In ten satiric episodes, Kernan visits virtually every important American institutionthe family, education, religion, art, the military, law courts, sex, science and medicine, politics, and not least television and its advertisements. Unsparing with his barbs, he reveals both the fools and the knaves among us. Kernan’s modern-day Joads find themselves in a distorted world where a surplus of democracy not only fails to free its inhabitants but also makes them vulnerable to the machinations of greedy and unscrupulous exploiters. Echoing the voices of such other provocative wits as Evelyn Waugh and Tom Wolfe, Kernan will make you laugh at the absurdity of American culture andin all likelihoodat yourself.
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About the Author
Alvin Kernan is Avalon University Professor of Humanities, emeritus, Princeton University.
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The Fruited Plain
Fables for a Postmodern Democracy
By Alvin Kernan
Yale University Press
Copyright © 2002 Yale University.
All rights reserved.
Merry Xmas From the Joads
Here it is Xmas of the year 2001, the first of the new millenium, and I have booted up my old PC to send all of you very special greetings from the Winfield Joads III, by e-mail. We all have so much to be thankful for, and specially us Okies whose parents and grandparents came out from the dustbowl in the 1930s to live here in California, the land of milk and honey. At first, I gather, it didn't seem like that, but things soon got better. They sure did for the Graves, my family, and the Joads, the family I married into, like they did for all hard-working, God-fearing Americans. Aunt Ruthie is the only one left of those who made the trip, and she still lives with us. She don't remember much anymoreAlzheimer's, Old Timers, Ha, Habut when all the family is in the same room with her you can just tell she knows she is among her own folks. She often thinks that she is back on the road coming out from the dustbowl, talking to her brother Tom about the police, and muttering about her sister, Rosasharn, doing something real bad in a barn with some poor old fellow. But you know all that, since the old Joads' adventures were written down in John Steinbeck's wonderful book The Grapes of Wrath.
I don't want to brag, but things have gone well for us this last year and I want you to share our good news. Our new house, in Upscale Chase, is part of a gated communitywho would have ever thought the Joads would live in a gated community?and has five bedrooms, one for almost every child, and a lot of amenities. Pa has a wine cellar, and we are looking forward to putting in a swimming pool next year.
I still work for the local government, supervising the care of some of our senior citizens, but Pa after many years at A-One Rockets decided to retire when the company was taken over by the Fortune 500 company American Nuts and Screws. He has been looking forward for many years to being able to start his own consulting business, and this gives him just the opportunity he needed.
The children are all well. The big news is that Calista will probably be married pretty soon. Earle, our oldest, is an electronic genius, and all the big-name schools are bidding for him. He thinks he wants one of the Ivys, but not Harvard, which he says is past its peak. The other kids all love school and just seem to flourish with the modern curriculum the new principal has put in place. Have It All Valley is on the cutting edge of everything, and we love being a part of this new, postmodern America. So exciting.
Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year, Everyone,
Ruthie couldn't help sniggering aloud when she read the bit about the "gated community." The gates were only a pair of cement-block posts covered with stucco and cream paint. She may not have been as sharp as she once was, but she remembered very well how bad it was years ago when the family loaded up the old truck and left the Oklahoma dust bowl for California, where Tommy became a union organizer, but then he was killed with the marines at Tarawa, and Rosasharn was a Hollywood starlet, until she overdosed. Still the rest of the family made it, working at first in the wartime aircraft factories and then branching out all over the state. As she read on in the Xmas letter Elspeth had given her, to make her feel part of things, Ruthie couldn't help wondering if it hadn't been better in the old days, hard as they were, than the way they were now, not the way poor Elspeth described them, but the way they actually were. I think that the bankers and politicians, and the lawyers and the doctors and businessmen, the fellows who write those slick ads, and the professors who run the schools, maybe they have really figured out how to make us folks do what they want by giving us what we want rather than telling us we can't have it, the way they did in the old days. And with that thought, she nodded off.
Elspeth Joad had gone to Lone Tree Community College and majored in social work. She was the granddaughter of old Muley Graves, one of the Joads' neighbors back in Oklahoma. Grandpa Graves didn't come along when his family lit out for California because they didn't have anything to eat. Instead he hid out in the bushes and shot at the bulldozers that were tearing down the empty repossessed farmhouses, that is, he did until the FBI made him one of their most wanted and shot him with his girlfriend outside a bar in Tulsa. Elspeth married young Winfield Joad II, and they had six children. Earle was the oldest, and then there was Calista, and after her Somerset, always a trifle touchy, and Emerson, Thompson, and the baby, Triola.
The old Okies liked to tell one another how much things had changed from the old days. No more state police with blackjacks, strikebreakers with pick handles, and folks spitting and yelling, "Go back where you came from!" Everybody seemed to want to help folks now. "Only in America," as they say, and it was hard to remember the days when nobody gave people like the Joads anything, when they took everything from them, the land in Oklahoma and their work for a dollar a day in the San Fernando Valley picking cotton and fruit, and hit them over the head to boot.
But now, like the folks often say, it's just the opposite. Take the Joad house, for example. The Joads live in the suburbs, about forty miles out of Los Angeles, in Have It All Valley. They and their neighbors never thought they could own a house until a salesman came around and showed how the federal government would guarantee a mortgage, with only a thousand-dollar down paymentwhich the Joads paid using their Croesus & Freres Preferred Investors' Titanium Visa Card. Not only could they own a house, they could own a real tract mansion, with a butler's pantry, an exercise room, a sauna with a Jacuzzi, and, as a special gift from the builder, for signing on the dotted line right away, a billiard room. The Joads didn't have a pool table, but they found it nice to think that if they had one they would have a place to put it, just like in those stately homes you see on TV and in the movies. "Red in the corner pocket." The monthly payments came to 57 percent of their combined income, but the "Official Homeowners' Manual" that the bank gave away free to prospective buyers said it was okay to go as high as 60 percent.
It turned out of course that the thousand dollars down was only the beginning of it. There were the points to pay the bank for the mortgage, mortgage insurance, a lawyer to register the deed, homeowners' insurancerequired by the bankprepayment of taxes, and on and on. Before they were through at the closing, where there were about twenty people sitting around the table with their hands out, Pa Joad had to sign checks for every one of them. It took all their savings. Pa said, "No wonder they call it Have It All Valley, with all those buzzards circling around and picking our carcass bare."
It was nice, though, out in the country, away from crime and the crowded and polluted streets, though it was a bit lonely at times because a lot of the houses were never finished, and the streets just petered out in the sagebrush and desert. Tumbleweeds as big as boxcars blew down the street once in a while, making the neighborhood look like a Clint Eastwood movie. Then, too, people moved out of a lot of the houses when the taxes went way up to pay for sewers, water lines, streets, and new schools for all the children that poured in. As the taxes rose, the value of the houses fell, and the mortgages got to be a lot bigger than the homes' market value, and so it made sense to load up the big Ford Excresence SUV, hoping it wouldn't blow out a tire and turn over at high speedand move away, sort of like leaving Oklahoma all over again. Banker Brightgrin had said when he financed the mortgages in Upscale Chase that the value of all these houses was sure to go up, and when it did the owners would be able to take out a second mortgage and build a swimming pool, which they soon found they really needed in the summer, with the temperature around 105°. It was a dry heat, though.
But the Joads hung on to what they had learned to call "the good life," and like the plantation owners in Piazza Days in the Old South, on TV you know, they stood out in the evening on their front porch with the big pillars, looking at the Rattlesnake Mountains off in the distance. After a while they would go in and watch TV while sitting in the Jacuzzi. On a big night they would order some piping-hot pizza delivered right to their door by one of the local motorcycle gang, the Nazi Lowriders, a nice fellow, though that stud through his tongue made him really hard to understand.
Every night after work, Elspeth would come home and see the children's beaming faces gathered around the TV, watching Divorce Court, Sally Jesse Raphael, or Oprah getting folks to bring their big secrets out into the open, like spousal-abuse and incest, where everyone could understand and know them for what they really are. Seeing her kids learning so much about life made Elspeth feel that everything was all right, and she remembered old Grandma Joad saying proudly, "We're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the peoplewe go on."
But where they were going wasn't always so clear to the Joads as where they had been. We do our best, Elspeth would sometimes muse when she was a bit down, we work and try hard to raise our children in the right ways, we believe in God and go to church every Sunday, we pay our debtsthough we have fallen a bit behind on our credit cardswe vote at every election, and still things seem to fall apart. The president and the politicians say all the time that the family is the center of our country, but something seems to have gone wrong. Sometimes I think maybe we all want too much, want all the things they show us on TV. But it can't be that. All the things we buy keep the economy going, and the people who run things, and they ought to know, make credit real easy to get.
Credit cards were a particularly good example of what worried her. Not a mail went by without an offer to the Joads for an unsolicited gold, platinum, or titanium credit card with a preapproved ten-thousand-dollar line of credit and a chance to win a free trip to Disneyland for the whole family. Every mail brought an offer of a new oneberyllium today, U-235 tomorrowwith a big credit line and an annual interest rate of 20+ percent, and the Joads, like other folks, had a wallet full of plastic. When they maxed one out, they would just pull out another to buy all those things they wanted, and really needed to have, like expensive Xmas presents for the kids"they're only young once"or paying the orthodontist to straighten Calista's teeth, or the down payment on the second car, a really safe Volvo, that Elspeth had to have to get to work, even to get to the supermarket, which was ten miles away. There weren't any sidewalks in Have It All Valley. Like all Americans, the Joads drove everywhere.
Television showed them how to live an upscale lifestyle, which meant having a big smile, lots of wavy hair, the latest fashions in clothes, and cars. Cars, wonderful cars, loaded with extras like AC, CD, TV, digital telephone, steel-belted radial tires, antilock brakes, moon roofs, Russian leather upholstery, "four on the floor," and simulated bird's-eye maple plastic dashboards. General Motors and Ford would actually give buyers money back when they signed the papers, sending a rebate greater than the down payment, and defer payments for months. If you had a big McMansion in Have it All Valley, you also had to have a big, I mean big, sports utility vehicle, tons of real "Amurrican iron," that would take the whole family to church or on educational trips to places like the Berry Farm or the Land o' Milk and Honey. But then, Elspeth thought, if you have some trouble with a few little fender-bendersnobody got hurt real bad, though, my Gawd, how they yelled at me!!!the insurance is canceled, which makes for quite a bind since you have to have insurance to drive, and even the school is seven miles away. Without a car you are not really an American, but I wish sometimes that I had that faithful old truck with all the extra tires hanging on it that the Joads drove to California and kept in the backyard for ever so long. It didn't look like much, but it only cost a few dollars, and it ran all the way out here.
The Joads were not complainers, though, everybody hates a whiner, and TV was a cornucopia pouring riches into the household. The set was on all day long, like in most houses. The men watched sports all the time, and Elspeth's story, Not Without Pain, a medical soap opera, was probably the most exciting thing in her life. The little kids watched cartoons, and the older ones enjoyed the police stories and the sitcoms, and they all watched the news once in a while and felt good in comparison to all the poor folks in Africa, where the rebels cut their hands off, or Israel, where the Jews and the Arabs kissed each other and then blew up a school bus, or Northern Ireland, where the Catholics and the Protestants banged away at one another from morn till night. "Why can't they just live together in peace?" the Joads would say to one another, "There are sure Gawd enough problems in life without killing each other."
The children were the apples of the Joads' eyes, and no matter what, the sun rose and set on them. Take young Earle. He never took to school, played hooky a lot, and his grades were so bad that they were always threatening to throw him out of high school. But his mother insisted, "That boy is a real genius, a Tom Edison or a Henry Ford, when it comes to computers. He never says a word to us but sits up there in his room all day and all night and hammers away on his computer, with the radio on playing punk rock and nasta. I never go in there, though, because I don't ever know where his pet rattlesnake will beit crawled into the Jacuzzi to get water one day. But we hear what he is up to sometimes. When the FBI came by the other day it turned out that somebody, and they thought it might be Earle, was 'penetrating' the codes of the computer system in the Pentagon. They seemed to think he was trying to find a way to fire some nuclear rockets at North Korea. But little Earle, he wouldn't do anything like that, he talks rough, but he really has a warm heart, like all the Joads."
His mother was dead right about Earle's skills as a hacker. He managed to break into the school computer system and change his low grades all to A+. The teachers never knew what was happening; once they put the grades in the computer they never looked at them again. And the school secretary simply printed out, stamped, and sent a transcript to anyone Earle requested, without ever looking at what she mailed. Though the teachers didn't suspect it, Earle had the highest grade-point average of anyone who had ever graduated from Have It All Valley High, and top schools like Ivy, Manatee, and Lemming were offering him "tuition plus" scholarships. He was determined to go to one of the big universities, probably Ivy. Filing his applications online, it was easy to write his own letters of recommendation from the principal and the football coach, as well as his math and English teachers. He had a tough time hacking into the Scholastic Achievement Test offices, though, they had all kinds of fantastic firewalls, but after failing to break into their system and change his low 400s scores, Earle figured out that he could tell the admissions offices that he refused to take an elitist test that victimized women, blacks, and the disadvantaged. He had heard that Ivy League admissions officers just roll over and beat their breasts with guilt when they hear that kind of thing, and he heard right. Little Earle will be okay, if his snake doesn't bite him someday when he is tormenting it.
Calista, who is fifteen now, is pregnant. This sounded bad to her parents, but they soon learned that like so many bad things nowadays, it was really a good thing once you understood it. At first, though, it really didn't sound so good. She came home one day and said in a happy voice, for onceusually she was pretty sullen"I'm pregnant, the test I got from the drug store had a red ring."
Pa was a bit exasperated and lit into her right off. "What happened to the pill? And all those courses you took in school about the human reproductive system and protected sex? What about the free condoms the school nurse passed out to you and all the other kids to provide you with freedom of choice?"
Excerpted from The Fruited Plain by Alvin Kernan. Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.