Ralph Keyes’s essay, “The People’s Cowboy,” is a story of growing up in a left-wing, socially conscious household. It was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Antioch Review. In it, he recounts how the family’s political proclivities colored even their preferences for cowboys.
Listen to Ralph Keyes read an excerpt from “The People’s Cowboy.”
As a child I did not realize how unique our family was. What was so odd about discussing the Rosenbergs’ innocence during dinner, singing “Union Maids” after dessert, then being read a book about Ferdinand the bull, who would rather smell flowers than fight toreadors? Responses to my Antioch Review essay about growing up in a politically charged environment like that reminded me of what a distinctive childhood I’d had. “Your upbringing could not have been more different from mine,” wrote one reader. “I came from factory workers and truck drivers who hated just about everything about the country (although they never would accept that characterization) except when somebody criticized it–very confusing.” Said another, “I had such a ‘normal’ upbringing during the exact same era, that these days I find myself thinking it might have been fun to grow up in the Sedaris family. Reading this, yours might have sufficed as well.” And a third: “Nice to know that you were ‘using your head for something besides a hat rack’ (as the nuns used to say) back then.”
I guess we all yearn for what we didn’t have as children. These readers might rather have been raised by parents like mine who steeped their family in current events from a left perspective. I might have preferred to grow up in a more conventional environment, one in which I didn’t feel duty-bound to challenge my teachers about the efficacy of civil defense drills, and inform my schoolmates that Douglas MacArthur had dragged us into the Korean War (or so my parents said).
With an upbringing like this even innocent childhood pastimes can take on a political hue. It wasn’t enough to consider Gene Autry a better cowboy than Roy Rogers. To me Autry was not only better but more enlightened— “The People’s Cowboy” (as my essay is titled). And the fact that my brother and I considered American Flyer trains to be far superior to Lionel made us suspect that Lionel was produced by fascists. Without concurring with this political spin one reader wrote “you’re dead on about American Flyer being far superior to Lionel, and it’s a shame the rest of the world didn’t see it that way!”
Well the rest of the world didn’t see lots of things the way I did, as a “red diaper baby.” As an adult I prefer, like my American Flyer-loving reader, to be able to assess things such as model trains on their merits, without always considering the political implications. So do I wish I’d been raised by less left-wing parents? Not really. Growing up in a family where political implications were the coin of our realm left a residue of awareness for which I’m grateful.
Ralph Keyes‘s sixteen books include Euphemania and The Courage to Write. He recently published an e-book titled Second Thoughts: The Power of Positive Regret. His language column “Back Talk,” appears regularly in The American Scholar. For more information see ralphkeyes.com
Marilyn Moriarty’s essay, “The Taking of Dead Horse Hollow: Eminent Domain Abuse” appeared in the Spring, 2013 issue of The Antioch Review. In it, Moriarty narrates the story of one family’s—the Jenningses—multiple fights with taking authorities over many years. In 2010, the court sided with the family in its suit against the Virginia Department of Transportation. “The trial represented the culmination of a process the Jenningses have endured for fifty years.” Here, Marilyn Moriarty provides backstory on her essay.
I used the bridge long before I knew its story. In the early nineties I moved to Virginia for a tenure-track job and drove to Florida at least once a year to visit family. Over the years I came to know well the segment of I-77 discussed in my essay. East-west Interstate 81 and north-south Interstate-77 intersect in Wytheville in the southwestern part of Virginia. About five miles from the cloverleaf, the interstate highway bridge crosses the New River. I used to love crossing the river southbound, coming down out of a curve as open sky flooded the windshield, woods dropped away on either side, and acceleration tempted the car into thinking it was a plane. Other times, northbound, the bridge marked my 90 minutes from home. One year, crossing northbound, I looked down at the river and caught a glimpse of a brick house immediately below. Even at the odd angle, the charm of its pitched roof, gables, and lovely green yard attracted my eye. The contrast between the charming house and its siting in the shadow of the bridge made me wonder about the inhabitants. Who would choose to live under the interstate? After I met Edd Jennings, I understood that no one would: the state imposed that miserable bridge upon the family. I say “miserable” bridge although I have been the beneficiary of it and the entire interstate network. But if you consider the lay of the land in its less developed state, the siting of the bridge between two family houses appears as an act of deliberate cruelty. A black and white photograph from the 1966 trial (below) shows the family’s two houses with the tenant cottage between them. The main residences would fit at either end of a football field.
Black and white photograph used at the 1966 condemnation trial, Edd Jennings v. Virginia Department of Transportation, showing Brooks and Edd Jennings’ houses as well the tenant cottage (white square between the houses).
A contemporary photograph (below) shows the same land at a slightly different angle. Explosives blasted out the V in the hills. Emerging from foliage in the lower right, the red chimney appears on a white roof: Edd Jennings’ house. On the other side of the bridge, Brooks’ house appears as a patch of white between piers.
Interstate 77 bridge (south-north). The Brick House’s red chimney and metal roof appear in lower right corner. Brooks’ house appears as a glimpse of white between two sets of piers.
When I asked Farmer Jennings why the bridge was sited exactly between two houses–couldn’t engineers have moved it a little to the left or a little to the right?– he replied, “Someone just drew a line on the map. Probably, to them, houses were just little dots.” With a dotted line marking the route, a photograph from the 1966 trial seems to confirm his conjecture. After the highway filled in the dotted line with the highway, Jennings had to take the tractor on state road 52, which runs in front of the house, because the cleared area offered the only access to the upper farm.
Photo showing the proposed Route 77 through the property.
I still wonder why someone labeled the walnut tree.
I had been wanting to write something about the bridge ever since I had seen it and the farm up close, in 2008, after I met Edd Jennings when he struck up a conversation in the history aisle of a local Barnes & Noble book store. A few years later, when I came across a literary magazine’s call for essays on the theme of true crime, I asked Jennings if he could use that opportunity to write about his life-long battle with takers. After all, he read a lot, had written and presented speeches to the legislature, and completed several manuscripts about wilderness trips to the arctic. Before he declined, he asked, “Can the state of Virginia commit a crime?”
The bridge that splits the Jenningses’ property.
I was the sort that thought anything taken for the common good must have been rightfully taken. I grew up in a military family, my father a decorated veteran of two wars. I went to Catholic school for seven years. My immediate family felt no shame about being distantly related to Reubin Askew, the 37th governor of Florida, known for his integrity. Growing up with rules all my life, I had some confidence in structures of authority. So I found Jennings’ question about the state’s ability to commit a crime thought-provoking. The trial proved that yes, the state can commit a crime, but the heart of the issue for me lay in the many paradoxes about the exercise of power, and how we understand the relationships between the common and individual good.
Eminent domain allows that the common good trumps the individual good. That concept is easier to support if the need for a sacrifice has not been imposed on you in particular. When property is seized for eminent domain, the property owner is dragged into court as a defendant with the government setting the price on the property. No subjective values can be factored into the transaction. Land is conceived only as real estate. In America, historically, our ideals of liberty and self-determination are tied to the ability to own property. The forced/enforced conversion of land into real estate rips apart the conceptual relationships people have created with other people, with their world, and with their government, and it wrecks the story we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American. The taking process turns human beings into ciphers and homes into dots on a map. As the common good is appropriated in the argument of oppressors, individual humanity becomes stripped in the exchange. That lack of humanity was embodied in the siting of the bridge, a permanent object lesson about the prerogative of power.
I love roads. I love travel. A road promises an unobstructed path for desire. Road trip stories saturate our culture. Even the internet is conceptualized as an information highway. I love roads, yes, especially the beginning of every trip, when I leave just before dawn as a slate gray sheen supplants night, the horizon gradually lifting like a gate where the sun floods through. The road spot lit down the way issues an invitation. My heart lifts. A music of the road starts in my head. But now, I appreciate that every foot of road, every inch, and every fence post once belonged to someone else — who may have wanted to keep it. Every mile might mark a trespass. In Ursula le Guin’s 1973 story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a fictional city exists where everyone’s happiness is balanced on the abject misery of one child and every citizen has full knowledge of the condition of their bliss. I feel trapped by the paradox that to walk away from Omelas, I would have to take a road.
Marilyn Moriarty is a professor of English at Hollins University (Roanoke, Virginia). She is the author of Moses Unchained (winner of the A.W.P. Creative Nonfiction Prize) and the textbook, Writing Science through Critical Thinking. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Faultline, The Kenyon Review, Mondo Greco, Nimrod, and Quarterly West as well as in other literary journals and anthologies. Her work has also been awarded several literary prizes. (Photo)
In the spring issue of The Antioch Review, our archives section reprints an article, “Futurism and Management” by business guru,Theodore Levitt. The piece, that first ran in 1991, was from a speech he gave at the annual lunch of the British-American Chamber of Commerce in London, in June 1989. Few names in marketing, and in business, in general, have ever achieved the kind of recognition Levitt’s has. He was catapulted to fame with the publication of his revolutionary article, “Marketing Myopia” that appeared in The Harvard Business Review in 1960. It has since sold over a million copies. It was in this landmark article, that Levitt first suggested that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Now a commonplace consideration, companies in every sector began to ask of themselves, “what business are we in” based on Levitt’s admonition.
At The Antioch Review, we have a special affinity with Theodore Levitt who was a member of our National Advisory Board. For one thing, he’s a native son—well almost—of the Dayton, Ohio community, our own home base; and, for another, he graduated from Antioch College in 1949 following his return from WWII where he served in the US Army. He arrived in Ohio at the age of ten when his family moved to the US from Germany. He went on to receive a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. From there he taught for a short time at the University of North Dakota before going on, in 1959, to teach at the Harvard Business School where he also assumed the role of editor of the Harvard Business Review. He transformed the journal into the management must-read business magazine it is today.
In “Futurism and Management,” an article that is surprisingly relevant and fresh twenty-three years later, Levitt addresses the difficulty companies have with being able to know what the future holds, which is a logical concern of any company who seeks to understand what business they are in. You can’t understand what it means to be in the transportation business if you can’t envision the many modes of transportation that may be a part of the futurescape.
More than anything, Levitt, in this essay, is taking potshots at the futurist who were charging companies thousands of dollars to tell them what to anticipate; and, at the futurists who were selling books by the thousands. (Think Future Shock and The Third Wave.) Using numerous examples, he reminds us of how easy it is to get it wrong.
In 1967 Herman Kahn and Tony Wiener published The Year 2000, about which Mr. Kahn made a lot of profitable speeches to groups of businessmen and did a lot of futurism research for companies. The book became a mine of embarrassments: oil was mentioned only once—in a relaxed discussion of extraction from Shale. Nothing about Islam or the Middle East. By the mid-1070s they expected fast-breeder reactors for nuclear power plants, providing cheap electricity and large amounts of desalinated water for coastal cities everywhere. There was nothing about the overcrowding of cities everywhere, slums, the underclass, the coming of Asia’s ne industrial Tigers, that Europe might actually get its economic act together, that the U.K. might abandon the Left and Sweden shift from its famous Middle Way, or that the Soviet Empire might rattle and lurch erratically to God-knows-where.
Levitt goes on to point out how “in 1967 Herman Kahn and Tony Wiener published The Year 2000, and Mr. Kahn made good money making profitable speeches about the future to groups of businessmen and doing a lot of futurism research for companies.” Levitt says that in their book, Kahn and Weiner told us “that the big story of the 1990s would not be that of high tech but of the arts, literature, and spirituality, which would replace sports as the great leisure activity of the age.”
We all know how that turned out.
Levitt ultimately weighs in with his own suggestions about what the future might hold, suggesting that while “it is impossible to know what will happen”, and that “nothing is preordained,”
There are of course powerfully transforming changes that churn our times. They should be noted and understood. There is the shift from mechanical and electromechanical devices to electronics, from scale to miniaturization, the digitization of most things, the conversion of some people’s knowledge into everybody’s software, rapid accelerations in transport and communications, and fundamental new creations in genetic engineering, chemistry, inorganic materials, and knowledge itself.
Levitt says, “all of these things shape what will be,” and there’s no argument to be made against Levitt‘s 1991 predictions. In his essay, he talks about world problems, globalization, and all the other pressures coming to bear in modern society, suggesting that,
The world is inherently unstable because it is populated by people with will, energy, and imagination. They do things. They won’t leave well enough alone. That is why success is only a transient condition, not a result. Nothing is ever finished or fixed, not even in the paradise of which we just spoke. Adam told Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, “This, my dear, is a time of transition.” It always is.
Levitt’s article in the Spring, 2014 issue of The Antioch Review, is not only still relevant, it’s a good read, it’s entertaining, it highlights Levitt‘s wry humor and conversational style, and it’s also a reminder of how a great mind views the world. It’s just one example of why Levitt deserves an unparalleled place in the history of modern business thought and practice.
You can order the issue containing Levitt’s article and other great writing, here.