Doing Justice to Outlaws: The Writing of Dime Novel Desperadoes – John E. Hallwas
(A talk at Malpass Library, Western Illinois University, Sept. 19, 2008)
I want to start by telling you about the great frustration of nonfiction writers—especially writers of history, biography, and true crime narrative, all three of which my new book is. And it is this: that if you do your writing job very well, your readers often don’t realize that you did it. That is to say, they won’t see your book as a piece of literary art, a highly shaped expression of the writer’s vision of things.
In a sense, writers of such literary nonfiction (that is, highly wrought nonfiction with an unfolding story) are creators of an illusion—the illusion that this book, this narrative, is the essential or inescapable truth about that topic. And so, if someone else had thoroughly researched the Maxwell outlaws, that person also would have written Dime Novel Desperadoes, because the shape of it all—the focus, the form, the meaning—is inherent in the story, and once you locate enough parts of the story, you’ve got it.
But that’s not the case. What the author of a history, or a biography, or some other creative nonfiction, really does is engage the reader with his or her vision of things, by making it seem as if that vision were the only possible, or sensible, way to view the content. Anyone who has seriously studied the very distinctive gospel depictions of Jesus—from the very human, miracle-working, parable-telling prophet, who proclaims the imminent coming of the earthly Kingdom of God, in Mark, to the bold, mystical God-in-human-form who is beyond temporal concerns and promises eternal life to those who believe in him, in John--knows exactly what I’m talking about. Different texts, expressing very different visions.
This may be hard for some people to believe, but there is no such thing in history as “objective significance.” There are facts, of course: The Maxwell brothers were raised in central Illinois; they robbed people and stole horses; they killed two sheriffs in a Wisconsin gunfight; they became the focus of America’s biggest outlaw manhunt; one of them was eventually captured and lynched; and they became the heroes, or anti-heroes, of a dozen dime novels. But, there are no self-evident patterns or inherent meanings in such events. Those are supplied by the author who writes about them. Like novels, histories are constructed. They are shaped by the author’s vision as he leaves out, puts in, reorders, connects, dramatizes, and explains. And that vision often disagrees with the public’s commonly held view of things.
Indeed, you might define a writer as someone who seeks and reveals truths which are not self-evident, someone who realizes that the truth about human life is never found, but always constructed.
This process is perhaps as clearly shown in Dime Novel Desperadoes as in any modern narrative you could find, as I challenge, in chapter after chapter, the public view of the Maxwell brothers in the nineteenth century. Indeed, by starting the book with a Macomb newspaper account of Ed Maxwell, who is sitting in jail, an account that labels him as a “desperado,” as an inherently evil figure who was born to kill—although his youthful crime was simply stealing a suit of clothes—I emphasize the overblown and shallow public construction of his identity, a construction that helped to shape or prompt his life as an outlaw. As the book proceeds, a host of printed misjudgments, exaggerations, and folkloric stories are exposed as false, and I make the case for a deeper complexity than the public ever imagined was true for the Maxwell brothers—or perhaps for any outlaws.
My vision of things centers around this: People, including you and me, are always struggling against under-appreciation, against shallow social constructions of who they really are. In a sense, my own exasperation at being viewed as simply a compiler of historical data is an example of that. In regard to the Maxwell brothers, that struggle was enormous, and more dramatic, than in our own lives. So, Dime Novel Desperadoes is a symbolic structure, as sure as Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn are. As the author, I say, in effect, let us see in the short, troubled lives of the Maxwell brothers the very struggle that we are also engaged in—albeit with less horrific results. This is what I mean when I say, in the Preface, that the book is “about the perennial problems of knowing and evaluating—the difficulty of knowing the truth about people . . . and the challenge of evaluating the character of others.” And that is why I assert that “we can understand Ed and Lon well enough to regard them as complex figures who had positive qualities too and felt disrespected by others and oppressed by powerful forces.” They were, in fact, “neither monsters of evil nor innocent victims… [but] very much like the rest of us….”
As these comments suggest, social and moral issues are not just scholarly add-ons in my nonfiction. They are essential to my vision of things, for I see a world with chronically shallow comprehension of complex human beings and human actions. My wife and I recently saw the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” and at one point, Batman says to his butler, “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred.” Well, not in simplistic melodramas, maybe, but in the real world, lawbreakers always are. As I say at the close of my narrative, after striving to disclose and dramatize the social conditions, cultural values, and psychological problems that prompted the outlaw identity and lawbreaking actions of the brothers, “But one thing is certain: The Maxwells were even more complex than we can now determine. They were not just desperadoes, but men.”
As some of you know, the complexity, and the struggle and suffering, of even insignificant people is the focus of naturalistic novels—like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door. All three of those books, long favorites of mine, are focused, incidentally, on young men who kill. That kind of fiction, with characters so deeply impacted by heredity, environment, and chance, has influenced my approach to writing nonfiction. Indeed, over the years my reading and teaching of naturalistic novels, including very long trilogies like John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. (1,450 pages) and James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan (1,000 pages), reinforced my growing conviction that the mysterious, forever-changing human self and its biological-social-cultural context are facets of the same reality.
Because of that vision of things, my narrative is necessarily embedded in a rich historical context, which may annoy some readers who want the plot, or storyline, to move forward on every page. As I mention in the Preface, “Individuals become who they are partly because of where they live, who they know, and what they experience or struggle with. For that reason, Dime Novel Desperadoes reflects in some detail the rural and small-town world of the Maxwell brothers—a world of destabilizing westward movement, frustrating failure, extreme poverty, frontier rowdyism, conflict over Civil War issues, prejudice against landless workers, escalating crime, ineffective courts, and harsh, often counterproductive penitentiaries.” Those circumstances, plus personal psychological problems (such as Ed’s obsession with manliness; Lon’s insecurity and dependence on his older brother; and the alienation of both young men), plus powerful cultural myths that impacted their identities, made for a rich combination of forces that prompted their lawbreaking. We usually can not relate such matters very effectively to American outlaws, because we don’t have the records, but in the case of Ed and Lon Maxwell, I was able to turn up—during nine years of work in eight states--not only hundreds of newspaper articles but some interviews, especially with Ed, and a few letters, including one by Lon that is the most psychologically revealing letter that I’ve ever seen by an American outlaw.
Let me comment on just a few of these matters. First, because they were raised as the sons of an impoverished, continually failing tenant farmer, who came West and drifted from place to place, relentlessly moving on, Ed and Lon Maxwell lived a kind of de-centered life. They had no sense of being embedded in a community, no feeling of belonging to a local cultural tradition. Those of you who know other books of mine, from the Spoon River Anthology annotated edition to the documentary history of Mormon Nauvoo, to the pictorial history of Macomb realize that the relationship of individuals to community is a perennial theme of mine. Even The Bootlegger, a true crime narrative, is sub-titled A Story of Small-Town America, to emphasize lawbreaker Kelly Wagle’s deep, troubled relationship to his community context.And Dime Novel Desperadoes is part of that ongoing investigation by me, but my focus is on two perennial outsiders, and how their culture failed to comprehend them—and more than that, was partly responsible for their outlaw career, with all of its tragic consequences.
To dramatize the Maxwells’ difference from most people in the post-Civil War Midwest, I depict, for example, the 1869 cornerstone ceremony for building the magnificent courthouse in Macomb: “It began with a procession around the square, continued with speeches, and concluded with the placing of time capsule items in a cornerstone and the raising of an American flag. On that day, local residents . . . reflected on the progress their county had made in just four decades, recognized the old settlers as cultural heroes, and celebrated their own participation in a common story. They felt focused, included, and significant.” As that suggests, a community is not just a location, or a geographically limited social system. It is also a condition of spiritual connection, fostered by multi-faceted interaction, mutual appreciation, and common purposes. Of course, the Maxwells knew nothing of that kind of spiritual belonging or social significance. They were disrespected outsiders, with no sense of connection to a meaningful past, no confidence in an unfolding future, and not much grounding in a shared moral order. Many of us fear that our nation is now drifting in those very directions. It is precisely because the Maxwells prefigure so many Americans in our time, so many who feel disconnected, who lack deep obligations to community and society, that their story has cultural significance.
Moreover, once Ed and Lon were labeled as outlaws, or desperadoes, the public could regard them as opponents of what the new courthouse symbolized—the progress of civilized culture, and the development of spiritual community, in McDonough County. Unfortunately, by sending the young Maxwell brothers to Illinois State Penitentiary, a dehumanizing institution, to supposedly reform them, the public was, in fact, committing them to a place where spiritual isolation and lack of community were enforced, neurotic problems were fostered, and resentment was promoted.
Much more is said about that issue of belonging, and not belonging, in the book, but let me switch to the crucial, and related, factor of cultural myth. A myth, as scholars use the term, is not an obvious fable or falsehood, but an essential truth for the members of a cultural group who accept it—and enact it. The Hebrews, for example, believed they were God’s chosen people; many Americans regard our country as a God-sponsored, righteous nation (an adaptation of the Hebrew belief); the ancient Greeks enacted myths of heroic manhood and individualism, which also have parallels in America. On the positive side, myth makes for community, the preservation of cherished values, and common social purpose. So, a myth is embedded in stories that people of that culture like to tell, and is often symbolized by iconic figures—Moses, Jesus, Odysseus, Lincoln, Buffalo Bill. All religions are centered on myth, and all distinctive cultures are as well. As they provide meaning, myths organize and reshape our experience, but they also oversimplify it, and distort it—and promote conflict with, and often brutal treatment of, unbelievers, who are labeled as outsiders—the “barbarians,” as the Greeks called everyone else; the “children of the devil,” as Christian orthodoxy called everyone else.
One myth that deeply impacted the Maxwell brothers was the American notion that outlaws were inherently evil because they were opponents of the inherently good (indeed, God-sponsored) social order. With that outlook, you could brutally lynch an accused outlaw, a young man in chains, all the while regarding yourself as virtuous. Or more recently, with regard to suspected terrorists or sympathizers, you could torture helpless captives at prison camps like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and still regard your nation as righteous, as innocent. Such is the power of myth. As I have told many a class in American myth over the years, myths are the most powerful notions that inhabit the human mind. They are decisive, in what they allow their adherents to see or not see, about themselves or others. They are cultural determinants of human behavior.
Myths can and do become part of our very sense of identity. One American myth that had such an impact on Ed was the myth of manliness, the notion that the willingness to be violent, when some excuse for doing so arises, is good, and that masculine honor in fact demands confrontation and revenge for injury or insult. This is sometimes called “the Code of the West,” by scholars, but it was prevalent in the South and here in what we now call the Midwest as well. Hence, as I point out, in nineteenth-century Illinois, “The willingness to commit violence [against someone who had disrespected you] was, in fact, regarded as a demonstration of manliness.” Think of how many western novels and films that myth is embedded in, as we have performed and applauded what we so deeply believe—and think of how often that myth has provoked unnecessary violence.
That is why, of course, at the outset of the book, I point out that the most popular play at Chandler’s Hall (the opera house) in Macomb during the Maxwell era was Buffalo Bill, which “celebrated the buckskin-clad title character, the daring sharpshooter of dime novel fame, who was fast becoming the most renowned symbol of western manliness. Courageous in the face of Indians and outlaws, Buffalo Bill was portrayed as . . . a hero of self-assertion, who was always ready for violent action and refused to knuckle down to anyone.” If our culture perpetuates such a myth—and embodies it in an admired cultural icon like Buffalo Bill—who is, incidentally, the prototype of all the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood heroes--and then, a young man who feels put down by someone gets a gun and revenges himself, is not our culture partly responsible for what that young man does? (And we wonder why America is by far the most violent developed nation on earth.) As that suggests, Dime Novel Desperadoes is partly a critique of deeply held American beliefs, perpetuated by the stories we often tell. No wonder I refer to the book, in my Preface, as “an anti-western,” for western novels and films enshrine such values, while they strip human action down to a good versus evil melodrama that ignores all human complexity.
Another American myth that greatly impacted the Maxwells was “the Gospel of Success,” the notion that you can and should shape your character, and people with good character will inevitably rise--will achieve prosperity and respectability. Of course, many folks in post-Civil War America did rise, but other virtuous, hard-working people did not. As I point out in the book, “Shaping one’s character to achieve success was admirable [as an intention], but appraising someone’s character by his success, or failure, was unjust—and oppressive to those on the bottom, who often felt socially discarded and even morally condemned.” Ed and Lon Maxwell, perennially on the bottom, certainly felt that way. And as their case shows, to quote psychoanalyst Rollo May, “Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they, too, are significant.” Or as I say in the book, when talking of Ed, he “needed to assert his chosen identity as a defiant desperado” as a means of “countering the perception that he was a powerless, ineffectual man.”
And with that, let me switch to yet another reflection of my vision as a writer, which has certainly shaped this book. Appraising someone’s character on the basis of his or her economic success or failure, or comparative social standing, was (and still is) unjust because, as I point out, “many components of any person’s character are not a matter of choice but are determined by genetic inheritance, cultural forces, and psychological factors stemming from personal experience. More than people like to admit, their lives are impacted by fate and circumstance.”
Among the prefatory material in my book, I have two pages with selected quotations, and one of them is a sentence by scholar Douglas Porpora, from Landscapes of the Soul: “By the time we reach an age at which we can critically reflect on who we are, we are already somebody we did not choose to be.” And by using that quotation, I am announcing my position in the ongoing debate about whether people are essentially creatures of free will—in terms of character formation and hence behavior--or have their lives shaped by forces over which they have limited control. My outlook essentially reflects the latter position, and is a kind of soft, or moderated, determinism.
In the problem of free will versus determinism much is at stake, including our responsibility for who we are and what we do—and hence, the legitimacy and adequacy of our criminal justice system, as well as the acceptability of religious myth systems that, for example, condemn people to eternal torture simply for not embracing the right belief. Of the dozens of books in recent years on this issue, perhaps none is more respected that The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, a 640-page tome published in 2002, in which the editor summarizes in two sentences the shift that is taking place: New “developments . . . in biology, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, social and behavioral sciences” have supported determinism; “They have convinced many persons that more of our behavior is determined by causes unknown to us than previously believed.” I don’t have time to even summarize some of that research, but the point is, many scholars are now defining human beings as creatures whose essential character, and hence, behavior, is prompted by powerful drives and forces but who mistakenly and stubbornly persist in seeing themselves as choosers of their character and their basic drives and actions. We are reluctant to embrace this enormous truth because it doesn’t flatter us, of course, and because we are commonly unaware of our basic drives. As the great Dutch thinker Benedict de Spinoza said 350 years ago, “Men feel themselves to have free will because they are conscious of their actions, and they are unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.”
My effort to see the true complexity of the outlaws, to recognize the forces that prompted them to be as they were and do what they did, leads to this comment in my chapter on the nationwide discussion of Ed’s lynching in 1881: “Ed Maxwell did not create or want the psychological problems, social conditions, and public attitudes that produced him. And the same was true of Lon. They were fated to be themselves—impoverished, shamed, alienated, insecure, frustrated, and self-absorbed young men who resented authority, admired defiance, yearned for respect, and loved guns. Those factors and penitentiary dehumanization [also forced upon them] shaped their experience, including their sudden response to armed strangers in the street who pulled guns on them and could have shot them down. If the causal history of a violent act extends back well past the immediate provocation, to powerful, unchosen forces in the perpetrator’s life, what response by society is appropriate?”
This is, of course, a huge problem for the American public to wrestle with. We must somehow hold people responsible for what they do, yet the evidence is mounting to show that, as Marvin Minsky says in The Society of Mind, “what we do depends on processes we do not know.” I would define it, more broadly, in this way: What we are, our very sense of identity, is shaped substantially by forces (genetics, social conditions, cultural myths, psychological pressures) that we do not control. Hence, so-called choices in our lives that relate strongly to our identity (such as choice of a career, choice of a marriage partner, choice of a religion, choice of a liberal or conservative outlook) are not so much choices after all, as the fulfillment of forces within us that we did not choose. Anyone’s self has inescapable historical dimensions. In the comprehension of this reality is the promise that we will one day be able to regard violent lawbreakers as “dangerous,” and worthy of confinement, but not as evil enemies, deserving of our vengeance, a vengeance that only extends the insensitivity already displayed by the perpetrator, as my analysis of the men who pursued the Maxwells and the mob that lynched Ed so clearly shows. The myth of free will, of freely chosen, unconditioned evil-doing, can only promote blame, rather than comprehension, and retribution, rather than justice.
In that sense, too, Dime Novel Desperadoes is indeed a symbolic structure, designed to reflect my perception of that reality. Ultimately, that is the way I do justice to the outlaws whose lives are my subject matter. And that is why the Maxwell brothers symbolize you.
I recently had coffee with a distinguished, chair-holding professor from another college, whom I have known for years, and who had just read my book, and realizing both the crucial need for human responsibility and the powerful, life-shaping forces that we do not choose for ourselves, he asked, “What is your solution to this?” In other words, what should we do?
Although Dime Novel Desperadoes is a carefully shaped, and hopefully engaging story, not a study with a reported solution, my response is indirectly reflected in the book: We should avoid the extremes of assuming either that we can control our lives by simply choosing to shape our identity as we wish, or that we are fated to do exactly as we have done. As I say in the chapter on “Law and Order, and Prison Life,” discussing Ed Maxwell’s awful Illinois State Penitentiary environment, “The inmates commonly adopted a fatalistic view of life, thus relieving themselves of any responsibility for their situation. As one Joliet “prison poet” of Ed Maxwell’s era put it, “I’m jugged [i.e., in prison] this early morn/ ‘Cause once I happened to be born.” In short, he was born to be as he was, and do what he did, so it’s not his fault. He sees himself as a victim. This is the polar opposite, as I say, of the “simply shape your own character [and therefore make good choices] outlook that underlaid [America’s cherished] Gospel of Success. Both outlooks are extremes—inadequate, misleading views propounded for self-serving reasons”—avoidance of blame, for criminals; self-praise, for achievers.
The solution, then, is to recognize that unchosen forces restrict our options, and make some expressions of our selfhood far more attractive and achievable than others, but we must also hold ourselves responsible for gaining a certain awareness of our own, force-driven complexity and our potential for inner growth, and for positively impacting our behavior. Although I want my readers to recognize the forces that were driving Ed and Lon, and to sympathize with them to a degree, I don’t let either of the outlaws off the hook. As I say, for example, of Ed after he is captured, “He failed to realize his responsibility for what had happened at Durand [the deadly gunfight at the center of my book] – partly because he did not comprehend the inner forces that were driving him, forces he should have resisted.”
In short, the problem of responsibility for human beings is rooted in self-knowledge, in becoming aware of one’s own complexity (the inner forces that really do prompt our choices), including the limitations imposed on us by our culture as we internalize often self-defeating myths, norms, and practices. With that awareness, at least limited responsibility follows. Or as writer Norman Cousins once said, “Free will and determinism are like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt to you represents determinism. The way you play your hand represents free will.” The very predictability of those determinants that shape our lives allows for judgment and response. And so, recognizing how unchosen forces condition us is ultimately, and paradoxically, not self-defeating, but empowering. You must strive to become who you most deeply are, and not just remain a person dominated by arbitrary drives.
In my view—and this is the foundation of my spirituality--we are composed of paradoxes, which we need to embrace, not deny or try to escape from. The deep truth is, there’s no real individualism without relationship to community; and in fact, there is no self, no personhood, apart from social context, and those people who habitually ignore or criticize others, who don’t practice broad, sympathetic understanding or contribute to community, are always, always diminishing themselves. And paradoxically, too, there’s no good in us without recognizing our inescapable participation in evil, for our awareness of evil and our struggle against it are essential to our humanity. In fact, our ideals have force precisely because of our continuing recognition of human failure. Likewise, and relevant to my central point, we are partly creatures of fate (as our gender, our ethnicity, our family background, our mentality, and our forthcoming death so clearly imply), and our basic character is part of that fate; yet within certain limitations, we can be, paradoxically, exemplars of freedom and self-realization. But only if we recognize the complexity in ourselves, including the forces within our culture that we have internalized. And in so doing we can avoid, as one scholar put it, “the illusion that things are simple and we are in charge.”
And that was, in fact, the illusion held by the Maxwell brothers, the illusion bound up with their decision to simply forgo community, ratify their alienation, and forge a new identity, and destiny, as defiant desperadoes, opponents of the social order—men set apart by choice. They wanted a supposedly chosen role, a fixed outlaw identity, to take the place of their more complex, troubled, and evolving selves. That act of rebellion was regarded by them as an assertion of heroic individualism, itself a cherished American myth, misconstrued by them as the freedom, the right, to be responsible to no one, to nothing, except themselves. But as the Maxwell saga reveals, freedom never comes through an escape from complexity but through the possibility of growth within that complexity, that cultural and psychological context. Or as writer Franz Kafka once put it, “You cannot escape yourself.” Paradoxically, an act is free, then, if it grows from the reflective confrontation of our true character, a character deeply impacted by circumstances that we did not choose.
The Maxwells struggled to maintain their new identity despite the mounting evidence that they were in some ways more constrained, as outlaws, than ever before. As I mention at one point, later in the book, when they are on the run for many weeks during 1881, with hundreds of men anxious to find them and kill them, “. . . ironically, they were still just desperate movers across an inhospitable cultural landscape—a nightmarish extension of their early life—with no real hope of being anything else.”
And so, failing to effectively confront their own complexity, the unchosen forces shaping their lives, the Maxwells remained unfree—and they became tragically defeated figures—like so many other lawbreakers surely. They failed to become who they most deeply and humanly were, although Lon made a heroic, and ultimately tragic, effort at moderating his alienation and insecurity, at prompting a greater, deeper selfhood and creating a future of real promise.
So, the value or significance of Dime Novel Desperadoes is not simply a matter of bringing to national attention two long-forgotten outlaw brothers who once rivaled Jesse and Frank James in notoriety, but probing beneath the sensationalized public view of Ed and Lon Maxwell, to really comprehend them—as we have seldom done with American outlaws--and see in them a dramatic version of our own struggle to realize ourselves in a world of inescapable social and psychological forces, powerful cultural myths, and shallow misperception—by others, and by ourselves.
Like everyone else, writers too are driven by unchosen forces, but are commonly more aware of that fact than most people—because to be any good they have to plunge down beneath the level of cultural convention and shallow rationalization to confront and express their own struggle, their own issues. Perhaps the only way for me to really show you what ultimately shaped Dime Novel Desperadoes and how personal the nonfictional “truth” really can be, is to talk about something that I’ve seldom talked about, even indirectly, before. But this is the right time and place, and perhaps nothing else will make the point.
My work as a writer, the themes I deal with, and my outlook on things go back substantially to a single event, and one period of time in my life. I was raised in a small town of 1500 people, on the northern border of the state. My family was characterized by a warm, loving, outgoing mother, who was exceedingly popular in the community, and a cold, distant, authoritarian, often angry, Victorian type of father. For many reasons I felt very close to my mother, and we were all (I was one of four brothers) almost completely unconnected, emotionally, to our father. In short, we had only one real “parent.” And when I was fifteen, my mother committed suicide, at dawn one morning—and we found her. It was an absolutely nightmarish experience, which happened in 1960, shortly before Christmas. In many ways, my family disintegrated—economically, emotionally, spiritually.
I was devastated—truly psychologically damaged by the experience. It was more than a month before I could return to school. Although it surely seemed to others that I readily re-embraced my classes, and friends, and activities, I couldn’t concentrate on much else for many months, and I was overwhelmed periodically by memories and anxieties. Today, we would have a kid like me in counseling so fast it would make his head spin, but that advantage wasn’t part of my world. I simply had to put myself back together, if I could, and that meant working like crazy to repress things—the horror of the scene, the guilt (you always blame yourself), the sudden alienation, the antagonism toward my troubled father (whom I also blamed), and so on. Increasingly introspective, I also began to realize how unutterably complex people really are, and how unchosen, and often hidden, forces can shape our lives—or end them.
The traumatic experience of my high school years led to many concerns of mine. One is the problem of identity. When you suddenly lose a parent—or “the” parent who meant everything to you—at a young age, you undergo an identity problem, a sudden devaluation of the self, and a loss of confidence in your ability to cope. Secondly, since the family is the unit of social structure in a small town—a place where people know each other deeply through families—the question was, How do I relate to the community, to those other families, any more? What is my place? How can I belong? And then, there’s the matter of death. Few young people think much about death, but I did, of course—especially the impact of death on the living and how death just doesn’t end someone’s life, but completes the meaning of it, however complicated that meaning is to unravel. Already interested in books, I became a serious reader, driven to search and study. Also, I became aware of the important role of memory in giving meaning to one’s life—for suddenly, as in my case, all you have to work with are memories of someone. At fifteen, I was a kid with a “past”—one that was desperately important to me, and I had to use positive memories to reconstruct a sense of who I was, and might yet become. And then there was the nagging, intolerable sense that no one else, especially my father, recognized what I was going through, and how devastated I was.
My point is, of course, that these are my themes as a writer: the complex nature of identity; the relationship (or lack of relationship) of individuals to community; the enormous impact of death in our lives, the vital and subjective role of memory, and our inescapable struggle against shallow, insensitive appraisals of our selfhood—who we really are. Those are my themes, of course, because they’re also my obsessions. I can’t get over them. They are inescapable forces in my life, and I work within them.
Consider for a minute how all of this shows up in what I write. The most widely known, successful piece of literary scholarship I’ve ever done is Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition, which has sold very well. Why? The central issue in Edgar Lee Masters’ famous book—to which I provide a 90-page introduction and endless notes--is the problematic relationship of individuals to community and to cultural norms. And death pervades everything. All of the people in his poems are dead, talking from the graveyard, trapped in their own past, fated to be themselves, and forever impacted by personal experiences, social forces, and cultural constructions. And half of them are psychologically damaged people, full of identity problems and struggling with their own memories, pleading for appreciation of who they really are, or were. Those are my kind of people; that’s my kind of book. Listen to the voice of Frank Drummer, for example, who might have been Ed Maxwell, speaking from the ultimate restraint of the grave:
Out of a [jail] cell [and] into this darkened space—
The end at twenty-five!
My tongue could not speak what stirred within me,
And the village thought me a fool.
Yet at the start there was a clear vision,
A high and urgent purpose in my soul
Which drove me on. . . .
People driven by inner forces, under-appreciated and misjudged by others, their troubled lives often tragically unfulfilled: That’s the world of Spoon River Anthology—a book that found the right editor, surely.
Even in Macomb: A Pictorial History, consider how my opening statement, the “Foreword,” confronts local readers with the issue of belonging, presented as a kind of transcendent value asserted in the face of our mortality: “There is, then, a need
for us to appreciate the distance Macomb has come and to understand the complexity of the story that we are participating in. As with every generation, ours will pass, but the community will survive us, bearing the results of our presence. And we will always belong to it.” And consider the number of times I deal with the nature of community, or with death and its impact on the community. See, for example, the section called “Death in Victorian Macomb,” which features the shattering impact of a suicide case. And what are the deepest realities in Macomb? The book’s last page features a big photograph of the city cemetery, and I talk there about death, identity, belonging, community, memory, and the appreciation of others. I say that those things matter in my town, because I know how much they have mattered, and still matter, to me. .
My most well-known and often reprinted essay, “Midwestern Writer: A Memoir,” is about an old man--a local historian named Warren Van Dine whom I once knew in nearby Hancock County, when I was a young archivist working at this new library—an old man who had lost his mother as a teenager, who didn’t get along with his father, who was obsessed with the impact of death, who had identity problems, and who was so traumatized by the fear of not fitting in, not belonging, that despite his very considerable writing talent, he was unable to leave his decaying hometown of Burnside, and unable to cope with some challenging inner issues—including his fear of betraying his dead mother by asserting his own sometimes contradictory values in print--so his early promise, his gift for writing, came to nothing. Like the Maxwells, he failed to confront his complexity, which was rooted in the troubled family past that was his destiny. Of course, “Midwestern Writer: A Memoir” is an essay in which I confront my own anxieties, symbolically through him, and it is the only piece of writing in which I even briefly refer to the things I’ve told you.
As I say toward the end of that long biographical essay, “We can only interpret other lives; we cannot really know them.” Awareness of our own complexity, the forces that have shaped us, provides the foundation for that partial comprehension, that sympathetic interpretation of others—although it’s usually not as obvious as in the strange case of Warren Van Dine and me.
With respect to Dime Novel Desperadoes, then,it is not surprising that the book depicts two young men with obvious identity problems, no sense of belonging, and a chronic feeling of under-appreciation—one so devastated by the death of his young wife that he weeps in the dark at her graveside and writes a powerful letter to his minister saying, “My life is wrecked, and I care no more for it,” and the other brother so damaged by a problematic relationship with his rigid and failing father and so driven for respect that he hopes his own violent death, when it finally comes, will validate his fragile identity. To me, they’re not mythic “desperadoes,” bad guys that we should hate, but men whose complexity and humanity rivals our own, and forbids our indifference to their struggle. And so, that, too, is my kind of book, my sense of the way things deeply are. Of course, I felt compelled to write about those troubled young men because I realized that my vision of things was so apparent in their lives.
So, a nonfiction writer’s relationship to the public is often frustrating. You shape the truth, you construct it from the unconnected fragments we call facts, and it’s your truth, built from your own vision, which in turn is partly the product of unchosen forces in your life; and if you do it well enough—which is to say, that you create a symbolic structure in which all the parts relate to form a complex whole and the book reflects something universal about human life—it seems to your readers that you haven’t done it at all, that the meaning of the past was obvious, simply lying back there somewhere, and you researched until you finally found it.
But that’s simply a misconception, about a demanding art that can be far more subjective than people realize, far more entwined with the writer’s inner life—as the very insightful film Capote, about the author of the true crime classic In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, so clearly showed a couple of years ago. In his own way, Capote was just as driven by social and psychological forces as the killer Perry Smith, with whom he so deeply identified. As he says in the film, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house [that is, they had similar alienation, anxiety, and psychological damage], “but one day he stood up and went out the back door, and I went out the front.” So Capote felt compelled “to return him to the realm of humanity” through his book. I know just what he meant.
That reminds me of a comment by author and humorist Leo Rosten: “The only reason for being a writer is that you can’t help it.”
Thanks for coming, and for your interest in Dime Novel Desperadoes.