‘Reading Jackie’

When Literary Choices Become Biography

by Rodger Jacobs

23 March 2011


Culture Wars

One significant subterranean theme in Jackie’s personality that emerges in Kuhn’s complex portrait is sensitivity to “ambivalence in American attitudes” toward “high culture, meaning art and literature, classical ballet and classical music, which many of her contemporaries would have regarded as the exclusive preserve of those with the bank accounts and expensive educations.” Not only do those ambivalent emotions color the cultural landscape in contemporary America, they are realized with even greater hypersensitivity. Throughout her life Jackie “was nostalgic not for a simpler world, but for one that was more elaborate, more formal, and more hierarchical.”

Jackie’s “nostalgia for vanished grandeur” that Kuhn explores in almost exhausting detail is profoundly Quixote-esque and antithetical to the current cultural climate. As I write these words, the U.S. Congress has voted along partisan lines to defund National Public Radio (NPR), a cynical Republican strategy disguised as budget cutting to prevent high culture and progressive political points of view – the sort of progressiveness that Jackie’s first husband, martyred U.S. Senator and President John F. Kennedy embraced – from reaching the rural pockets of America that NPR has served well, the sorts of regions that traditionally vote the conservative ticket when not exposed to alternative viewpoints. 

Freshman representative Rich Nugent (R-FL) remarked of the move to defund NPR in dangerously inflammatory, hyperbolic language that serves to demonize progressive thought: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” Political gadflies like former U.S. Vice President hopeful Sarah Palin wear their ignorance and lack of intellect as badges of honor, cheered on at political rallies by throngs of citizens whose idea of high culture is Dancing with the Stars and American Idol.

But this is really nothing new. In his fascinating 1979 book studying arts and letters in the new republic, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, historian Joseph J. Ellis cites that “a persistent hostility to the fine arts is deeply embedded in American history.” Furthermore, Ellis adds that in post-revolutionary America, “artists and writers were [considered] social parasites who contributed nothing to the essential job of nation building.”

From August to December of 2010, I was the author of a three-part series for the Pulitzer Prize-winning metropolitan daily, The Las Vegas Sun; The New Homeless was first-person journalism charting my fall from a hardscrabble middle-class existence in a much-desired community to a downsized life in a weekly residential hotel in a less-than-desirable, crime-plagued urban neighborhood. The series produced no spirited discussion, as the newspaper had hoped, but resulted in, rather, an online lynch mob. In the spirit of the times, the commentators, literally hundreds strong, fixated on details of my personal grooming, my nicotine habit, a physician-controlled opiate dependency for chronic pain, debates over the definition of homelessness, and my perceived “liberal” politics because of my birthplace of San Francisco, or, as one commentator put it, “artsy fartsy Nancy Peolsi Land.”

Most strikingly, however, many believed that my writing career was some absurd persuasion that I had conferred upon myself, an impractical and wasteful endeavor, despite a long list of respectable credentials easily found at Wikipedia, the Internet Movie Database, Amazon and other book retailers and, of course, a simple Google search of my name. Other readers, in unkind language, suggested that I should graft my talent and time upon some other calling, something more profitable – such as Wal-Mart greeter or bathroom attendant at McDonald’s.

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