"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Little Black and White Lies

Hunter and Sam's discussion of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mystery Too Many Cooks was sloshing in my brain during an emergency trip to Borders last Sunday night. (Yes, other families make emergency diaper and milk runs to 7-11, the Hutchinses make emergency book runs to Borders.) Too Many Cooks wasn't on the shelves, but A Right to Die, the thirty-years-hence sequel with some of the same characters, was available, and that's what I bought.

I'm probably running the risk of Reform Club excommunication by admitting I've never read a Nero Wolfe mystery before. On the other hand, the knowledge that I've been deprived of these engaging characters for forty years surely counts as penance. But my post doesn't concern Rex Stout, but "no-relation-to" David Stout, who wrote the introduction to the Bantam edition, and who has committed one of my pet peeves, the Ignorant Little Lie.

Unlike Goebbels's Big Lie, the Ignorant Little Lie is so tiny, and so superficially unimportant, that people get irritated with you for pointing them out. You're picking at nits. You're being anal. But that means accretions of Ignorant Little Lies build up, unchallenged, and become over time something more like conventional wisdom. The most enduring little lies always confirm a notion someone already holds, and the person who perpetrates one is probably not even untruthful so much as lazy. It fits with what he knows, and he doesn't bother to check it twice.

David Stout's introduction focuses on the then (1964) somewhat more sensational theme of interracial romance that is at the center of A Right to Die: a white woman, engaged to a black man, is found murdered, and the black man is the prime suspect. But this is the graf that irked me:
The hunt takes us to the Midwest, where the victim, Susan Brooke, grew up and went to college. The Midwest seems the best place to look, for there was a tragedy in Susan's earlier life there, and Stout-Wolfe understood that tragedies spawn their own avenging ghosts. (Not for nothing does that quintessentially midwestern state, Indiana, call itself the "Main Street of America." A black man and a white woman would draw stares on the Main Street of 1964.)
The problem here is that Indiana does not, either officially or in the unofficial banter of its citizenry, call itself "The Main Street of America." Indiana does, however, call itself the "Crossroads of America." Indiana adopted this motto in 1937, in honor of its position as a central hub for rail and motor transport. Before the completion of the interstate highway system, US 40 was a coast-to-coast route from Atlantic City to San Francisco. US 31 was the major north-south artery connecting the Michigan Great Lakes ports with the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. They intersect at Monument Circle, in the very center of Indianapolis.

The implication of being the "Crossroads" is rather different from that of a "Main Street." The city at the crossroads sees traffic flowing through it from all corners of the country. The addition of port traffic extends that flow internationally. Rather than the insularity of an elm-lined Main Street, the crossroads makes a community more cosmopolitan, more aware of and accepting of difference. More tolerant, in today's impoverished argot. I realize it runs counter to the conventional wisdom that the hayseeds of the Midwest might be less committed bigots than urbanite Washingtonians or New Yorkers or Angelinos, but telling lies about the Midwest does nothing to buttress the argument.

There is a "Main Street of America" -- the old Route 66. Unfortunately for David Stout's thesis, Route 66 never went through any part of Indiana, and most of it ran through the southwest, not the midwest. Interracial couples might have been stared at on various sections of Route 66 as it meandered through eight states in 1964, but I'd like to see a little proof, instead of a little lie, that such stares were more likely on the Midwestern legs than elsewhere.

12 comments:

Scott Carson said...

Maybe what he meant was that, outside of the Midwest it was not stares you got, but violence. At least in the Midwest in the 1960s it was possible to find interracial couples. Such things were virtually impossible in the South in the 1960s.

I lived in North Carolina for 18 years, and I saw less overt racism there than I have seen living in Ohio for ten years. That's not to make the ridiculous claim that racism was rare in North Carolina--I lived in a university town full of carpetbaggers, for one thing, so I did not experience the "real" North Carolina, and I won't pretend that I wouldn't be a little nervous about living in North Carolina with my adopted African American daughter. But racism is just a form of ignorance, and there are ignorant people everywhere, even in the Midwest. Maybe even on Route 66. Here in Ohio I am again living in a university town, but my daughter does get stares, and not all of them are caused by her unbearable cuteness. I'm not sure things would be all that different in Indiana.

P.A. Breault said...

I don't have Mr. David Stout's introduction in my copy (1991 Bantam edition), but there are a few problems:

The dead woman went to Radcliffe, which is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Close to Harvard. That's a factor in the story, since two other characters went there and a third visited.

The 'hunt' was actually two visits. One to Racine, Wisconsin, where the Susan Brooke grew up and a suicide of a jilted lover took place on the porch of her house.

The second visit was to Evansville Indiana, which was essentially a follow-up on the suicide and its after-effects.

At no time were mixed-marriage or even race mentioned during those visits.

Mr. David Stout certainly was lazy. If nothing else, his comment was unnecessary.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Was it in Wisconsin or Indiana that Archie met a detective who taught him many new tricks of how to follow a car, since in small towns people know each other more and are more apt to notice a surveilling vehicle? I loved that touch.

Damme, it's been a long time.

Kathy Hutchins said...

That was in Wisconsin -- the Racine detective was the one Archie described as a "distinguished citizen," a thing Archie had thought impossible for a P.I. "Wolfe is a citizen, and distinguished, but not a distinguished citizen."

Kathy Hutchins said...

Here in Ohio I am again living in a university town, but my daughter does get stares, and not all of them are caused by her unbearable cuteness. I'm not sure things would be all that different in Indiana.

Probably not -- but I doubt they'd be much different in Seattle, Boston, Albany, or Baltimore, either. And no, I'm not just being touchy. Here's another, more timely example, from Wednedsay's Newsday, suggesting that the fact John Roberts grew up in a small Indiana town in which, during the 60s, some neighborhoods excluded blacks and Jews, means that today he's a seething racist who will use the Supreme Court to gut civil rights legislation.

Hunter Baker said...

What I'd like to know, Kathy, is whether you liked the book or the Wolfe character or any of it?

Kathy Hutchins said...

What I'd like to know, Kathy, is whether you liked the book or the Wolfe character or any of it?

I love all of it. (Except the introduction.) I was resisting the impulse to start quoting my favorite Archie/Wolfe exchanges, since I figured all the rest of you have these books memorized, and it would be tiresome -- on the order of my ten-year-old's reproductions of character dialogue from Digimon or Yu-gi-oh. I'm already browsing bookfinder for used Rex Stout hardbacks -- I hate buying paperbacks of stuff I know I'm going to want to read more than once.

S. T. Karnick said...

Regarding the following comment by Mr. Carson: "I am again living in a university town, but my daughter does get stares, and not all of them are caused by her unbearable cuteness. I'm not sure things would be all that different in Indiana."

In my neighborhood in a large Indiana city, there are numerous interracial couples, whom one runs into at football practice, shopping, etc., and it is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. It is possible that these people receive occasional stares, but I'm sure it's strictly because such couples still seem a bit unusual to some people (as, statistically, they indeed are)--after all, people tend to stare, however involuntarily, at extraordinarily pretty women, at young men wearing particularly droopy trousers, at people wearing traditional ethnic clothing, etc. A stare doesn't necessarily convey disapproval.

Hunter Baker said...

Kathy, speaking for myself, you can reproduce Wolfeisms and Archie-talk as much as you like. It's enjoyable stuff. I'm no master of it. I've just read about five or six of the paperbacks and look forward to many more.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Archie: "OK, Dolly Brooke killed her because she was going to marry a quote nigger unquote, and how do we prove it?"

He [Wolfe] frowned. "I have told you not to use that word in my hearing."

"I was merely quoting. It isn't...."

"Shut up. I mean the word 'unquote' and you know it."

S. T. Karnick said...

That's classic. Simply classic.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Yes, Kathy, you really plucked the pearl right out - brilliant.

It might be worthwhile to read Some Buried Caesar next, because that's the one in which Archie meets Lily Rowan, whom you are sure to encounter in those later books.