Thursday, February 23, 2006

Journal of a “Novel”-Entry 9

Kickin’ Up Hell

As the research for my Great Depression/Indiana/oil man novel continues, moving into its second month here shortly, I looked back on two relatively dry works about the Depression itself from the point of view of a wide variety of voices. Both of these works were anthologies, with selections from people of all walks of life, be they Congressmen and Senators, journalists, novelists, working class farmers, women, men, immigrants, etc. Some of them told fascinating stories while others simply laid out logical, well-planned arguments as to why the Depression hit in the first place and what was to be done about it.

But being a fiction man at heart, and wanting to write a novel myself after all – the whole purpose to this enterprise – I didn’t want to stray too far away from the terrain of fiction, and I didn’t want to make my research exclusive to what fiction can accomplish. Some would say that it is even a better indicator of what a time was really like to read a good novel from, or about, that time, rather than reading history, and I think I might subscribe to this idea. I just read something recently – and I do not remember who said this, otherwise I would quote the person impressively like my brother Duke always seems to be able to do – where another writer commented something to the effect of, ‘If you want to know something about czarist Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, you should read some history. If you want to know what it felt like to live at that time and in that place, you should read War and Peace.’ And that is basically the heart of the argument. Novels, not history, tell us what people looked like, acted like, and talked like.

Therefore, I knew I had to fit a novel in here somewhere, and it might be just justification for the fact that I prefer them over nonfiction, but if so, so be it. The first place I turned, as you can see on the right, was my old mainstay, John Steinbeck. Of course, The Grapes of Wrath is the ultimate Depression novel for America, and it would be the most logical choice, but I have read it twice, the second time probably about four years ago, and I’d probably prefer to wait longer before reading it again (I probably will though). Also, I got to thinking that although Grapes is Steinbeck’s masterwork, it is probably not as immediate to the Depression itself as its immediate predecessor was, and that novel was 1936’s In Dubious Battle. Grapes was written during the Depression too, of course; in fact, my research tells me that thanks to the recession and kind of resurgence of the Depression that took place between 1937 and 1938, it was written during one of the most difficult stretches, and Steinbeck was by no means financially secure when he wrote it.

But In Dubious Battle was written around 1934-1935, when the first terrible throes of the economic plight was still fresh, and the wounds of the Depression were new and raw. In addition, Battle explores the questions that people had at the time surrounding capitalism and its opposite, socialism, more directly than Grapes does, and it frequently employs terms like ‘communist’ and ‘red’ and ‘radicals’, which seem like bad words in retrospect, but had very different meanings at the time. People had serious, burning questions about the viability of the American system. Many of those questions are given expression in this novel, which centers on striking apple pickers in the valleys of northern California. First I read a lot about the fact that those ideas were circulating around; now, Steinbeck’s novel is putting those ideas into some kind of fictional context for me, which makes it seem all the more real.

But the primary reason I wanted to read a novel from the time is even more basic, even more fundamental than this. I can put it into one word: dialogue. I wanted to find out how people talked. Or I should say how men talked, because Steinbeck, for all of his strengths, didn’t focus a lot on women overall, although you can make the case for Ma Joad in Grapes as one of his most memorable characters. But when it comes to hard working men of the times, no one had their finger on them better than Steinbeck. Consequently, I am picking up all kinds of idiosyncrasies from reading this novel, little snippets and phrases men would say to one another. There certainly is no shortage of the word ‘hell’ in their dialogue: ‘raise hell’, ‘beat hell’ out of someone or something, ‘kickin’ up hell’, ‘sore as hell’, ‘mad as hell’, ‘rustle up enough hell’, etc. One little thing I noticed is that people at the time would say that they would ‘beat hell’ out of someone, whereas I always hear now that people would say they ‘beat THE hell’ out of someone. That’s the kind of little thing that could make a difference.

It seems that men frequently referred to one another using terms we don’t use now, such as ‘fella’, ‘mister’, ‘guy’, ‘boys’, etc. Today a man might say, “That really pisses me off”, whereas in the 30s the same guy might say “That makes a fella sore as hell.” That kind of thing. No one really says ‘sore’ when they mean ‘angry’ now, but they did then. These differences are interesting. Obviously I can’t just supplant Steinbeck dialogue and make it my own, just putting his phrases in different characters’ mouths, but I am hoping to absorb the tone and spirit of the words, to get a sense of how people behaved and thought of one another through language that was written when it was contemporary. In Dubious Battle seems dated (as hell) now, but one has to remember that when it was published it was cutting edge stuff. It contained the flavor of the times.

Finally, reading this novel is also helping me pick up other terms I simply wouldn’t have known about from my own experience. Terms such as ‘crank’ from old-style Model T Ford cars, which refers to a handle you had to turn to get the thing primed to start; or ‘vagged’, which meant getting picked up on vagrancy charges; ‘scabs’, which refers to thugs that were hired to quell uprisings from striking agricultural workers, ‘bindle-stiffs’, which seems to mean ‘guys’ or working-class types. This sort of thing.

Digging for (Facts on) Oil

Also reading selections from Daniel Yergin’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction powerhouse about the oil industry called The Prize. I don’t know squat about this industry or about books related to it, but it’s hard to imagine another history as exhaustive as this one being around anywhere. This 900+ page book goes into the complete history of the modern oil business from all corners of the globe. I think it would be fascinating stuff to read the whole thing, but I don’t really have the time for it, so I am going to just read a 70-page chunk which relates to what was happening, internationally, from about 1900 through the beginning of World War II. In the early part of the 20th century, the leading source of oil for the industry was the United States, apparently, but I can’t see this being the case today. It seems that many of the deposits that all the ruckus is about in the Middle East may not have been discovered yet. That is interesting in itself. So far I have read about oil ‘crazes’ taking place in Mexico, Venezuela, and Russia, all between 1900 and 1930.

How much all of this can be related to one working man’s experience as an oil distributor in the Midwestern United States in the 30s and 40s is not very clear to me. But it is interesting to get some general sense of what was going on in the industry as a whole. For all I know Floyd may have kept up on such things. A man like him might have read about the Mexican Revolution in 1911, which upturned the government in that region and which destabilized the whole oil industry, which until then had been focused on oil deposits in Mexico. He might have learned that a major strike was made in Venezuela in 1922 and that most companies flocked into the region for a piece of the action. In fact, Standard Oil of Indiana, which was a competitor of Sinclair Oil (my grandfather’s employer), once was a major player in the 20s because they hit some major deposits in Venezuela, but they eventually sold their part of the Venezuelan business to another Standard Oil spin-off: Standard Oil of New Jersey.

Indiana to New Jersey. It all comes back around…….


Duke Altum said...

Ha, interesting little flourish at the end there!?! That is strange, from Indiana to NJ... well, these posts are obviously showing that Mutt is doing his homework for this monumental project he has undertaken. I do believe that it is a wise move to throw some fiction into the mix, and totally agree 100% with your arguments for doing so. I have been thinking all through my reading of Andric's The Bridge on the Drina that I am much better off reading this novel, than some history book, in terms of understanding something of the mess that continues to fester over there in the Bosnia-Herzegovina region. To your point.

It would seem to be impossible to write the kind of novel you are thinking about taking on without at least some familiarity with Steinbeck's work. Happily, this is no problem for Mutt, who has read more deeply into the Steinbeck oeuvre than anyone I know. And it is a body of work well worth reading. I wonder if at this point, Mutt, it might make sense to actually read his journalism from that period, the stuff that eventually became Grapes and maybe Battle too, who knows. Those articles are collected into a book, I know you know, although the name of it escapes me right now. But that would even more immerse you into the realities of the time, I am sure.

Mutt Ploughman said...

that is a good point, Duke.....probably should have read those by now anyway. The book you mean is called 'The Harvest Gypsies'. That is available. However I think they were first published as a book called 'Their Blood is Strong' and I don't think that is around except if you can find rare copies.....I have read
'Working Days', his journal from GoW, i should see if he refers much to IDB in there. Which i have just completed (again) by the way. It sure has a hammer ending......