Literature of Disillusionment

Elaine Scarry, the essayist and literature professor long ago suggested that, in counterpart to the ingenious system of government framed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the United States also possessed a material constitution, consisting of the technological systems of the nation and no less remarkable than the political structure for being evolved in practice rather than written down.

Riffing on Scarry’s conception, historian of technology Thomas Hughes noted the tendency to take the latter for granted.  The intellectual historian Perry Miller had already observed, in The American Scholar,  how casually Americans “flung themselves into the technological torrent, how they shouted with glee in the midst of the cataract, and cried to each other as they went headlong down the chute, that here was their destiny….”

Now, Hughes wrote, with technological momentum accelerating, Americans needed to learn to see themselves as a nation of system builders as well as practitioners of their subtle arrangements of political democracy and free enterprise.  American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm (Viking, 1990), Hughes’ classic study of the engineering of the key inventions of the century after 1870 – incandescent light, the telephone, the radio, the airplane, the automobile, electric power – was motivated by a concern for the overlooked burdens that technological enthusiasm frequently imposed. Forty years after the development of modern financial markets for corporate control, containerization, microprocessors, personal computers, and the Internet, Hughes’ attentiveness to the sudden eruption of a culture of critique, seems especially prescient: “the organic instead of the mechanical; small and beautiful technology, not centralized systems; spontaneity instead of order; and compassion, not efficiency.”

For the last six months, I have been dipping into the burgeoning literature of disillusionment, trying to understand the Trump election  Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond; Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D Vance; Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein; Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild; and Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician, by Sandeep Jauhar. The book I read all the way through was Glass House:  The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an American Town (St. Martin’s, 2017), by Brian Alexander.

Glass House is about Lancaster, Ohio, and the Anchor Hocking Glass Co., upon which the city’s fortunes were built – and then eventually dissipated by New Yorkers – over the course of the twentieth century. At a little more than 300 pages, you might think that Glass House is more than you want to know about a little city on the Hocking River, southwest of Columbus, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.  But Alexander grew up in Lancaster in the1970s, has stayed in touch (he lives in California now) and, as a highly capable magazine writer, he moves the story along with the force of a novel, interweaving the saga of the business itself with the lives of four friends.

It helps that his tale has plenty of colorful signposts along the way: the Ku Klux Klan in Lancaster in the 1920s; Malcolm Forbes in the early 1940s (his father bought him a newspaper there as a Princeton graduation present); Carl Icahn (a key Donald Trump adviser today) who in 1983 put Anchor in play; Newell Corp., the vagabond manufacturing firm that in the 1980s rolled up Anchor into a giant conglomerate on the strength of a loan from an Arizona savings and  loan association; Cerberus, the private equity organized by Stephen Feinberg (another close Trump adviser today) that bankrupted Anchor; Sam Solomon, the African-American scion of North Carolina farmhands, who, as newly appointed CEO, seeks to save Anchor, now branded as EveryWare Global (Anchor survives, barely, Solomon is fired but becomes the hero of the book).

The leitmotif: at each step along the way, Alexander describes the succession of new drug products that began to plague Lancaster, starting in the 1970s: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, Percocet, OxyContin, and Xanax. The greatest charm of Glass House is that its trajectory since the 1980s resembles that of almost any other Middle American manufacturing city you can think of.   See the maps here for the details. See the press release for the details of how earlier this year EveryWare changed its god-awful name to The Oneida Group.

Between times, I have been reading Secondhand Time: The Last Days of the Soviets, An Oral History (Random House, 2016), by Svetlana Alexievich, the 69-year-old Belorussian author who was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.  The book is not easy reading.  Like four other “documentary novels” that Alexievich has written over thirty years, chronicling the lives of ordinary citizen of the former Soviet Union since World War II, it consists of a series of collages composed of interviews (“snatches of street noise and kitchen conversations”) with hundreds of characters, some of whom appear and reappear as in any good Russian novel.

The differences between Secondhand Time and Glass House are instructive, the differences between literature and journalism. Secondhand Times begins with a timeline, six pages briefly describing events from the death of Josef Stalin, in 1953 to the Maidan protests, in Kiev, in 2014.  Then for 350 pages, consciousness swirls. Alexievich writes:

The Soviet civilization…. I’m rushing to make impression of its traces, its familiar faces. I don’t ask people, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story.

The triumph of Secondhand Time is to make more understandable how present-day Russians can feel affection for a system that produced so much misery and permitted so little of the freedom the Westerners take for granted: the top-down coup that was the Revolution, the Civil War, the murderous collectivization of agriculture, famine, purges, the gulag, and then the gradual discovery of the awful history that had been hidden. “Despite the poverty, life was freer” in some respects under communism, Alexievich told Guy Chazan of the Financial Times over dinner last month in Berlin (subscription required). “Friends would gather at each other’s houses, play the guitar, sing, talk, read poetry.”  When democracy came, she said, they expected that everyone would read Solzhenitsyn. Sure enough, with glasnost, Solzhenitsyn’s works were all published, but no one any longer had time to read them. “Everyone just ran past them and headed for twenty different kinds of biscuits and ten varieties of sausage.” The book is about disillusionment plus – how great was the loss of the Great Idea.

I can’t read Alexievich, or any other source on Russian history, without experiencing an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having been born a citizen of the United States. But, as I read Johnson’s Russia List, the indispensable almost-daily chronicle of what the Russians are saying about themselves, it is clear that Russians are gradually coming to grips with their history (Alexievich being a prime example). There’s no doubt that the government of Russia unwisely sought to underhandedly tamper with the machinery of American democracy in the 2016 election. They didn’t succeed. The Constitution of the United States, both the familiar version enshrined in law and the less-familiar material version, assure that America, for all its sorrows, continues to insure domestic tranquility – more reliably, perhaps, than you think.

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