Every time I turn around there's something else to do
Cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two…
(“Gonna Be an Engineer”, Peggy Seeger)
Never Done: A History of American Houswork is a history of the American home, focusing on the work done within it, one which demonstrates how households became centers of consumption, instead of production. It’s a marvelously meaty work, divided into sections that not only show how chores evolved, but other elements within the household – like the now abandoned practice of taking in boarders. But more than a history of the home, it’s the story of American housewives, whose labors used to provide material value, not just aesthetic comfort; their chores carried meaning beyond keeping the carpet free of dust and the dishwasher full.
Those who complain about the chore of laundry today – “Put the clothes into the washer! Take them out! Put them into the dryer! Take them out!! When will it ever end?” are, in a word, wimps. Maintaining a household’s laundry- - clothes, towels, sheets – used to entail an entire week of labor, beginning with extended soaks before laborious hand-washing period, which included a separate ‘bluing’ phase to preserve the whiteness of said sheets. And at the same time, mother laundress would be cooking full meals from scratch, often tending a fire to do – and depending on where she lived, usually fetching entire tubs of water per day to do the washing, cooking, and cleaning with. And the cleaning! Cleaning meant more than washing the dishes and dusting the tables. Cooking with fire or oil meant soot, and processing food from scratch produced grease, and this soot and grease got everywhere; little wonder spring cleaning was seen with such dread. And at the same time, household materials had to be produced – preserves for the winter, candles for the night, clothes for the children. And we complain about vacuuming!
Such labors were eased first by fundamental innovations – the introduction of indoor plumbing, gas lines, and electricity – and then by convenience appliances (washing machines, which in their first stages still required an awful lot of work) gadgets (which did most of the work) and still later by completely processed goods (ready-made meals, disposable utensils) that took the work out of it completely. After having witnessed the demands of household labor prior to the late 19th century, the appearance of such aides is welcome….but the avalanche of consumer goods that appears in the final chapters gives one pause. As industry left the home – as the services that ran it became things to be purchased – the home and housework lost its meaning; decaying into chores,. Strasser covers the response of women to this, the attempt to elevate Home Economics to the status of business and industry by making it more ‘efficient’’ – but ultimately, the home was abandoned as women chose instead to pursue careers, and in fact had to help pay for all the new services and products they were being acculturated to expect. After growing up on canned biscuits, after all, who wants to start making dough by hand?
Although our lives have plainly become easier, there’s a certain wistfulness to the author’s writing; in some of the interviews, mothers express regret over some of the way their lives have changed. One in particular misses the time she spent with her kids washing dishes after supper; such moments of togetherness are increasingly hard to find, and emphasized the importance of the family taking care of one another’s needs; a childhood chore like keeping one’s bedroom straightened doesn’t make that connection. Strasser is more distinctly uncomfortable with the reduction of wives and mothers – of people in general – into consumers, something she presumably explores further in Satisfaction Guaranteed, and touched on in Waste and Want.
Never Done was Strasser’s first work, and it's quite an introduction. It's slightly more academic than Waste and Want, but considering how broad an audience Waste and Want was written for, that's not saying much: this is still very lively, closer to narrative history than textbook -- and yet it's carrying as much information as a text, covering virtually everything that happens within its walls. This is wonderful social and domestic history.(less)
America was born of the frontier, its citizens people who by necessity often manufactured their own household requirements. This was the case through...more America was born of the frontier, its citizens people who by necessity often manufactured their own household requirements. This was the case throughout most of the 19th century: even in cities where people could purchase articles like candles and clothing. But by that century’s end, a revolution was in the process – a consumer revolution in which virtually every household good, from food to cleaning solutions, came from factories. Even more remarkably, however, those goods weren’t even coming from the factories through familiar faces at local groceries: they were entering the lives of people through new mail-order schemes and colossal supermarkets. Satisfaction Guaranteed examines how a few entrepreneurs transformed Americans’ lifestyles and marketplace. Like Never Done and Waste and Want, Satisfaction is chiefly focused on social history, and together the three examine various facets of Americans’ transformation from producers to consumers, of how a nation of nominally self-reliant farmers and merchants became one of employee-consumers and big business. Unlike her previous workers, however, here Strasser presents a critical business history, rather like Straight Out of the Oven or Cheap. To explain the success of the new businesses, she demonstrates to readers how they created completely new business and marketing practices, like ‘market segmentation’ – targeting particular products within a brand to specific demographics. Another novelty was that of the brand name or trademark, which could be used to build a reputation for quality. They also depended on new technologies and systems, either material (in the form of railroads that allowed for mail-order companies to flower and deliver cheaper goods through volume sales) or legal, like court decisions that made corporations easier to form and much more effective at managing interstate businesses. Strasser places the most emphasis on marketing, however, for it was marketing that introduced Americans to completely new goods (‘Oleomargarine? What kinda cow makes that?), marketing that coaxed them into trying it even when their local grocers didn’t want to stock it, and marketing that gradually lured them into not only using products, but becoming dependent on them. Marketing is why invention is the mother of necessity. Although Strasser regards consumerism as wasteful, she doesn’t rail against the giants that promote it – indeed, depend on it. There are no villains in this piece, though she’s plainly sympathetic to the small businessmen, like the neighborhood grocers and general store managers, who were at first forced to keep goods on their shelves they had no experience with , and then driven out of business when large chains like A&P Groceries invaded. (Ads of the day directed potentials customers that if their local firms didn’t carry Crisco or the brand in question, they should forward the names and addresses of those firms to the corporation, who would see to it that the goods were offered for retail.) The new branded products didn’t offer storekeepers much of a profit margin, and eventually corporations began seeing local retailers as obstacles to reaching as broad a customer base as they possibly could – and that was the goal: not meeting needs, but devising any way to create and capture new markets. Whereas once Americans produced things in-house to satisfy their needs, now they were consumers who bought whatever ensnared their interests – and following the ‘credit revolution’, they didn’t even need to be limited by what they could afford. Strasser’s previous work has been lively yet comprehensive, and Satisfaction Guaranteed largely meets those standards. Covering the intersection of business practices and lifestyle, she focuses more on new approaches business management than on lifestyle, the usual center of attention, which may broaden her audience to those interested in business in general. This by no means detracts from its appeal as an introduction to the origins of mass consumerism in America, however.
"Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told."
Jayber Crow i...more"Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told."
Jayber Crow is many things. It is one of the most agonizingly beautiful and moving novels I have ever read. It's a lyrical testament to the power of love, the richness of community, and the pleasures of a life lived close to the rhythms of nature. And it's also the story of a man named Jonah, called Jayber, who once thought he had the call to preach, but left the seminary to practice barbering to live out the questions that the seminary had no answers for. It is the story of a man twice orphaned, who went on a journey, a pilgrimage, and found himself. It is a work of art.
I should acknowledge from the start that I am biased to like -- to adore -- this book, for the author's narrative voice is the kind I like best; gentle, wise, and slyly witful. I was unable to simply read the book; it had to be read aloud. Slowly. Multiple times. The text is swollen with sentences that, like fruit hanging from a tree, demand to be plucked and savoured; they have body, being something beyond ordinary words. Jayber Crow isn't an action drama with a clearly defined Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, and Conclusion; it's a coming of age story, in which the gracefully maturing subjects are both Jayber and his adopted home of Port William. Jayber is a child of the Great Depression, and arrives in town shortly before the outbreak of World War 2. That war and those that follow will hurt his fair city, but the pain of them brings his characters to life all the more. It is a deeply reflective novel, in which Jayber will begin to wax poetic about one topic or another -- the decline of ecologically-savvy family farms and the advent of debt-based agribusiness, or the damage automobiles do to one's sense of place -- for a spell before returning to telling the story of Port William as it attempts to survive the 20th century like a little skiff tossed in a turbulent ocean.
If I could only ever read one novel for the rest of my life, Jayber Crow would be it. The idea that it has only been in existence for thirteen years is staggering. It seems ageless. I think the only words that do Jayber Crow justice are the words of the author himself. ================================ For a long time then I seemed to live by a slender thread of faith, spun out from within me. From this single thread I spun strands that joined me to all the good things of the world. And then I spun more threads that joined all the strands together, making a life. And when it was complete, or nearly so, it was shapely and beautiful in the light of day. It endured through the nights, but sometimes it only barely did. It would be tattered and set awry by things that fell or blew or fled or flew. Many of the strands would be broken. Those I would spin and weave again in the morning.
p. 330 =================================
One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, [he said] "They ought to round up every one of them [war protesters] and put them right in front of the communists, and then whoever killed who, it would all be to the good." There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try and top it. I thought of Athey's reply to Hiram Hench. It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said "'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.'" Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. "Where did you get that crap?" I said, "Jesus Christ." And Troy said, "Oh". It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy. ==================================================(less)
For thousands of years, people lived in either the country or the city, but with the coming of the industrial revolution that changed, and especially...moreFor thousands of years, people lived in either the country or the city, but with the coming of the industrial revolution that changed, and especially in America. Seemingly as soon as they were able, the wealthy and later the middle class abandoned the cities in favor of neighborhoods set in the country, first commuting into the city and then commuting to other areas outside it once jobs followed the wealth out of town. Why was the traditional urban form abandoned for the suburbs to the degree that it was in the United States, and not in Europe? In Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson chronicles urban flight and the making of the 'burbs, establishing that Americans have an historic cultural distaste for cities, inherited through England, and have been trying to have the best of both worlds, city and country, at least since the end of the 18th century. Wealth and technology first allowed a prosperous minority to establish separate country residences, and later government policy made ex-urban living the easiest choice to make, resulting in it becoming the cultural norm. Jackon begins detached and eventually waxes passionate as the suburbs' success prove to be at the expense of the cities, but he's never caustic.
The Revolutionary War was scarcely over before suburbs appeared on the American scene; even before horsecars, trolley lines, and the automobile, wealthy citizens of New York established their residences on the Brooklyn Heights nearby, and commuted by ferry. While the borders of cities have historically been slums, home to necessary but despised industries like leather tanneries, in the United States cities came to be ringed by affluence. Reasons for the wealthy leaving were varied, but a desire to get away from the city's "problems" -- the noise of industry and the presence of common working folk -- ranked high. The simplest explanation, however, is that they could. The United States had more land than it knew what to do with. At first, living outside the city and commuting to it to work was the domain of the very wealthy, but the arrival of railroads allowed moderately wealthy persons to join in. The trolley and the introduction of balloon-frame homebuilding made suburban living affordable for more people, and saw a manifold increase in the number of these communities. This was not the beginning of sprawl, however: even as they multiplied, suburban communities remained distinct, walkable places.
It was the automobile which allowed suburbia to truly transform the urban landscape, extending the ease of complete mobility to the entire middle class. At the same time, government policies promoted suburban expansion, directly and indirectly, by promoting home ownership through subsidized loans and highways. Having lost the wealthy and middle classes, their tax base, cities deteriorated further, prompting even more flight. At the same time, home loan and insurance policies favored the suburbs heavily, stifling attempts by those in the city to improve or protect their buildings. These policies were at times openly racist, denying coverage or loans to whole blocks if a Jewish or black family were to move in.
Motivated by a cultural preference for country homes over city living, enabled by the widespread availability of open land --and technological innovations like the rail line and automobile which used that land as a broad canvas to draw an entirely new kind of urban landscape - and further encouraged by government support, the Americans thus became suburbanized. The work, which Jackson introduces as an extended essay, ends with a reflection on where the suburbs are taking the American people. Built on cheap land, connected by cheap transport, and occupied by cheap buildings, Jackson believes contemporary sprawl to be not worth much in comparison to the city, and points to trends in the 1980s which might signal a turning point.
Thirty years after the fact, we know that sprawl recovered from those hiccoughs, only for its tide to slow and reverse in the later years of the 21st century's opening decade, influenced by the financial crisis and the new normal of high gasoline prices. The Millennial generation has displayed a sharp preference for city living over the burbs, and car ownership is on the decline. As Americans begin to rebuild their cities and the civilization which they foster, this look back at what caused their disintegration will prove most helpful. This comprehensive history of suburbia not only establishes why American suburbs are so different from those from across the world, but delves into the full range of factors that led to their creation: cultural, technological, economic, and political. Those wanting to understand the development of suburbia will find it a worthy guide, especially for its less strident tone as compared to an author like Jim Kunstler.
Related: The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler Suburban Nation, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay(less)
What happens when you throw a small American mining town from the 20th century into the middle of Germany...during the 17th-century's Thirty Years War...moreWhat happens when you throw a small American mining town from the 20th century into the middle of Germany...during the 17th-century's Thirty Years War? Chaos -- and fun. One morning out of the clear blue, the town of Grantville, West Virginia, suddenly found itself picked up and plopped down into one of the worst wars in history. Left to fend for themselves in an era of disease, ignorance, and marauding armies, they decide to rebuild the American vision from scratch, in the middle of Europe. 1632 is the start of a large and not-very-orderly series of novels that depict the evolution of Europe following the sudden infusion of 20th-century knowhow and American bravado, and it's a ball to read.
The novel's premise is largely fantastical, and subject to a handwave in the introduction. What matters is not how the Americans came to be thrown back into time, with their library of knowledge and modern tools. The store explores what that knowledge and tools does to Europe's fiendishly complicated political scene. In 1632, Europe's multitude of powers were involved in a technically religious war between Catholics and Protestants in which some Protestant powers were fighting on the Catholic side, and vice versa. Cardinal Richileu, the diabolical chessmaster running France and working fiendishly to keep the balance of power in Europe favoring himself, is busy moving armies and juggling two sets of Hapsburgs (some in Spain, some in Germany) as well as the plucky Swedish nation. The sudden takeover of part of Germany by a mouthy, irreligious Republic is a matter of some concern -- especially as the Americans begin moving outward.
Grantville is not the typical American town: it is a mining town, and a unionized one that. It is led by intelligent, technically-savvy men who are used to a fight and determined to stick together, who know how to break a jaw in defense of principles. Mike Stearns, president of the local United Mine Workers of America, becomes the city's de facto leader, for he and his men have the energy and toughness to stand against whatever brigands Europe throws at them. Although it may look primitive by their standards, 17th century Europe is a dangerous place. Its armies carry muskets, and while rumors of witchcraft abound, its leaders know technology when they see it. They won't be scared off for long. Realizing how overwhelming the odds are against them, Stearns decides against isolation. To survive, Grantville is going to have to build on what it has already -- and expand. But not as an empire: as the idealistic Republic they were once members of, and now constitute. Their goal is to start winning the hearts and minds of their neighbors, and from the downtrodden German folk create a shining city set upon a hill, amidst the forests of Thuringia.
1632 covers Grantville's first year, and much happens -- raids and battles, politicking between the American factions over the city's future and between the warring powers of Europe, America now included -- and a great deal of character development. Idling teenagers who spend their days throwing dice are forced into responsible manhood: schoolteachers and engineers now govern a nation. But the Americans are not alone, for the cast of viewpoint characters steadily expands to includes 'downtime' Europeans (some Jewish refugees, some Germans) who become citizens of the new republic, beguiled by its tolerance, high (if charmingly native) ideals, and liberties. These characters are standouts, especially the women of both cultures. One woman grows from a rape victim-concubine hiding her family in a cesspit to a lady of war who terrifies grown men with her stare and strikes the characters as being a creature out of legend.
Although the chronology of the books that follow this is bewildering, I may have to try, for 1632 is such a delightful novel I'd like very much to see what develops from it. The insertion of 20th century knowledge and mores into the middle of early industrial Europe is fascinating enough -- what will become of the Dutch Republic, I wonder? will it make common cause? -- but the storytelling is exuberantly fun. Despite being alone in the middle of deadly chaos, the Grantville townsfolk seize the danger as an opportunity. They're full of bravado, flying around in pickup trucks and shotguns, rescuing damsels in distress and killing hordes of evil raping mercenaries with an M-60 while screaming "'MERICA!". They aren't hicks -- just country folk used to fighting for what they believe in, and what they believe in most is equality and liberty. I'd wager European readers might be a touch turned off by the notion of cheerfully confident Americans remolding the continent in their own image, but for Americans, the first book at least should find a broad audience in anyone who can gamely tolerate speculative fiction, as it supplies a little of everything, from politics to romance to combat. This first book is available for free on Kindle, no doubt a nefarious plan on Amazon's part to hook readers like myself into wanting to read the dozen or so that follow it..(less)
In another setting, Alexei Leonov and David Scott could have been the cause of the other's death. Fighter pilots from empires at odds with one another...moreIn another setting, Alexei Leonov and David Scott could have been the cause of the other's death. Fighter pilots from empires at odds with one another, intermittently on the edge of war with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, they would have surely entered combat against one another had the Cold War ever become hot. But instead, one manifestation of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Space Race to the moon, made them first respectful rivals, then friends. Two Sides of the Moon is a joint biography of the pair, telling their experience as active participants in the race for the stars. Both men were highly accomplished: Leonov was the first man to walk in space, and Scott commanded Apollo 15, the first explicitly scientific lunar mission. And yet they regarded the Apollo-Soyuz mission as their greatest achievement, for there they established to all the world their conviction the space race had been the triumph of humanity against the odds and the elements, not one nation or one group of men against another.
Readers will welcome Two Sides of the Moon as a rare look into the Soviet space program, and Leonov is the best man living to deliver an autobiographical account of it, given that everyone more famous than him in the Soviet program is long dead. Each man takes turns telling his side of the story, from their boyhood days until the culmination of the race in Apollo-Soyuz, in which spacecraft from both powers unite, demonstrating the feasibility of international cooperation, to which the International Space Station is a tribute. Although their stories are wholly distinct from the other, they do work in references to their shared experiences and this combined effort: Scott comments upon seeing the Earth from space that they "should have sent an artist": Leonov, appropriately enough, was a painter. Another reference is Leonov revealing an early death in the Soyuz program caused by a spark in a pure-oxygen atmosphere, a disaster that the United States experienced for itself when Gus Gussom, Ed White (first American to spacewalk) and Roger Chaffey were killed in a launchpad fire caused by the a spark same flammable, pressurized atmosphere. Their accounts offer comments and comparisons about the two space programs: despite their sensitive nature, information leaked through intelligence services reliably. By the authors' account, a feeling of cameradie between the astro- and cosmo-nauts established itself early: despite their being opposing military men, the would-be spacefarers from either side of the Iron Curtain were exposing themselves to extraordinary risks, and under extraordinary scrutiny. When one man from one program fell, they all felt it -- by this account. The Soviet program was distinct in being lead in its early years by Sergei Korolev, the "Chief Designer": Leonov presents him as a driving force behind the Soviet's organization and planning, and when he died in 1966, their program began faltering. (It didn't help that by that point, ambitions were truly lunar and new rockets were being introduced into both programs -- NASA had far better success with its moon-bound Saturns than the Soviets did with their rockets.) The American astronauts were wholly unaware of his role in the Soviet program, one of the few complete surprises their joint account reveals. The book moves more swiftly through the post-Apollo 11 years, mentioning the Salyut project briefly before giving more attention to Apollo-Soyuz, in which the two men both took part. The book ends with epilogues in which both men comment on the fates of their programs in recent years, and offer musings on what might lay ahead: David Scott offered the idea that nations might have to introduce orbital military patrols to investigate newly-launched satellites.
Two Sides of the Moon recommends itself to those interested in the space race, chiefly for Leonov's contributions. Although Scott is a fair writer with helpful technical explanations and many interesting missions, there are so many Apollo biographies out there that his is hard-pressed to rise out among them. Leonov, on the other hand, is nearly alone in offering a Russian view for the English market, and as mentioned easily the best man living to offer an account, given that his close friends like Yuri Gagarin, and his old bosses (including Korlev) are deceased. Two Sides makes the space race out to be an inspiring struggle between two powers whose accomplishments were noble even if their motives were suspect, and reinforces the fact that despite the distinctions and oppositions in our cultures and beliefs, humans are really not so different from one another: underneath the suit of the American astronaut and the Soviet cosmonaut is the same human flesh.
"When Apollo 11 had soared away from Cape Kennedy I had kept my fingers crossed. I wanted man to succeed in making it to the moon. If it couldn't be me, let it be this crew, I thought, with that we in Russia call 'white envy' - envy mixed with admiration. [...] On the morning of 21 July 1969 everyone forgot, for a few moments, that we were citizens of different countries on Earth. That moment really united the human race. Even in the military center where I stood, where military men were observing the achievements of our rival superpower, there was loud applause."
1776, a musical film which celebrates the Declaration of Independence, is an absolutely delightful movie, as funny as it is inspiring. But increasingl...more1776, a musical film which celebrates the Declaration of Independence, is an absolutely delightful movie, as funny as it is inspiring. But increasingly I enjoy it for the tender way it portrays the relationship between John Adams and his distant wife, Abigail. Committed whole-heartedly to the Revolution, Adams is its most ardent advocate. He struggles throughout the film against the cautious conservatism of his fellow congressmen, and even his marginal successes seem ruined by the compromises that were necessary to achieve them. In times of crisis, Adams retreats and finds a place to himself....where he finds consolation in the thought of his wife. Throughout the movie, Abigail appears in his thoughts and the two sing and comfort one another, the lyrics and dialogue being taken from their letters. It is those letters that provide the source of this, Joseph Ellis' lovely biography of the Adams family.
Ellis proved in Founding Brothers that he's a gifted storyteller, and the same strength is at play here. It helps that he has such extraordinary characters to write about. Abigail is no prim and proper personality stifled by petticoats: she's strong, vibrant, and independence, giving as good as she gets in terms of political and philosophical conversations as well as sly innuendo that no one would expect from a couple living in Puritan country. She is in the truest sense of the word, Adams's partner; his dearest friend and most constant source of intellectual stimulation. Her interest in politics influences his career directly, and she takes an active hand in his personal and political relationships with men like Thomas Jefferson. The affection these two feel for one another -- the strength and power of their relationship -- is abundantly evident in their letters, especially when they are estranged during Adams' time as an diplomat in Europe. Abigail's role as confidant allows the reader to see inside Adams' mind, and the man revealed is endearing for his faults and fascinating in his beliefs. Adams' progressive realism contrasts with Jefferson's conservative idealism, and demonstrates the frailty of the false liberal-conservative divide. No man is so easy to box up. Although politics plays a large role given Adams' place in history as revolutionary leader and president, John and Abigail's family is never far from sight, and the losses they endure can't help but inspire sympathy.
I thoroughly enjoyed First Family. To be sure, it does have the weakness of maintaining a one-sided view of the Revolution that sees Britain as entirely in the wrong; here, Britain is taxing America to pay for its empire just because it's fun to be oppressive like that. It's also not quite as varied as Founding Brothers, but even so I couldn't stop reading it. (The story of John and Abigail fairly well enraptures me: even though the Fourth is long past, the taste I had of their relationship in Sacred Honor and Founding Brothers only gave me an appetite for more, and I may wind up having to find and purchase a collection of their letters to find satisfaction!). It's a story of romance, family, and politics -- one which reveals the mind-boggling insanity of the Adams White House, where the second president is beset by friend and foe alike. Not only does his vice president conspire with the French and instruct them not to pay Adams any attention, but a member of his own party has Bonaparte-esque delusions of grandeur and tries not only to run the presidential cabinet in secret, but put himself at the head of an army he can use to root out spies and traitors....like the vice president. If nothing else, First Family demonstrates the remarkable pillar of contrarianism that was Adams more easily than David McCullough' denser biography might.
Related: No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin (FDR & Eleanor) Founding Rivals: Madison vs Monroe,Chris DeRose Founding Brothers,Joseph Ellis John Adams, David McCullough(less)
The Great Depression sent the entire western world reeling, destroying faith in the existing order and creating opportunities for charismatic, forcefu...moreThe Great Depression sent the entire western world reeling, destroying faith in the existing order and creating opportunities for charismatic, forceful leaders with vision to sweep into power and create societies anew in their image – but their new orders introduced us to the nightmare world of the totalitarian state, which arise in Germany, Japan, Italy, and in Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary tale, the United States. It Can’t Happen Here is the story of the rise of American fascism, beating the bible and waving a cross.
The tale is told through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, a solid liberal who amuses himself by rubbing shoulders with staunch conservatives at the Rotary Club, and then scandalizing them by penning editorials sympathetic to communists. He’s manifestly horrified by the rise of one Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a folksy dope whose radical plan for transforming America manages to unite rich and poor, traditional and modern, together in a schizophrenic platform. He was not always horrified, though – he once though Windrip a comic buffoon, who could not possibly be voted in in a respectable election
The Windrip plan includes, among other things, strict income limits, a $3000 handout to every citizen of the land, boosted defense spending, the forbidding of women and Negroes from ‘inappropriate’ occupations, the barring of labor unions, and whatever constitutional amendments or acts of Congress are needed to allow the President, hereafter known as The Chief, to give the nation a strong, guiding hand without being tied down by Congress. Such a broad and sometimes self-contradictory platform is similar to that of the “National Socialists”, and as Windrip’s reign commences, Lewis takes inspiration from Hitler’s reorganization of Germany. That organization is literal, for Windrip breaks down state and county boundaries and imposes his own set of numbered provinces and distracts, each headed by a loyal minion. Instead of the SS, Windrip has his ‘MM’s: the Minutemen, whose garb hearkens to western pioneers. As much as Windrip’s reign reminds students of European history of the Nazification of Germany, it is a distinctly American kind of fascism, hearkening to the American mythology of the Founding Fathers, but still reactionary and anti-modern, even in its embrace of modern tools and the modern state. The idea is the same: America has gotten soft, decadent, and corrupt. It needs a kick in the seat of the pants, and Windrip is the main to give it: he'll make America mighty again, he'll take on the rich Jews and put the economy to work for Americans, not a few bankers; he'll revitalize the Old Time Religion and maybe spread it to a few heathen Catholics down in Mexico.
The account follows the relatively quick corruption of the American republic into the empire, and though bleak at times, it is satire, and ends on a relatively happy note. Although such overt, drastic actions seem unlikely today, and are jarringly unexpected turns of event even in the book, the context of the thirties makes the rise of Windrip more plausible, especially given the success of Huey Long, who was a political boss with a kindred platform until his assassination. Although the spectre of totalitarianism is alive and well, it is far more subtle: no marching boots, thank you, just constant surveillance and algorithmized scrutiny. Readers of alt-history and those with an interest in politics will doubtless find this fascinating, if not as potent a warning as it once was.
1984, George Orwell Brave New World, Aldous Huxley The Iron Heel, Jack London The Plot Against America, Philip Roth Timeline-191 Series, Harry Turtledove (featuring the rise of a southern Hitler)(less)