That Secret Code: Working Class Literature

I pulled these inter­views by Orman Day from the site of Third Coast sev­er­al months ago mean­ing to add to my col­lec­tion of links on or relat­ed to Lar­ry Brown. While I wouldn't call his por­tion rev­e­la­to­ry, exact­ly, Brown's sto­ry res­onates even more when com­pared with the oth­er inter­views: Dan Chaon, John McNal­ly, Susan Straight. You only get out of the work­ing-class mind­set by iso­lat­ing your­self, chang­ing social class entire­ly, pre­tend­ing to for­get what your past is like, becom­ing an 'oth­er.' To remem­ber what you left is to induce the gut-crunch­ing home­sick every­one who leaves feels: you might alien­ate your fam­i­ly, lose your bone-deep famil­iar­i­ty with your sur­round­ings, and end by apa­thy your oth­er rela­tion­ships with­in that class, but you'll always have that guilt.

I'm post­ing the intro­duc­to­ry por­tion and a few ques­tions. For the full Mon­ty, vis­it the Third Coast link in my first paragraph.

Lar­ry Brown, Dan Chaon, John McNal­ly, and Susan Straight tell what work­ing-class lit­er­a­ture means to them—how and why they indi­vid­u­al­ize the expe­ri­ences they do, what they hope to leave behind, and the plea­sure they feel when they get a ‘laugh of recognition.’

by Orman Day 

Their child­hood homes didn’t have shelves lined with leather-bound clas­sics, but they made fer­vid use of their library cards. Their par­ents didn’t have the mon­ey to take them on Euro­pean tours of muse­ums and ancient archi­tec­ture, but they learned that books would let them hike through the ele­phant grass of Hemingway’s Africa or study the wind-rif­fled waters of Loch Ness for signs of a huge, hoary snout, and a whip-like tail.

For the four of them, youth was a time when mon­ey was tight, but their imag­i­na­tions were fer­tile. As ear­ly as five, one of them—bored with TV and his stash of books—started to cre­ate his own sto­ries in secret. 

In their twen­ties, they couldn’t rely on trust funds to finance gar­ret flats in Paris or Brook­lyn or San Fran­cis­co. Instead, they need­ed to work to buy their gro­ceries, ink, and reams of paper. One of them joined the Marines and then became a firefighter.

Although the details and geog­ra­phy vary, these four rose out of the work­ing class to win lit­er­ary plaudits: 

Lar­ry Brown—who died of a heart attack at age 53 in Novem­ber 2004—was a Mis­sis­sip­pi native and mas­ter of “grit lit” whose work includes the non-fic­tion­al On Fire, short sto­ry col­lec­tions Fac­ing the Music and Big Bad Love, and nov­els Fay, Joe, Father and Son, Dirty Work, and The Rab­bit Fac­to­ry.

Dan Chaon is a Nebras­ka native who teach­es at Ober­lin Col­lege in Ohio and whose books include the nov­el, You Remind Me of Me, and the short sto­ry col­lec­tions, Among the Miss­ing and Fit­ting Ends.

John McNal­ly is an Illi­nois native who teach­es at Wake For­est Uni­ver­si­ty in North Car­oli­na and is the author of The Book of Ralph, a fic­tion, and Trou­ble­mak­ers, a short sto­ry col­lec­tion, and has edit­ed anthologies.

Susan Straight is a Cal­i­for­nia native who teach­es at U.C. River­side and is the author of Aqua­boo­gie, I Been In Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, Black­er Than a Thou­sand Mid­nights, The Get­tin Place, and High­wire Moon. She was a Nation­al Book Awards judge in 2004.

Here are their obser­va­tions about their lives and lit­er­a­ture in response to ques­tions sent them by email in 2004. Answers from Brown—who inter­rupt­ed work on a new book to participate—arrived by snail mail just months before his death in November.

What kind of work did your par­ents do?

Brown: My moth­er worked at Camp Elec­tric Com­pa­ny in Mem­phis when I was a kid, next to Sun Stu­dios. Jer­ry Lee Lewis used to come in there and get cig­a­rettes from the machine. Lat­er she worked at Katz Drug­store, over on Lamar. Much lat­er, when we moved back to Mis­sis­sip­pi, she worked at Sears for a long time, then the North Mis­sis­sip­pi Retar­da­tion Cen­ter, run­ning the switch­board. My father took us away from Mis­sis­sip­pi in 1954 because he couldn’t make it share­crop­ping. He worked at Frue­hauf Trail­er Com­pa­ny for a long time. Then he paint­ed hous­es some, and worked at the Mid-South Fair. When we moved back here, he worked at a stove fac­to­ry in Oxford until he died sud­den­ly ear­ly one morn­ing in 1968.

Chaon: My father was a con­struc­tion worker—a jour­ney­man elec­tri­cian. My moth­er was a stay-at-home mom or (as she said) a “house­wife.” My dad trav­eled a lot and dur­ing the sum­mers we would some­times live in a rent­ed trail­er house near where he worked. The most mem­o­rable of these was an enor­mous work­er camp, a huge trail­er encamp­ment out­side of Gillette, Wyoming.

McNal­ly: My father was a roofer for thir­ty-some­thing years, but for about five or so years he tried to run his own wall-wash­ing and rug clean­ing busi­ness. He bought two machines and put ads in papers, and I’d occa­sion­al­ly go with him to help out. I was prob­a­bly between six and ten years old. He wasn’t mak­ing as much mon­ey as he did roof­ing, which is why he went back, but he always want­ed to run his own
busi­ness. He hat­ed work­ing for some­one. My moth­er worked in a fac­to­ry until she had to go on dis­abil­i­ty leave for health prob­lems. It killed her not to be work­ing. (This is where we used to part ways: she always thought I should have a job, that it would be good for my char­ac­ter; I hat­ed work­ing and would resist look­ing for a job as long as I could.) She was from a large share­crop­ping fam­i­ly in Ten­nessee, and she start­ed pick­ing cot­ton when she was three. At thir­teen, she left home, moved to Mem­phis, and got a job in a nurs­ing home, work­ing there for about six years before mov­ing to Illi­nois with her moth­er and two sis­ters.

Straight: My moth­er was born in Switzer­land, lost her own moth­er at age ten, and her fam­i­ly emi­grat­ed to Cana­da and then the US. She left her home in Fontana at age sev­en­teen and began work­ing as a sec­re­tary, and she worked for insur­ance com­pa­nies and banks for my entire life, except for ten years when she stayed home and raised fos­ter chil­dren with her own (five total). My step­fa­ther has had many jobs: he owned a series of laun­dro­mats and repair facil­i­ties, and when I was in col­lege, he got a great mar­ket­ing job for a linen com­pa­ny. He is retired.

Was mon­ey a major concern?

Brown: Yes. Always. We were very poor.

Chaon: My dad wasn’t very good with mon­ey. I remem­ber times when he seemed pret­ty flush, and oth­er times when it seemed that we were broke. My par­ents were always buy­ing things and then hav­ing to sell them, or hav­ing them repos­sessed.

McNal­ly: Mon­ey was always a con­cern. I tend to think that every argu­ment my moth­er and father had was about money—and they argued a lot. My father, always look­ing for some way to make it on his own, would spend what lit­tle mon­ey we had on, say, “stock” for the flea mar­ket; my moth­er, on the oth­er hand, was the one who had to buy the gro­ceries, etc., so she always knew how much mon­ey we had or didn’t have. We used to move from one apart­ment build­ing to the next—I went to five dif­fer­ent grade schools—and the one thing my moth­er always want­ed was a house. Once we final­ly moved into a house (my sopho­more year of high school), my moth­er feared we were going to lose it, and my father always com­plained about how much it cost. The house ratch­eted up the stress-lev­el for the few years we lived there. After my moth­er died, my father (bur­dened with med­ical bills) filed for bank­rupt­cy and let the bank take the house.

Straight: Mon­ey was always a con­cern. Every minute, until I was in col­lege. We wore home­made and used cloth­ing, we ate inex­pen­sive food, and there were lots of kids. But as the clichés go, we had a great time play­ing ball in the park, run­ning the streets of our neigh­bor­hood and the foothills (we loved dirt surf­ing down the bar­ren hill­sides!) and not until I went to high school did I real­ize how much mon­ey and clothes and hair­cuts mattered.

Remain­ing inter­view here, in case you missed it above.

This entry was posted in dan chaon, john mcnally, larry brown, orman day, susan straight, third coast, working class literature. Bookmark the permalink.

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