Master’s Thesis

My postgraduate thesis project at the Royal College of Art, London, took the form of a reader entitled National Melancholy: American Writers on American Places in Holiday, a Post-War Travel Magazine, which tells the story of a nation at the height of its power through the lens of some of its most iconic writers. From the mid-1940s through the 1960s, a time of unparalleled economic prosperity and affluence, Holiday was created to entice the American people with notions of the exotic—to be experienced by traveling through the pages of a magazine. This book brings together a selection of essays that originally appeared in Holiday written by American literary powerhouses: Truman Capote, Bradbury, Didion, Kerouac, and Catton, each with its own contemporary introduction and a comprehensive overview of this distinct period in American cultural history. The following excerpts are just a few samples of my original essays that appear in this work.

 

A Wealth of Contradictions
thesis introduction chapter

It is difficult to generalize any historical moment, and even more difficult when that moment encompassed such significant transformation: politically, socially, morally. The decades succeeding World War II in the United States ushered in a new prosperity, such that the American people had never before experienced. The war was over, and the United States was in a position of great power. After years of economic strain following the Great Depression and the austerity of the Second World War, however, many Americans felt anxious and uncertain about whether their newfound financial flourish would last. 1945 welcomed the victory of the allied nations, and thus commenced the most ambitious, affluent and complex era in American history.

From the mid 1940s through the 1960s, countless events took place that altered the political and social structure of the world. The United Nations was founded, the atomic bomb was dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki giving way to the Atomic Age, repressed fear veiled the American people under the Cold War propriety of President Eisenhower, and the USA/USSR Space Race ended in American triumph with NASA putting a man on the moon. Yet out of these politically turbulent decades emerged so many culturally significant works – literature, journalism, poetry, music, theatre, film – and the people who created them. Their work is the work that forms the American cultural identity, and the image we present to the rest of the world.

Post-war economic resurgence brought the rise of a unique phenomenon in human history. Through the study of psychological and behavioral economics, psychologist George Katona researched broad facets of economics, sociology, psychology and marketing. As a result of this research, his book, The Mass Consumption Society (1964), Katona attempted to shed light on the new American way of living by describing three major characteristics of this modern society: affluence, consumer power, and the importance of consumer psychology.[1] Of the three, post-war American affluence is what altered the fabric of the nation: higher incomes meant higher standards of living, elevated expectations, and a seemingly insatiable desire for material abundance. […]

[1] Katona, G. (1964) The Mass Consumption Society. New York: McGraw Hill. Pg. 3



A Strange Country

in response to “The Real Michigan” by Bruce Catton • Holiday, August 1957

“But under everything there is this strange, beautiful, lonely land itself, this land of blue sky and clear water, where puff-ball clouds drift lazily overhead, trailing pleasant shadows over water and forest and bright little towns as if nobody ever had to be in a hurry about anything and time had come to a standstill just because what is here and now is too pleasant to leave. This is good country to come from and it is even better to go back to. It is a land of memories and also a land of escape: a place where you can be utterly idle in more pleasant ways than any other place I know.”[1]

In his introductory text to the anthology, Ten Years of Holiday (1956), Clifton Fadiman wrote: “… see how in the hands of a skillful writer seemingly familiar material can be transformed into something rich and strange.”[2] For those who know the state well, Bruce Catton’s evocation of Michigan is just that – rich, strange, replete with the beauty of nature and solitude.

Charles Bruce Catton was born at the peak of the lower peninsula of Michigan, in a town called Petoskey, at the turn of the century. Much like Catton wonders in “The Real Michigan,” his essay from the August 1957 issue of Holiday: “This part of the state must have been quite a sight, a hundred years ago […] there was a magnificent forest – great pines, mostly, with a healthy sprinkling of hardwoods like maples and beeches – like nothing you can find in America today. From lake to lake […] there was an eternal green twilight, with open spaces where the lakes and rivers were: twilight, with the wind forever making an unobtrusive noise in the branches overhead, brown matted needles and leaves underfoot,”[3] I, too, wonder what the Petoskey of his day might have looked like. At present, Petoskey is a tourist town, still nestled against the cove of Little Traverse Bay, now an up-north getaway from the rigors of life in southern Michigan suburbia. Fine dining, small, independent shops and galleries, and outdoor activities attract the masses north during the summer months for golfing, gorging, spending and sailing on the bay. Bruce Catton’s Petoskey does not exist in the same vein any longer, but, indeed, he paints a vivid picture of the northern Michigan in which he spent his boyhood. Born in 1899, Catton grew up in Benzie County, and it was here that he developed a life-long passion for the American Civil War. By listening to the great stories of battle from veterans in his hometown, a young Catton grew more and more fascinated by every memory that was shared, and this early fervor for the history of the nation would serve him all his life. […]

[1] Catton, B. (1957). The Real Michigan. Holiday, Vol. 21 No. 8, Pg. 36
[2] Fadiman, C. (1956). Introduction. In Ten Years of Holiday. New York: Simon and Schuster.
[3] Catton, B. (1957). The Real Michigan. Holiday, Vol. 21 No. 8, Pg. 26



On The Road & On A Mountaintop
in response to “Alone On A Mountaintop” by Jack Kerouac • Holiday, October 1958

 

Long before those who formed the Beat generation were regarded the pivotal generation of disillusioned youth, there were others before them. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, amongst the original restless, traveling souls; and on the American front, a young Walt Whitman first praised the allure of youthful freedom in his 1856 poem “Song of the Open Road.” Although they were not the first, the members of the Beat Generation are remembered as pioneers of post-war changes in American literature and culture. The scene was set during the early 1940s in New York City at Columbia University. This is where the core members of the Beat movement – Lucien Carr, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac – met, shared their work, intertwined and influenced each other’s lives. The group claimed they were on a spiritual journey – a quest to live a more meaningful existence, distanced from the shallow, narrow-minded conformity and consumerism of American life in the 1940s and 1950s.

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac was born in small-town Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922 to French-Canadian, devoutly Catholic parents – his religious upbringing pervades many of his works. Kerouac’s youth was one of ups and downs, of constant restlessness and wandering. While he attended Columbia University, he and his world-weary contemporaries became “beat”, as in exhausted, by American culture, and so they rejected societal standards and embraced a renegade lifestyle of non-conformity. They cast aside the American ideals of time: suits and ties along with a nine to five office job, commitments; wives, children and settling down, in favor of the unexplored.

Widely considered the manifesto of the beat generation, Kerouac wrote the first draft of On The Road between April 2 and 22nd; the year was 1951. It then took six long years of refusals by publishers, and a lengthy editing process, but on September 7, 1957, Kerouac’s mythical American novel was published. On the Road was met with high accolades, and quickly became a bestseller across the nation. Subsequently, the author was exalted overnight as a literary celebrity and the masses begged for new material, which catalyzed his publishing boom from 1958 to 1960. After the huge success of On the Road, Kerouac published The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums in 1958, and a record four novels, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Mexico City Blues, and Excerpts from Visions of Cody in 1959. He penned the majority of these stories between 1951 and 1957, during the time that he edited and failed repeatedly to find a publisher for On The Road. The Beat movement gathered momentum at the same time, and was later absorbed into the larger counter-culture movement of the early 1960s, when the hippies took over for the beatniks. But it was the Beat Generation authors and poets who were widely responsible for liberalizing the publishing industry in America. […]



New York’s Left Bank

in response to “Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir” by Truman Capote
Holiday, February 1959

Any tale of journey worth its salt draws to a close upon the protagonist returning home. Home, as a literary concept, has a particular role throughout a narrative: the overwhelming desire for home and hearth – of the familiar, the domestic, of belonging – is what keeps the traveler traveling, the soldier soldiering, the pilgrim pressing on. We may finally sleep soundly once Odysseus reaches Ithaca and returns to the arms of Penelope; and take heart when Frodo Baggins at last arrives back home to the Shire. Truman Capote’s written account of his home in Brooklyn, featured in Holiday’s February 1959 issue, speaks to the value of a place of one’s own; and Brooklyn has long been regarded the home of America’s literary core. It has not, however, always been as outwardly popular as it is today.

Capote’s essay in Holiday, titled “Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir,” opens with these lines: “I live in Brooklyn. By Choice.” This is not uncommon; many stories about Brooklyn, at the time, begin on the defense and remain so until the author has shared the merits of the borough with their audience. More than a decade earlier, the November 1946 issue of Holiday ran an editor’s note about Brooklyn in its opening pages, which reads almost satirically:

“One day, not long ago, an arrow sped through an open window of the Holiday editorial rooms, bedded itself in a desk top, and stood there quivering before the startled eyes of the editor. Attached to it was a letter, a letter born of a Brooklynite’s bitter hurt at the story Manhattan Holiday, in the October issue of Holiday, and the snubbing it contained of the writer’s beloved borough. We had of course known all our lives of the feud that existed between Brooklyn and Manhattan, warmest rivals among the five sister boroughs of Greater New York. We know how Manhattanites tend to ignore Brooklyn, and snub it, and how Brooklynites grow sullen and hurt under such cavalier treatment. Knowing this, we have made it a firm part of Holiday editorial policy never to say anything against Brooklyn, just as we never say anything against MOTHER or FREE ENTERPRISE. We do not believe our article insulted Brooklyn, but perhaps we did somewhat neglect her. In fairness, therefore, we are printing hurt Brooklyn Citizen Goodwin’s letter. Further, we have even made the courageous editorial decision to show actual pictures of Brooklyn.

The Editor,
Holiday Magazine[1]

The hurt Brooklyn citizen was Murray Goodwin, who wrote a letter called “In Defense of Brooklyn” which featured subheadings like “Invaders from Gotham”, “Home, Sweet Home”, and “Brooklyn’s Big Heart.” He concluded by assuring that “Brooklyn is too big, too virile to be pushed around. And much too proud and accomplished to be ignored by Manhattan. For Brooklyn is the sturdy base upon which frail and flimsy Manhattan rests.” In March 1955, Holiday published a piece by Arthur Miller entitled “A Boy Grew in Brooklyn” in which he recounted his memories of childhood in the borough: “…Brooklyn in my memory has always been full of characters and practical jokers. I suppose it is really a collection of villages which all seem the same to the stranger’s eye, but are not; and characters thrive and express their special ways in a village atmosphere.”[1] As one can see, Truman Capote was not the only writer to call Brooklyn home – at one point, Norman Mailer was his neighbor. Before them, Thomas Wolfe, Walt Whitman and Henry Miller were all amongst the original Brooklyn hipsters. […]

[1] Miller, A. (1955). A Boy Grew in Brooklyn. Holiday, Vol. 20 No.17. Pg. 55
[1] Letter from the Editor. (Nov. 1946) Holiday, Vol. 1, No. 9.

 



Ideals, Dreams, and Hard Facts
in response to  “The Machine-Tooled Happyland” by Ray Bradbury • Holiday, October 1965

Just beyond the gates of Disneyland, before the courtyard of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, stands a towering flagpole. High atop, a monumental American flag floats in the California breeze, and a small bronze plaque at its base reads: “To all who have come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past… and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts which have created America… with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”[1] On July 17, 1955 Walt Disney, as master of ceremonies, opened the doors to the ‘happiest place on earth’ with those words of dedication, and with the hope that his amusement park would animate the world.

Ground broke on Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1954 and, rushing to get the park up and running, it took just one year to build. It is divided into four different ‘lands’, with a central conduit bringing visitors together and simultaneously ushering them toward attractions. Main Street, U.S.A is this central artery: a nostalgic, pastoral representation of a typical Midwestern town at the turn of the century ­– complete with train station and a steam-powered engine, town square, horse-drawn streetcars, a quaint cinema, emporiums, and old fashioned sweets shops. Throngs of cotton candy, ice cream cones and lollipops, handholding and wide smiles populate Main Street U.S.A., as eager children drag their parents to the otherworldly lands that await: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. These places depict past, present, and future: the primitive jungles of far off places in Adventureland, pioneers of the wild wild west in Frontierland, a world of cartoons and characters and make-believe in Fantasyland, and the power of progress and the promise of the future in Tomorrowland.

Following the opening of Disneyland, both the park and Walt Disney himself faced a great deal of criticism from an intellectual crowd, who claimed the park was largely a middle-class, inhuman corporate trap, “where Mr. Disney traffics in pastel-trinketed evil for gold and ivory.”[1] The first Holiday article on Disneyland appeared in the July 1963 Travel U.S.A. issue, eight years after the park opened, and was written by Aubrey Menen. His article, “Dazzled in Disneyland,” however, declared Walt Disney a genius – likening him to Michelangelo, Leonardo and Bernini – and compares his amusement park to the pleasure gardens of Versailles. Throughout his article, Menen described Disneyland with objectivity, expressing that during his visit “…[he] had spent the morning riding through the dreams that lay somewhere at the bottom of [his] mind. We all have them: they lie there from our childhood, gathering dust.”[2] He concluded with the analogy that Versailles “was built for the amusement of kings and their women. But [Disneyland] was built for my pleasure and everybody else’s.”[3] Written from the perspective of a nonnative, his piece appeared in the magazine two years before Ray Bradbury came to the defense of Disneyland in Holiday’s October 1965 issue, California Without Clichés. This is perhaps why Menen’s piece reads as much more detached though still reverential, whereas Bradbury’s unbridled American optimism is palpable throughout his article. In the beginning of “The Machine-Tooled Happyland,” Bradbury refers to an article in The Nation, a weekly journal analyzing politics and culture, which compared Disneyland to Las Vegas. The article, from June 7, 1958, was entitled “Disneyland and Las Vegas written by Julian Halevy. He wrote that “[a]s in the Disney movies, the whole world, the universe, and all man’s striving for dominion over self and nature, have been reduced to a sickening blend of cheap formulas packaged to sell”[4] and “[t]he overwhelming feeling that one carries away is sadness for the empty lives which accept such tawdry substitutes”[5]. His condemnation of those who take to the park with delight is widely regarded the most controversial remark on Disneyland at the time. Three weeks later, Ray Bradbury sent a letter to the editor of The Nation in which he criticized Halevy’s intellectual snobbery, and speculated about having “…a sneaking suspicion, after all is said and done, Mr. Halevy truly loved Disneyland but is not man enough, nor child enough, to admit it”[1], concluding that he “feel[s] sorry for him. He will never travel in space, he will never touch the stars.”[2]  […]

 

[1] Brabury, R. (1958) Not Child Enough. The Nation, June 28, 1958. Volume 186, Issue 26
[2] Ibid
[1] Halevy, J. (1958). Disneyland and Las Vegas. The Nation, June 7, 1958. Volume 186, Issue 23. Pg. 511
[2] Menen, A. (1963). Dazzled in Disneyland. Holiday, Vol. 34 (No.1). Pg. 72
[3] ibid, pg. 106
[4] Halevy, J. (1958). Disneyland and Las Vegas. The Nation, June 7, 1958. Volume 186, Issue 23. Pg. 511
[5] Ibid
[1] Walt Disney’s Guide to Disneyland. (1964) Anaheim, CA: Walt Disney Productions. Pg. 11



Vice & Virtue in the Golden State
in response to “Notes from a Native Daughter” by Joan Didion • Holiday, October 1965

Legend has it that the state of California derived its name from a sixteenth century novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián, by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, in which “California” is a mythical island paradise inhabited solely by beautiful woman and abundant with gold. This earthly utopia is where Joan Didion was born and raised, in the Sacramento Valley, and the ancestral ties that bind her to the West pervade the entirety of her written work. She has come to be known as one of the most insightful explicators of American culture through her vast array of writing, all of which, in some way or another, involve the criticism of her home state and America as a whole. Joan Didion’s California is a contemporary representation of the biblical Garden of Eden: its pioneer settlers, present-day inhabitants, and the characters in her stories all the embodiment of Adam and Eve, reenacting and perpetuating the fall of man through amoral propensity.

For Joan Didion, according to Michelle Loris, who has written extensively on her work, “… California represents the place by which America at large can be measured. [Didion] understands the California legacy as an extension of the puritan belief in America as a New World Eden, a place of limitless possibility blessed by God for individual growth, abundance, and freedom, as well as a punishing and hostile region, cursed by human nature’s proclivity for evil – a place adverse to life.”[1] The mythology of both the American dream and of California as paradise features prominently in her writing, much of which is autobiographical in nature, or can be loosely interpreted as such. Her female characters reflect the understanding of her pioneering kinswomen from early childhood – a Western woman, who perhaps started off meek and fragile, progressed toward strength and resiliency through hard lessons learned. Didion herself is Eve, as every American woman is Eve: a woman who must learn to how to survive with her flawed humanity in a fallen world.[2]

Didion published two pieces in Holiday: first, the essay which appears in this book, “Notes from a Native Daughter” in October 1965, followed by “On Keeping a Notebook” in 1966. Both of these essays attend to themes of home, memory, and loss, and have become prominent examples of ‘the essay’ in studies of modern writing. Didion is thoroughly preoccupied with the concept of morality, as displayed in her 1965 article for The American Scholar, “On Morality,” and her notion of Western moral codes. In her conclusion to the essay, she alludes to the dangers of extremity and absolutes, in being unable to recognize the difference between want, need, and moral necessity, and attempts to promote that good things happen in media res: “… when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”[1] Didion’s use of the idea that “we are already there” in the midst of “bad trouble” is a recurring theme in her work, and is meant to be a reinforcement of the consequences of man’s betrayal in the Garden of Eden, and his quest for knowledge and dominion over nature and state. […]

 

[1] Didion, J. (1968) On Morality. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Penguin Books: Middlesex. Pg. 136.
[1] Loris, M.C. (1989) Innocence, Loss and Recovery in the Art of Joan Didion. Peter Lang Publishing: New York. Pgs. 2 – 3
[2] ibid, pg. 5

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