Driving from North Carolina into West Virginia along the turnpike, heading toward Parkersburg one summer not so long ago and stopping at the restaurant near the Beckley exit, one heard Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” inappropriately muted but unmistakable, coming over the loudspeakers in the dining room. This was not nostalgia but the authentic voice of a cultural backwater. Until a few years ago—and perhaps even now—it was possible to tune in a Parkersburg radio station and hear the music of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw played without coyness or apology. Far from being samples of cultural anthropology, they represented a taste that had simply not changed since 1945. If there is some temptation to place this evidence of cultural lag alongside statistics pertaining to West Virginia’s generally declining economic condition in the postwar period, and to suggest poignant interactions between commerce and art, it may also be said that an inundation of top-40 rock can be a depressing price to pay for prosperity.
In the 1940’s the big bands that came to Parkersburg played in a dance hall called the Coliseum. A culture that could call the most roach-ridden movie theatre a palace could be excused for giving this ugly, warehouse-like building suggestions of Roman splendor; and, in defense of its name, it must be said that it was also the local arena for boxing and wrestling. The dance floor was upstairs and conventionally laid out—a bandstand against one wall, two rows of tables and chairs, the outer row arranged against the remaining walls and the inner row forming three sides of the dance floor. The windows were of the sort found in factories, made of frosted glass and opening outward. While there were sometimes decorations—paper streamers or Japanese lanterns— the most flattering effects were achieved by the darkness that concealed the dingy walls and left the dancers floating in the illumination of spotlights and table candles. There was no liquor served at the Coliseum, but the patrons could bring their own; and while there was always the possibility that someone in the crowd would get out of hand, the atmosphere was usually genial. Between sets, some of the couples would walk down the street to the tap room of the Chancellor Hotel—a dark, paneled room of Tudor decor—for a sandwich, carefully protecting the smudge of stamp-pad ink on their wrists that would allow them to be readmitted to the dance.
The dancers of Parkersburg were not lovers of jazz. In the big cities, band musicians might be as well-known, their careers as carefully watched and noted, their accomplishments argued about, as baseball players. But the customers at the Coliseum came to dance and to be part of a social function. Their minds were on each other, and they were not inclined to crowd around the bandstand simply to watch and listen. Charlie Barnet’s band might be performing a transcendent, extended version of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”; but if the dancers cheered when it was over, it was because they had enjoyed their own performance, not because they had savored Barnet’s jocose earthiness on the tenor sax, or because they had sensed that the rhythm section had grown closer and closer as the number went on until drums, bass, and guitar had achieved, in the last choruses, the spell-binding, single-voiced chunk-chunk-chunk that was one of the high arts of swing. In the early to mid-forties, the recordings of the Barnet band were enhanced by the work of such masters as Roy Eldridge, Dodo Marmarosa, Buddy de Franco, and Barney Kessel. If any of them were on the road with the band when it played Parkersburg, they were as unheralded when they left as when they arrived.
Yet it was in the Coliseum that one saw the life of the road bands as it was. Playing concerts in the big-city theatres, the band musicians were on stage, literally spotlighted, and encouraged to show off. In the drab dance halls between the cities, they resumed the anonymity of cogs in a complex but narrowly defined piece of social machinery. Unless the band was recreating some well-known and spectacular novelty known to the dancers from a recording, there was little interest in the virtuosity of the individual musicians. Charlie Shavers might stand up and do something brilliant on his trumpet, but the dancers went on dancing. At the end of the evening, the band would be praised for being smooth, condemned for being too loud or tricky. It is hardly surprising that the musicians were rather detached, or that one could sometimes detect a contemptuousness in their attitude toward the crowd. A joke would crop up in the trombone section and ripple through the band, but it was an inside joke, not to be shared with the civilians at whose expense the laughter may have started.
It was the leader’s job to maintain diplomatic relations with the dancers and give at least the appearance of affability despite requests for numbers that were associated with another band altogether, or that the band had long since removed from its book of arrangements, or that it would play only with utter boredom, or that it had simply never heard of. The dancers found it hard to understand that 15 or 16 professional musicians couldn’t improvise a perfectly performed ensemble rendition of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” if there wasn’t an arrangement on the music stands. “You know,” they would say, “it’s the one that goes “Dah de-dah-de-dah-de-dah-dee,”” and an eavesdropping alto sax would play a few mocking, quavery bars while the drummer joined in with some oom-pah-pahs.
Newly formed bands, especially those with young musicians, would often display an eager geniality, an evident desire to be liked, but what one sensed in the older musicians of the established bands was their weariness with that nomadic life. Their eyes tended to gaze out over the dancers’ heads, their minds, perhaps, already contemplating the bus ride to the next town that would begin after tonight’s dance ended. At intermissions, a musician might find himself talking to a customer and searching for some small handhold on reality:
“What’s this place again?”
“The Coliseum—it’s called the Coliseum.”
“No, I mean the town. What’s it called?”
“Parkersburg. Parkersburg, Ohio.”
“No, Parkersburg, West Virginia.”
“Parkersburg, West Virginia? I thought we crossed the Ohio River when we came here.”
“You did, I mean if you came from the west, but this is West Virginia.”
“Oh yeah, right. As soon as we got to this side of the river, huh?
“No, as soon as you got on the bridge.”
“You mean the river is in West Virginia?”
“Then it’s the West Virginia River.”
“No, it’s the Ohio River.”
“Cheez, what a crazy place.”
“Well, I better go find my date. I really like the band.”
“Yeah, thanks. Take it easy, Ace.”
The dance over, couples would walk down the narrow stairway to the street and find their cars, some to call it a night, some to reassemble at someone’s house, some to drive up the foggy river route to a roadhouse for food and beer. Finding their own world sufficient, they were largely unmoved by the urbane craftsmanship of the music they had heard that night, and their conversation quickly picked up the threads of local gossip.
Parkersburg is called Baghdad on the Ohio by some of the more sardonic locals, a dry but not unaffectionate tribute to its lack of enchantment. It is an ugly town, but in an era of manicured suburbias and shopping-center landscapes, its ugliness assumes a strange sort of virtue. It is real. It affronts the eye and grits beneath the foot. The city is without grace from its shabby waterfront, where a floodwall now shuts off any view of the river, to the once-fashionable residential districts on its heights, where permastoned, aluminum-awninged bungalows invade the old blocks of 1920’s Gothic and Tudor. Its old downtown business district is, of course, ailing, but at its best it had only a few stores of taste and quality. Now, marginal businesses move in and out of the mean storefronts like sneak thieves: today a cut-rate appliance dealer, tomorrow a porno book store; the day after, boarded glass and a realtor’s phone number. A few of the old businesses survive, but a new shopping center upriver draws them away, enticing them to open what are at first called branches but will later—if they survive—become the main, and then the only stores, leaving more empty husks on Market Street. In the shopping center the relocated old businesses will find themselves competing with flashy chains with computerized inventories, and the going, despite a residue of integrity and quality in the offerings of the old firms, will be tough.
The downtown, like its counterparts all over the country, has become an untidy museum. Market Street is intersected at Sixth Street by the eastern end of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Ohio River bridge, which is caught by rising ground a block to the east. The grandly named passenger trains—the National Limited, the Diplomat, the Metropolitan Special, the West Virginian—that once crossed that trestle have long since disappeared. Although still used by freight trains, the trestle now evokes only the past. It once supported Parkersburg’s link to the world beyond the Ohio River on the city’s western extremity, and beyond the mountainous country to the east. Interstate 77, like a long carpet rolled from some distant and unattainable palace door, now brushes by the city’s border, but no one will be found standing by the ramp of the Camden Avenue Exit on a snowy evening to watch the next automobile come in. There is a Wood County Airport up the river, but whatever ceremony there may be in flying is largely negated by the nervous and sporadic atmosphere of air travel. A plane, in any case, hissing down out of the sky from no discernible direction, can hardly suggest the majestic rationality of a train pulling into a station on the tracks that, then and seemingly forever, went where they were so obviously intended to. Approaching a small field like the one at Wood County, a plane behaves as though it were lost, and since it has forsaken the earth, neither gripping a rail nor rolling along a highway, why shouldn’t it be? The plane turns and swoops and keeps peering through its glasses, sure that it remembers a patch of flat ground around there someplace. Once on the field one discovers that he is, as he might have suspected, only approximately at his destination, abandoned on an expanse of high ground near the Ohio River and left to his own devices. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, when it had to leave passengers short of its advertised goal, was known to provide a bus.
Now the Sixth Street Station has been destroyed. The last effort to provide passenger service, an Amtrak venture, holds little promise. Melancholy events, perhaps, but predictable. Our internal clocks are no longer adjusted to interminable coach trips into the interior. The automobile may not get us there faster or in better condition, but having our own hand on the throttle has given an illusion of speed and mastery that we are no longer willing to surrender to a locomotive engineer. And if we cannot drive, we will strap ourselves into a rocket and get the journey over with. As the station is obliterated, however, the living memories that had given it people and moments in time—that had been able to confront the old red brick pavilion and recreate a soldier stepping off a blue and gray coach on a winter’s night in 1944—now have to supply the building itself. Soon, some other structure will take its place, and it will seem easier to remember the station when One is out of sight of whatever it is that comes to rest, with such implacable reality, upon the patch of ground that once supported some of the more poignant moments of life.
It isn’t that the passenger trains held the only promise of nostalgia. So did the ocean liner. So did the automobile, when one drove from New York to Washington through the streets of Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. Anyone of a certain age—old enough, say, to have flown across the country in a DC-3—can talk about what it was like to land in the middle of the night for refueling at an airport in Montana and get out to stretch his legs and drink a cup of coffee, savoring some slight but authentic residue of the pioneering spirit (it even seemed permissible, as one reentered the plane, to turn and wave at any stranger standing back at the fence, the wave of the departing explorer, the wave of the modest hero who passes in the night). With the age of the long-range jet, however, our reminiscences have become debriefings—the flight was delayed, the liquor ran out, the visibility was zero at O’Hare so the computer brought us in. It all lacks richness, but there is no time for richness to develop. Taking a Pullman from Washington to Parkersburg was a dense experience, lavish in its use of space and time. It began in the vast halls of Union station. Silver Spring, Harper’s Ferry, Martinsburg, Cumberland, Keyser, Grafton, Clarksburg, Parkersburg; it was a journey into inner space and earlier time, from Franklin Roosevelt (past John Brown) to Harmon Blennerhasset, from yachts to flatboats, from committees to calloused hands. The train labored over the mountain ranges, stretching as it went up the long grades, contracting in a series of sharp jolts as it braked on the descent, creaking and groaning with effort. The National Limited, the Diplomat, and the West Virginian all moved west at night, challenging the Pullman passenger to be either sufficiently composed or sufficiently exhausted to make sleep possible. If he arrived on the Limited or the Diplomat, he saw Parkersburg in the dead of night or just before dawn, the streets empty except for a few cabs, the windows of houses half-obscured by shades, like old gaffers barely opening their tired eyes to watch him pass. The whistle of the departing train would intercept him on his way home (a point in the night, tracing an erratic tangent to the long line of the tracks), and he would envy the passengers he had left behind in their berths. Once across the Ohio, the train would leave the rough terrain of West Virginia behind. Out of the hills at last, the cars would rock to a gentler tune.
For Parkersburg, the journey into the present is marked by a crumbling away of its identity. From Fourth Street to the Little Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio, a large section of the downtown has been leveled under the auspices of urban renewal. What is built there may turn out to be the Emerald City (or a precast concrete wasteland occupied from sunset to sunrise only by muggers and policemen), but with the exception of an old courthouse preserved by the new antiquarians urban renewal arouses, it will have little to do with Parkersburg’s past. North of the business district, old homes that come up for resale often lie vacant, and many of the small businesses that served these suburbs—now a sort of no man’s land between the downtown and the new tracts to the north—have simply given up. There are a few new buildings in the business district, but their smooth, cheap modern architecture cannot be reconciled by the same eye that regards the earlier styles that surround them. The effect is incongruous; one thinks of a diseased organism trying to refurbish itself by borrowing parts from another species. The area is not without pockets of established handsomeness and order—several of them provided, as they so often are, by the old banks—but these lose meaning as the area around them breaks down. Having lost their connections, so to speak, they resemble objects in a surrealistic landscape, a metaphor that once came to life a block off Market Street where, only yesterday, one could still find a pawn shop that offered for sale, not far from the banks of the Ohio River, a full suit of medieval armor.
The last flush, confident times for Parkersburg were during the second World War, and it was then that it may also have known its last years of authenticity as a city. In the early forties, someone coming to Parkersburg was confronted by a community of 30 to 40 thousand people. Its architecture was fundamentally Victorian, augmented by the most conservative taste of the first three decades of this century. With the exception of a few homes, there was an absence of formal beauty in its streets and buildings, but there was something else that is wearing away now—singleness of tone. One thinks of brick and stone, of brown and gray, of factory smoke and the sound of trains, of the pervasive winter smell of natural gas. The city was an ugly but sturdy child of the industrial revolution. Its face was smudged and its hands were dirty, but it seemed to affirm that this was what life was about—that life was labor and war; it was locomotives in the yard, coal barges on the river, grit on the pavement. And as if to prove that all this was in no way hostile to creation, the city and the countryside around it would burst forth each summer in a display of fertile, river-valley lushness. While industry went on, the truck gardens across the Ohio would begin to produce fruits and vegetables of marvelous quality. One saw, in the corn and tomatoes, that the order of things was unharmed.
But the winter weather, more in keeping with the general grimness, was dismal—damp, cold, gray for months on end. A symbol of burgeoning life in the summer, the river would become sombre and forbidding, both mirror and source of the enveloping depression. In the houses the air was tinted with the smell of gas burning in fireplace stoves, and social gatherings were given a particular brightness by the sense that in the rites of whiskey and fellowship there was also a temporary triumph over the chill. Only a snowfall could make winter seem desirable; for a few hours before the snow turned to dirty slush, the city would become quietly, richly white, the dark outlines of its old houses standing forth with unexpected strength and dignity. In the hushed atmosphere of a snowy night, the whistle of a train or a tow boat, the clank of chains from a passing car, had a particular sharpness, assuring those huddled around their fires or in their beds that the journeys and errands of other men were still going on, just as their own would when day dawned. It was a season when life in this wet, cold city became particularly relevant to an understanding of the writings of the American Naturalists, who saw man as a creature struggling for survival, for a few moments of well-being, in a hostile environment. The lesson is less apparent in the new suburbs, and we may well be the poorer for it.
At the center of Parkersburg’s life in the 1940’s was a stable, affluent, and gracious middle class. Located still, with a few exceptions, in the best residential areas of the old part of the city, they presided over the city’s social rites with the assurance of people who knew how things were to be done. While at its worst this produced a degree of stuffiness, at its best it was the basis for a tradition of expansive hospitality. As if to mitigate the gracelessness of its environment, Parkersburg society developed a rich but conservative hedonism. Christmas cocktail parties or entertainments for out-of-towners were based upon the assumption that one’s friends were worth taking pains over, that the turkey and ham and biscuits and bourbon should be abundant and good, that the conversation should flatter, that the guests should depart with a sense that civilized behavior was rewarding. The promotion of this atmosphere was immensely aided by the presence in Parkersburg of competent and affable servants. Significantly, they were both black and white. If blacks who chose to stay in Parkersburg were, in some sense, “doomed” to the servant’s life, the sense of stigma was largely erased by the fact that whites were also in service. As a consequence, working as a bartender, butler, chauffeur, cook, or yardman could be viewed as a profession by the black, rather than as a confirmation of social inferiority. The black servants of Parkersburg were an unusually poised group of people who played no small role in the social training of the young. It was not so much when one was being smiled upon by his elders, as when he found himself being greeted with pleasant courtesy by the black bartender at a party, that he knew he was growing up, and it is likely that a decision not to play the fool had more to do with incurring the disapproval of a servant than of a parent.
As the men and women who presided over society in the 1940’s carry on into the present, their grasp of the quiet rites of hospitality is undiminished, but their ranks grow thin. Now in their seventies and beyond, they bring the manners of the past forward into an age which would find their social behavior lacking in éclat. No pot, no rock, controversy tempered by the bantering tone. The men assume the firmly planted, upright posture that symbolizes responsibility and success. Even on a humid summer evening they wear seersucker suits or blazers and regimental ties. They hold their liquor well. The women—often of imposing strength in character and endurance—adopt a softer outline, expressed in a lingering girlishness. Perhaps the most strikingly old-fashioned feature of this society’s behavior is its attitude toward the young, who are treated with friendliness and courtesy, a remnant, perhaps, of those days when it might be assumed that children of a certain class would emulate, protect, and perpetuate the values of their parents. Brought into a gathering of adults, late adolescent or college-age offspring are the objects of benign scrutiny. Allowances are made for modish eccentricities of dress or hair as long as a youngster’s general demeanor suggests that he can be safely classified as one who will get ahead. His parents, representing a generation which got ahead only to discover that its children had discovered a new route, may find themselves looking on in some bemusement as their young son or daughter is treated to those encouraging and flattering phrases which, however much they may bewilder the child, still mean something to the old while unintentionally mocking the assumptions of the middle generation.
This benign relationship between young and old, so eroded in present American culture, may be seen as another victim of our mobility, for it was based upon the close attachments among people who grew up together, remained in their communities together, and came, in the most natural way, to regard one another’s children with the same affection they bestowed upon each other. Now, as our careers lead us apart, and we come as strangers into unforeseen towns, it is likely that our children will form attachments with other children whose parents are quite unknown to us, and we find ourselves viewing their children with distrust and forgetting their names. It is no mere nightmare that leads the parent, lying awake in his bed in an assembly-line suburbia, to wonder if his phone will ring and he will hear that his son or daughter has been in an auto accident with four other children he is not sure he has heard of.
Through the long reaches of the mountains southeast of Beckley on a later winter day, there was snow on the ground, and the driving was slow. Back in North Carolina on Interstate 40, there had been a hair-raising spin-out in the rain near Kernersville, and from the miracle of missing everything and coming to a stop undamaged had come faint temptations to believe in the charmed life, but the chastening snow, beginning north of Winston-Salem, had banished them. Through Hillsville, Pearisburg, and Narrows (the wrong route, as it turned out. There was now a better way to go, using the southern extension of 1—77), truck traffic was heavy and cautious. Moving up the long grade to Princeton and the turnpike entrance—passing with mixed feelings of guilt and superiority a motorist who had taken it too slowly, lost traction, and was slewing helplessly across the road—and sloshing into a Texaco station for gas and a stretch, one thought of the turnpike ahead, so much of it two-lane, with weariness. But then, the second miracle. The turnpike was clear and dry, and the sun was breaking out. The rolling farmland on either side of the road glittered like a Christmas gift.
At the turnpike restaurant near Beckley, lunch was prodigious, authentic, home-style American. The hot roast-beef sandwich came with a great mound of mashed potatoes and gravy, the overdone slices of beef resting on spongy supermarket bread. The amiable waitress kept a close watch on the coffee cup, and the coconut cream pie was festive, topped with an ethereal meringue that must have been four inches thick. Sitting over the last cup of coffee and looking out the window at the weather-stained westbound cars in the parking lot, one observed arriving eastbound cars, thus far spared a run through slush and road salts, with a slightly malicious desire to tell their occupants what they were in for after the meringue.
The land looked warm through the windows, but outside a cold, gusty wind kept rearranging the ugly patterns of refuse in the parking lot—paper napkins, paper cups, paper plates, tissues, cigarette butts, maps, comic books. The trash cans outside the restaurant were overflowing; no one cared about them. An automobile runs on gas, oil, rubber, and internal combustion, but the trail it leaves is made of paper and half-eaten hot-dog rolls.
Back in the car (a labored ignition, the carburetor protesting the brevity of the stop), heading northwest toward Charleston. The radio offered country, rock, or country-rock. In the restaurant the propelling four beats of “Sing, Sing, Sing” had given way to the insinuating three beats of a rock tune. The new culture had caught up with the music, if not with the food. On the sparsely-traveled turnpike, the scenery changed as the road reached further into the interior of West Virginia, making a long, rolling, twisting descent into the Kanawha Valley and Charleston. The terrain became intransigent, the valleys narrow and the hills steep and graceless. Between the road and the hillsides little communities cropped up, poignant in their eternal shabbiness and isolation. However it stands geologically, there is something unalterably old about the appearance of this region. It resists progress, for progress implies speed, smoothness, facility—all made laughable by this implacable ruggedness. The turnpike must often rest on ledges cut from the hillsides. The ledges crumble away, the engineers blast deeper into the hills, but the foothold remains precarious. As one drives along the outer lane, his car will dip like a boat in a wave-trough; the hill is giving way, as if it were tired of supporting this traffic so inconsonant with its settled age.
Nearing Charleston, it terminus, the turnpike enters the Kanawha Valley (the river, rising in the mountains, flows west and empties into the Ohio at Point Pleasant). On that day, the dense settlement of chemical plants looked, as usual, surprisingly serene. Had it not been for the crowded parking lots and distant figures of men among the pipelines, one would have hardly known they were functioning. In Charleston it was late afternoon. The skies had clouded over, and rain was beginning to fall. Between the turnpike, which has been designated a link of I-77, and I-77 proper, which runs from Charleston northwest into Ohio, ran several miles of missing link, much of it along Charleston’s Kanawha Boulevard. Here, one slackened speed and merged for a while with city traffic. The cityscape of Charleston was like an illustration from an old grade-school text on the American System. There were towboats on the river, coal trains on the tracks, trucks on the streets, planes in the air. On the right was the blue and gold dome of the state capitol, on the left the far bank of the river, scarred by highway and bridge construction that would fill in some of the missing link. Along the boulevard, fine old residences with manicured lawns, apartment houses, motels, optometrists’ offices, filling stations—the democratic jumble of the unplanned city.
Traffic moved easily along the boulevard, but when one left it (following the signs to I-77), he was thrown onto a zigzag course leading him out onto one of those commercial midways that blight the approaches to our cities. The roadside was lined with cut-rate furniture and appliance stores, used-car lots, beer joints, hamburger stands, the symbols of a world that is both literally and figuratively marginal, so that when one was able to move back onto the clean, smooth parabolas of the interstate, it was with a sense of harmony restored. On that rainy day in early winter, however, it was easy to remember how the last segment of the drive to Parkersburg had for years been on Route 21, a narrow, twisting, often treacherous two-lane road. If one had already been driving for seven or eight hours before he came to that, those last 80 miles were exhausting.
But interstates soon become boring, and it was time to punch the radio on and receive, through the damp air, a little gift. There was no mistaking the piano, it was Earl Hines, and the tenor sax must have been Coleman Hawkins. For five minutes they ruminated beautifully on “Just One More Chance” before the DJ—wherever he was—remembered what he was being paid for and put on some rock.
Cities like Parkersburg, we like to say, never change, but in fact they do. As long as they live, they are organic and regenerative and produce a certain pressure for change from within. The city’s older population is led reluctantly across the generation gaps and learns to reconcile itself to those alterations of the gestalt that are finally attributable only to the passage of time, to the irrefutable maxim that “things change.” A bank throws up a skyscraper against a skyline that (like London’s) should not have a skyscraper. A-frames erupt among the bungalows. Traffic engineers call their perpetual square dance, hoping that the dancers will all have a better time if they start to promenade left where they used to promenade right.
These changes from within, however much they may blur the city’s image, are acceptable, simply because they are native, home-grown, expressive of the need of the city to keep the blood stirring and not become bored. They produce areas of clutter and confusion, but leave the spirit of the city unchanged. Next to the sort of massive assaults undertaken by developers in more prosperous cities—those meadow-plundering celebrations of the finality of concrete and the implacability of greed—they are innocent. Approach Parkersburg from any direction, and it is still there, at least where its image remains an extension of the local mind. Even the shopping mall upriver is momentarily reassuring. It is on a single level; in its central hall there are pools with live ducks and, at one end, a great cage full of tropical birds.
Yet the mall, for all its attempt to conceal Mammon in Arcadia, brings with it a kind of change that is both foreign and powerful. With the great weight of goods it brings into the city, it also brings the culture of the rack-jobber, the culture of bookstores run by people who do not read, record stores run by flat-eyed youngsters whose tastes are as primitive as those of their customers; shoe stores, clothing stores whose goods reflect the assumptions of a distributor, not of someone whose offerings, however eccentric, are indigenous and authentic. Confronting the prefab interior of a chain bookstore, and realizing that the books displayed on the shelves and tables are exactly the same as those he saw in another mall, in another state, one finds himself remembering when a bookstore was a local business, and the owner someone who not only knew what the customer wanted, but had an opinion about what he ought to want. His influence on the young reader could be crucial; and while it was a matter of self-interest for him to encourage curiosity in the young, the effect of moving a 14-year-old’s attention from a Howard Pease to Joseph Conrad was not to be accounted for entirely on a cash register.
The consolidation of the homogenized, chain-store culture is a fact of our age. It is the promise of the assembly line, confirmed by the computer, and it has turned the middle-aged into junk-collectors searching restlessly through the leavings of the pre-IBM period. A chipped jar from the pickle-works, a worn record of Tommy Dorsey playing “Shadows on the Sand,” a mildewed copy of King’s Row: they aren’t good, but at least they aren’t shrink-wrapped. We take them home and cherish them, a little embarrassed by the memory of a time when, less vulnerable, we wouldn’t have given anyone a nickel for the lot. With a shock, we come to understand that the prevailing concern of Orwell’s 1984 is as nostalgic as it is political, for we too have become Winston Smiths, looking for the past in pawn shops.
Our cities are living prophecy. At their centers, they are becoming Huxley’s dehumanized brave new world of glass, steel, and ferro-concrete; on the unzoned approaches, a desolate fulfillment of Orwell’s vision of obsolescence and cheapness. Suburban housing developments, at first glance more ingratiating, are only the child of both visions: a domestication of Huxley, built to Orwellian standards. Looking for quality and a refuge from standardization, we explore the old, inner-city neighborhoods and find ourselves looking affectionately at houses we once dismissed as Victorian monstrosities. We come to reassess the city as a whole and ponder its witless destruction. Affronted by glass-box office buildings, thruways, fast-food shacks, air-conditioned shopping centers, and all the heartless expressions of regimentation, we turn back to the decaying remnants of the urban past, trying to delay our rendezvous with a destiny too bleak to contemplate.
On the drive back, the weather was clear and cold. The trip was all but uneventful, one of those journeys on which one becomes bored and tired an hour after the start, and anticipated landmarks seem to have conspired to move five miles farther down the road. Even the car seemed tired. About halfway through the trip (leaving Wytheville on 52), the engine added some strange, higher harmonic to its usual hum, demanding the helpless attention we give to complex machinery when it is acting up for no apparent reason. Whatever it was, it disappeared or lowered its pitch sufficiently to become lost in the ambient noise. From that time on, however, it lurked around the edges of consciousness, keeping one tense against its return.
The only fun and games had been provided by a state trooper back on the West Virginia turnpike. He had come up from behind when the car was about ten miles over the speed limit. Quick drop-off to 55, but he stayed there for a couple of miles, then pulled off, turned around, and headed back toward Charleston. There was something unconvincing about that. Sure enough, a mile or two later, he came roaring back up out of nowhere, but the car was still holding 55. He stayed close behind for two or three minutes, then pulled out and passed, face immobile and eyes straight ahead, a mechanical man prowling the wilderness.