Author Archives: American Library

About American Library

Memorial to the 2nd Air Division, 8th Air Force, United States Army Air Forces. A public library and war memorial in Norwich, England, UK. Commemorating those members of the 2nd Air Division lost in action flying from these parts during World War Two. A public hub for the exchange of ideas, offering learning and engagement opportunities, books, archives and research services. Funded by the Memorial Trust of the 2nd Air Division USAAF, registered UK Charity No. 269047. Managed by the Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service.

Riding the Rails in America

Summer! It’s warm out, with the smell of vegetation in the air, and after a year plus of lockdown, people are eager to wander again. But with international travel restrictions still in place, many are finding that local journeys are the way to go. In the United States, with its far-flung highway system, I envision lots of planned road trips, with visits to heritage sites and the beautiful and varied national parks. While I like a good road trip as much as the next person, long days of driving and traffic can turn into a chore, especially if your car breaks down. Such stops can be serendipitous—once, on a drive from the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York to Florida, I spent a lovely couple of unscheduled days in Savannah, Georgia, while waiting on a part for my old, not-so-trusty Isuzu Trooper. But I’ve always thought that for seeing the vast sweep and range of the American landscape, you can’t beat a cross-country rail trip.

While the comprehensive rail network that once crisscrossed the country has largely given way to highways, there are still long haul, regional and freight railroads in use. For summer travel, what I have in mind are the heritage versions of the classic passenger train journeys widely taken before commercial air travel became the default. Even the names evoke a romantic era of train travel: the Lakeshore Limited from New York to Chicago, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Riding from the East Coast to the West, you can experience the Great Lakes, the midwestern plains with their sweeping vistas, the Mississippi River that winds through eight states, stunning mountain ranges like the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas and the canyons and deserts of the American west.

But riding the rails isn’t only about nostalgia and dramatic scenery. You’re also taking a ride into American history. The transcontinental railroad was first conceived in 1845 and received federal backing in a bill signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It was designed as a kind of corporate competition for land grants and dollars, with one railroad starting the tracks eastward from Sacramento, California, and the other built westward from the Missouri River, racing to meet in the middle. The railroad’s completion was commemorated by a 17.6-karat golden spike linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks, driven into the ground on May 10, 1869. 

While the railroad brought benefits to businesses, communities and travellers alike, it wasn’t built without sacrifice. The work was backbreaking and dangerous for workers, including enslaved and free black people, as well as immigrant Chinese laborers, toiling in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Native Americans opposed (sometimes violently) its passage through tribal land.

The railroad was also a site of civil rights and labor history. Black men traditionally worked as Pullman porters, attending to train passengers on sleeper cars from boarding to detrainment. The jobs provided a stable source of employment, but the wages were low, the conditions discriminatory and the hours long. The porters endured racism from riders and exploitation by managers. In 1925, they famously banded together to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster, to organise for better working conditions, finally achieving union recognition in 1935 and a contract two years later.

The rails were also a lifestyle for itinerant workers, called hobos, during periods of widespread unemployment, such as the Great Depression, and later, a footloose escape from the harsh realities of the wage grind. The slang term ‘hobo’ first came into use in American English circa 1890. 

Women are often omitted from accounts of railroad history, although they also worked and travelled on trains, even hopping the freights, facing discrimination, the threat of violence and exploitation along the way.

The rail network was conscripted into service by the US military during both world wars, used to transport troops, goods and equipment from coast to coast.

It’s easy to see why the riding the rails inspired singers from Arlo Guthrie to Johnny Cash: 

Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor

And the sons of Pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel

Mothers with their babes asleep

Are rockin’ to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

(from City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman) 

— post by Suzanne Solomon

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Pride Month at the American Library: ‘Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II’ by Allan Bérubé

The American military has come a long way since the days of dishonorable discharges of gay service members and the discriminatory policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. In early June, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke at an event celebrating Pride Month at the Pentagon. Secretary Austin praised those LGBTQ+ service members who ‘fought for our country even when our country wouldn’t fight for them. Even as some were forced to hide who they were… or to hang up their uniforms.’ 

In the 1940s, as recruitment and conscription for the war reached record numbers, homosexuality was regarded by the US military as a mental illness, disqualifying gay men and women for service. Prior to and during the war, the commission of ‘homosexual acts’ was considered a crime for which service members could be court-martialed. In the 1980s, the Department of Defense instituted an enlistment ban, which was modified by 1994’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which ‘service members would not be asked about their sexual orientation, but would be discharged for disclosing it’, according to a Department of Defense-affiliated website for members of the military.

Coming Out Under Fire: the History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, author Alan Bérubé’s account of the gay troops of the ‘Greatest Generation’, was first published in 1990. Bérubé, a community historian, began collecting the accounts that would lead to his book in the 1970s, and the book became an invaluable resource for activists and lawmakers alike. A 20th anniversary edition was published in 2010, still highly relevant to the debates taking place around military exclusion policies.

Coming Out Under Fire is far from a grim account of unrelenting prejudice. Through extensive research in government records, archives, personal collections and interviews, Bérubé looks at the US military’s efforts to screen out, discharge, manage and, finally, recognize and appreciate the contributions of its gay service members. He also relates his interviewees’ moving personal stories of discovery, conflict, loss and love. Many of Bérubé’s subjects found supporters and allies in the brotherhood and sisterhood of the armed forces during the war. In addition to the barriers and challenges they faced, which for some included the double bar of racial discrimination, Bérubé recounts their experiences of the conflict’s toll, along with the victory celebrations and the simple but significant act of survival. 

Years of activism by gay service members, along with their allies, from challenging and reforming the US military’s discriminatory and punitive policies to the courageous and proud statement of refusing to deny their sexual identity while under fire, finally led to the repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ in 2011, allowing openly gay men and women to serve; the extension of spousal and family benefits to gay and bisexual service members in 2013; and the 2021 removal of the ban on transgender troops. However, as Secretary Austin said in his speech, there is still more progress to be made, including addressing sexual assault and harassment in the force and creating ‘a safe and supportive workplace for everyone–free from discrimination, harassment, and fear.’ 

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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Female Rage in Harlem: Ann Petry’s ‘The Street’

If you ask a fan of American noir about classic crime fiction set in Harlem, they’ll likely recommend Chester Himes’s novel A Rage in Harlem (1957), the first in his series featuring the gleefully bent, hellraising detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. You may also hear about Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932), in which a physician and a NYPD detective team up to solve the murder of an African immigrant and Harvard graduate turned fortune-teller. Both of these books are by Black authors who also wrote literary fiction, social realist novels like Himes’s searing If He Hollers Let Him Go and social satire like Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho.

I’ve mentioned in this blog my fondness for the American realist fiction of the early to mid-20th century, which went out of vogue after the Second World War, giving way to more caustic social commentary like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. A certain subset of crime novels maintained the social realist tradition, applying a dark filter by using social conditions to stand in for the fateful imperative of the noir universe that leads inevitably to the protagonist’s downfall. Arguably, Ann Petry’s Harlem novel The Street, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1946, is one of these—a literary novel with elements of classic noir, as well as a forerunner to the domestic noir popular today. The American novelist Tayari Jones, writing in The Guardian, called Petry ‘a pioneer of the literary thriller’, along with Patricia Highsmith. Petry herself, as she wrote in a 1950 essay, considered her books social commentary, ‘derived from the best known murder story in literature’—the biblical Cain and Abel—and posing the same discomfiting question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

Ann Petry (born Anna Houston Lane in 1908) was raised in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her father owned a local pharmacy and her mother worked as a beautician and later as a licensed podiatrist. Theirs was one of four Black families in a picturesque but racist small town. Petry trained as a pharmacist and worked in the family business, but was writing all the while, sending out stories and receiving ‘enough rejection slips to paper any fair-sized room’, as she said in a 1948 piece in a craft magazine. She moved to Harlem with her husband, George David Petry, in 1938, soon after publishing her first story. While working as a newspaper editor, she continued to churn out short fiction, until she was contacted by an editor asking if she was working on a novel. The result was The Street, which would sell over a million copies, the first book by a Black American novelist to do so.

In a 1949 article about Harlem, Petry wrote that many viewed it as a ‘lawless, violent community, inhabited by just two kinds of people—the poor and the criminal.’ But it also contained a wealthy professional class, as well as creative royalty: the writers, poets, artists, performers and musicians that put it on America’s—and the world’s—cultural map. Petry, who covered Harlem society in her newspaper column, and got to know its working poor through her activism, was well acquainted with the contradictions of her adopted neighborhood. If Harlem was a paradox, it was one created in the pressure cooker of racism and economic exploitation: ‘an anachronism—shameful and unjustifiable, set down in the heart of the biggest, richest city in the world.’

The titular street of Petry’s novel is 116th Street, where the protagonist Lutie Johnson moves with her eight-year-old son, Bub, after leaving her unfaithful husband and quitting her job as a domestic worker for a white family. She doesn’t blame her ex for the unravelling of their marriage as much as she does the conditions of ‘the only job she could get,’ where she had to live with her employers and take care of their son, away from her own family for weeks at a time. Rather than stay with her hard-drinking father and his blowsy girlfriend, Lutie takes a tiny top floor rear apartment overlooking an airshaft in a walk-up building. Her neighbors include the building’s superintendent, a tall, gaunt man who terrorizes his dog and the woman who lives with him, and Mrs. Hedges, the occupant of the first floor front apartment, who keeps watch over the street with eyes ‘as still and as malignant as the eyes of a snake.’

Working in a steam laundry and studying for the civil service exam, Lutie finally lands a job as a file clerk. But despite her hard work and frugality, she can’t keep up with the bills, and her son notices the strain it causes. When he tries to help by shining shoes, she snaps and slaps him, upset that he is being conditioned for servitude, like the other boys on the street who ‘take it for granted they’ve got to sweep floors and mop stairs the rest of their lives.’ The exhausting rat race and grinding misery all around them wear her down, making her irritable and short with him. He is determined to find a way to help his mother and falls under the sway of the Super, who takes advantage of Bub’s innocence to employ him in a scheme that will lead to tragic consequences, causing Lutie’s worst fears to come true.

The racism and sexism of her world offer Lutie few choices: to return to a life of domestic servitude or to become a sexual commodity. That second threat is always present: in the hungry eyes of the lurking Super; in the appraising glance of Mrs. Hedges, who runs a brothel (protected by the local police precinct) from her apartment; in the predatory clutches of the white nightclub owner and racketeer who hears her sing and wants her for himself. Even as she thinks she is finally escaping the crucible of 116th Street, Lutie will learn that what looks like a way out is another trap. ‘If you live on this damn street, you’re supposed to want to earn a little extra money sleeping around nights.’ Lutie will refuse, and her act of resistance sets into motion a chain of events that will threaten everything she fought so hard to preserve.

Petry thought that the success of the best social realist novels lay in verisimilitude and in well-drawn characters who elicited empathy, leading the reader to think: ‘Yes, that is how it must have been.’ Lutie Johnson is ‘as real as one’s next-door-neighbor, predictable and yet unpredictable, lingering in the memory.’ And Petry’s depiction of Harlem in The Street poses a question that Americans are still asking themselves today: Am I my brother’s keeper? She writes: ‘In one way or another, the novelist who criticizes some undesirable phase of the status quo is saying that man is his brother’s keeper and that unless a social evil (war or racial prejudice or anti-Semitism or political corruption) is destroyed man cannot survive but will become what Cain feared he would become—a wanderer and a vagabond on the face of the earth.’

— post by Suzanne Solomon

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Down These Mean Streets

‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’

— Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

One of our readers expressed an interest in my literary zip code of America’s mean streets, crime fiction, which led to me to spinning the wire racks—er, electronic shelves—of the American Library to see what caught my eye. I’m partial to that particularly atmospheric corner of the genre called noir or hardboiled fiction, which sprung from the pages of pulp magazines in the 1930s and found its way into novels (mainly of the luridly illustrated paperback sort), which were then adapted for the screen in that indelible style called film noir, with its shadowy street corners, cynical fast-talking private eyes and treacherous femmes fatales.

Chandler wrote of the style he helped to originate in the The Simple Art of Murder, pinpointing the departure of American crime fiction from the posh country homes of English detective stories, with their ‘hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish’. He credits his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, the creator of the iconic private detective Sam Spade, with giving ‘murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse’. Chandler called this style ‘the American language’ and I don’t disagree. Having long been a fan of the American realist fiction of that era, I think that’s what first drew me to noir: it always seemed to be about something else, just below the surface. Not the murder, but the reasons for it. Not the crime, but the consequences of it. These social conditions and criminal motivations may change over time, but noir as a genre has proven flexible enough to keep up with them. For example, Chandler’s vivid descriptions of Depression-era Los Angeles (a character in and of itself) retain the prejudices of his time, particularly the assumption that only straight white men get to stride heroically down noir’s mean streets to battle corruption and where the women are either deadly knockouts or dishwater drabs. This assumption discounts the fact that even then, a number of influential books in the genre were penned by women, authors like Dorothy B. Hughes (In a Lonely Place), Vera Caspary (Laura), Margaret Millar (Beast in View) and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train).

There are a few of Chandler’s books in the American Library, but you can’t go wrong with The Big Sleep, the first of the Philip Marlowe series, in which the wealthy but decrepit General Sternwood hires Marlowe to investigate blackmail over the alleged gambling debts of his youngest daughter, when it’s the older daughter who will prove to be Marlowe’s toughest adversary. Chandler plants the seeds early on when he has Sternwood observe that neither he nor his daughters ‘has any more moral sense than a cat.’ The Big Sleep is arguably one of the first and most rewarding detours on the long road trip of the American detective novel, the intersection where it kicks its way out of the pages of formulaic mystery and into the streets. As Vivian Sternwood says to Marlowe when they meet: ‘So you’re a private detective … I didn’t really know they existed, except in books.’

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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