American Dreams & American Fear

I’m spending the summer frantically writing. The current project with an end-of-summer writing deadline is a history of toxic fear in the American 1980s. Title to be determined, but I hope to trace an American history of toxic chemicals in the 1980s, and how pollution produced unprecedented fears. From Three Mile Island and Love Canal to Times Beach and Woburn, the decade was punctuated by a series of local crises, which gained national media attention. But I mean to argue that toxic fear was a good deal more than a simple shift in media reporting. I’ll save themes and methodologies for subsequent posts.

After spending most of the last decade trying to escape my training as an American historian—much of my work on mercury has attempted more global and/or transnational perspectives—this project has been a happy return to US history. And the 1980s is a relatively new decade for me. Given, though, that 1980 marks the halfway point between the end of World War II and the present, it’s probably high time to acknowledge that the decade deserves careful study. Much groundwork has already been done, but the environmental history remains somewhat light.

This long preamble is a preface for a comparison that struck me this morning while writing. Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) features prominently in my reading of toxic fear in the 1980s. Not just because of the book’s “toxic airborne event,” which throws DeLillo’s narrative into chaos, but because of its funny, poignant, and deliberate descriptions of American culture run adrift. His final paragraph is wonderful (apologies for the poor reading):

I’m especially fond of White Noise, so its inclusion in my work is a special pleasure and a personal conceit. And while I am no literary scholar and only a “reforming” American historian, it’s hardly my place to claim that it is a definite candidate as one the great American novels, even if only for the moment in which it was written. I’m not alone, of course: White Noise was awarded the National Book Award for 1985. But I think it also holds up especially well.

DeLillo’s conclusion also put me in mind of another favourite concluding paragraph, this one from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which I read over and over when I first discovered Kerouac more than twenty years ago:

I don’t want to make a meal of the comparison, but I was struck by the disparate tones of hope and despair—or sad promise (Kerouac) and numbed satire (DeLillo). The youthful energy of On the Road contrasts with the implicit defeat of DeLillo’s America almost thirty years later. Of course, no one needed to wait thirty years: in Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962), Cody Pomeranz and Lorenzo Monsanto chop down trees. Cody, the vivacious reincarnation of Neal Cassady, formerly On the Road‘s Dean Moriarty, lays into his axe with gusto. The older Monsanto is slower, more deliberate. His tree falls first.

The road and the grocery store aisle as windows to knowledge and sustenance offer polar opposites to the American experience. What happened? Kerouac was writing at the dawn of the 1960s, an “age of contradiction,” as historian Howard Brick has contended. Brick’s chapter titles outline the coming tensions: this was a decade marked by knowledge and ideology; authenticity and artifice; community and mass society; systems and the distrust of order; peace and violence. Kerouac’s sunset in On the Road is also evening in an America bent on conformity. The 1960s would be loud. But DeLillo’s 1980s would be quite different again. In contrast to an age of contradiction, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers examined the last quarter of the twentieth century and described an “age of fracture.” The social, moral, and economic boundaries that defined previous American generations lost concrete definition, creating a certain ambivalence that trades on a new chapter of American exceptionalism—and, indeed, postmodernism, where scepticism towards metanarratives, heightened superficiality, and consumerism reign supreme. Which is very much the world of White Noise.

On the one hand, the lazy point to make is how these two literary conclusions suggest a dissolution of the American dream. But there is also a fascinating expression of the American sadness described some years later by David Foster Wallace in The Infinite Jest (1996). I need to do more to situate toxic fear within this grander context, but uncertainty, changing risk perceptions, and widespread fear are consistent with many of the cultural themes Rodgers sees in his age of fracture.


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