Interviewer: OK, Richard, what? When you hear the words the American dream. Finish that sentence for me. I hear the words very few. What image comes to mind?
Richard Yarborough: The phrase American dream makes me think of security. And that varies from context, context sometimes to think of how sometimes I think of people with no food to eat. Sometimes I think of mobility. Sometimes I think of something as vague as the ability to define possibilities for yourself. And I think in a culture like American culture, those things tend to be manifested in material ways which you what you can show, what you own, what you can surround yourself with, what you can use to relate to other people.
Interviewer: So finish the thing. So here's my question. The American dream is the American dream is.
Richard Yarborough: Possibility. The American dream is freedom. Now, when we tried to define what possibility and freedom are, that gets tricky because my freedom. And what could be possible for me or what I would want to be possible for me might have a direct impact on your freedom and what you would like to have possible for you. And the idea of the American dream for me has a great deal to do with my ability to define myself the way I would like to it. Life is not that simple.
Interviewer: What role do you think the dream plays in our daily lives? Not in our literature in our day.
Richard Yarborough: I think the American dream for most people, even if they aren't thinking those terms, keeps them going. I think that it provides us with a mobile motive, motivation. I think it provides us with energy. I think it gives us a set of goals to aim for. One complicating factors is that sometimes we get those goals or achieve them and we don't feel fulfilled. And another complicating factor is that sometimes, no matter how hard we work, how fiercely we aim for those goals, how firmly we dedicate ourselves to following the rules that we're given. We don't get there. What does that tell us about the dreams? That means the dream is false. Does that mean that life is unfair? Does that mean that we've done something wrong? All these can create crises in our lives that are very difficult to resolve.
Interviewer: Well, let me ask you that question. Is the true false is the dream a lie?
Richard Yarborough: I think that all dreams have a problematic relationship with reality. I think that some dreams are achievable. No dream is achievable for every one person. But I think that that asking that question takes us around the corner from, I think, where the heart of the dream lies, which is a system of myth that works because it mobilizes a community. It organizes a society.
Interviewer: So let's go back and let's where does the dream come from in your mind? What's the seed of the American dream? I heard that.
Richard Yarborough: I think that the American dream is grounded in Western Europe's initial contact with what we now think of with the United States or America as an idea, as well as physical location. As a result, I think it's shaped by the ideas and culture that the explorers brought to this country, their belief that they were seeing something fresh, new virgin, untouched, despite the fact there are already people here. The fact that they believe that they were given the space to work their imaginations on that is freedom in a way, especially when you think about the repressive, constrained cultures that they were coming from. The dream appeared to be nature. They saw a wonderful land of bountiful natural resource of all kinds.
Interviewer: How about in literature or words? And I want to talk about specific things. Sure. We're gonna see later on a Sherlocks I, Ben Franklin or or.
Richard Yarborough: Sure. Well, I think that the Ben Franklin is an early spokesperson for the dream, and I think that he brought into the dream, which certainly you can find roots of in Puritan thinking in some of the early religious thought of the of the of the of the settlers. I think what Franklin brought in was a practical material component and an ability to draw out this abstract philosophy into manageable nuggets. A penny saved is a penny earned. I mean, those kinds of aphorisms make it easy for the average person to digest something that at a philosophical level or an abstract level could be kind of complicated.
Interviewer: Or a bit of bad or.
Richard Yarborough: Whatever. Rolling Stone gathers no moss. I mean, every culture has its own way of encapsulating its wisdom. And American culture does so in a way that is almost akin to the way a religion works out as catechism. I think all religions have a list of rules that you can follow. And I think the American dream from that standpoint is the secular religion.
Interviewer: And that that base of that contract is what you do. You'll get what.
Richard Yarborough: You do, ABC, D and E and you get the reward, and A, B, C, D and E entails things like working hard, being honest, taking advantage of opportunity and good fortune, of being moral, standing up for one's self, being courageous, defending one's family. Because I think that from that standpoint, much of the dream is a male dream.
Interviewer: Let's let me just try to focus on this for a second. Let's think about it. And not let's not use his name. Right. But let's think about it as Lutie thinks about it. When you do what? In his mind, you get what?
Richard Yarborough: I think that the key thing is the idea of hard work. I think that if the individual works very hard, dedicates oneself to a goal. Sacrifices is frugal, is responsible, takes advantage of opportunities. Is ambitious that all of those things add together will lead to the conclusion of the formula, which is success, material success, security, a house, a comfortable place in which to raise one's children.
Interviewer: So how then does the dream then permeate into literature? Right. Let's not, you know, make Horatio Alger, Dreiser. Sure. How does it do that? How does it burrow its way or what is it? What happens when it gets in there?
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think two things. One. The dream is an organizing set of myth. And these sets of myth in a culture show up in the cultural statements. And I think literature is an expression of culture. And I think from that standpoint, the dream is going to be embodied in the dramas that play themselves out. The other part of this is that because the dream is this mobilizing force. It provides reasons for people to act. And literature embodies action, especially fiction. And I think that it makes perfect sense that these writers who are both trying to speak to and engage their cultures are when they look to the characterisations, when look through the drama of plot, turning turn to some of the larger mobilizing forces that I think are drawn from the American dream, as it always seems to be, kind of comes to money. I think that I agree from one state, but that money is the key because we are in a material culture. The United States was founded at the beginning of capitalism, as we think of it. But I think that the key to keep in mind a key thing about money is what it can allow you to do, not an end in itself.
Interviewer: But it isn't also money, a signal of virtue.
Richard Yarborough: In American culture it often is just as the failure to achieve a certain kind of financial comfort level. Comfort is apparently a sign of moral degradation. That's one of the major problems. So from that standpoint, yes, I think that money and possessions that come with money are equated in or read in moral terms.
Interviewer: OK, let's stop a second. Go figure. So if Franklin does, what is Frank with you?
Richard Yarborough: And I think that Benjamin Franklin, in his writings, processes the dream into fragments.
Richard Yarborough: So I think Benjamin Franklin, in his writings, in his journalism, took the dream and broke it into pieces that were easy to remember, that were digestible. I think that when you look in popular culture, which is where the dream is, is present it most vividly, sometimes not just in the high culture, but what we think it was literature. I think another figure you have to reckon with is Ratio Alger, who produced dozens of boys books and they almost all had the same plot and with brutal consistency and amazing power, presented a whole generation fact more than one generation of young American men with its dramas that embodied the accessibility of the dream. What were those dramas? The dramas were of young boys, frequently poor, honest, hardworking, ambitious, who, through a stroke of good fortune, are given the opportunity to rise up in society and that rising up brought family brought romance frequently. A banker's daughter quite literally involved money. I lost wallet that the boy would find returned the wallet. There would be a reward. There would be access to a profession and ultimately the American success.
Interviewer: What do you think Horatio Alger? Those myths kind of seep in. What did they teach the culture?
Richard Yarborough: I think it gives the culture a formula. It gives certain members of the culture formula a formula for power, a formula for success. And that formula is what the formula is. Hard work, taking advantage of opportunity. And let let me add the key part of the formula is, in fact, an underlying faith that those items can eventuate, can result in achievement of the power, the fortune, the social status, the family, the house. And again, the one most amazing things about the dream is its flexibility. The dream means something different. In 1875. It doesn't 1925 then does in 1980. But there's enough overlap in terms of what those goals look like, what those goals are, are represented in that there's continuity. So one feels that when one arrives into this country, see in 1960, one can jump right on into the dream drama because there's a continuous tradition of this of this faith.
Interviewer: Great, right. Richard, what do you think money meant to Fitzgerald?
Richard Yarborough: Fitzgerald writes about an a layer of society that is moneyed, and I think that he's fascinated by what money does to individuals and what money allows people to to possess and not just material, but that there is a culture of having money is a culture that views itself as privileged. That yourself as empowered. That it also views itself as potentially embattled by outsiders. And I think that Gatsby is a good example of what a moneyed, cultured space that the Tom world, the daisy world does when it feels itself to be invaded. One of the ironies, of course, is that Gatsby believes that that moneyed world is permeable, that you can gain access to it, that you can move into it, and that if you possess the right kinds of things, drive the right kind of car where the right kinds of clothes have the right kind of mansion, that you will then be part of that very, very closed society. And from one standpoint, the book is about a that's society's self protective response to an invader.
Interviewer: That's right. So that's before we dive into and really kind of take it apart. The 20s kind of popular imagination is the jazz. What else is going on in the 20s other than just isn't just gin? Right.
Richard Yarborough: Right. Not just gin. I think that the alcohol idea is a fascinating one because it's one of the few times in American culture that we tried to legislate morality at that massive level and the degree to which American culture at the same time rejected that attempt does something to the morality of a culture when everybody feels like it's OK to break that law. So I think it sets up a particular moral ambiguity that permeates the entire 1920s. At the same time, I think it was a period of opportunity. I think that in the wake of World War One, the United States as a culture was feeling very cocky. It was taking its spate a place on the world stage in a way they're not done before. It viewed itself as on the winning side of that global battle. I think that for women, for example, there were new opportunities. The women's right to vote coming in the middle that of that decade. At the same time, there are some dangerous signs. I think that the gap between the rich and the poor was was growing even as our culture focused obsessively on celebrity and money. The way we do now. I think of the rise of mass media during that period of time, radio records film. But you also have the signs of the coming depression. There are many people suffering then a period.
Interviewer: I get to that sign. Oddly enough, in the Steinback. OK. But let me ask you then, giving that that that prosperity, that cockiness plays a character like Gatsby time that is Gatsby reflection in the 20s.
Richard Yarborough: Gatsby is is a walking embodiment of the 20s. I think for Fitzgerald, I think, first of all, where does money come from? He did what he thought he needed to do in order to achieve his version of the American dream. And in order to do that, however, we find out that he was a bootlegger. He made or at least distributed whiskey or alcohol illegally. And he doesn't seem to have a problem with that. I think there's a ruthlessness to his focus on his goal. And in American culture, very frequently we find that the purity of the goals sometimes seems to, in many people's minds, purify the means so that by any means necessary to get to the American dream becomes a a workable approach. I think that his freshness, his innocence, his energy, the fact he was able to make that much money that fast is something of the 20s.
Interviewer: How about his reinvention? How about that? Mm hmm. I mean, is he born? Is he born Jay Gatsby.
Richard Yarborough: He's born James Gatz. And I think that the fact that he changes that The Jay Gatsby is a crucial part of Ove, in fact, his embarking on this search for the dream in American culture, largely because as an immigrant culture, we have the belief that you could redefine yourself even at a fundamental level of name, whether that be a former slave choosing a new name upon being free, someone coming to United States through New York and choosing an Anglo name and English name. It is part of the process. And I think that Gatsby picking his own name is a sign of his commitment to an individualism, commitment to individual possibility that entails changing himself from the ground up, from the level of identity on up to what he owns and what his his purpose is to achieve that dream.
Interviewer: So let's talk about Fitzgerald and how Fitzgerald introduces us to it. Like driving for a character. Mm hmm.
Richard Yarborough: Mm hmm. I think that we don't see Gatsby right away. I think that some writers choose to introduce their main characters very slowly. And Fitzgerald does that. The result of. Is to build Rahmah up around that character, we learn about the character almost as if you were drawing a silhouette. You cut out material from around the outline. It achieves a number of ends. One, it allows us to seek Aspies world first. Then we see. We see Gatsby possessions first. We hear about the parties. We hear about the car. We hear about the mansion. But also it allows for Gatsby to be created as a myth is created. So Gatsby himself becomes dreamlike. He becomes what other people think he is. And that works to both the end of the novel, but also works to the end of Gatsby. Gatsby wants to be a dream. He wants to be something that's very, very difficult to pin down. That give some flexibility. He can create himself in that space.
Interviewer: That's great. So why does he move out so long? Is he looking just to be a good neighbor like the real estate? Is that why he's there?
Richard Yarborough: Well, Gatsby's move and I think is an ironic move in American culture. We frequently talk about moving west as a way to pursue the dream. And I think that in the 20th century, especially, you see moves in different directions in the bodying. That pursuit of the dream and Gatsby moving to the east represents a move from the frontier in back into established culture, back into the high moneyed society where he sees privilege and power at a very literal level. Of course, Gatsby is going after Daisy. I mean, he's moving near Daisy. Daisy is the woman that he had had an affair with that is now married to Tom Buchanan. He is still Gatsby, still in love with her. And his pursuit of her is equivalent to Parrello with symbolic of his pursuit of the dream. If he can get Daisy, he can make it.
Interviewer: OK. That's OK. I mean, how bad was Dr Fitzgerald says that Daisy's voice is full of. Right. Right. What does that mean. Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: That's a wonderful line. The book is full of lies like that that you tend to remember long after you read the book. And I think that's what good literature does. I think that the one with the one with the daisy has a voice that's full of money. The other interesting thing about Daisy is voices that she speaks quietly, which means you have to lean forward to pay attention to what she says. I think that it's it's one of those lines that represents the symbolic value of Daisy in Gatsby's dream of her, that Daisy, even her voice, represents the richness, the luxury, the promise of the privilege, the status. And Daisy is an embodiment of that.
Interviewer: Why go back to grab Daisy? Yeah. Yeah. And is that a good idea?
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think that the question of why Gatsby bothers to go after Daisy, should Gatsby go after days, of course, when he had a chance to be to have a relationship in it. And it clearly wasn't going to work for reasons of class, among other other factors. I think, though, that you cannot ask the question, should someone pursue this dream, whether it's be represented by a house, a business, a status?
Interviewer: I guess, in fact, in Gatsby's head, if I treat him as a real human being. What's he doing?
Richard Yarborough: Gatsby's following his heart. Gatsby is in love with this person. Now, the question is, is he in love with a real human being or is in love with an idea? Did could he ever possibly know who Daisy is? I think it's a little of both. I mean, he and the other question is, would he be happy if he got Daisy? And I think that's another question you really can't ask of the dream because the dream is designed to get us somewhere. The dream dream in many cases, like many dreams or goals, is never designed to be actually achieved. You have it in your hands. What American writers frequently want to do is look at what happens if you do achieve it or what happens along the way as you're struggling to get it right.
Interviewer: Right. So how does the how does Gatsby caught Daisy at that moment in the book? Right. Hook up. Right. How does it quarter. How did it.
Richard Yarborough: Well, the scene that that comes to my mind during this courtship and we keep him as a second courtship. So that is a revisiting of youth on both of their parts. This is not a fresh meeting. They were did spend time together earlier during the war. But the scene in the bedroom where, first of all, Daisy looks at his solid gold toiletry set. And at one point she picks up the solid double yellow gold brush and brushes her hair with it in a book that's full of imagery, images of money, the color gold resonates. And here's actually literally a representation of gold. But then he turns to the closet. He starts pulling shirt after shirt after shirt after shirt. And at one point and Nick Carraway, the narrator standing there watching this drama, and Daisy at one point buries her. Face the T-shirts saying essentially, I've never seen so many beautiful shirts. Clearly she's crying from. From the joy of it all, inspired by this. And in this book, clearly, it's not just that she loves shirts. It's the is the is the bounty fulness of it. It's the it's the it's the richness of it, the luxurious ness of it. The splendor of the colors. Is rainbow laying there on the bed.
Interviewer: And what's what's Gatsby doing on the why.
Richard Yarborough: Gatsby is showing her what he has. Gatsby showing her what he has achieved in a way. Is he showing off? He is throwing these things and have all been neatly pressed and folded. So, I mean, you have to think about, you know, the labor that went into that and then he's just no wrinkling them up, throwing them around. I think that he is saying, this is what I have to offer you. This is is almost like a bouquet of flowers. It's a romantic gesture. It's a gesture that presumes that she will respond to that. And she does from that from that standpoint, he does know.
Interviewer: Daisy, great. So, Richard, were you when you read the book? Do you ever get the sense that Gatsby and Daisy are going to have a happy ending?
Richard Yarborough: I think that personally. No. No. No, I don't think that Gaspin Days are gonna make it. I don't think that this revisiting of that romance is going to be able to have a happy ending. Now, being cynical about that, the possibility of this new romance or a reborn romance does not mean that I'm not invested in watching the attempt. I mean, there's something about Gatsby being an underdog which increasingly becomes the case for the read in more we learn about him that we're rooting for him. I mean, you know, he's willing to to sacrifice everything for something that may not even be a goal that merits the effort, but the attempt is just heroic. And even if you don't approve it, as Nick says, he doesn't approve of Gatsby. You do have to sit in and stand in awe of the attemptt.
Interviewer: Have little sympathy.
Richard Yarborough: Oh, yeah. I think I think the sympathy I think probably not much empathy, because I think that it's hard to get into his mind. I think and that's something that Fitzgerald does by keeping us on the outside of that character.
Interviewer: And one of things I wanna do is go back, if we can, the novel and shift gears. I'm sorry we didn't do the book. Now I want to do that moment. Nick and him are in the car and Nick starts to hear Gatsby. Right story. Right. Give me a sense of who Gatsby is. Right. Character right at that point in the novel.
Richard Yarborough: Right. Well, they're they're driving into is the first time that Nick Carraway, who is Gatsby's neighbor, is really having a personal contact with this mysterious figure who is represented by his house, his car, the parties. And Gatsby begins to tell him this remarkable story of his life. Nick is somewhat cynical, but he's also, as he tells us, a man to whom other people tell their stories. And gas begins to tell us about his war adventure, about being in school in Britain, about receiving a medal. And I think to that point, you know, Gatsby is is kind of an absence, these kind of ghostly. And now we're starting to get details. But the details seems so remarkable and incredible in the sense of unbelievable that we don't know what to believe. And Nick is skeptical as well. Then all of a sudden, Gatsby drops a medal from the European country. Montenegro And it looks genuine, which then creates an aura of credibility about around the rest of this remarkable story. The second piece of evidence we get is this photograph of him in England with with with his classmates. And once again, it sort of gives us the sense that we should not be skeptical despite the incredibility of the story.
Interviewer: So what about the idea of reinvention at that moment? Gatsby embodies it well.
Richard Yarborough: But what's tricky at that point, the book, we don't know Gatsby's past. So we don't know how far that tells us. Gatsby has come for. For all we know, gas. He was born into that world. And these are just the striking details of of of his remarkable life. As we learn more about Gatsby's real history, as we get closer to the end of the book. And the book works by revealing more and more specifics about Gatsby the further along we go, which complicates our reading of that individual. I think that we begin to see that he has come a huge distance in terms of reinventing himself. In fact, defining himself from what he would say is a background or a social standing that is virtually ground zero all the way up into someone who could negotiate, who can make his way into this this extraordinarily close, powerful, wealthy, hierarchical society.
Interviewer: Right. So what do you think Fitzgerald says? How does Gatsby's or why does Gatsby and when does Gatsby's Zord start to kind of come apart? Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: Well, the first thing that I think is important to get that Fitzgerald suggests is that Nick, even if he's somewhat skeptical, he suspends disbelief. So I think because we're seeing Gatsby through Nick's eyes, I think that we want to believe the story because Nick wants to believe the story. But the story begins to unravel pretty quickly. And are people in the book who never buy it? Part of it is that pieces of of Gatsby's history start coming to the surface, whether it be his connection with a gambler named Wolfsheim, whether it be the fact as as Tom discovers he gained his money through bootlegging. We keep getting little cracks in the veneer of this new persona that he is that he created for himself. And underneath the cracks, behind the mask is a an ambitious young roughneck that has has done a lot of more compromising in order to get the money that he needs and that he can use to buy his way into Daisy's world.
Interviewer: And the person really, really. Puncture's it is Daisy's husband. That's right, Tom.
Richard Yarborough: And I think that the book is set up with a with a with a kind of romantic triangle, if you want to call that. I would say maybe a triangle of power of Tom possessing Daisy and representing that the self protective, self defensive capacity of that wealthy world, the world that maintains his power through ruthless self-defense. Tom is the one who pursues an inquiry into Gatsby's background and then discovers all of this about the bootlegging. And then basically pours that information out in front of Daisy and the scene. It's very poignant because even though you suspect that that might be coming, you see Gatsby as as Nick tells us, frantically trying to keep the pieces of that mass together, even as a sort of dissolving or splintering in his hands. And pretty quickly in that scene, you realize that Daisy is not going anywhere, that Tom has, in fact, successfully beaten back that particular invasion of his world. And what happens to Gatsby? Gatsby, ultimately. And, you know, you can say that once his dream dies and Gatsby dies. But but from a from a physical standpoint, literally, he he is killed a case of mistaken identity. And I think the irony of that, I think fits neatly in to Fitzgerald view of the ironic tragedy of that pursuit.
Interviewer: So what is Fitzgerald saying about the limits? Say reinvention. Right.
Richard Yarborough: Right. Well, in a world where where power ruthlessly protects its own privilege and power defense itself, in a world where we all have histories that we try to leave behind. At least that's what the American dream tells us we can do. And yet that history keeps trailing behind us. And sometimes it is more than shrills behind as it leaps in front of us and reveals us to be the roots that we we thought we'd left left long ago. From that standpoint, I think Fitzgerald is is somewhat cynical. I think that he's saying you cannot recreate yourself completely at the same time. The final image of the book is a extraordinarily poetic and lyrical celebration of the ideal of America, which is what Gatsby has represented. I think many American writers have a love hate relationship with that idealism.
Richard Yarborough: He opened it at the back cover, so I thought, OK. OK, OK. He opened it at the back cover and turned it around for me to see on the last flyleaf was printed the word schedule and the date, September 12, 1986. And underneath rise from bed six a.m. dumbbell exercised and wall scaling 615 to six thirty a.m. study electricity, et cetera. 715 815 a.m. work. Eight thirty four. Thirty p.m.. General resolves no wasted time at chapters or a name indecipherable, no more smoking or chewing Bhave every other day. Read one improving book or magazine per week. Save five dollars. Crossed out three dollars per week. Be better to parents. I think that this list is the formula. And he believed that as a young boy, he believed that this list would be the form that this is set to success. And it's a list that even in its form, recalls Benjamin Franklin's list in his autobiography. This this idea that you can structure your life, that you could quantify the steps that you need to to follow in order to achieve the ultimate goal of success and power. It's interesting that tends to look this way in many of these texts.
Interviewer: It's interesting. It's the last thing we're left with Gatsby, isn't it?
Richard Yarborough: Right. Yeah. And I think from that standpoint, the book gives us the formula at the end. And and in a way, there's nothing wrong with this. I mean, that's that's the irony here. This this is a perfectly reasonable way to organize your life, especially as young men. And you would think that if you did those things, something good would happen to you. And. And the question that I think Fitzgerald leaves us with is that life isn't that simple.
Interviewer: Great. Richard, can you hear me OK? Can you take the book back? Can you help me get into the shirt? Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK. He's wooing Daisy, right? Daisy comes over for lunch. What what transpires? I just don't know yet. OK.
Richard Yarborough: What? The scene is in a Gatsby's bedroom. Intimate space, interestingly enough. Nick is there almost as a chaperone. And Daisy is becoming reacquainted with this this man that she has known in the past that Gatsby's house, Gatsby, wants to woo her. Gatsby wants to revive the romance. And he invite he arranges for them to be over for lunch, which gives him access to her with Nick. As the go between here and what is fastening in this bedroom scene is that the the the the language that's spoken language of the wooing is essentially a language of the material luxury that Gatsby now possesses. And the first thing that Daisy looks at is a solid gold toiletry set. And she picks up a solid gold brush, the dull yellow color, and brushes her own hair with it. Her hair. She's blonde. So you get the color link. And at that point, you see her connection with Gatsby through gold, through the summit symbol of wealth and luxury. And at that point, Gatsby begins to throw the shirts at.
Interviewer: OK, cut, cut. Got to pressure. Great. Richard, is a Gatsby like reinvention possible for people who are white? Sure, sure.
Richard Yarborough: I think the the one of the powerful things about this idea that you can reinvent yourself, that you can make yourself over as a beginning of the steps toward success may ask you to do it again. Yeah. No, I wasn't good to write this. Right.
Interviewer: If this really isn't me, is it possible to reinvent yourself like Gatsby? If you're if you're black in this country. Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: I think one of the powerful things about the the ideal that you can make yourself over and thereby achieve success instead. The United States, when the powerful things about that is that it it seems to apply across racial, cultural, ethnic, gender boundaries in its actual working out. We find that many writers talk about the limits of its applicability to certain groups. I think for many black writers from the beginning, all the way up through contemporary literature, I think you find them investigating those limits and the tragic consequences of those limits. What is forcing in many cases is that time after time, tragedy after tragedy. Generation after generation, we still see this stubborn belief that but that that that reinvention can happen.
Interviewer: So, you know. You know, second, so I want to catch myself. Clare. If Irene's there. She's afraid this person spotted threat, someone staring at her. Is it a random individual? Why is the person staring at her? Because she knows.
Richard Yarborough: Well I think that Irene is afraid that this person that's focusing on her is staring at her across the patio where this rooftop restaurant is staring at it because she knows that she's black and that she is passing as white in order to get access to this cool, refreshing space. It turns out as mere fact that this is a person that she does recognize, which is interesting. This person recognizes her but doesn't recognize, but she doesn't recognize the stare. And the stare is, in fact, Irene, a childhood friend. Clare Clare, a childhood friend. Kendra messed up. And I think that who's the Clare is a black woman who raised poor, was poor friend of of of Irene's. And she has taken that step just as she has been able to be mistaken as white. She has the appearance of a white woman and she has decided to let American society read her as white. And that is what passing is. And that. And she does that in order to achieve something. She doesn't do it for its own sake. For her, that is a form of the redefinition that frequently American heroes have to have to go through.
Interviewer: Let's talk about it. Just the kind of real world. Right. Right. She married white. Right. Why does she love. Well, thank you to white. Right.
Richard Yarborough: For her and for many blacks, whiteness represents privilege and access to resources. And for women in particular, especially in the 1920s, the other avenues that they had in order to get financial security, to get social status. Those are extraordinarily limited, even for White Middle-Class Women of the way. Women at that time and to a certain extent to date were much less so, had had to get access to that status was my marrying well, and we talked. Exactly. Exactly. And I think that as a result, the focus is on presenting themselves as desirable on the marriage marketplace. And Clare succeeds in achieving that goal. She marries a wealthy white male who happens to be racist. And that is one of the bitter ironies of her existence. She's married to a white male who gives her the security, gives her the stable Middle-Class Family fact, upper middle class family life. But if he found out that she had some black ancestry, as illogical as that seems, he would drop her in a second. And that's the risk that she's running.
Interviewer: So let me ask you, do you see a connection at all, a mirror reflection of Gatsby and Clare? Are they the two sides of the same coin or the same person? Right.
Richard Yarborough: I think there's a lot of useful links between Gatsby and Clare. First of all, they come from humble beginnings and they are extraordinarily ambitious. Everyone who is born poor does not aspire with that level of intensity to achieve the power and prestige that comes with money. I think they have that drive. They are willing to be ruthless about achieving it. It's a ruthlessness that comes out of an innocent belief that A plus B equal C, I'm gonna lose.
Interviewer: That's right. Yeah, that's right. Well, let me ask you about think about them in the sense of reinvention. Sure. Sure. Are they do they speak to each other in terms of reinvention?
Richard Yarborough: I think they would understand each other. I think The Gatsby. I think Gatsby and Clare would understand each other very quickly. I think they would both understand the sacrifices that have to be made, the steps that need to be taken in redefining themselves into a new world. I think that their values, their their goals are very, very similar. And the extent to which their innocence has a streak of ruthlessness in it in terms of what they're willing to cut out of their lives in order to add things to their lives. I think that they're they're on the same page.
Interviewer: Right. I'm going to ask you just to help me get me to answer adoption. Our meeting of John Ballu. Right. And that's just the kind of right there. And they meet on the roof. And then when do they see each other again?
Richard Yarborough: Well, date they Irene and Clare have this accidental rooftop meeting and then they separate. They they they don't get back into immediate touch for a while. I believe that at that point, Irene receives a letter from Clare. She recognizes the handwriting. And it's clear that at that point, Clare is very restless and nostalgic for access to black society. And she begins playing a dangerous game. She begins toying with her past connections in African-American society while maintaining. This white life and at one point she actually does markedly bold an unwise thing of inviting Irene and some of her other passable black women friends to a two to meet her husband's socially. And John comes walking in and one, the first thing he says in referring to his wife is to excuse the term Knigge. And all of a sudden, the level of tension in the room is is off the scale. And I think that it it it reveals all at once the the the risk, the level of danger that that all of these women now are running in this particular space. But in particular, the riskiness that Clare is willing to maintain in her life. This masquerade is not just a game. There are people's lives, involves her life, her, her, her her daughter's life.
Interviewer: I'm going to ask you just to respond, which is. And I think she'll wake up one of these days and I'll find out. She's turned into a [Unrecognized]. Mm hmm. That's sitting at. You've read that for the first time. Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: Well, I say I think that that that term is loaded. I mean, that term has all kinds of freight. And I think it's as I suspect, as different freight for different readers. But I think most people in American culture know the the dangerous valence of that term. That is the most derogatory term that one could use toward a black person.
Interviewer: But what does it do to you in terms of clear what is the term human rights. Mean? What does due do to you as a reader of the book? Do you hate Clare more?
Richard Yarborough: No, I don't think that that that particular scene and hearing John's use of the term [Unrecognized] makes us dismiss thoughts or distances us from Clare. I think that by that point, the book, I think we have a grudging understanding, maybe even admiration for Clare's boldness because she's going after something with with a single minded intensity that American culture tells her she can have if she's willing to work hard enough.
Interviewer: Don't you find it ironic, I mean, that there isn't the kind of disgust at what Clare is doing?
Richard Yarborough: Well, you know, I think that I think that it's interesting you run admiration for Rice, but as I stress, as grudging, because I think that and I think that Larson is ambivalent about her response to Clare. I think that Larson would maybe want us as readers to be ambivalent. Clare is trying to escape the poverty, the alienation, the loneliness and the pain that she went through as a child. We all can understand that now. We may not approve of the particular method that Clare uses. The fact that she is living a lie. But many of us have compromised certain aspects of our identity on many different occasions for convenience or at a more massive, dramatic level for two, to create a new life for ourselves. And I think that Larson wants us to understand that. And I think that's one of the reasons why Irene, who clearly disapproves of Clare, that Irene herself, we see that she can pass for convenience on occasion.
Interviewer: It's interesting because you get the sense that Larson has some connection to her characters.
Richard Yarborough: I think so. I mean, at some level, I think that most writers at the fundamental level of the imaginative connection with their characters are living out certain issues. Now, some of those are very indirect and some are direct laughs. And I think that Larson, whose own background was complicated, to say the least, with regard to her ethnicity and her racial antecedents, I think that she is struggling to work through some issues around racial identity, through through this Clare Irene drama. And I think that the fact that you have more than one character who can pass, I mean, we have to keep in mind that Irene can do it as well as Clare. I think that complicates this drama.
Interviewer: So is this just a book about race? That is it wrong to read it in a in a show of money dream?
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think that race is a stock.
Interviewer: Share anything.
Richard Yarborough: I think that in both cases we see the tragic flaw. Start started. I think in both cases we see the tragic flaw in the innocent commitment to pursuing this dream. I think that and I think that in each case, the author wants us to see that flaw literally destroyed. I mean, I think that the violence of their ends. I mean, these are. And the fact that in each case, it's questionable whether it was purely an accident. I think that that isn't quite intentional on the part of the writers. I think they want to just present the dream and all of its richness and appeal and seductiveness and then have it run right into the wall. And the wall is the resistance of life to bean, to the individual's will. And the dream is that you can't bend life to your will.
Interviewer: Interesting. In the novel, you get that comparison of the affairs, right. Talk right. Bit about right. They're both. They both died for almost the same reason. Right. Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: They're both they both represent threats to what appears to be a stable or at least eh, eh, eh, a somewhat stable relationship between a man and a woman. And I think that in in Gatsby's case, he's if he's a threat to Tom over Daisy and I think then in Clare's case, she's a threat to Irene over Irene's husband, Brian. I think that the fact that both Clare and Gatsby are willing to, as part of their pursuit of their goals, go after someone else's spouse is a reflection of the inner innocent ruthlessness of their single mindedness. I mean, they believe that they can go after whatever they want.
Interviewer: What does it say about going home or the limits of reinvasion?
Richard Yarborough: Right. Right. Well, I think it says you one, you may not be able to go home. And if you go home, it's complicated because a lot of what you're gonna find there constitutes some of the very reasons you left. Why go home and why reinvent yourself? Well, I think this is a dilemma that many American writers have talked about, and that is that there's the urge to leave all that behind. Sounds appealing in principle, but we all need roots. We all need connection. We all need a social space. We need home. And being on that journey to make this new home is lonely. And I think in both cases, you have individuals who whose personal connections are very difficult to sever cleanly. And I think that that many American writers talk about the this is almost homing instinct two to kind of that pull you back to these older connections. And in some cases, the older connections bring problems or kill or can kill you.
Interviewer: It's last question, is passing in Gatsby, are they just relics that time? Should they ever it? Should we be reading them?
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think there are aspects of Gatsby's. OK. OK. There there are aspects of Gatsby's quest and Clare's quest that are very much of the 1920s. But when you look at the what's at stake, when you look at the goals that they have, I think those are part and parcel of American culture. And I think that we can trace those back into the 18th century and we can certainly see manifestations of some of those same goals and quests at the beginning of the 21st century. So it's still still should be read, I think, read and reread. I think that both books benefit from going through them over and over again. What's remarkable when you're reading a novel the first time through. You want to know what happens the second time through. You know what happens. But you want to know about the characters. You want to know more about the drama that leads up. And I think that that that that richness and the resonance of these texts and the best literature does this, that it's like listening to a song over again. I mean, you know how the music goes, you know the words, but you gain more each time you go through. And I think both of these books are rich in their engagement with American culture as it filters those dramas through some remarkable individuals.
Interviewer: So let's go on to The Grapes of Wrath. Why do you think the Depression hits the country so hard? What does it do to our psyche? Right.
Richard Yarborough: Right. Some people have argued that the the the most devastating effect of the depression notwithstanding the real human suffering of loss of jobs, hunger, starvation, etc., but that the real devastation was at the level of cultural psyche, of the level of America's sense of itself. In a way, it was the most traumatic national catastrophe since the civil war. And we had been able to convince ourselves, except perhaps in parts of. S. That the civil war was a testing ground through which this country passed and came out stronger, more optimistic, more ready for progress. We survived war, were won. And here we are right in that, in the height of optimism for many people in this country, not all, but many people. After just just after the 1920s and toward the end of the 20s and all of a sudden the very foundation of this country, what what what's in so many ways provides the the stuff of our American ideal that is the economic system and the fact that it is fair and the fact that it can provide a certain level of comfort and privilege. All those things come to crash. And I think that I'm not sure that American culture has has completely revived in the face of that devastation. I think we went into, in some ways, a coma for a while.
Interviewer: So what's the challenge? You know, in that kind of pocket, what is it? To have you taken selfies. Why is that punch right? Punch me with that challenge.
Richard Yarborough: I think the challenge is to somehow recreate American possibility again in the face of a devastating toppling of the entire system.
Interviewer: And what is that? Him mean? Help me understand what goes on that just so well. I think that the punch to the gut. To the to America.
Richard Yarborough: Well, the belief that you can achieve a prosperity and a success and security at the level of job security level of income that is on an upward curve. And all of a sudden, the rules don't seem to matter. All of a sudden it doesn't matter. The rich and the poor are suffering. It almost must have seemed like the end of the world.
Interviewer: Great. If the idea really that I want to work hard and what I can't work. That's right. That's right. That's kind of the Joads, isn't it?
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think that Steinbeck would like us to see the Joads as representative of average folks.
Interviewer: OK. OK. Talk to me. OK.
Richard Yarborough: The the Joads for Steinbeck represent a kind of every family. I think that they work hard. They're committed. They're willing to sacrifice. They're connected to the land. For Steinbeck, that's absolutely critical. The further we get away from the land, the more impersonal our lives become. And here'is this family that has followed the rules, that is doing what it's supposed to do that is working hard with their hands, connected to the life, connected to natural life, natural life, which for Steinbeck was critical. And they're having all that ripped away from them. The bank is taking it from them. And in Steinbeck's world, the bank becomes a natural force as devastating as the drought. So they're surrounded by environmental forces, which are destructive. And the drought you can't do anything about. But what Steinbeck is so angry about, this is a very passionate book. It's hard not to get angry and frustrated when you read it, is that there are human forces which we can control, which are turning into just as impersonally destructive as the drought. And that is the real tragedy that that befalls this very human, very average family.
Interviewer: That's a great image that the bank is like the drought. Exactly.
Richard Yarborough: Exactly. And and the fact that the bank, again, is made up of the bank isn't just an impersonal climatic climate force. The bank is made up of human beings making decisions.
Interviewer: And you can't shoot anybody.
Richard Yarborough: You can't shoot anybody. You can't find the one individual that if you kill them or attack them, the system writes itself.
Interviewer: Because it's gone haywire.
Richard Yarborough: I think that it has gone haywire, but it is not gone haywire. It basically is working to exploit. And I think that's different than, hey, where the system is not working, but it is exploiting individuals for certain other people's gain.
Interviewer: So help me understand the structure of the book. Is it just all a story of the Joads. right. We meet them at the beginning of Chapter one, chapter two. Chapter three. Right.
Richard Yarborough: I think that one of the innovative aspects of Grapes of Wrath is the extent to which there are chapters sandwiched between other chapters. To George, Story is sandwiched between the larger social drama, the social trauma of the Dust Bowl, of the migration of the Midwesterners to California, to the social and economic forces at play throughout the entire depression. And I think that the advantage that Steinbeck gained by giving us a a broad view chapter and then a kind of microcosmic view chapter on the Johs is that it makes this individual story resonate with the larger forces giving that individual story. Contacts. And it humanizes the larger story by giving us human beings that we could attach ourselves to. That we can have sympathy for.
Interviewer: So what do you think when you read the book? You were talking to me. It's a very angry book. What kind of image do you kind of its authors? What do you what do you think?
Richard Yarborough: This is one of those books that the author is. Is. Is it in certain places in the book. Yelling at us. I mean, his voice is loud. This is not a book of emotional control, although I would not at all suggest that is an out of control book is very carefully shaped text, but it is an expressive text. It's a text that wants to elicit an emotional response from the response from us as well as intellectual response. What's the pleasure? You write the book is a weapon. Richard Wright talked about his appeal. The literature that used words as weapons was very appealing to him. I think Steinbeck would share that.
Interviewer: Right. So where are we going to run to? Richard. How do we make the Joads? What happened to tom Toms out of jail? He's come back home, right? What does he see? Prosperous family, far right.
Richard Yarborough: He sees devastation. He sees the effects of the drought. Tom Tom has come home and he is we're following his point of view. And he's encountering the dust, the dead crops, the the effects of the drought, the and and I think that one of the things that he recognizes is that the family home is is is unlivable. I mean, it's devastating for him. Haven't been away and come back to this. And I think that one of the things that Steinbeck is committed to doing very quickly is to humanizing that family, to building up some strong, sympathetic links between we, the readers and then the family. And he has to do that very, very quickly, given the structure of the text with these broad macrocosmic chapters. And I think one of the ways he does it is that once the family realizes that they have to leave, they they're pulling their life together and they have to decide what to take and want to leave. And in going through those details, those fragments, those artifacts of their lives, I think that it allows him as a writer to give us dramatic details. A particular porcelain figure from affair, a fan of some kind, a hat with feathers on that. And then they constantly say, we don't have room for that. We don't have room for that. What I think he's suggesting is what is the cost? At an emotional level of a family being uprooted and again, not just by natural catastrophe, but by human spon catastrophe and being thrown onto the road and having to go find a new life somewhere presented to you.
Interviewer: As a reader. What do you how do you feel about the Joads, just how you feel?
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think at one level we begin to feel some of the anger. How do you I think we feel anger. I think we feel anger at this being done to this family. No family should have to go through this. I think we mourn with them. We're mourning their past. We're them. We're mourning the roots that they have put down into the soil that they have to cut clean and hit the road. I think we feel resentment toward the system that somehow does not allow a family like that to survive. OK.
Interviewer: I'm going to ask you to stop for a second so I can read something. And I get emotional when I read, right? How do you write to you? What's your response when you just read right?
Richard Yarborough: Rage, rage, anger and sorrow to be part of a culture that will let people starve when there's plenty. An issue that certainly is not unique to the 1930s and the Steinbeck and awestruck at the him inhumanity that human beings are capable of.
Interviewer: What do you think of the writing?
Richard Yarborough: Well, the writing is was one of the sections that Steinbeck's really shows off something that he he can he can bring to a text. And that is a sternness. There is there's a moral power to that writing. There's a confidence that, you know, this this is a wrong. All he has to do is speak it clearly and we, the readers will recognize that wrong. It also becomes mythic in places. I think he frequently invokes biblical passages. I think the idea of a grape, The Grapes of Wrath, I think is one of those mythic statements that suggest an impending crisis of massive proportions of the rising up of individuals who are pushed to the limit and beyond. And I think that he he's marvelous at that. And I think that part of it is Steinbeck had a rich appreciation of the power of groups and the potential of groups. And I think that as a result, these are not individuals who are enraged at that, at that waste. This is a mass of individuals that could possibly bring about change. I mean, if you want to see a positive take on this drama, it is that individuals cannot respond to this. But groups can.
Interviewer: The Joads don't share Steinbeck's rage, do they?
Richard Yarborough: I think that the Joads evolve in the course of the book. I think that the Jones initially are obsessed, as they should be, with their own individual family tragedy. I think that especially in the scenes, they're set in the migrant camps as they learn the power of cooperation, as we see the beginnings of certain kinds of political organize organizing around this issue. I think that the Jud's begin to think of themselves as a wee larger than the Joad family. And for steinmark, that is a critical step toward empowerment of a mass of people, not just an individual.
Interviewer: It's really almost as American know. We think of the individual as the center of everything. That's not Steinbeck.
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think that from that standpoint and of course, you can come up with a saying to embody any number of conflicting ideas about America. But one idea, America's all for one and one for all. We have this belief that we all may be individual kind of atomistic organisms striving for our own individual goals. But in many other ways, as this culture is a very, very social culture and group oriented culture, it very clear carefully defines what who's inside, who's outside and given social spaces. So I, I don't think it's necessarily un-American. I think it reflects a conflict in the American ideal about the role and power of the individual.
Interviewer: So help me with the end turn to the end of the flood. Rosa, Sharon's pregnant. Right. What happens to her baby and what happens to the job.
Richard Yarborough: Right at the end of that book is where a lot of the religious reverberation of the text begins to kind of cohere around the Joad drama, not just around the larger social catastrophe of Rosa Shern, who is clearly meant to represent the youth and the potential of life in the midst of this devastation and death and decay. She's been pregnant for much of the book. We're hoping the baby will be born and hopefully represent a new generation of possibility. The baby is stillborn. The baby dies. And at that moment where we are teetering on the edge of not just an individual tragedy, but a a loss of faith in possibility of humanity to survive in the face of this flood. Another biblical reference I think Steinbeck would want us to to consider. She, having lost her child, is, however, capable of nursing, of using her own breast milk. And she's given the opportunity to do that. And in this case, not to a child, but to an old starving man.
Interviewer: So what is the breast milk? What is breastfeeding the old story, man?
Richard Yarborough: I think the the the the possibility of a human being. I think Rosa Sharon's sharing her own bodies, nutrients, her own milk, her ability to nourish it can't be used on a child. The fact that she then gives that part of herself a really, really intensely intimate and fundamentally human part of herself to an old man who is dying of starvation, represents the possibility of individuals coming together, sacrificing, recognizing mutual humanity and and meeting each other's needs, even if it's in some highly unconventional ways. I think that that for Steinbeck. Is a sign of hope and a sign of hope. Definitely, definitely in the midst of a flood, because the waters will recede, the waters will recede. If, however, we live in a society where this kind of selfless act can take place, I think in time it would suggest that that begins to provide a counterforce to the inhumanity of the bank, the tragedy of the drought, the wastefulness and cruelty of the destruction of the fruit. That's all we have to put up against that. But I think that Steinbeck would hope that that form of group resistance and nurturing of each other would, in fact, provides a way out of this particular crisis that it's enough. That is enough.
Interviewer: I'm going to ask if you can stop for a second. If you can sort of. Sir Richard, the depression opens up and for most people, 20 right about right. We get to Steinbeck. We're talking FDR in recorded to right depression. Just a phenomena of the thirties and is characters. Right?
Richard Yarborough: Right. I think one of the things that that we have to remember about the 1920s is that many people had begun suffering economically as early as 1920 itself. And I think the decade of the 20s was it was it was a period of extremes, extreme wealth and security and optimism. But for some people, especially in the rural areas, you have the beginnings of some serious suffering.
Interviewer: Some say that they're just cheap jobs as real people write fiction. Right. What's Ranchos life like?
Richard Yarborough: Even in the best of times, I think that the Joad that that that pressure of the bank is referred to in Steinbeck is not did not just spring up when the drought arrived. The pressure of the bank, the pressure of the larger global and national markets for produce, the setting the prices did the same forces that led to the to the creation of great wealth in the stock market, which eventually crash. Those same forces are strangling small farmers like the Joads.
Interviewer: Let me ask you this question? Do the Joads and Jay Gatsby have the same experience? Give me that answer.
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think Gatsby lives in a complete, different world. I think that Gatsby, even given his humble background, guess you might understand the Joads, but I think Gatsby has left that world so far behind that he and other people of of that world, of Tom and Daisy's world, they're not even thinking about the Joads, even if in some subtle, intricate way, their security, their wealth, their the luxury of their lives is those things are built on the sacrifice of the Germans.
Interviewer: The Joads are having a very different 20s.
Richard Yarborough: The 20s for the Joads is is the Depression before the, quote, Great Depression begins with the stock market crash.
Interviewer: Great. OK. Do you think Petry starts with this wind? We're going to roll out. Richard, why do you think Petry starts the street with the image of Woody Johnson being knocked around by the wind? Right, right.
Richard Yarborough: The wind is environmental force hardship, cold, invasive. And I think that Petry's coming out of what many people call a naturalistic tradition of writing, where the environmental forces on an individual can be overwhelming, can shape and determine their fate. And I think one of the one of the nice touches about that opening is that it takes us from outside into this individual's life very, very much like I think some of what Steinbeck's trying to get at. The other nice touch in that opening section is that the wind at one point creeps up behind Lutie's hair, lifts it, and the coldness hits around the neck. And I think that it focuses in a neat on its subtle way on the gender here. I mean, that she is a woman is being invaded by that wind in a in a particular way touching upon her own specific vulnerability.
Interviewer: That's love. That's great. So I'm gonna ask you to imagine for a minute that Woody, a flesh and blood person, historical figure. What's she like? Is she soft? Is she hard? What kind of clothes do you imagine she wears? Right.
Richard Yarborough: That's a good question. I think Lutie is is controlled, Lutie is focused, looniest disciplined. I think her clothing would reflect that. Lutie is very practical. And I think many American heroes. I mean that's that practicality is important characteristic for them achieving their dream. So I think she would not wear extremely stylish things. We do get a sense of some of what she would dress modestly if she's not into showing her body off. In fact, she is uncomfortable when she senses men staring through her clothes at various points in the text. Personality wise, I think she'd be no nonsense. There is an edge there, though. I mean, Lutie is not a perfectly polished surface. I think that we forget it because her voice is so middle class and Bush won. In many ways and coherent and articulate that we forget that she can have anger. I mean, there are several places in the book where she feels rage. There's one point at which she's. Her husband has slapped her. She picks a chair up to two to counter. We don't know if she hits them with it, but she has that edge of emotional passion and rage that I think is very important. Keep in mind, given where the book takes us with her.
Interviewer: Is she pretty?
Richard Yarborough: She's extremely attractive. And that attractiveness and many other black memoirs have talked about this is a mixed blessing for a black woman because it the vulnerability of the black women in many of the social spaces in which they find themselves. Of the attractiveness increases that vulnerability because they are appealing. They are men who want to possess them. And their ability to defend themselves in the face of that urge to possess is limited.
Interviewer: It's interesting. It's almost like an object in the way that Louis birth. Right.
Richard Yarborough: I think. I think that the. And I think many 20th century women writers and women wrote earlier have focused on that. That that in the broader marketplace of American culture, women's currency, their primary currency up until relatively recently has been how they look to make the connection for me. Right. Well, I think that both are about individual women who are. I'm sorry. Sorry. I think I think that Lily Bart in in a House of Mirth and Lutie Johnson in the street are both women embarked on a quest for success that traditionally is defined as a male quest. And one of the ways in which their gender limits their success on that quest is that they have to use their own bodies to a certain extent, or that be aware of the extent to which their bodies are read as currency on that marketplace. And I think that is extremely problematic. I mean, I think that it makes them vulnerable to men's reading of them. They cannot achieve things completely on their own.
Interviewer: What's Lutie's expectations from life? Does she think she's going to always be poor?
Richard Yarborough: Oh, Lutie has no intention of remaining poor. I think that one of the from the beginning of the book, Lutie is focused on achievement. She believes that you can invest time, energy, hard work, and you can reach a middle class level of success.
Interviewer: What language does she used to sort of express the dream, her dream, right. Of her Patrick. All right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: I think that we get a couple of sources for Lutie's language about this set of ideals. One is the traditional language of American idealism that we find way back in Benjamin Franklin. In fact, one of the most fascinating moments in the book is when Lutie actually invokes Franklin's name as she's walking on the. With some food, she remembers Franklyn's the scene of Franklin's autobiography, where he's eating a roll. Thinking about possibility. And she says to herself, sort of self, consciously the sheepish. I wonder if I should eat a role as well. The fact that Lutie sees continuity between Franklin's idealism and her own is actually telling. I think that suggests that that faith in the American dream, which is consistent part of so many American protagonists, is something that she possesses, is that faith which leads her to believe that if she invests the right kind of personal resources and takes advantage of the opportunities given to her, that she will succeed for her and her son.
Interviewer: Where are will be OK? Yeah. OK. Where does this come from. Where does she get this. Which is it from Harlem. Is she getting it from the culture of. Well. Yeah.
Richard Yarborough: The most. The most. The most direct source is her exposure to the wealthy family. The Chandler family in Connecticut. She's a live in maid for part of the week. And she hears all this talk about stocks and money and being filthy rich. That phrase comes up in the book at least once and she absorbs it. And Petry writes that that language begins to find its way in her communications with her husband. And I think that one of the wonderful things about the book is that Petry contextualizes is evolving investment in that particular kind language, those particular values in a social context that will not give her husband work. Her husband cannot find work. And that puts the support of her family completely on Lutie and distorts the family structure. Her her husband begins to lose faith in himself. He begins irritable. He doesn't like Luti being away. He has because having an affair that destroys that family and throws Lutie and her son completely on her own resources. So I think that that that he would like us to see that there are immediate sources for some of this language in her his experience, but that there are larger social forces that undermine the. The Lutece ability to achieve what her experience with the channels tells her she should want to.
Interviewer: I this sort of basic narrative terms, what is his job due to her life without putting any right in on it?
Richard Yarborough: When Lutie takes the job as a live in maid, it undermines the stability of her family. And you could argue that some of that had been already foreshadowed in the in her husband's inability to get work, but being away from her family, buying into all those values and and then trying to project that onto her own family inadvertently and ironically and sadly ruins the domestic space, ruins the family structure that she had been trying to salvage.
Interviewer: As she becomes the single mom.
Richard Yarborough: She becomes a single mom in a world that is not going give him any opportunities to succeed alone.
Interviewer: Right. So what are the challenges to the Johnsons? Rob Moodie jumped right in Harlem in the 30s and 40s, is working hard to come by his rent. Reasonable. Right.
Richard Yarborough: Right. There are a number of challenges because I think we have to keep in mind this is the depression, even if it's sort of the tail end of it. I mean, it took a long time for the for the recovery to take place in a trickle down. You have housing problems, you know, inadequate housing, overpriced housing in Harlem. She's living, I believe, on her 16th Street at one point, in fact, that maybe the street that the title of the book alludes to. You have the vulnerability of her as a woman in that particular setting with without kind of protection. They're clearly predatory figures, men and women in that environment taking advantage of her. The problem of employment, she is initially a domestic worker when she's married, but she has to try other things. We see her in a steam laundry, extremely harsh work, trying to make ends meet. She's going to night school while she's doing that. And yet we're finding that the doors are not opening despite the investment in improving herself. She's following the rules and the rules are not working in this particular space. Harlem is a depressed, oppressive environment as Petry depicts it.
Interviewer: But she never gives up on the dream. Holding up the second she doesn't give up on the dream, does she.
Richard Yarborough: No she's resilient. And she shares this resilience she shares with many, many American heroes. And you could argue that, well, that resilience is naive. I think that that resilience is the the elasticity of the faith in the possibility. And you also have to ask for me. These characters, including Lutie, what is the alternative to not believing that your investment will pay off? And for Lutie as a single mother, it is not just about her. Gatsby has no connections. Lutie has a son. And having that that dependent in her life, she's making choices for Bubb, her son, not just for herself. And that limits some of her chup choices. But it ups the ante.
Interviewer: She can't give up. Can she?
Richard Yarborough: No, no, no, she can't. And and because she gives up, she is basically dashing the hopes for her son.
Interviewer: So she helped take me to the moment. If you can't take in the moment, you can't. Where she thinks she's found the vehicle. Get out. Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: And interestingly enough, the vehicle that Lutie believes that she's got. Interesting. OK. OK.
Interviewer: Exactly. That was just the macho. So is poetry writing from personal experience as she share Johnson's is?
Richard Yarborough: Right? Not personally, no. I think there are elements of Petry's experience that overlap with Luis, but most of them were as an observer. Petry grew up in a privileged upper middle class, predominately white of small town, and ironically, the kind of town that the Chandlers live in. So she essentially brings Lutie at one point of the book into her home space, into the space that she knew best. But what is also important is that Petry left that that space actually, after she had already started a career as a as a as a pharmacist like like her, like her father. And she went to Harlem, became an investigative journalist, did actually some work in special schools with with with troubled kids. So I think that she is bringing both some of her personal experience, but more directly what she saw and witnessed and wrote about.
Interviewer: So she's a reporter, right? Writing. Right. Is going to get this out of your way. Is that is that unusual in American literature? Some is coming from outside?
Richard Yarborough: No, not at all. I mean, I think that Steinbeck is another example of a writer whose own personal experience was not that of the main characters in one of his most important books, the Joads. But he certainly watched the drama of the Jones plays itself out. He was curious about the social forces that inform that particular tragedy. And I think that Petry is another example that many American writers, especially given how many American writers come out of journalism before they turn to fiction or parallel to writing fiction. They're acute observers of the American scene. And then they take the stuff that they observed and they dramatize it. They turn it into human terms. And that's what is one of the most powerful aspects of Petry's novel.
Interviewer: Great. That's just great. So what do you think? There's no community for Rudy. There's no church. There's no group of friends. Just completely hung out to dry by her author.
Richard Yarborough: Yeah. And I think I think that the the the isolation that Louis feels is going to be fair to the book is particular to Petry's vision of the potential tragedy waiting to happen. That is Lutie's life. I guess what I'm getting at is that there were many other writers looking at s that similar experience that did not so isolate Lutie from any constructive force in her community. There is no church Lutie has no relatives, there's no extended family. Almost everyone Lutie meets is a predator and is a potential oppressed oppressor or exploiter. I think from that standpoint, like with many of the other Naturaliste writers going only back to the turn of the century, you could say that one of Petry's goals in this book is to sort of stack the deck in Lutie's world so that everywhere she turns, there's a wall. Everywhere that she turns is a trap. And I think that that is what makes the book powerful. But at the same time, I think that it stretches the the the the complex reality of how all of us live in the world. But I think that Petry's goal is to make it unrelieved.
Interviewer: So Lutie believes that she has a way out. Way out.
Richard Yarborough: Lutie's way out. Generally speaking, is hard work. Specifically, she goes through night school. She thinks she gets a clerical job. But the chance to it's supposed to be the magical opportunity. Opening all the doors for her is a possible singing career. She goes to a bar, buys a beer, worrying about how much it's going to cost on her budget. And she begins to sing along with with a song on the jukebox. And everyone stops. There's a power and poignancy, a penetrating passion to her singing that even though she is not trained formally as a singer, she seems to have what you might call potential star quality. And she is heard by a band leader who gives her leaser to think that she can earn a living doing nightclub singing bluesman Boots Smith and Boots Smith himself is, we learn the employee and more specifically, the tool of of a of a white businessman who has designs on Lutie. Most of the men in the book have designs on Lutie, and that makes her vulnerable as well.
Interviewer: So she comes to the nightclub to sing right away.
Richard Yarborough: She right the next. The night after she sings in the bar, Boots takes her to a club I believe called the casino and she plays in front of a skeptical band. And what a wonderful scene. The band becomes entranced. But what she doesn't realize that because she is facing out into this empty hole as she's singing during the rehearsal and silence when she's finished. And it was important, I think Petry is telling us, is that the motive, the emotional fuel that is driving the song is not just performance. It's not just some kind of abstract artistic urge. It is her thinking about escaping the. Ship of her life, giving a better world to her son, Bob. Those are the things they're going through her mind as she's putting this emotional power into the song. When the song is finished, she turns and the band is bowing in a kind of stylized, exaggerated gesture of respect. And she feels at that point, if they think that I can do this, then really I can do this. And actually, she has one performance in front of a live audience. And the response is enthusiastic. So she thinks that this is her way out.
Interviewer: So does she succeed the end of the book? Great success. She becomes like Carrie, like like I remember. Right. You like your energy and you're very sweet.
Richard Yarborough: I think that they they share the window of opportunity. I think that Lutie Johnson and Carrie insisted Carrie shared this window of possible escape from the world of hardship and deprivation. And interestingly enough, show business in both cases of one of those arenas where gender is not so immediately a handicap. I think both writers are possibly suggesting here, but unfortunately, Lutie is tripped up yet again. And the first of a way in which he's tripped up is by realizing that even though she appears to have the skill and the determination to make it as a singer, that world is not going to give itself to her so easily. She has to work through boots. And he and his boss, Junto or Hunter, is a little unclear how to pronounce the white character's name. They have other plans for her. The second problem, of course, is Bob's vulnerability. While she has been striving to make it in the musical world, the world performance. The above has been vulnerable to the to the to the to the super who is a one of the harsh satanic figures in a text who has led Bob into what turns into a criminal activity.
Interviewer: Bob gets arrested. She needs 200.
Richard Yarborough: Bob gets arrested. She needs money in order to get him out. In order to to get him get free him from the charges, she realizes that she's being exploited again. And we realize she's being exploited again by the lawyer. She turns to boots for the money and the old her own vulnerability as a woman comes to the fore again and we realize what, in fact, he is going to demand in order to support him. And that is access to her sexually. And I think that at that point in the text where he reveals that the viciousness of his urge to control her, to possess her as a woman, all of the anger that's been piled up in the book of the the frustration of the sense of being oppressed and exploited and blocked in her drive to just just get a fair shake out of out of the world. All this comes boiling out and she begins to beat the most immediate representative of that oppression, and that is boots. When ironies, of course, is that Boots is only a tool of larger forces. But she doesn't have access to those forces.
Interviewer: What's your response when you get to the end of that thing? It's very bloody the right first shock.
Richard Yarborough: I think that we have come to identify with Lutie and that bourgeois controlled aspiring voice so much that when we see the passion and the fierceness of her anger come out in the beating of beating him into a pulp, killing him. I think that as readers we are taken aback. We would like to think that under no circumstance would we be capable of doing that. I think that one of the things Petreus suggesting is that we can all be pushed to that level. We can all be pushed to that extreme where then all we can do is turn to violence. She certainly didn't intend to do that. She's not thinking about that. She certainly was not ready to take the consequences of that action. Yeah, she abandons her son. It's devastating. Well well, given that much of her work in the book, much of her sacrifice in the book has been directed toward creating a better life for her son, Bubb. The fact that at the end of that novel, in the wake of having committed murder, essentially, and Bubb still in the hands of the criminal justice system with no apparent way out, that she has to think that it would be better for her to leave Bob then to somehow continue to struggle is devastating. I mean, I think that as readers were devastated, I think Petry wants us to share in the hopelessness and despair that Lutie is feeling. She's sitting on a train getting ready to go to Chicago, fleeing the space, fleeing her home, fleeing her son, everything that had meant something to her. And I think we are meant to be distraught. I think we're meant to feel like there is there really is no hope, not just for Lutie, but maybe for us in this particular culture, if this is the extent to which she has to be driven in her drive to simply succeed.
Interviewer: So I asked the last question, and this is a book written over 50 years ago, right? It's a different era, a different time. Does it have any relevance or is it just a single artifact of lost time?
Richard Yarborough: Well, I think that the sociologists and public policy people talk about the. Social costs of single mothers all the time, and regardless of what you think about that larger public debate, I think there is a drama confronting a women in Lutie situation, which is very, very, very much of the late 20th century. And unfortunately, the the struggle of these women, particularly to raise their children in a in a positive fashion and give them opportunities that we in America say everybody deserves if they work hard. That is is something that we're gonna be stuck with for a while as a social problem. So it still resonates for you. It totally resonates and it resonates for my students very, very intensely.
Interviewer: Great. OK. Where are we? The top. Is the dream dead? Is the dream at the end of ballot language for the dream anymore? Right.
Richard Yarborough: Right. I think there is a cynicism. Maybe not a new cynicism, but a more more pervasive cynicism about the dream. Toward the end, the bellow certainly that marks the culture of 1960s and 70s. But I think the dream, quote unquote, is much more resilient than that. I mean, I think it's such a central part of the American fabric of our culture that we continue to see new participants in the Americanization process of people who are coming to the United States in 1965 or 1990 or 2000. And we find that they seem to embody the same faith in possibility that marked 1850 or even March 1750. I think that this is this must be a core component of what it means to be an American citizen, that you have to some way define your relationship to that ideal.
Interviewer: When I ask you use a word from you that answer I ask you a second time, is the dream dead or does immigration that, you know, is the dream dying with the kind of second, third, fourth or fifth generation family? Was it renewed? Yeah.
Richard Yarborough: I personally think that that the dream is pervasive enough that it is renewed with each generation. Whether that generation is a new generation to United States through continued immigration because we are still a nation of immigrants or whether it is renewed through a new generation born in this country, deciding where members that generation deciding to change their condition because whether the condition is being brought from the outside or is a condition in which you were born in this country the past, the route to the change of the condition is where the dream kicks in.
Interviewer: So what's about somebody like Ralph? Does Ralph play right, Ralph?
Richard Yarborough: And by. By the 1980s, when this book is written, there's a self-consciousness about the language of the dream. So that, I think is djent actually invokes that language right from beginning of the novel. Ralph is the embodiment of the American dream, and she says that both cynically and also quite directly and a little bit hopefully. I mean, I think that Ralph is this American innocent. Ralph is the individual comes into this particular world as he gains access to the cultural rules for success. Are he believes them. He he models his whole life after them. And this is familiar. We've seen it in Gatsby. We've seen it in DIJO may not represent it in such explicit fashion, but they believe it as well, that if you invest, you'll make hard work and make the difficult choices you sacrifice. If you're honest, you will come out as a success at the other end. Ralph comes this country in the late 1940s. We watched the drama play itself out through 1950s and early 60s. And he represents that same idealism and innocence of.
Interviewer: It is. Well, we're first introduced to Grover Ding ding. Really introduced it at the dinner. Right. Where they're all eating dinner. But in a diner. Right. He takes Ralph and drives him off. Describe for me how we get to the diner and what happened. Right. Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: Gordon is marvelous. I mean, Grover Grover thing is a wonderful character. And I think what's interesting is that many of these novels, it is the trickster figures, the figures who are playing fast and loose with the American way with with with the morality of success, who seem in some ways the most interesting and fascinating figures. Grover Dding picks up. Ralph, The poor, innocent, puts him in a car that neither one of them own. Grover acts like he doesn't know what to do and also go speeding off and drives out of New York. I think they end up in Pennsylvania, a diner which turns. It's a diner that turns out. Grover has some financial interest in. But we don't know that right away. So that I think that his impulsiveness, the fact that he he's won the most presuming characters in the book, he invades personal space. He doesn't respect those kind of boundaries, but he presents himself as well as his masterful source of information, wisdom about how to be an American, how to make it in the American scene. And so he's got this captive audience, poor Ralph. There they go into the diner and he starts ordering dish after dish, breakfast, lunch, dinner, German pancakes, English muffins. And I think the fact that those foods are identified by ethnicity and culture is significant in terms of the American melting pot. He's ordering all of this and he's stuffing in his face and Ralph is trying to keep up. And I think that that engagement with the plenty fulness, the bounty of America in this case, in the comic fashion of these dishes in the diner of all this food, I think reflects the possibility of you can if we can go and order all of this food, you can do anything you want to in this world, and you can get enough money that you can buy the house that you need, that you will be able to walk into a diner and do this. It's a showy gesture. It's a vulgar gesture. It is not dissimilar to the gesture of Gatsby pulling those shirts out, throwing them one on the bed. There's something about showing off our possessiveness and showing off possessed possessions and showing off our access to things, whether they be food or shirts. That seems to embody a particularly fascinating component of American success.
Interviewer: Great. We'll get right on. OK. That was great. So there's a whole list of food. Are there any references to it? Right.
Richard Yarborough: As he's ordering all this food in the diner in Pennsylvania, Grote Grovers ordering things that are identified by cultural markers, by ethnicity, English muffins, German pancakes. At that point, Ralph is so caught up with this this catalog of food and kind of ethnic popery that he says Chinese pancakes. Why no Chinese pancakes? And I think that is a cute touch is a marvelous touch of of suggesting his receptiveness to becoming a part of that of seeing his own cultural background as closely linked, potentially enough to this roster that he could see a space for himself in America.
Interviewer: So on the on the counter or on the table is all of America.
Richard Yarborough: That's exactly, exactly, exactly that. That that this this this this overwhelming amount of food weighing down the counter in front of them is basically what America represents. And not only can you find a place there, Chinese pancakes, you can consume it all. You could have it.
Interviewer: All right. So Grover sets him on another great passage of this. Ralph asks, where are you from? Yeah. Yeah. Grow. Right. Right.
Richard Yarborough: Well, Ralph, thinking in what I think Jim wants to see is a old way of thinking about one's identity. Asks Grover at one point, where are you from? What was your hometown? And Grover argues the great American answer, which is essentially, to paraphrase him, you've got to stop asking that question. That's irrelevant here. It's not about where you're from. It's about what you do, how you have mastered the particular ins and outs of the American scene, how you have learned how to make it, how you learn to master this particular setting.
Interviewer: Right back that way. Not Nancy. You to around. Who do you what do you think Rove represents? Right.
Richard Yarborough: All right. Ralph spent a lot of books looking for teachers, looking for mentors in his PHC program. There are a series of characters play that role. Grover appears to be the key to American success. Quiet. Grover appears to be the key to American success. He knows the ins and outs. He has all angles down. And most importantly, he's interested in Ralph. For whatever reason, he's willing to share this with Ralph. He's willing to do, as he says, favors for Ralph and. The the generosity that Rover appears to embody is heartening for Ralph, it. It gives Ralph a sense that here's someone who's interested in me can give me the tools I need to succeed.
Interviewer: Horatio Alger story.
Richard Yarborough: Definitely. And that that Horatio Alger character needs to have someone provide him with the opportunity. And he has to be smart enough and careful, listener enough and malleable enough in order to make it based upon that information. Ralph, is that perfect ratio out your character?
Interviewer: So what happens to Ralph's dream, Ralph character or Grover Ralph inspiration out your character?
Richard Yarborough: Ralph is the character who is by luck and pluck as the ratio of your character, you know, consistently embodies is striving for success. Grover appears to give him the tools and the instructions. Ultimately, we learned that Grover is a crook. Grover is a trickster. He is the typical American confidence man, a character that we find throughout literature. He's a figure sort of like Temkin in in in Bello sees today. He is the character that takes advantage of the naivety, the innocence of these American heroes.
Interviewer: And doesn't what what happens going to run out. So what happens to Ralph and Grover? He invest in a chicken palace.
Richard Yarborough: Ralph, invest in a chicken palace that he should have invested in. It's built on unstable ground and he makes the mistake of trying to build an addition on top of the Chicken Palace. The entire thing begins to crumble, just like his dream. And he has he has leveraged his own financial security to the hilt to to build this this this this business. And he loses everything. He loses the chicken business. He loses his house, which is his had been the most obvious manifestation of success for his whole family. They have moved back into an apartment. And meanwhile, the relations within the family are under assault. They're breaking down again, indirectly, indirectly, because of Grover's influence. He is he is very subversive in his impact on that family. The key problem is Ralph's believing in what Grover was telling him.
Interviewer: It's interesting. We can just quickly, Ralph has these great aphorisms to by the Ben Franklin after his right, Norman Vincent Peale.
Richard Yarborough: Right Ralph's wall in his office, is papered with these little sayings that are the contemporary that in 1950 or 1960 version of the Ben Franklin Aphorisms that you can, you know, capture in a phrase or a sentence, sufficient wisdom that if you embody it, if you can if you convince yourself that these things are true, you will succeed.
Interviewer: Ralph and Helen seem to have very little ambivalence, I guess, by extension, Jan, about this. What do you think the suburbs represent?
Richard Yarborough: I think that the suburbs. I think, first of all, it's important to see the urban space in which they are injected when through the process of immigration for a while they're actually living in Harlem. And I think that they talk about how many Negroes there are around and that clearly they're in a they're in a apartment that is structurally unsafe. And I think foreshadowing the structural instability of the Chicken Palace, there's a crack in the huge crack in the apartment that eventually just falls out after they've left. But I think that it's important to see that that's the best they can do in their first chance to build a home. And this book, like many of many novels there, the control of their environment, their their mobility or lack of mobility is a direct reflection upon their status and how much power they have in this world. And at one point, they they they pile into a car and they they go out into the suburbs. And for the first time, they see American bounty. I mean, they see the green lawns. They see the quiet streets, the wide streets. The children playing room for children to play. Everything that that represents is almost like their version of the Promised Land. So, in fact, they then