Corrina Wycoff posted an interesting essay about her experience as a single mother and writer. Wycoff wasn’t born into a middle-class family, and she still managed to begin writing, attended college, grad school, and finally started teaching around Seattle and publishing work, including this year’s O Street. She also raised her son. She notes as a teacher at a community college, she encounters single mothers who are managing to make it. At the root of the Wycoff’s post is a validation of the American Dream. I’ve posted one of these stories as well, “The Age of Uniforms”, about my mother’s jobs in uniform: a waitress. Her escape, too, from bad jobs was through community college.
Wycoff seems to suggest in this post that because the story of single motherhood often conform to The American Dream trope, that there is an audience and markets for them. She writes, “triumphant underdog stories are always popular.” She then tentatively supports the idea that this myth has some reality in it. Wycoff’s own story for instance fits The American Dream, and she sees the possibility in a number of female students at her school.
But, these stories popularity I think are mainly for other qualities than the fact their characters are “underdogs.” Underdog status signifies desperate straights, a call to action, a motive for these characters to act. In many cases, it could be substituted for another motive. Underdog stories are about individualism, where a person — single mom or no — is able to make moral choices and can gain traction. These characters live in a world where action=result. In talking to an otherwise, liberal friend about West Baltimore and its generations of poverty, the solution seemed simple. The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns has a great essay about the collapse of Baltimore’s economy and the slide of a formally vital neighborhood into decades of poverty. “If I lived there,” my friend said, “I would just walk the hell out.” The Corner includes several characters who try this very thing. They take a bus out to an affluent suburban mall. They might as well be visiting Paris.
O Street by Corrina Wycoff is not committed to The American Dream in any way. Her book belongs I think to a tradition of books about urban poverty and how people carry it with them even after they manage to live straight lives. Maybe the the story begins with the muck-raking journalism of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis. In this book, there is a chapter, “The Problem of the Children,” and she writes, “Home, the greatest factor of all in the training of the young, means nothing to him but a pigeon-hole scarcely of the elevating kind.” A much later example of this subject is Jerome Gold’s book Prisoners:
One time my stepfather told me to go into the bedroom and get his gun. He said he was going to shoot my mother. We were at the dinner table, all of us–him and my mother and my sister and me. I didn’t say anything, I just didn’t do it. So he told me again and this time I told him no. Then he went into the bedrom and came out with the gun, and I got up and hit him in the face. He pistol-whipped me with that gun. It was the worst beating I ever took. But, he didn’t shoot my mother.
This story echoes many of the stories (not in subject exactly) the stories in O Street or The Corner or a long list of books that address lives at the edge of poverty, such as Well by Matthew McIntosh, After Nirvana by Lee Williams, DrugStore Cowboy by James Fogle (for some Pacific Northwest Lit examples). The American Dream in these stories becomes a kind of sick joke if it is even present. In the story from Prisoners the idea of individual determinism is nearly parodied–the boy takes action but he is in a situation in which all of the available choices are bad choices. There is an audience for books like this, but it is not a wide or deep audience; I don’t think. Americans cannot help but separate “character” from their circumstance. To think that people are a result of their circumstance or that an organization creates a person, context is everything is, well, unamerican. After all, Lyndee England is one the one who is smiling in the photographs. Armies don’t torture prisoners, people do. Poverty doesn’t make people poor, laziness does. Any fiction that overturns this logic would seem irrational to the American public.