James T. Farrell, “Young Lonigan” (1932)

It was just a well, because he wanted to slip around to the can and have a smoke before he joined the folks out in front to be told he looked so swell and all that boushwah. Inside the damp boys’ lavatory on the Indiana Avenue side of the building, he leaned against a sink and puffed away, absorbed in the ascending strands of smoke. He wondered if it was really a sin to smoke, and told himself that was all bunk. (35–36)

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It is time to take on Studs Lonigan. Studs Lonigan, one of the important figures in Great Depression-era literature, was the creation of 28-year-old James T. Farrell. Farrell was from a working class Irish immigrant family in Chicago. He has this in common with his most well-known literary creation. I cannot say for sure how much of what happened in these novels is autobiographical, but it seems likely that much of it was drawn from life. Studs was born around the same time Farrell was. They both attended Catholic grade school and liked to play baseball. While Farrell lives a long life as a productive writer, Studs dies young and worn out from a squandered life. As with Frank Norris, we are not given a simple morality tale. Like Norris’ Vandover, Studs is a product of his culture and environment. We can blame both for individual bad choices, but we would be misreading these texts to avoid appreciating the role of fate. Farrell clearly appreciated Norris, who is quoted at the beginning of the first novel about Studs Young Lonigan. (“A literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all and will perish.”) Perhaps Studs Lonigan reflects this vulgarization of naturalism.

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Studs Lonigan’s life is told over the course of three novels, written between 1929 and 1934, and published between 1932 and 1935. They probably should be read together. Farrell has already seen the novels published as a single trilogy in 1935. I can imagine Studs becoming a kind of nostalgic working class figure for the Great Depression generation, even as it works as a warning against self-aggrandizement and reckless squandering of potential. I would want to read both at the same time. Studs’ more attractive and heroic moments (even if they are few) suggest the idealization of the working class experience, so common in New Deal-era literature. The metanarrative, of improper self-confidence and wasted potential is actually the story of the entire nation.

The story of Young Lonigan covers around one year in the life of Studs Lonigan. It begins with his imminent graduation, at the age of fourteen, from a Catholic grade school in Chicago. He begins to plan to attend high school but has no clear idea of what he wants to do. (Of course, his mother wants him to prepare for the priesthood.) Instead of going back to school, he just sort of drifts into a new group of friends who spend much of their time just hanging out, smoking, drinking, and fooling around with girls. This boredom leads to episodes of ethnic and racial violence and antagonism. The climax of the novel involves Studs’ participation in anti-Semitic intimidation. By the end of the novel, Studs has moved to the wrong side of the tracks.

Young Lonigan is also a story of generational conflict, education, and the struggle between the individual and the institution. Since these themes are all combined, I want to discuss it as a single unit and suggest it as a way to approach the text from a libertarian perspective. To start with, Studs’ parents have hopes for him, but are aware that their own life does not present much of a good model for them. For this reason, they entrust the local Catholic schools to set Studs on the right path. Education is clearly presented here a moral corrective much more than as a cultivator of autonomy and critical thinking. “Old Man Lonigan” himself was familiar with the streets but in his older age sees it as a warning and the reason for educating Studs through the church.

And the old gang. They were scattered now, to the very ends of the earth. Many of them were dead, like poor Paddy McCoy, Lord have mercy on his soul, whose ashes rested in a drunkard’s grave at Potter’s Field. Well, they were a find gang, and many’s the good man they drank under the table, but . . . well, most of then didn’t turn out so well. (16)

We quickly learn what a waste the investment in education was, if the goal was to set Studs to the correct moral path. One suspects that the teachers know this was well as anyone, which is why the priest devotes his graduation speech to a final plea to the students to evade Satan’s clutches. (If Catholic education worked as a moral correction, we suspect this would not be necessary.) If anything, the children learned to have only contempt for their teachers. Much of their education seems to involve learning how to evade the regulations of the school. Smoking seems to become one way that these young men express their independence from the lessons they were taught in school.

Just another cover

Just another cover

Another tension between the individual and the institution is seen in how central the community is to the thought of Studs’ parents. They are clearly very concerned with how the neighbors look on their son, his actions, and what he becomes. At a more vulgar level, they seemed to care that neighbors might think they were cheap if they did not send Studs’ to high school. Education for the Lonigan’s is almost completely detached from utility and is mostly about image.

We should not be surprised that Studs choses the streets over the schoolhouse. This is, in fact, the more practical and natural path. Indeed, this may be a general problem in mass education. It has never been explained to me why everyone is better off going to school. It seems each career and each regional context would have its own educational needs. For some, the street provides a more useful education than does the schoolroom. Studs’ choice to abandon his education for a rather unfortunate circle of friends is not strictly speaking irrational. It was rather the practical choice, given his choices as a working class, second-generation immigrant, youth. Yet, while it may have been the moral practical and natural of the two choices, we need to ask why Studs was given only two choices. I am not calling for massive dropouts of students, but questioning why the choice we give many working class urban youth is between the street and boring, irrelevant classrooms.

We learn just how tragic this limited choice was by the end of the novel. Studs’ education does not really end when he commits to the street. One thing he learns is racism, which he takes up by the end of the novel. We are not sure how much he really likes picking on local black and Jewish youth. He is likely parroting what his peers do and say. But how is that different from the classroom?

 

Mark Twain: “Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale” (1894)

“Tom had long ago taught Roxy ‘her place.’ It has been many days now since she have ventured a caress of a fondling epithet in his quarter. Such things, from a ‘nigger,’ were repulsive to him, and she had been warned to keep her distance and remember who she was. She saw her darling gradually cease from being her son, she saw that detail perish utterly; all that was left was master–master, pure and simple, and it was not a gentle mastership, either. She saw herself sink from the sublime height of motherhood to the somber deeps of unmodified slavery. The abyss of separation between her and her boy were complete. She was merely his chattel, now, his convenience, his dog, his cringing and helpless slave, he humble and unresisting victim of his capricious temper and vicious nature.” (939)

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is the last of his great Mississippi writings and turns out to be an important reminder of the brutality of slavery and the absurdity of Jim Crow segregation. The novel came out two years after Homer Plessy was arrested for purchasing a train ticket for a white car in New Orleans. Plessy was 1/8th black and could easily pass as white. Mark Twain must have been influenced by this case of attempted “passing” when he wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson, which takes the concept of passing in order to show how ridiculous the color line was and how easily it could be shattered, but also how destructive and vile it could be.

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The plot of the novel centers on a slave in the Driscoll household, Roxy, who has a child on the same day as her master’s wife. The two children look similar. Roxy’s son is 1/16th black. After being threatened with being sold “down the river,” and broken away from her home and family, she decided to switch the babies. Her son grew up as a white man named Tom and became Roxy’s master. Growing up white in a slave society ensures that Tom grows up into an odious person. He goes into debt and murders his uncle, blaming some Italian tourists. During the trial, the title character, a brilliant lawyer who gained a reputation as a town idiot for a poorly constructed joke, exposes the truth through the study of fingerprints. Tom is revealed as a black slave, the property of the Driscoll family. In order to repair their losses, they sell the former master, now slave, “down the river.” At the same time, they resort the rightful Driscoll heir, despite having been raised as a black slave all of his life.

How one is raised, in respect to hierarchical institutions, matters a great deal in the formation of values. I recently saw a talk about a study that showed that even when playing a rigged game of Monopoly, the winner became progressively more arrogant and indifferent to others. We have no way of knowing how Tom would have grown up if he stayed a slave, but we can guess that he would have been like Chambers, the real Driscoll son, raised by Roxy. As one of the chapter-leading quotes from “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” states: “TRAINING is everything. The peace was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” (941) Twain’s point seems to be the foolishness of the color line, especially when enforced with Jim Crow laws. A more radical claim at the time than today, but worth remembering when we feel eager to condemn others for not sharing our values. There are reasons people have warped perspectives of justice or are incapable of empathy. We need to crush those institutions that cultivate people who behave indifferently to each other.

Another theme of the novel is the utter brutality of slavery. At the turn of the last century, a couple decades after the failure of Reconstruction, slavery was being presented by white historians and Confederate apologists as a benign, even progressive institution. Twain was one of the few voices remembering slavery as it was. The threat of being sold “down the river” was a threat to maintain control and discipline enslaved men and women, but it was also part of the psychological torture masters used. Before Roxy decides to switch the children, she thought about murder as a preferable solution to being eventually sold to plantations in the deep South. In the face of this slaves had some means of resistance. They could steal. This was the cause of the initial threats to sell the slaves to the South. Roxy would later use blackmail to extort money from her master (in reality her son). Still, as the final pages remind us, this resistance has little force against the legal power of masters to violently destroy families.

A third important theme in the novel is the falsehood of perceptions and image. Wealth and status are presented as fictions. If a slave can become master, and a master become a slave, just by changing hats, it is not clear where the ownership of wealth really is. The wealth and power that the elite control is ultimately just a piece of paper, enforced by courts and law. In this story, the courts begin investigating a murder but eventually turn it into a property transaction. “They rightfully claimed that ‘Tom’ was lawfully their property and had been so for eight years; that they had already lost sufficiently in being deprived of his services during that long period, and ought not to be required to add anything to that loss; that if he had been delivered up to them in the first place, they would have sold him and he could not have murdered Judge Driscoll; therefore it was not he that had really committed the murder, the guilt lay with the erroneous inventory.” (1056) This is the perverse logic of property. I suppose all the crimes of corporations can be just as easily ignored and turned into a source of profit for someone.

A great, morally significant novel.

Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer, Abroad” (1894)

Dangnammit! Huckleberry Finn was supposed to go West to Indian country and leave civilization behind him. But here he is, back in St. Petersburg talking about his continuing adventures with Tom Sawyer. If only Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Abroad was fan fiction. It is not that bad, but if taken too seriously it does threaten to take away some of the moral seriousness readers faced at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But, as an anarchist, I cannot help but praise a story about biracial gang of outlaws commandeering a hot air balloon and going on adventures.

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As the story begins, Tom Sawyer is in a fix. He has a good tale to tell his friends over his role in freeing Jim and getting shot in the process, but the postmaster—Nat Parsons—came back from travels to Washington D.C. with all sorts of stories. Tom is at risk of losing his status as town hero. In a parochial place like St. Petersburg it is not hard to build up a reputation. Tom commits to going abroad in a way to preserve his threatened status as village adventurer. This leads to their encounter with a scientist and his hot air balloon. The scientist dies at some point early in their travels. The three (they being Jim along) eventually reach Africa, cross the Sahara desert, visit the pyramids and Cairo (a bit of an inside joke possible, since the town of the same name was Huck and Jim’s destination in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Once there they send a telegram home and prepare their return voyage.

It is around 90 pages in the Library of America awesome typesetting.

Planning a crusade. More interesting than the normal justification for tourism.

Planning a crusade. More interesting than the normal justification for tourism.

One interesting thing about this novel is that Twain appears to claim that travel and tourism is mostly about bragging rights. Tom Sawyer has no plans to go abroad before he felt his position threatened. Huck Finn has little interest regardless. As for having adventures based on pure imagination, Tom Sawyer never had troubles before. Whether it was playing pirates or prison escape, travel was never strictly required. In a sense, Tom Sawyer is growing up. Showing off moved to a new, unfortunate level. As I talked about earlier in this blog, I am not a big fan of tourism. I do not travel to tourist sites often. I prefer a bender and reckon you can learn more about a society from its pubs and brothels than from its carefully cultivated historical sites. Worse than visiting these sites, however, is the requirement to collect a detailed record of the travel. Photos, videos, blog posts, and overpriced junk from a gift shop seem to serve no other purpose but to show off that one travelled. It also creates a false memory. Smiling to a camera creates a false memory of happiness. Looking back on photos of smiling tourists creates the image that people were happy, which may not be true.

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The novel has a humorous didactic structure based on the fact that Tom Sawyer attended school regularly, while Huck Finn and Jim were still quite vernacular in their knowledge. Several times in the short novel, Huck or Jim would make a mistake of fact and Tom Sawyer would lecture them on the truth. Huck thought they had not changed states because the grass has not changed color. Maps show states as different colors, of course. Tom correct him. Tom gives lessons on the jumping ability of flees, the nature of the Sphinx, and the extent of the Sahara desert. Unfortunately this makes Tom to be an incredible and unimaginative bore through much of the novel. Being right all the time is no fun for anybody. I try to be wrong several times every day. (Students stealing from my blog should keep this in mind. I do not mind the plagiarism, but just be warned.)

Let me close with some wisdom from the novel about needs and wants:

“The Professor had laid in everything a body could want; he couldn’t a been better fixed. There warn’t no milk for the coffee, but there was water and everything else you could want, and a charcoal stove and the fixing for it, and pipes and cigars and matches; and wine and liquor, which warn’t in our line; and books and maps and charts, and an accordion, and furs and blankets, and o end of rubbish, like glass beads and brass jewelry.” (674)

Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams”

The Education of Henry Adams contains two parts.  The first covers the first thirty-three years of Adams’ life and explores the continual failures of Adams’ attempts to find an “education,” the emergence of “chaos” reflected in the Civil War and the emergence of industrial capitalism in post-war America, and the end of his education after securing a teaching position in history at Harvard College.  The second part begins twenty years later and explores mostly his reflections on the changing nature of America and the conflict between his pre-industrial heritage, mind, and education with the industrial world.  This transition promised a new period of education in Adams’ life.

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I found the first part of this autobiography rich in commentary on education.  One cannot help but notice the privileged that Adams’ enjoyed.  He was born into an illustrious political family.  He had access to his family’s connections.  Adams attended Harvard College with other privileged youth.  His early careers was secured, first as assistant to his father when he served in Congress in 1860 and 1861 and then as an assistant to his father during the all-important diplomatic mission to Great Britain during the Civil War.  His constant complaint about his inability to find an education, despite these privileges cannot help but turn off someone of working-class roots like myself.  I certainly did not get to enjoy the library of a former president in my youth or bounce around Europe as a dilettante seeking an “education.”  Nevertheless, my goal in this blog is to give each writer a fair reading and find what, if anything, an anarchist can learn from the American tradition.  Well, in this sense, once we look past Adams’ privileged we find a rich and convincing discussion of the meaning, purpose, and means of education.   One cannot read this work and not come away questioning the utility of formal, bureaucratized education.  True education, Adams’ insists, comes from engagement in the world.  It is a product of life and action, not the receipt of information from the system.  We realize that yes, we did not get to go to Harvard because of our family connections but we also did not miss out on much.  Besides, he never forgets his privileged, unlike so many of the elite who never really reflect on how easy things have been for them.  “Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” (724)

In his “Preface” he claims that he wrote The Education to provide a guide for young people, complaining that despite Emile or Benjamin Franklin no guides existed.  Certainly none that spoke to the needs of the 20th century (or even the 19th).  This was Adams’ dilemma throughout his life.  His formal education prepared him for the 18th century, yet he lived in a world of industrial chaos – the world of the dynamo.  He does take from those writers a belief in autodidacticism.  The joke of Harvard learning and his insistence that education is an individual quest attest to this.  “If the students got little from his mates, he got little more from his masters.  The four years passed at College, were for his purposes, wasted.  Harvard College was a good school but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all.  He did not want to be one in a hundred, — one per cent. of an education.  He regarded himself as the only person for whom his education had value, and he wanted the whole of it.  He got barely half of an average.  Long afterwards, when the devious path of life led him back to teach in his turn what no student naturally cared or needed to know, he diverted some dreary hours of Faculty-meetings by looking up his record in the class-lists, and found himself graded precisely in the middle.” (774)  He then adds that the one skill he needed for the modern world (mathematics) was not taught to him properly.  Not only did Harvard College fail to complete his education, he noticed that it did not even begin an education.

We notice with Adams that education needs to be dynamic and therefore must be deinstitutionalized.  The Civil War left “a million young men planted in thevmud of a lawless world, to begin a new life without education at all.” (820)  Every generation teaches their young for the world they grew up in, but change can be so dramatic and complete that all of those lessons are useless.  I reckon that our current educational crises is based on the perpetuation of an out-dated model.  Here is a useful clip from an education “reformer.”  Even advocates of formal education (in some form) realize what we have is useless.

Adams does receive a diplomatic education by working alongside his father, making connections, and learning lessons of “political morality.”  But strangely this education disqualified him for a life as a diplomat.  “For the law, diplomacy had unfitted him; for diplomacy he already knew too much.” (913)  Adams was after an education and nothing diplomatic after 1865 could be as interesting or educational as the politics of the war.  This drove him to the press.

Adams also discusses his relationship with Darwinism. It seems he took it up as a fad, but Darwinism is central to his argument about education.  Chaos, Adams insists, “breeds life” and order tradition and passivity.  This is essentially a vulgar Darwinian argument.  Darwin describes adaptation in response to a shifting world.  Adams describes formal educations obsolescent in transforming conditions.

Let me end this post by pointing out that he labels the chapter describing what for most intellectuals would have been the pinnacle of their dreams, a faculty position at Harvard, as “Failure.”  Why?  Well, he realized that he was part of an educational institution that was doomed to failure.  He could reach only a fraction of students but still fail to give that minority anything of value.  Adams was a relic.  Worse still, teaching ended his education.  “No more education was possible for either man.  Such as they were, they had got to stand the chances of the world they lived in; and when Adams started back to Cambridge, to take up again the humble tasks of schoolmaster and editor he was harnessed to his cart.  Education, systematic or accidental, had done its worst.  Henceforth he went on, submissive.” (1006)

It seems to me the lesson we should take from Adams’ failure is that we should not measure our success, our knowledge, and education by the standards of a by-gone age.  The world that created the institutions of public education and higher education and dinosaurs.  And every year since Adams wrote these words, these institutions have aged more and developed only in uselessness and decadence.  Millions of students attend glorified prisons (for both the body and the mind) to acquire a piece of paper, which will in turn allow them entrance into another prison.  Families and communities will pass on the ignorance of a generation.  Schools pass on the ignorance of an entire society.  I do not believe individuals can do worse then this.  We should have faith in each child’s capacity to teach themselves through experiences.