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I was a revolutionary, p.14

I Was a Revolutionary, page 14


I Was a Revolutionary

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  The Populists in Kansas, however, were never successful in uniting the rural with the urban political elements. . . . The agrarians, in their struggles against bankers, railroads, mercantile interests, and sound money men, held little appeal to the average urban workers who confronted quite different problems and adversaries. . . . The Populists, however, left a good legacy of labor legislation despite workers failing to reciprocate with political support for agrarians.


  Parry, parry. Riposte:

  Populism was never just a farmers’ movement, even in its earliest stages, and agrarian radicalism always encompassed more than just farmers whether they be “subsistence yeomen” or “petty producers.” And I do not think farmers would have accomplished nearly as much as they did had the movement been limited to farmers from the beginning.


  The Assistant’s carrel is overrun with small, variously colored sticky tabs that he uses to note passages the Historian might find helpful. He discovers a yellow tab affixed to his coffee cup. Mysteriously, too, one on a neighboring chair. Colored red.

  In their struggle, Populists learned a great truth: cultures are hard to change. Their attempt to do so, however, provides a measure of the seriousness of their movement. Populism thus cannot be seen as a moment of triumph, but as a moment of democratic promise. It was a spirit of egalitarian hope, expressed in the actions of two million beings—not in the prose of a platform, however creative, and not, ultimately, even in the third party, but in a self-generated culture of collective dignity and individual longing. As a movement of people, it was expansive, passionate, flawed, creative—above all, enhancing in its assertion of human striving. That was Populism in the nineteenth century.


  The interpretative volleying of historians. The Assistant recalls his father’s fondness for saying that opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got one.

  The interpretations of Populism have run a considerable gamut. John Hicks’s Populist Revolt (1931) saw it as interest-group politics using popular control of the government and government action to regulate corporations and political conspiracy. Chester Destler in his 1946 account de-emphasized the regional aspects and saw the People’s Party as part and parcel of long-held radical beliefs on natural rights. . . . Robert McMath, in American Populism: A Social History (1993), emphasized that Populism was especially strong in Kansas because the mainstream party response to farm problems was ridicule and intransigence. Had there been some bend in the Republican establishment, perhaps there need not have been such a fracture. Worth Robert Miller has found the picture still not orderly after one hundred years of analysis. . . . The movement does not fit neatly into a standard ideological category. Miller concluded, “It was a thoroughly American, nonsocialist, anticapitalist movement that called for enough change in the institutions of land, transportation, and money to be considered moderately radical.”


  He wonders what angle the Historian will take.

  The Assistant, spitballing: Populists as some kind of anti-agribusiness/sustainable-farming avant-garde? Possible title: Organic Revolution.

  A study of populist outrage: the People’s Party and the Tea Party? Possible title: Grassroots vs. Corporate Roots.

  Then the Assistant comes across this:

  The grievances and solutions articulated by the People’s Party have been the source of much historiographical conflict. In the 1950s Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populists as an assortment of angry, reactionary rustics, dreaming of preindustrial times rather than facing the permanence of recent changes. Others found the Populists a far-sighted group of reformers concerned with America’s industrial future.


  Which rings a bell from earlier research. Hofstadter, the name keeps coming up. The Assistant scans the H columns of the indexes in the books on his desk.

  Hofstadter was no specialist on Populism, but his treatment in this book changed the direction of scholarship on the topic. No other account had such an impact on the study of farm movements. He explored the darker side of populism, focusing on its illiberal tendencies. In his eyes, Populists indulged in conspiratorial thinking, nativism, and anti-Semitism. The Age of Reform won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1956 and, to this day, is acknowledged by many as one of the most influential works by a post–World War II historian.


  The Assistant fancies himself old school, still favoring the book-as-object that one can touch and smell, and in which one can underline and spill coffee. But in 2010 the writing, so to speak, is on the wall, and he wonders how long before he will capitulate and buy a goddamn e-reader. A menacing gloom overtakes the Assistant as he searches the stacks to find a copy of Hofstadter’s book, already missing these last precious days before everything is finally digitized.

  The Populists looked backward with longing to the lost agrarian Eden, to the republican America of the early years of the nineteenth century in which there were few millionaires and, as they saw it, no beggars, when labor had excellent prospects and the farmer had abundance, when statesmen still responded to the will of the people and there was no such thing as the money power. What they meant—though they did not express themselves in such terms—was that they would like to restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture. . . . In Populist thought the farmer is not a speculating businessman, victimized by the risk economy of which he is a part, but rather a wounded yeoman, preyed upon by those who are alien to the life of folkish virtue.


  The Library of Googlexandria.

  In the books that have been written about the Populist movement, only passing mention has been made of its significant provincialism; little has been said of its relations with nativism and nationalism; nothing has been said of its tincture of anti-Semitism.


  The Age of Reform serves up a pupu platter of vitriol and condescension that spurs the Assistant to write cheese dick in the margins of page 156. Hofstadter, the Assistant feels confident in asserting, is not only misguided in his analysis, but also kind of a jerk; however, he’s aware of a certain strain of Stockholm syndrome particular to academe in which the researcher comes to overly sympathize with the researched. He’s protective of his Populists as a mother hen now that they’ve kidnapped him from his own work, his responsibilities, his life.

  Later in the afternoon, the Historian pops over to see if he wants to “powwow.”

  “Sure, let’s powwow,” he answers. Now that she’s introduced the word, he can think of nothing but it. “I could use some more coffee. How about we powwow downstairs?”

  “My treat.”

  At Starbucks he orders his third venti dark roast of the day, and she a grande Americano and a cake pop. “Goddamn, I love these things,” she says as they take a seat. The quasi-fart smell of burnt coffee hovers over everything. “You’ll never believe what I saw two undergrads doing in the stacks.”

  “I believe you,” he says, and she laughs before consuming the rest of her cake pop as though she were a sword-swallower. “So, what did you want to”—don’t say powwow—“talk about?”

  She takes a swig from her drink, shaking her head.

  “I don’t know,” she says. “It’s like I’ve hit a wall. I can’t fig
ure out my argument, and the proposal is due the day after tomorrow.” She pauses a moment. “I don’t suppose you came across anything interesting.”

  He tells her about coming across Hofstadter, and she says The Age of Reform was a seminal book and largely responsible for shaping public perception of the Populists as “ignorant, pitchfork-wielding rubes, screaming about silver. But refuting Hofstadter has driven the field for the last fifty years. I want to do something new.” She takes a sip of her drink and adds: “I need to do something new.”

  “What do you mean?”

  She grimaces, seeming to weigh whether she wants to answer, and finally says, “I have a two-book deal with the publisher.”

  “Okay,” he says. “That’s great, right?”

  “Not when the first book bombs.” She pauses. “Mine did.” This admission of failure feels like intimacy; he’s been admitted into her confidence. Suddenly he wants to tell her every dopey thing he’s ever done, every sin committed. “And the second book is contingent on a proposal, which I submitted last month, but they weren’t impressed. Not provocative. Too safe, they said. They gave me one more chance. That’s what’s due Monday.”

  “What happens if they don’t like the new proposal?”

  “They kill the book,” she says. She seems to recognize his silence as confusion and explains: “I’ve taken money for one book that did poorly and a second I couldn’t deliver.”

  “So you’d have to give the money back?”

  “Normally that would be the case.” She says this with a smile that is unsettling because she’s clearly upset. “Except I’ve spent it all.” The Assistant recalls a high school girlfriend who would double over in fits of laughter in moments of great despair or misfortune. “That’s how I bought my house.”

  Neither of them says anything for a few moments.

  “It’s not just the money, though,” she says. She looks at her Americano, slowly turning it in circles. “I’ve been here for a while, and I’m used to it, but with a successful book I could . . .” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but doesn’t need to. The Assistant realizes she is a woman who never once imagined she’d spend the majority of her life in Manhattan, Kansas, the Little Apple.

  He wants to help, doesn’t like the idea of somebody murdering her book or fucking with her domicile situation, and tells her the ideas that came to him while researching, but she dismisses Organic Revolution and Grassroots vs. Corporate Roots with a look of squinting, silent disfavor. Later, when the library closes and they leave, she says they’re good attempts but just not right for this particular project. Across campus shine the bright lights of the football stadium. The cold night air does something strange to the oracular voice of the announcer so that only every fifth word is understandable.

  “Well, what’re you up to?” she asks.

  “I better check into the game. My teammates need me,” he says, nodding in the direction of the stadium. “You?”

  “Home. I’m gonna work a while longer.” She starts to turn, but stops. “If you want, you could come over and we can work together. I’ll order a pizza or something . . . but you’re probably—”

  “Thanks, but I’m pretty beat. I should—”

  “Of course,” she says, “of course,” shaking her head, clearly regretful she extended the invitation.

  “But I can help again tomorrow, if you’d like.”

  “That would be great. I appreciate it.”

  She says goodbye and leaves. For twenty seconds or so he simply watches her go, but then his feet begin to move in her direction, and ten minutes later the Assistant is standing on the opposite side of the street, watching as she lugs The Bag up her front porch, unlocks the door, and enters. The pretty yellow bungalow is just the kind of place he would have imagined her in. What am I doing? he thinks, as he crosses the street and stands behind a tall oak tree. She flips on lights and moves from room to room. Finally she seems to settle on the kitchen and the Assistant skulks over to some holly bushes on the side of the house. What am I doing? She uses a black wine key to open a bottle and pours a glass of what he suspects is Shiraz. This isn’t that weird. She invited me over, after all, so I came over. That’s all this is. The Historian sits at the small kitchen table, staring at her wineglass—thinking what?—and then suddenly begins to cry. Like really cry. Head down on the table, shoulders shaking. He’s pretty sure this qualifies as weeping. These do not seem like tears over only a failed book proposal; these are tears of existential worry. He’s seen something he shouldn’t have, which tends to happen when you spy on people, when you are engaged in activity of the pervert/voyeur/stalker variety. What the hell am I doing? He leaves quickly, cursing himself. I’m the worst. What was I thinking? Idiot!

  “I’m so sorry,” the Assistant says the next morning when he finds the Historian waiting outside the library.

  “For what?” she says, turning his way.

  He looks at the tall building.

  “For being late.”

  “Don’t sweat it,” she says. “Place isn’t even open yet. Apparently on Sundays they don’t open till noon.” They both just stare at the library as though awed by its capricious sense of operating hours. “Buy you breakfast?”

  They walk to a diner off campus and sit in a booth near the back. It’s not busy, the calm before the post-church storm. She’s wearing a Yo La Tengo shirt today and he wonders how long she’ll keep up the concert-tees-from-my-twenties theme. Today is the rare occasion she looks her age, whatever that is. She appears exhausted, proverbial bags under the eyes like she hasn’t slept, or like if she has slept she probably spent the time crying. Sleep-crying. Talk about a wet dream. He thinks of her last night, his shameful encroachment on her privacy. And yet, part of him is glad he saw what he did. To behold the suffering of others can be illuminating and strangely bond-forming. Perhaps that’s so because most of the time we don’t, can’t, or won’t, he realizes, apropos of his own strange relationship to his mother’s illness. He wants to tell the Historian about it, how sometimes at unexpected moments his body, too, will spontaneously combust in wet, lugubrious sorrow.

  “I had a great night,” the Historian says.

  “You did?”

  “I think I figured it out. My angle for the proposal.”

  “You did?”

  “I did—thanks to you.”

  She tells him how she’d all but given up on it when she thought back to their conversation earlier in the day and recalled something he’d said. For a brief moment he’s thrilled.

  “You want to use Organic Revolution!” he interjects.

  “Oh,” she says, “no. No, I don’t.”

  “Grassroots vs. Corporate Roots?” he whimpers, which she refuses to dignify with a response.

  “You brought up Hofstadter and The Age of Reform.”

  “I did.”

  “And I said refuting Hofstadter was old hat.”

  “You did.”

  “And that’s when I had the idea,” she says, her eyebrows raised, a slight opening of the mouth. “An apologia.” She says this uncertainly at first, as if only testing out how it sounds, but it’s just a matter of seconds before she avers, “I will defend Richard Hofstadter.” And like that, lured by the provocative potential of so-unfashionable-it’s-fashionable contrarianism, her hammer has forged an angle.

  The Assistant, with the earnestness of his seven-year-old self: “But he was wrong.”

  “Maybe,” she says. “Doesn’t really matter, though.”

  “Doesn’t matter?”

  “What matters is carving out space in the scholarly debate. There is no right, no ultimate position. There’s only interpretation.”

  Interpretations are like assholes, the Assistant wants to say. Everyone’s got one.

  “Besides, this is the kind of thing the publisher likes. Something controversial.”

  “It does matter,” he says. “You can’t defend him.”

  He feels both nervous and confident in
eschewing his usual deference. In the hierarchy of their shared world, he’s supposed to know he is basically toilet paper stuck to her stiletto. Normally he does, but he can’t help himself. He’s gone into mother-hen mode. For a fleeting moment he imagines “Sockless Jerry,” William Peffer, and Mary Lease lying completely still in their graves, smiling. Equal rights for all, special privileges to none.

  “Excuse me?”

  But he also likes the Historian and wants to help her.

  “I can do whatever I want,” she says, a slight your-move edge in her voice. Her eyes narrow a tad, as though if she really wanted to she could summon laser beams that would shred him into confetti.

  “Of course you can,” the Assistant says.

  For about half a second he felt like a hero, but then she iced over and readied ocular lasers, and now they fill the rest of their time with silent eating and occasional remarks that carry a we’re-still-cool-right? subtext. And they are still cool, it seems. Despite their fatigue, at least they have a goal. His mission is no longer to wander out into the world, writing down everything he sees. In the war room the Historian tells him to focus on compiling information on Hofstadter. She’s going to begin drafting the proposal. Before he leaves, she asks for his legal pads, the primary and secondary sources he’s taken notes on the past two days. “Oh right,” he says, removing them from his messenger bag and sliding them her way across the table.

  The most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America.


  Hofstadter’s ground-breaking work came in using social psychology concepts to explain political history. He explored subconscious motives such as social status anxiety, anti-intellectualism, irrational fear, and paranoia—as they propelled political discourse and action in politics.


  There’s no question that Hofstadter’s writing was wonderful. But his understanding of the American past now seems narrow and flawed, and marked, inevitably, by the preoccupations of a generation that lived through Hitler and Stalin, by a gnawing anxiety that some kind of American fascism, a vicious right-wing movement coming out of the heartland, was not only possible but likely. . . . Hofstadter’s “status politics” thesis held that the Populists were driven to irrationality and paranoia by anxiety over their declining status in an America where rural life and its values were being supplanted by an urban industrial society. Populism, in this view, was a form of reactionary resistance to modernity. Here Hofstadter was the Jewish New York intellectual anxiously looking for traces of proto-fascism somewhere in middle America. He saw Joe McCarthy as a potential American Hitler and believed he had found the roots of American fascism among rural Protestants in the Midwest. It was history by analogy—but the analogy didn’t work.

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