My fears have grown old enough to vote. – Frank Curtis, in Swifty the Magician by Herbert Gold.
LISTEN, what am I supposed to talk about, anyway? I never had any experience at this sort of thing. I can’t tell you about my dreams because I never have any. I don’t know how to start this.
Anything I wish? Well, then listen, you sure you’re not from Tennessee? Say Mountain City, or maybe Buladeen? Probably graduated from East Tennessee State in Johnson City?
Why don’t you just answer the question instead of asking why I asked the question? It’s a simple enough question for anybody to answer.
Well, there’s something about you that reminds me of a Tennessee hillbilly. I know you have all those diplomas on the wall from CCNY and some unpronounceable school in Vienna which, as far as I know, could be a riding academy. Or even an obedience school like Peppermint Patty went to.
What do you mean who’s Peppermint Patty! For God’s sakes, don’t you read Peanuts? Listen, to tell when people are nuts you have to know what’s normal, don’t you? Isn’t it a fact that what’s psychotic depends on what the local customs are? If you don’t read Peanuts, how do you know what’s normal?
No, I am not avoiding talking about myself or my problems. This is one of my problems. Do you think I’m gonna pay you a dollar a minute and not talk about my problems?
Maybe I think you’re from Tennessee because I wish you were. If you were, then I would have some hope you’d understand what I’m talking about. What bothers me is that every shrink I ever heard of is Jewish, and most of them were trained in Vienna.
Prejudiced nothing! That’s got nothing to do with it. A New York Jew, if that’s what you are, trained in Vienna will never in hell understand the home life and problems of a WASP. That’s what I am, you know, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Not the New England, not the Boston Brahmin, but the ignorant, backward, hillbilly, rednecked kind of a WASP. I was about to say WASP of the second class, but it may well be that my kind of people are the real, true WASPS. I can’t even imagine a Catholic hillbilly, much less a black or a Jewish one. Pure, gone-to-seed, inbred-to-the-point-of-idiocy, Elizabethan English stock. Talk about preserving ethnic purity.
Listen, why don’t the clowns who’re always spouting off about ethnic purity look at the result of a living example of it? The Appalachian hills are brimming over with ethnic purity. The last time they were even with the rest of the country was when Dan’l Boone was killin’ bears. Ever since then they’ve gotten further behind. They get worse off all the time. Even the damn mountains have been ruined by strip miners.
You ever drive through eastern Kentucky along the Kentucky-West Virginia border? Deprived, depraved, depressing. Presidents from Kennedy on are always about to do something. Federal programs are started, peter out, are stopped; and you can’t tell the difference. Even if the people move out, they carry failure with them. They’re about as welcome in Chicago and other mid-west cities as the bubonic plague. If there’s anything worse than a hillbilly in the hills, it’s a hillbilly in the city. How can a Vienna Jew understand any of this?
What makes me think a Jew wouldn’t understand my background? What do I know about Jews? Listen, there ain’t hardly nothing I don’t know about Jews. Nine-tenths of the millions of novels I’ve read have been about Jewish home life and Jewish family relationships and Jewish problems of all kinds. I could write a novel myself about growing up in a Jewish family. I might even be able to throw in enough Yiddish for authenticity. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
I’m not excited. I got nothing against Jews. I’m just damn tired of their problems. I got problems of my own. Who writes about my problems? You ever read a book about hillbilly WASP problems? Hell no, you didn’t.
Of course, I think it’s unfair. I can find out more than I need to know about Catholic problems. Look at Joyce. Now I can get what I guess is a realistic view of black problems. Plenty of books on that. And Mormon problems, and Indian problems. The only people who aren’t supposed to have any problems are WASP’s.
Why do I come to you if I don’t have any confidence in Jewish doctors? Like the man said, it may be crooked but it’s the only game in town. Listen, I’ve read about Jews changing their names to English names and denying they are Jewish. Are you sure you didn’t do the reverse? You sure your name wasn’t Morgan, and you added a “stern” and changed the a to an e and became the star of the morning?
OK, so I’m desperate. Actually I do think a Vienna Jew is no more able to judge what’s normal for a WASP hillbilly than for a Bantu. In fact, he’s likely to know more about Bantus. From the National Geographic. And for that matter a Bantu witch doctor might know more about WASP’s. At least he might know what they taste like.
Oh, damn it, I know Bantus don’t eat people. It’s a joke. You really should read Peanuts.
Come to think of it, how do I know that the stuff I’ve read in all those novels is authentic? I guess there’s no doubt that Roth, Gold, Bellow, Malamud, etc., are Jews, is there? I know at least one white whodunit author who wrote about a black detective. Hell a lot of you can expect to learn from that.
In Fear of Flying, the heroine said her idea of suitable sexual response was measured by comparison to that of Lady Chatterly. But one day she realized that Lady Chatterly was D. H. Lawrence and not a woman at all. For that matter, when I was a kid I wrote an article about the joys of duck hunting, and it was published in a sport magazine, but I’ve never been duck hunting in my life. It’s a hard, hard life.
How do I know that Rosten, Malamud, and Gold are not gentiles who, like you, have changed their names and pretended to be Jews? Obviously the only childhood you can sell is a Jewish one. Still, there’s Singer. From Isaac Singer, I know more about growing up as a Jew in Poland than I do about WASP’s in Tennessee. I guess he, at least, is really a Jew. I read somewhere that he doesn’t even write in English but only in Yiddish.
OK, don’t get sore. All the same, they get paid to tell about their childhoods, and I have to pay someone a dollar a minute to listen to mine.
Hell yes, I think that’s what psychiatry is all about. Most people can’t get anybody to listen to them for sour apples. Especially about their childhoods which, for some reason, they’re always wanting to talk about. Or anything else for that matter. If I say so much as one word about when I was a boy, my children leave the room. My wife’s eyes glaze and I can just trail off and quit my story, and she never even notices I’ve quit talking; but by damn, I have to listen to their interminable troubles which are at least as dull as mine.
Everybody’s talking; nobody’s listening. No wonder you guys are having a field day. Here you are pretending to listen to every dumb thing I say and even recording it on tape. Why you record it, I don’t know. I know you’re not going to listen to it again. It’s not that interesting even to me.
I don’t know why I don’t just buy me a tape machine and talk to it. If I had one that would repeat any question I asked, it would be just like you. Probably do me as much good and would certainly be a hell of a lot cheaper.
Of course, it bothers me to give you a dollar a minute. Why shouldn’t it? I sure don’t earn a dollar a minute, even before deductions. I’m pretty sure it concerns you, too. I know psychiatrists always want to claim that their big fee is part of the treatment. So you’ll think you’re getting something worthwhile. Like car wax. Did you know they can’t sell cheap car wax? People think it has to cost a lot to be good; so it does.
Ethics, baloney. When anyone tells me that what’s good for me is in his interest, I’m bound to be a little bit skeptical. Let me give you an example. When Nixon said, “I’m not a crook,” did you automatically believe him? Suppose he’d said, “I am a crook.” Would you have believed that? So far as I know, no one lies to his own disadvantage. So when you say the high cost of the treatment is part of the treatment, I’d certainly believe you if you were doing the paying, but, of course, you’re not. I am.
You bet I’m concerned about money. Who isn’t? One time an uncle of mine died, and I went to the cemetery with my cousin, his son, to buy a lot. There was a deep snow and a cold wind that made us very uncomfortable as we trudged around the vacant spaces in the cemetery.
The salesman kept pointing out what high class people were buried in this particular section. I could see my cousin was a bit put out at such peculiar snobbery. When he was told the price of a lot in that area, he said it was too much. The salesman drew himself up to his haughtiest and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were concerned about money.” My cousin said, “You damn right, I’m concerned about money. I think you are too. Otherwise, why are you standing around up to your ass in snow?”
Listen, you need to go to a shrink, yourself. Don’t you have any sense of humor at all? At the very least, for a dollar a minute you could laugh at my jokes. At least at my good ones.
Hey, how about Kentucky? You sound a little like a Harlan, Kentucky man. Years ago I saw a Harlan sheriff being interviewed by Fred Allen on TV. He said their most frequent crime was one of the boys “shootin’ Harlan up.” Ever since, I’ve thought what fun shootin’ Harlan up must be.
What do you mean, who’s Fred Allen? I’m beginning to think you’re not even an American. Maybe you’re a Bulgarian hillbilly or something like that.
What? I don’t give a damn if you were born yesterday, you ought to know who Fred Allen was. You ever hear of Charlie Chaplin, by any chance?
You don’t have the right accent for a Kentucky mountaineer anyway; more like Tennessee.
I read recently that the former popularity of the novel was because people learned from them how to act in other groups. Now they don’t have to read; they can get it from TV soap operas. That hadn’t occurred to me, but it is clearly the truth. How would we know how to act if it weren’t for novels and stories? But you know, there’s only one thing stupider than soap operas – real events. So help me, real life makes soap opera look profound. And that’s before the TV-trained generation. What will it be like?
Yeah, you’re right, that’s not my present problem. But sure enough, who writes about respectable, lower-middle-class WASP’s? Faulkner tells us all about southern aristocrats and white trash, but I don’t see myself as belonging to either of those. Eudora Welty’s people bear a little resemblance to mine, but they’re too ignorant and illiterate; they’re all white trash, too. Erskine, is it John, anyway the God’s Little Acre man, has some characters I can sure recognize, but they’re all too wild and flamboyant to have much resemblance to my dull background. Jesse Stuart is a lot more like it, but still not too close. Wait a minute, was it John Erskine or Erskine Caldwell? John Erskine must be somebody else.
Do you think I’ve read too much and learned too little that’s not in books? Sometimes I think reading is a drug like heroin. You get to thinking that what’s not in books is not real. I guess too much of anything is bad for you. You know what Joyce Carol Oates said? Her heroine, also a writer, in a terrifying story called “In the Warehouse,” said something like, “My stories of childhood are more real to me than my childhood.”
I have absolutely got to quit reading that woman’s books and stories; they are more than I can stand. After all, I’ve got enough troubles without suffering through those of her characters. Besides, she scares the hell out of me. How does she know all that stuff? Do you think I’ve confused what’s in the books with what’s real?
Couldn’t you bring yourself to try to answer one simple question instead of repeating it like Mister Interlocutor in a minstrel show?
You know, the WASP con must be the biggest con in the world. Everybody in the world feels he’s a minority except the WASP. Sometimes I marvel at it. How in God’s name did they manage to do that? Must be due to the British. At their peak, they ruled the world as if by divine right. And put such a bold face on it that everybody believed it. So now we have groups that outnumber the WASP’s by a hundred to one complaining about oppression and wanting equal rights. It’s enough to make you wonder.
Wait. There is another exception, the Chinese. Nobody knows anything about them except Pearl Buck, and I would not have much more confidence in her than D. H. Lawrence. There are a few books about family problems of the Japanese, Mishima, or somebody, but I can’t believe them.
Now, listen, if a Chinaman came to you for treatment, wouldn’t you be a little dubious about what’s normal for him? I maintain that WASP cultures and Jewish cultures are that different in important areas and yet no one pays any mind to it.
Maybe it’s me, but from what I read about Japanese problems they might as well be Martians. For a while I watched Japanese movies, with English captions, on TV. Not the monster ones, but supposedly good ones. In one of them, out-of-work samurai were causing severe embarrassment to the great lords by committing hari-kari in their courtyards. Much consulting between family patriarchs about how to avoid this shame. An American would have sold tickets.
Maybe you think it’s just because it was a depiction of centuries ago, but get this one. When the Japanese army was being defeated in Burma toward the end of World War II, many Japanese soldiers were killed all over Burma and left where they dropped. The hero of this movie, a Japanese soldier turned Buddhist, became a Buddhist monk or priest, some of the captions were white on white, and took upon himself a lifetime of duty of giving a proper burial to every Japanese soldier in Burma. Dead ones, of course.
Now if you had to treat that guy, would you feel that your Vienna training and your Jewish background helped you to understand him? Was he a nut, a saint, or both?
Yes, I know. I know the Japanese have nothing to do with my problems.
Is somebody mistranslating the Chinese poster newspapers, or did they lose their minds when they turned Communist?
What do you mean? All I’m trying to do is explain how hopeless it is for one culture to understand another. That is, unless you’ve been forced to read about the other one all your life.
OK, I may seem to be avoiding my problems by talking about all kinds of things, but it really is to the point. I feel like nearly everything I know has come from books and now I need to know some things about myself, but I can’t find the books with the information I need.
No, I didn’t feel this way until recently. I’m in trouble, but I don’t know how, or why, or what it’s all about. I wish I could have some hope that you could help me. But I don’t. If I were Jewish I could roam through Israel looking for my past and sell a book about it afterwards. If I were black, I could fantasize about some tenuous connection with Africa.
Maybe it’s fortunate that WASP hillbillies are unable to delude themselves into meaningless associations with places they’ve never been. They know all too well where they came from, and it’s still there today, too much like it was when their ancestors settled there for them to have any romantic nonsense about it in their heads. If I should go roaming in my former home territory, most likely I’d be shot by some moonshiner who would think I was a revenuer.
If you were an ex-hillbilly, I might have some hope. I have spent a lifetime becoming an ex-hillbilly. Believe me, it’s no easy thing to do, and I know there’s plenty of just-under-the-surface vestiges. For instance, in times of stress I’m likely to sound like Dizzy Dean.
Who’s Dizzy Dean? Listen, let me give you a tip. If you are ever called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, I would advise you to take the fifth all the way. They’re liable to ask you who’s Mickey Mouse and deport you when you tell’em you don’t know.
When square dancing became a fad, people kept trying to get me interested in it, but I kept telling them that I was trying to forget it, not learn it. There’s some hillbilly left, but mostly I’m ex. Maybe that’s it. One time, in the days when the Yankees won the pennant every year, the Washington Senators traded for a baseball player from the Yankees very soon after the book, It’s Great to be a Yankee, was published, and some idiot reporter tried to get the player to say, “It’s great to be an ex-Yankee.” But instead, the player said, “It’s not great to be an ex-anything.”
So maybe I’ve gone to all this trouble to become an ex-hillbilly, and maybe it turns out that that was the wrong thing for me to do. Maybe that ballplayer was right. Maybe it’s not great to be an ex-anything.
But I think what’s really bothering me is that I seem to be rapidly becoming an ex-everything. Or maybe it’s worse than that. You have to be a something before you can become an ex-something. Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I’m an ex-nothing. Tell me, is it better to be an ex-something, an ex-everything, or an ex-nothing?
OK, OK, I know my fifty minutes are up, and I know I’ve not touched on my problems. Listen, when you were a kid, did you say, “we’uns”?
OK, I’m going. You’re not a hillbilly. Tuesday at two, you said? That’s if I decide to come back.
But listen, if you’re not an ex-Tennessee hillbilly, how did you know Tennessee hillbillies say “we’uns”?
Handset in Deepdene. Display type is 12-point Lydian Bold and 30-point Czarin. Paper is the 50-lb. Offset on which I have had such difficulty printing. One more journal will see the end of my 15000-sheet supply of it. May it R. I. P. Published, edited, and 475 copies printed by Jake Warner on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland.