Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mr. Smith in New England

The small township is a classical setting in the fiction of the United States.  From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s numerous tales set in New England’s hallucinatory darkness to John Steinbeck’s fictions in California agricultural towns both temporary and otherwise, the town where almost everyone knows your name is a place where the envy, pettiness and greed of the human soul is often explored.  Given the place these towns play in the mythology of American culture and the actual fact of their abundance across the nation from sea to shining sea their commonality as a literary device is no surprise. Although these places are nowadays much larger than the word “small” suggests, the fact of their “smallness” resides in each township’s self-perception. The phenomenon of suburbia is related to this romanticism of the small town as much as it is a reaction to the big city as a place of poverty, pollution and “unAmerican” cultures. On another level, the small town is an ideal metaphor for the United States nation itself.51I+Av3x+tL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_

The National Memorial—the first novel from John Barth, Jr. (yes, that John Barth)—understands the significance of the small town in American mythology all too well. Set in the state of Maine in a town not far from the coast (but far enough), The National Memorial is the story of a well-meaning idealist from elsewhere and his efforts to create a school for foreign orphans. His efforts are immediately suspect among the town’s residents, whose fears and prejudices are stirred up by local officials, landowners with their own designs, corrupt police, and a small town newspaper editor. What begins as a campaign of words and ballots ultimately ends up in violence.

Henry Beaugard, the idealistic builder in the novel, is a humanist whose beliefs assume a natural goodness in his fellow humans. As the story develops and he becomes the object of hateful deeds, this belief is challenged. His property is vandalized and the people he loves are forced from their jobs. Each threat and action is followed by more intimidation; one wonders how long Beaugard’s attempts to rationalize and understand the behavior of those who have made them his enemy will maintain itself.

Although Barth’s writing occasionally lacks a natural flow and occasionally strays to the pedantic, the strength of his story carries the narrative. His elegant descriptions of Maine’s landscapes and towns reminded me of Ken Kesey’s magnificent prose describing the breathtaking forests of fir along the rivers near Oregon’s coast in his epic Sometimes a Great Notion. Likewise, his portrayal of his protagonist’s newfound family life is both heartwarming and believable. Loosely fitting the definition of a social novel, Barth’s text moves from descriptions of roof mending to discussions of the nature of government in a world controlled by financiers beholden to no one. Issues of class and class prejudice are addressed throughout the text, with characters on all sides carrying their own and either dealing with them or not.

Every human has a bit of venality in their soul. Some of us try to conquer it. Others use it to build their kingdoms of gold and vanity. Many more just seem to be unaware this exists in their consciousness, moving from one day to the next without any apparent awareness of the actual effects of their actions motivated by that venality. So much of today’s literature exists in a place where the venality of humanity has already gained the upper hand with no likelihood of a turnabout.

All of humanity risks being consumed by the actions of those who care little for their fellow humans or the planet they live on. The story told in The National Monument is a fiction told with this understanding in mind. It is also a story of maintaining the courage required to resist the entrapments and temptations of the venality enveloping our world. It is this latter element that makes this book a story of hope, when it could easily become one of despair.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail