Speaking of Ed, he called my attention to a New Republic essay on The New York Times’ on-again off-again op-ed columnist Sarah Vowell. Keelin McDonell’s piece “would be completely worthless,” pounds Ed’s critical gavel, “had he not raised the perfectly valid point that Vowell is unable to convey political events with any sophistication.” I would argue that this is not just a point that McDonell makes, or even just a valid point, but the point, the main point. That aside, I want to throw my hat in with Ed & McDonell here. Vowell is, to borrow from the latter’s arsenal of adjectives, “juvenile” and “self-congratulatory”—two qualities I despise if only because I am so regularly both. “A column,” McDonell helpfully reminds her, “is not a 750 word transcription of your id.” No, that’s a blog.
Here, though, is what really made me double-take when reading the piece. It was this quotation from a Vowell column on Bush’s recent State of the Union speech:
For there are American citizens who used to think that there could be no greater blow for representative democracy than a president worming his way into the White House thanks to one Supreme Court vote. That is, until the day said president was actually elected to a second term by an electorate that overlooked the previous four years of galling, irrevocable policies with upbeat, intelligence-insulting slogans—“Clear Skies,” anyone?—to say nothing of entering into an ugly war based on lies that has made the world a more dangerous place when it wasn’t exactly all Davenport, Iowa, to begin with.
Where, I want to know, does Sarah Vowell come up with Davenport, Iowa? Here & here I have bemoaned the state of historical self-awareness in my hometown of, yes, Davenport, Iowa. Part of my interest in this subject is that it’s ironic; Davenport, after all, is an important place: It is iconic. It is archetypal. In the mind of Sarah Vowell, at least, it stands for all that is Normal & Peaceful & Not Ugly. By which she means: Bourgeois.
But this is not only true vis-à-vis Vowell. Seriously.
One of Davenport’s claims to fame is as the birthplace of the early jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. And in the various evocations of Bix’s brief, gin-soaked life, Davenport has conveniently stood in for Everything Normal & Peaceful & Bourgeois; i.e., if Bix is a genius, Davenport is the world that can’t recognize or understand such genius. A typical rendering can be found in Frederick Turner’s 2004 potboiler 1929, a novel based on Bix’s bio. In this scene, Bix’s mom tries to convince her dying, booze-addled son to return home.
“No,” he croaks. “No! I won’t come back to Davenport.” But with the utterance of the town’s name it floods back over him: the high, stolid hilltop homes, the riverward flow of the streets, the long industrial brick façade of the high school—clock on the wall in the history classroom and the admonitory minute hand that never moved, time hanging. The river slopping at the levee. Stacks of raw, sap-seeping lumber, lumps of coal in the yard of his father’s company where he could find steady work, forever. The family dinner table, grain of its polished surface, his father ponderously presiding. The limitless reach and stretch of the undulant cornfields behind town. “No! I tell you,” his voice cracks with the weight of his determination, his terror. “I won’t come back there—not now, not ever. I don’t want to die in Davenport!”
This is Bix’s Kurtz moment, at least to the extent that he contemplates something really awful when he contemplates the darkest heart of Davenport. (The irony is appreciated: It’s just as much an anti-Kurtz moment in that the darkest heart of Davenport is also the darkest heart of Home—the whitest place on earth, Civilization with a capital C.) The rest of the world is, you know, all Iraq, all booze and danger and cross-eyed sophistication. Davenport, on the other hand, is polished & ponderous (or, in the words of Edith Hamilton—see two posts below—solid & sensible), bourgeois, a place where history (which is to say time, which is to say music) has halted but work in the lumber yard goes on forever.
So how does that happen to a town? How does that happen to my town?
Hamilton insisted, in Mythology, that the gods hailed from just such “familiar local habitation,” and Bix was certainly a god, a mythical hero of sorts, a legendary and mysterious genius. It’s important, then, that Bix hailed from Davenport, but it’s equally important that he rejected it; a god could never stay there, else by definition he would not be a god.
So no, Sarah, the world isn’t all Davenport, Iowa. But if it were, I dare say we wouldn’t have heroes. Isn’t that sad?
IMAGE: Downtown Davenport, 1940