The Buck Stops Here - He Wanted to Escape the Sixties
“Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data.” – William Gibson.
Gibson, who gave us the term cyberspace (“a consensual hallucination” he calls it), was characterizing William S. Burroughs’s cut-up, collage method in novels like Naked Lunch as an influence on his own fiction, but I would like to suggest that it applies more broadly -- how we become who (what) we are. We can’t push away what bumps up against us. It leans in.
“I am a man of the thirties,” the poet George Oppen writes. “No other taste shall change this.” The same might be said of my parents. The Depression was hard on them and even in the flush years after World War II, they still found it difficult to spend money. I was raised in different circumstances and was a trial to them. From their thirties’ hold-on-to-what-you-have philosophy, I was careless with money.
I regret my indifference to those years when I was a child and then a teenager and have, subsequently, found the thirties to be of crucial importance in my life, particularly for what it says about America today. I understood why my father refused to be relocated from Cleveland when his company moved shop to Birmingham, Alabama. It was a non-union shop, he said. He would not work for a non-union shop. It does not, finally, make me a man of the thirties. The meaning is in the adjacent data.
I heard Malcolm X in Detroit, just months before he was assassinated. Malcolm was electric and, yes, threatening. He presented an America I did not know from my life in Lakewood. It sent me down a path. I was in Detroit in 1967 when the riot hit. I got my last, full-time college teaching job from reverse discrimination. A black friend of mine I had taught with in Detroit had moved east. Hire Buckeye, he told the chair. They wanted to keep him.
In 1975, I saw Robert Altman’s Nashville, which in its put-down of red-neck, country music America and criticism of the war in Vietnam, was also, at the same time, a celebration of America and of its country music, “like a river,” Molly Haskell writes, “running through their life.” I was struck by Ronee Blakley, a little-known actress whose part is based loosely on the country-singer, Loretta Lynn, “a white-clad Ophelia,” Haskell says, who is assassinated at the end of the film.
I sought out albums of Blakley’s songs (she was better-known as a singer) and came across a song on Fred Hampton, with lyrics, “I want to be part of Fred Hampton.” I knew about Hampton. He was a Black Panther Martin Luther King had praised who had been gunned down by Chicago police at the age of 21 in 1969 in what amounted to a public execution. When police took reporters through Hampton’s apartment to illustrate the danger of Hampton, Richard Stern noticed instead the number of books Hampton had. “There were people here who wanted to know how the body and the body politic were put together,” Stern writes. In one speech Hampton delivered less than a half year before his death, he says, “We have to educate the people.”
I won’t say I came to books, but rather they came to me, not as furnishing – decor, dress or status – but as they had come to Fred Hampton. Books had to answer for themselves, as I did too in reading them. When Vice-President Richard Cheney was asked about Vietnam in the sixties, he said that he had other priorities. I did too, though they were not his. He wanted to escape the sixties. I’ve never let them go.