We Have All Been Here Before

I know that history (and yes, we’re soaking in history right this very second) comes in cycles. I find this comforting when my government seems to be having a breakdown, and some of my fellow citizens have forgotten the basics we were (presumably) taught in Civics class. But sometimes I’m reminded of this a little more strongly than others.

A couple of weeks ago, the comments to a piece I wrote on re-reading, Nancy Jane Moore mentioned re-reading Edna Ferber, and I thought, boy, I haven’t read Ferber in decades, and went and found some. As near as I can tell, I only read one Ferber novel (So Big), back in high school. This surprises me, because in approach she’s very much like Sinclair Lewis, examining the larger state of her society through the lens of one or two focal characters. She’s less angry than Lewis (everyone is less angry than Lewis, I swear to God), and her focal characters are almost always women who find strength they didn’t know they had, women who may make “as God is my witness I’ll never be hungry again” sorts of promises when they are facing a long slog out of adversity. Sometimes these women learn to broaden their horizons. Sometimes they don’t. But they’re rich and interesting characters in settings Ferber knows well enough to detail beautifully.

I’ve been remedying my lack, and enjoying it.

Ferber also writes about charismatic men and what they want, and what happens to them if they lean too heavily on that charisma to get them what they want. Toward the beginning of Saratoga Trunk, Clint Maroon and his wife Clio announce that they are giving away everything they own. Since Clint is a railroad magnate on the lines of the great Robber Barons of the early 20th century, the Press wants to know why… and in a roundabout way, the rest of the novel is the story of the Maroons’ rise from poor and scrambling to wealthy and established. Now, at 89, Clint wants to come clean:

“They called us financiers. Financiers hell! We were a gang of racketeers that would make these apes today look like kids stealing turnips out of the garden patch. We stole a whole country—land, woods, rivers, metal. They’ve got our pictures in the museums. We ought to be in the rogues’ gallery. My day you could get away with wholesale robbery, bribery in high places and murder—and brag about it. I was brought up on the stories my father told about ‘em—Huntington and Stanford and Crocker. Two hundred thousand dollars is all they had amongst them in 1861. And they wanted to build a railroad across a continent. So they paid a visit to Washington, and they left that two hundred thousand there. Made no secret of it. They came away with a charter and land grants and the government’s promise to pay in bonds for work in progress. What did the Central Pacific crowd do! I heard my pa tell how in ‘63 Phil Stanford—he was brother of the Governor—drove up to the polls in a buggy when they were holding elections in San Francisco over a bond issue. Reached into a bag and began throwing gold pieces to the crowd at the polls, yelling to ’em to vote the bond issue.”

Excerpt From: Edna Ferber. “Saratoga Trunk.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/saratoga-trunk/id655288766?mt=11

The Robber Barons left us with some amazing architecture, some impressive art collections, and powerful institutions that were all about getting more power and more money. But by the time the Maroons are shedding themselves of their wealth the worst of that structure has been dismantled. And Clint Maroon, for one, sees an upward trajectory to America’s moral arc.

“But it’s all true!” Clint Maroon shouted. “Damn it, it’s all true I tell you! I just want you boys and girls to write it—to write it so that Americans will know that this country today is finer and more honest and more free and democratic than it has been since way back in Revolutionary days. For a century we big fellows could grab and ran. They can’t do it today. It’s going to be the day of the little man. Tell them to have faith and believe that they’re the best Americans in the decentest government the world has ever seen. It’s true, I tell you. We’re just coming out of the darkness. Don’t let anyone tell you that America today isn’t the—”

Excerpt From: Edna Ferber. “Saratoga Trunk.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/saratoga-trunk/id655288766?mt=11

It has been easy, in the last year, to feel like all the laws put in place, the legislative and legal process that shut down the Robber Barons, have been shredded systematically. God knows the current batch of Robber Barons have done their damnedest to make it so. But I came upon these passages last week and found them weirdly comforting. We have, as a nation, been here before. And come right again–through work and loss and rage turned to outrage turned to action. Frankly, with my media-addled brain, I keep wanting to cut to a commercial and come back to find that that part has happened and we’re on that upward trajectory again (perhaps with an extra fillip of self-righteousness, because that always makes everything feel so good).

I know better than that. It’s taken us a while for the circle to slope to this downward point. So for the new year my resolution is to keep my eyes on the horizon and work toward that upward trajectory–and to know that it won’t get done before the next commercial break.



We Have All Been Here Before — 12 Comments

      • I hadn’t read anything more than So Big until recently. Oddly, Fanny, Herself is my current favorite. And Ferber’s style and focus really do remind me of Lewis, for whom I have a long-term, sneaking fondness. But Lewis is not just angry, he’s a snob; he sneers at the people he disapproves of. Ferber sees their failings, but she doesn’t sneer. I like her better.

        • I read a lot of Lewis back in the day, and re-read It Can’t Happen Here after September 11 (along with Catch-22, since my reaction to all that was fear of where “homeland security” would lead). But I’ve never found his characters all that real — they exist to put across a point of view.

          This second mention of Ferber is motivating me more strongly. I’m checking what’s available in the library right now.

  1. O and the only reason I bothered with the correction is that I’ve been speaking about Edna Ferber and these issues for at least a decade and half to those whose interests include historical fiction!

    There are so many differences though, between now and then. One huge difference is, for instance, as many have observed, the lack of mass 24/7 in your eyeballs and ears all the time media. If there had been a Fox News back then Nixon would never have gone down to Watergate. Roger Ailes noticed and fixed that for us — he who was a huge Nixon guy and part of the long game strategies to take control of the nation going back that far.

    What is so disheartening is this current craziness isn’t only the USA: it’s a global movement, ultimately funded by the global corps, who, as have the ruling classes of any time, find the best weapons historically to manipulate and control populations are hatred and religion turned against all the Others.

  2. The current robber barons are far too selfish to donate great art, alas.

    The pendulum idea is a modicum of comfort: we hope that it will swing back.

  3. I do find this an encouraging idea. After all, the USA managed to find a way to rein in the previous robber barons without resorting to violent mass uprising and civil war.

    I’ve been scared of a French Revolution type of ending to this trajectory, but with a much more heavily armed populace and militarized & privatised police (i.e. the police and justice apparatus will work for the corporations that pay them, as was quite clear at the North Dakota pipeline protests). That would be a worse bloodbath than I can imagine, with no guarantees of a better outcome. The most heavily armed part of the populace has already shown its willingness to blindly follow a leader, to believe lies meant to redirect its frustrations from the powerful who caused their financial trouble to any minorities who have even less power, and to believe anything the “opposite team” says is a lie. This means that it would be oh-so-easy, when the new robber barons have turned American society into their medieval fiefdom (as they appear to be working very hard to achieve, when looked at from the outside) and milked the poor and powerless peons into such despair that they’ve nothing left to lose and rise up – it would be oh-so-easy for them to turn that fury towards other targets, immigrants, minorities, blacks, latinos, Jews, “the Democrats”… You can already see the increase in violence by alt-right sympathizers, and from a European perspective it’s so scary to contemplate where that might lead.

    But this specific American history of dealing with the previous iteration of robber barons had a different kind of ending, and that gives me hope for a better solution this time, as well. Thank you.

  4. My only comment is that the two books mentioned, “So Big” and “Saratoga Trunk” were made into films. As was “Giant”. But to read Ferber’s books and see the movies is like eating 70% cocoa chocolate (the Novels) and then consuming Milk Duds (the films).