eccentricity within a five mile radius of the intersection of Westport Road and Broadway must be enormously high though no studies seem to have been undertaken officially. This has led me to the conclusion that Kansas City is weird and bohemian, but it will probably never be hip nor fashionable. Why? In my opinion, the places designated as hip are also relatively safe. Hipness currently is another name for critical consumption: to be hip you must know what to purchase –you must know what the uninitiated do not. To be hip you must be relatively safe because you must be able to purchase your hip goods and services with little interruption, and physical danger or its threat impedes economic activity.
In Kansas City, for those aware, the reality of physical violence is often under the surface. Missouri is a state filled with guns and knives, both of which can be concealed. It has a preponderance of alcohol, tobacco, fireworks, pornography, and Bible verses. These elements combine in unusual ways. DeVoto explains that the frontier, which is another name for Mark Twain’s Missouri, is as much defined by its casualties as by its heroes. For every noble wagon scout, there is the family with the broken-down Conestoga; these individuals would never make it to California or Oregon, so they just stayed put. Here.
The frontier as DeVoto describes it was no joke, and its hardship was not mythical. The frontier was like the coast but without sufficient insulation, and this led to an extremity that made or broke the inhabitants. DeVoto asks this:
Is the frontier distinguished for squalor, unimaginable lethargy, filth, repellent social relations, a hideousness of wretched life, the degradation of mankind to a larval form that burrowed protectively into the clay? Unquestionably…in part. Defeat is defeat. The frontier left its wreckage, those who in one way or another its selection found to be unfit.
In other words: Flyover Country. This limited dismissal is ubiquitous in our culture whether it is spoken or not. It is apparently universally known that there is something wrong with those who do not live near salt water. Why this is the case, is never precisely defined.
Personally, I have often encountered well-intentioned handwringing due to my continued residence in the middle of the country. Why can’t I just go someplace else and finally become legitimate? This is not an individual directive but a national one: our nation apparently only exists in three places: New York, LA and Washington D.C. All that the world loves or hates of us comes from these capitals, and those in the blank spaces on the rest of the map are just colonists obedient to the imperial directives of these cities. Those left in the middle by choice, accident or lack of ability are apparently the worst of the worst: by being equidistant from both coasts we are rendered neither hot nor cold. Hence we are to be disregarded, except for moments of ridicule when our collective foibles are caricatured for national amusement. Rarely is this region cited for its virtues.
Frontiersmen/Frontierswomen and the others
DeVoto states that the makeup of the frontier population is culturally defined by a specific physical liability:
Throughout the duration of the frontier everyone who was not biologically immune suffered one or another of these bilious fevers. Malaria was endemic. Few escaped it. Some developed immunity after a year or two, others must expect the old torment annually, with the turn of summer or the approach of autumn…The frontiersman, we have seen, rallied after some sixty days and went about his routine with a clearer head. But the microorganisms slept uneasily in his blood, and mostly, there was a thin sweat on his forehead. A clinical thermometer would have shown about one degree of fever. This was the constant temperature of a population.
So the denizens of the frontier were not only seasonal but literal hotheads. I have seen this borne out. Once at a Kansas City gallery opening, I saw an art school graduate enter and assault another man over a supposedly stolen rifle and because the artist believed the other man had slept with his wife. Shortly after, the artist was removed; the assaulted man was drunk and was called “Cracker” as a chosen first name. He added up the violence done to him, muttered profanity and then broke a long neck bottle with which he intended to pursue his assailant. At this point, the opening was declared closed and all were told to leave as the gallerist locked the doors and apparently put Cracker to bed.
Let me stress: these events were witnessed at an art opening. This may also happen in New York, but I have never heard a report from Chelsea where Cracker broke a longneck and the opening had to close. No, this seems like a happening in a town inhabited by the descendants of those with a perpetual low fever.
In my own case, I was once dismissed as drunk or high by a visitor from San Francisco who found my demeanor so outlandish that she believed my mind was altered, and all I was doing was extending greetings and salutations at Broadway Cafe. I found this out later and was hurt: as a Kansas Dry and stone cold sober it surprised me that my general enthusiasm was so shocking. DeVoto again helps me. I am the descendant of Missourians and within my genetic makeup is a low grade fever that demonstrates its presence according to its own preference. Additionally, I am happy to be a Westport character, and heredity is on my side.
It is important to note that DeVoto is not condemning the frontier as a place or a culture, but he believes it a space that can create a certain kind of genius. The extremity that causes loss can also bring gain, and for DeVoto, Twain is the embodiment of this tendency. Rather than being from a no-place, Twain’s Missouri is a font that never runs dry and one that informs Twain’s artistic production. For DeVoto, Twain is a genius because he is from Missouri and not in spite of it.
DeVoto’s work was intended as a critique of an eastern bias that he believed was fundamentally wrong. Writing in the 1930s, DeVoto’s assessment may be even more accurate now since our notions of the culturally acceptable have further calcified. It is interesting that no President since Reagan has failed to attend the Ivy League: this means that when making the fundamental political choice as a nation, we can only choose those who have first received the imprimatur of an eastern establishment. We have created a battery of Confucian tests to make our own Atlantic mandarins. Abe Lincoln, an autodidact born in Kentucky and raised in backwoods Illinois, obviously would not need to apply to a leadership position now. DeVoto’s work suggests that if we are to be culturally rich, we need to embrace the denizens of all regions, rather than just those on tidewater edges.
DeVoto argues that the prejudice against the frontier is deep: “Literary opinion fails to approve the frontier. On evidence not submitted, the frontier folk are held to be Puritans given to a rigid suppression of emotion and particularly sexual emotion, and given also to deplorable license in emotion which produced camp meetings, lynchings, and sexual debauch.” One needs only a cursory glance at current representations of flyover country to determine that the sentiments described are still believed to be valid by many. DeVoto believes this condemnation centers on a condemnation of the land itself- that is, closeness to rural life ironically means a lack of cultivation though rural life is often defined by the cultivating of the land and the consequences of these activities on its people. Nearly anyone from Kansas City -Kansas or Missouri side regardless- knows that for outsiders, to link the word “Kansas” with “City” is considered a high oxymoron, if not a literal impossibility. Kansas Citians suffer from an association with the rural while living apart from the land – an unfortunate double disadvantage. Much of the collective anxiety of the city itself is derived from the short distance of its citizens from the farm or country town.
Yet DeVoto maintains that closeness to the land is actually a key to creativity, and his view should be encouraging, or even inspiring to those who inhabit the places not initially desired: “Urban America, developing a generation of urban theorists, has found its sentiments condemning rural America. One wonders why an environment held to be commendable for Thoreau is thought unfortunate for Mark Twain.” Irony intact, DeVoto knows that the difference between Thoreau and Twain is the regarded difference between Massachusetts and Missouri, but DeVoto’s thoughts offer real possibilities, for the embracing of a specific place suggests a potential starting point for many. The very disregard for the middle of the nation offers opportunities for original creation and sufficient space to undertake it. The evidence of this is rampant in Kansas City where so many seem to be some kind of makers of something – a town full of side projects of various kinds.
Mark Twain’s America Now
But Twain left: he settled into a white suit and Hartford, Connecticut leaving Missouri far behind. Still Mark Twain’s America raises questions that are worthy of examination. The apparently marginal may have an unanticipated value. A better nation is one that has places marked by distinctiveness rather than the tendency of economic interests to render all spaces the same. If a maligned part of the country declared independence to be itself, low grade fever or not, then potentially it could enrich the whole. By making only some spots acceptable, we diminish the value of all. There was never supposed to be a national caste system determined by geography: that was not Jefferson’s vision when he gambled on the Louisiana Purchase. Democracy was to be evenly spread, yet in all our examinations of the prejudicial, we neglect to oppose the bias against place and region. It seems unlikely that advocacy groups will be established to stop regional defamation, but most here seem content to live lives regardless of outside approval though twinges of regional insecurities never fully die.
The original Kansas City was both in Kansas and Missouri as French trappers brought their Blackfeet wives to settle on the bottomland of the Kaw River. Apparently they fished, hunted, trapped, farmed, drank whiskey and played the fiddle populating the edges of the Kaw with their French/Blackfeet children. They apparently felt good about it all until the Kaw flooded, as it has a tendency to do, washing away their farms. Later Anglo settlers did their best to expunge the memory of the freewheeling French who had preceded them. Yet the laissez- faire quality has never entirely left. Kansas City is still filled with individuals sitting by their own metaphoric spot on the Kaw playing imaginary fiddles. What it all adds up to is hard to determine: it may be of little importance, but DeVoto demonstrates that you never can tell what might be produced by nobodies from no-place.