Admit it: inveterate readers are career criminals. Whether they have eluded the thought police or served time, readers are always found packing a concealed book — either some hardback or paperback tucked under the arm, ready for the getaway commute, or some glossy title at the ready of their trigger finger on their Kindle or Nook inside the briefcase. The resourceful reader cases the library. We have to confess: the career reader has a high rate of recidivism, with multiple offenses and often repeat offenses, like returning to the scene of the crime and rereading books from an earlier day to see whether the author and the story hold up. Is the ‘classic’ a classic? Does the author still pull weight and have muscle? But there’s always that one book that didn’t go over well, when the career criminal got pinched or had to walk away, admitting he or she didn’t have the goods — yet – deep down there was something within grasp if only…
There we have it for Jane and John Doe career reader. There is that one defiant book. It’s the book that is its own crime and mystery. Jane and John Doe know that they are astute readers; they know all the angles, they know what works and doesn’t work; they know deus ex machina even if they had never taken Latin and they know a MacGuffin when they see one, but every Jane or John who packed a book or pocketed a library card has that one book — their own WTF book.
Let me welcome you to the scene of the crime, my WTF book. The chalk outline is familiar: square, about 130 pages. The title is The Man Nobody Knows. The guy who did me in is named Bruce Barton. He is the ad executive who gave us the image of Betty Crocker, and the corporate names of General Electric and General Motors. Like any career criminal, I’ve dealt with the old-timers, some real masters, but this number Barton typed out is from 1925 and it took me for a one-way ride.
I’ll be candid: I don’t consider myself intelligent. I can hold my own with Melville and any of the authors who can go the distance and dish out the phone book instead of a nice telegraphic book. I’ve read Dumas, Hugo, and Tolstoy; and I can climb whatever forest of trees that Stephenson and King and a legion of other tome-thumpers in our present day have used up. I can handle the fancy-schmancy postmodernist smoke and mirror con. I’ve dealt with the stories within a story, writers writing about writing a story, or other digressions along the way, in and out of garbage cans waiting for Godot, although I’ve scratched my head with such writers and wondered what happened to plot. Postmodernism isn’t anything new: Cervantes had done it and medieval writers had lived and breathed intertextuality, but this Man Nobody Knows is a caper.
Here’s the synopsis: the language is straightforward prose. Everybody knows the protagonist, whether they like him or not, agree with him or not. The main character is Jesus. The story is the one everyone knows. It’s the way Jesus is presented and I’m not talking about Last Temptation of Christ Jesus, but Christ as the world’s greatest business executive, the guy who “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” Yes, Jesus is a business executive, the ad guy with the greatest jingle the world has ever known, has heard for millennia, and will hear again when the final trumpet sounds. Jesus is the popular guy with party tricks. He can turn water to wine. He knows the women who put out. He has a ferocious temper and did I mention that he is blond and blue-eyed? I won’t discuss the middle part that everybody knows – the chapter where he takes a long walk up a hill, or gets the ultimate pink slip from Human Resources, because in that Jesus Christ becomes Willy Loman.
Now, I’m a career reader. It doesn’t mean that I consider myself the brightest guy. I do, however, credit myself with being intellectually curious. I read this book in one day. I reread it. The language is no foot race. Check. I recognize the ultimate hero’s journey. Check. What I couldn’t get my brain cells to absorb was the author’s intent. That’s where this book became my WTF book. Was this Barton guy for real? Was he writing a book to help career readers repent and see the light – Jesus was not some scrawny Nazarene kid who had the Galilee sand kicked in his face, not meek and mild like a lamb? WTF. I’ll admit that at first I thought the author was doing satire, a form of irreverence with his fountain pen and Underwood typewriter. This book had to have angered people. It didn’t. The book was one of the best-selling nonfiction titles of the last century. I knew Jesus could sell, but I never knew that Jesus was your buddy, too.
Like any career criminal, I tried to angle this book from another POV. I concluded that the author wasn’t being irreverent. Check. His shtick was that JC’s personality had something practical to offer men in suits. I don’t know about women readers, although in 1925 women were in the workforce as unskilled laborers. Incidentally, the next time you reconsider the disparity of wealth in this country, remember that by the late Twenties 40-60% of the population had an income below the poverty line. I read Barton’s buddy JC and wondered whether I should be offended; not that I am religious, but Barton’s JC does seem more provocative than Kazantzakis’s version to me. I don’t know why. Barton was a decade before Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Then it came to me! Not the answer but a plausible interpretation, my homegrown Cliff Notes to get a handle on Barton.
1925 is the year my WTF book appeared. The social context for Barton’s slim volume was the Roaring Twenties, the Progressive Movement, which was not a coherent movement but a swell of contradictions. For example, the ‘movement’ gave us both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Amendments (income tax, direct vote of senators, ban on alcohol, and the right of women to vote, respectively). The decade saw contradictory labor and immigration reforms, with big business now helpful, now antagonistic; foreigners were assisted and then vehemently discriminated against. Progressives promoted birth control but on closer examination it was birth control and mandatory sterilization of ‘inferior peoples.’ Margaret Sanger may have worked with notable African-Americans like W.E.B. DuBois but her platform was racist eugenics. She stopped short of euthanasia of the ‘unfit.’ The Twenties was the era of pseudoscience (Scopes Trial) and virulent race theory; when 50,000 KKK members marched down Pennsylvania Ave. in August of 1925 without anyone blinking an eye; and the Klan charitably broadened its attacks from Catholics, Jews, and Negroes to include union members, and immigrants from eastern and southern Europe because they were stealing jobs from Americans.
I think the first thing that comes to mind to most people when they hear ‘Roaring Twenties’ is lawlessness and Prohibition. There was lawlessness: numerous strikes led to Americans’s killing Americans in the streets. Corporations were endowed with constitutional rights as if they were human beings, while exploited workers could be arrested and jailed for striking because strikes violated the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. Do you want another bizarre contradiction? Tariff taxes funded the U.S. government until the income tax, which the Supreme Court had ruled was unconstitutional in 1874 and again in 1895.
The Progressives were responsible for the Temperance and Social Gospel movements, but you’d be surprised to learn that the Twenties was the true beginning of consumer culture. The decade saw the purchasing of items through the installment plan, people moving from the country into cities; and the decade saw the start of national chains like A&P for food, the Woolworth Company for clothes, and numerous banks. Business had changed from heavy industry, like steel, to creating cheap items on a mass scale; but the real revolutionary item of the Roaring Twenties was the automobile and all the collateral industries that supported wheels on the road: motels, highways, insurance, etc. The humorous side to the advent of the car is that it gave people another place to have sex; and the dark side is that Ford’s mass production of his cars was affordable for his workers at two-hundred-some odd dollars if and only if they didn’t join a union. The subtle change in the Twenties was the shift away from laissez-faire economics from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) and his idea of the “invisible hand” and the self-correcting market (sound familiar?) to Herbert Croly’s notion in The Promise of American Life (1909) that a strong government, a blend of Hamilton and Jeffersonian ideals, was crucial for a strong America.
Progressives didn’t see Big Government as intrusive but as instrumental for change. Laissez-faire or ‘leave it be economics’ said that wealth was infinitely generative, without depriving someone else of a livelihood, and regulating the economy could and would exist without government interference. The theory said that there was no exploitation. While the U.S. economy was never wholly laissez-faire, Smith’s model was definitely far-reaching. Croly’s model would also espouse a form of nationalism whose fundamental beliefs were the necessity of a strong U.S. military at all times at any cost (sound familiar?) and the concomitant necessity to condemn pacifists as un-American. The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 both outlawed dissent against the U.S. involvement in World War I and elsewhere and any criticism of the government. The decade rolled along with its shift to consumer culture, with easy credit for consumers at 3.5% and banks re-loaning money at 10% or higher, but when trouble started the Federal Reserve – another Progressive invention – was unresponsive, which let the economy of rampant speculation in stocks on margin and magical thinking accelerate because ‘the invisible hand’ would correct the Market. A bubble formed, grew, and then burst. Sound familiar?
In is in all this tumult that Barton’s voice is found. He was Progressive in spirit in that he seemed to believe in self-improvement through action; the ideal was morality and virtue in private and public life. His personal Jesus was no wimp. Like Jay Gatsby with his daily list à la Ben Franklin, an action plan to become a better man, Bruce Cabot, who I do believe was a devout Christian, was creating JC as mentor, as businessman, and your buddy. Reading and interpretating him nine decades later is a matter of 20/20 hindsight, but social context, like a motive to a crime, is everything. A generation later, Americans would read Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
What is your WTF book and why?