Sunday, January 17, 2010

"God's Country: A Short History" by Ralph Barton

The New Yorker panned this book, but it sounded so interesting that I couldn't resist finding a copy: "God's Country: A Short History" by Ralph Barton, published in 1929. As you can see by the tag list for this post, it contains elements of pretty much everything I talk about in this blog.

Barton was a popular '20s cartoonist and caricaturist, and he seemed to be trying to establish himself as a writer before his manic-depression prompted his suicide in 1931. I'm not surprised that he killed himself two years after writing this book. "God's Country" is a bitter thing indeed.

It's a satirical, absurd history of the United States, beginning with Christopher Columbus and ending with a bizarre dystopia in which women have taken over the government, radio advertisers have inadvertently caused widespread looting and domestic terror, and poison gas has destroyed everybody except for eight criminals who -- following the intentions of the pilgrims from the beginning of the book -- set out to wreck everything all over again.

Oooo, it's nasty. Barton has equal loathing for Democrats and Republicans (known in the book as "Uniboodlists" and "Multiboodlists" for reasons I didn't understand), Presidents ("Misters"), businessmen ("Interests"), newspapers (who dictate "Public Opinion"), and the everyday citizens who allow the aforementioned to get away with everything they do, over and over again, throughout the entire history of democracy.

Is there anybody Barton doesn't hate? He appears to have sympathy for Native Americans, he finds few unpleasant things to say about Abraham Lincoln, and he goes out of his way to avoid lampooning African Americans, but for the most part "God's Country" is a relentless, snarky skewering of EVERYBODY. And that means you too, reader. And me.

You can imagine how tedious such a book can be. It's especially tedious to somebody (like me) who doesn't know the finer points of every President -- errr, Mister -- in American history. Barton goes through them all, giving them the names of monarchs ("St. Abraham," "Franklin the Debonaire") to highlight one going theme throughout the book: the American obsession with electing "jus' plain folk" who are -- in actual fact -- part of the social elite who have been carefully groomed to appear otherwise.

This obsession is one element of the book that still holds true today (see Palin, Sarah). Another element is the reliance on FEAR to manipulate public opinion, as formented by business requirements and amplified by the newspapers. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the disgusting collusion of politics, business, and media is a relatively new phenomenon. "God's Country" will tell you different.

After 250 pages of spot-on satire, Barton comes to women's suffrage and temperance activism. I can only assume that he really, really didn't like women, as the book tips from "cutting satire" to "cruel stereotype" in the space of a few pages, detailing a world where women with "blacksnake whips" run around emasculating everybody and turning them into "ex-males." They conceive arbitrary rules and devise irrational schemes to enforce them, finally bringing about the downfall of the already-tottering country. It's ludicrous and leaves a bad impression, and is probably one of the reasons The New Yorker reviewer panned it.

But there are great moments, especially near the end when everything goes completely off the rails. The businessmen are discovered to have retreated into a secret society with its own language ("Six huh pcent a fi million dollas is thutty million dollas. Fiscal.") and in a mysterious desert pilgrimage they invent golf. This presentation of Big Business as a totally self-interested, self-contained, and illogical cabal is ominous in light of the subsequent financial collapse.

When the new breed of radio announcers start to amuse themselves by shouting demands like "Desire to see a prize fight!" and "Long to see a movie about Arabs!", the book provides an amazing insight into '20s popular culture. It's like reading a Readers Digest Condensed Version of The New Yorker between 1925 and 1929:
[They were] soon being ordered to deodorize, to smear mud on their faces, to hate New York, to play Mah Jong, to do cross-word puzzles, to ask each other questions, to bathe in violet rays, to develop personalities, to practice numerology, to adore the Russians, the negroes and aviators, to eat Eskimo Pie, to throw bits of paper out the window, to have themselves psychoanalyzed, to engage in Marathon contests, to eat liver and to perform a thousand other like obediences.
When "God's Country" is good, it's very, very good, but most of it is the 1920s brand of screwball, sledgehammer burlesque that leaves me exhausted, alternating with some surprisingly dry historical dissection.

More importantly, however, it is a clear expression of the immense disgust that an intelligent, educated, creative, and mentally-tortured man had for all the things he saw in the world around him. If he'd had a more balanced view of human nature then "God's Country" would be an easier book to read, but it never would have been written in the first place.

No comments: