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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Chasing the Joys of Misery

Aggiornamento: 12 apr 2023

Americans’s delight in depiction of the squalid side of life by the arts is an indulgence in Miserabilism. That’s an -ism with a history and came west across the Atlantic in the 19th-Century with Bohemianism. The wealthy circle of the unconventional and art-loving was La haute bohème. Its heirs would impose Radical chic, a phrase that Tom Wolfe came up with in 1970 for upperclass people who took to radical politics and mixed with its stalwarts. The same people played a role in Gentrification, the taking over by the moneyed-class of city areas where lesser earners dwelt. In 2001 journalist David Brooks coined the word bobos from bourgeois bohemians to denote well-to-do middle-class Americans who fell in with the upper bohemian ethos. Beneath them, near zero on the income scale, were the lower bohemians. They had their own history idealised in works like Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème based on Henri Murger’s novel of Paris’s Latin Quarter and Montmartre. They saw art as alive and developing, embraced anti-establishment social views and politics, and held money and its ways in contempt. They praised friendship, group living, and freedom in love.They saw insecurity as a spur.

This ideal picture would suffer sea changes. At the time of the Civi War American Bohemianism had a quite respectable beginning among immigrant newspaper men in New York City. In San Francisco it took the form of a congenial gentleman’s club for professional workers in the arts. There were some bad-boy foolery, but disdain for money did not loom large on either coast.

Years passing, the two bohemian strains altered. The upper bohemians moved closer to the mainstream drivers and influencers of society. The lower bohemians became harder to distinguish from lowlife in general. Emblematic of this change was Greenwich Village In the early 1950s. Two worse-for-wear drinkers haunted Village bars. They would affect mutual hatred and stage catfights, flinging insults back and forth. The audience of amused barflies might offer them drinks or the bar owner feed them in the kitchen for waking up his comatose clientele. The two were Maxwell Bodenheim and Joe Gould, relics of the Village’s 1920s’s bohemia. Bodenheim had begun as a poet and sheltered behind the fact for the rest of his life. The homeless Gould made much of his Harvard diploma and boasted of devoting his life to the composition of an Oral History of the World. In fact, the poetry Bodenheim still dribbled forth was only worth the swing of a mop and Gould’s lifework was in a couple of mouldy notebooks where he had copied overheard conversations of total banality.

So why were these two odoriferous and pathetic old clowns of more than neighbourhood interest? Because the metropolitan newspapers talked them up till they were known in Manhattan and beyond. It seemed to immortalise Bodenheim that in the 1930s he had been thrown out of the Academy of American poets for relieving himself in front of his assembled peers. Gould’s renown included being painted with three penises in a 1933 full portrait by the celebrated Alice Neel. Time Magazine, took note in 1952—and in those years, along with Life Magazine, it influenced a huge readership, national and international. Bodenheim had been arrested for sleeping in the subway amongst the bums. Time was mocking, setting the tone for more cruel words to come.

A strange public attitude took shape. Bodenheim and Gould became butts of a special sort. Respectable people with steady jobs and mortgages enjoyed the humiliation of the two verbose drunks. It demonstrated that all the blather about the purity of artists and their refinement was horse manure. There was only one decent way of life and it began at nine a.m. in an office and finished on the six o’clock train to the suburbs.

Schadenfreude raged but so did something else. The suits-and-ties’s interest in lowlife bohemia bordered on obsession. They ate it up in print. The market makers took note and began to offer it as a product. Mr Mainstream would be able to walk his dog, settle into an easy chair, light his pipe and descend into the lower depths while the little woman stacked the cups and plates away in the kitchen. Work speeded up on the elaboration of a fictitious hell for the popular arts to evolve in and nourish the interest of the safe and well-washed.

If we zoom in on this process during the Great Depression, we see the foundations of misery writing being laid down. The Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline did his part. In his novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), his main character spends an unhappy time in the U.S.A. But his griefs are more with the industrial system and his own alienation in megacities: shades of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Dingy lives are being lived around him but they are not Céline’s main focus.

George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris (1933) saw poverty in the two cities from the point of view of a second-string dishwasher at grips with greasy spoons in a hash house. It was a tramp’s eye view. As always with Orwell, deprivation is spotlighted with the intention that readers do something to end it. His motive is political. This vein of writing led to John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), revealing the suffering of dust-bowl farmers seeking relief in an unwelcoming California. It was a strong boost for Roosevelt’s New Deal.

A very different note was struck by Henry Miller who hailed from New York City’s Yorkville and Brooklyn. He lived there on the seedy edge of the lower middle-class until he settled in Paris in 1930. He decided to put his Paris life into a novel: "I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!” Tropic of Cancer (1934) was new in its frank descriptions of sexual encounters. Its deeper originality was noted by Orwell who wrote that Miller was out of step with the writers urging political or social goals. He was “a completely negative, unconstructive amoral writer…a passive accepter of evil….”

With Miller we take a step toward the fictitious underworld in which American art will enjoyably ramble. Tropic of Cancer records his four years writing it. They were spent clinging to a sordid existence enlivened by sexual gymnastics, all untempered by any moral qualms whatsoever. Miller and his cronies were often penniless, homeless and dinnerless. A brotherhood they were not, and did the dirty on each other as well as on the citizenry around them whose own lifestyles barely rose above the questionable.

The censors came down on Miller, but what about the well-cushioned and rule-obeying readers so concerned about decency in their spic-and-span homes and best city neighbourhoods? They bent over the map of Miller’s transgressions and relished the fact that he simply didn’t give a damn. They were his proxy companions and rolled around in his antics like happy mutts in excrement. It was a relief for them that at least in private they could safely throw off the mask of pretending to care.

The 1940s’s Hipsters and the 1950s’s Beat Generation were happy to contribute to the misery myth. The manners of Drugies around the house are not particularly soignée. William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) describes some real estate we would rather avoid. Hippies soon appeared with a Don’t-care philosophy that rivalled Henry Miller’s except that he liked a steak at others’s expense and the hippie menu was macrobiotic with marijuana pudding.

Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1967) is full of insight into respectable America’s fascination with wretchedness. Didion, an eminent writer, belonged to a solid old California family with a high standard of hygiene. As a reporter, she visited the hippie-invaded and besoiled Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It was the Summer of Love (1969). Awed at the start, she made friends and hung around for an unconscionable time, enthralled as if watching a boa constrictor slowly swallow a pig.

Charles Bukowski put the finishing literary touches on the grungy dome of pleasure for well-behaved readers. It was Disneyland with a hangover peopled by freaks. Time Magazine called him a "laureate of American lowlife” (1986). Bukowski’s Los Angeles is full of people busy physically abusing one another while they struggle without a hope to get out of poverty. His alter-ego character divides his leisure between nursing his alcoholism and masturbation. Copulation is frequent but repulsive. To vomit is one of the author’s favourite verbs. Being down on your luck and bodily deformed is the normal condition of humanity in Bukowski’s novels (1971-1994), see Ham on Rye, Women, Factotum.

Balladeers kept up with novelists. Done up like workers out of a job, they crouched over their guitars and told of the grit beneath their boots as, lonely as lampposts, they tramped an endless back street. Ladies of the night hung around all day long and urchins had grandfather faces. It started in a noble vein in the Depression. Woody Guthrie, for one, exalted the dignity of the poor reduced to vagabond status by the god-awful system. He sang and lived as one of them although his father was an Oklahoma politician. We learned about hopping freights, sleeping rough and potluck in hobo jungles. These were all images that would appear in the laments of subsequent crooners.

Bob Dylan stands out. He issued from upstanding Minnesota stock who preferred reserved seats when they took the train. After a spell of slum-smirched lyrics and safe counterculture themes, he turned his attention with surreal trimmings to the swamp of muddled relationships. He had learned from the Blues that lower-depth urban decay could mix well with he-versus-she skirmishes. Blues singers had always managed to combine a vision of urban degradation with the failure of personal ties. Poverty was a blues singer’s native element, the tainted air he breathed. The blues had been born Black but fed into all American popular music. The misery myth found its backbone in hard-done- by blues singers.

It was Tom Waits who reached the peak, so to speak, of the lower depths. He doesn’t miss a doorway on agony avenue or woeful way. Each of his numbers is a rounded drama with its own story line. Characters are singular, made unique by adopting one of the many strands of his hyper-husky voice. His musical invention never stops

Like Richard Nixon, Waits was born in Whittier, California. His father was a teacher and his mother a pious housewife, both solidly middle-class. Kathleen Brennan, Wait’s wife and collaborator of forty years comes from Johnsburg, Illinois, a sleepy hamlet a safe sixty miles from the sound of intermittent gunfire in Chicago’s inner-city.

Waits managed to dodge respectability and came out of the 1970s draped in the dirty shirt of the Beat Generation. He set about fashioning himself a stage personality of a hard-drinking, bottom dwelling loser. His lyrics are a synthesis of life at the wrong end of town, the other side of the tracks. In his personal life he’s often embarrassed by this stage persona. Fans want him to embody it the way Bukowski would turn up drunk at a university reading and curse out his audience to their delight. Waits has preferred to stand back detached, a performer, and let the folks sit at ease and enjoy their draught of low life. The lyrics of Waits and Brennan are a definitive summary of American Miserabilism with a poetry all their own. An ample public puts its carpet-slippered feet up and, glass in hand, never tires of tuning in.

Here, with an Italian translation (unsigned), is In the Neighborhood, (with the refrain trimmed) from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (1983):

Well, the eggs chase the bacon round the fryin’ pan And the whinin’ dog pidgeons by the steeple bell rope And the dogs tipped the garbage pails over last night And there’s always construction work bothering you

In the neighborhood

Well, Friday’s a funeral and Saturday’s a bride And Sey’s got a pistol on the register side And the goddam delivery trucks, they make too much noise And we don’t get our butter delivered no more

In the neighborhood

Well, Big Mambo’s kickin’ his old grey hound And the kids can’t get ice cream, cause the market burned down And the newspaper sleeping bags blow down the lane And that goddam flatbed’s got me pinned in again

In the neighborhood

There’s a couple Filipino girls gigglin’ by the church And the window is busted and the landlord ain’t home And Butch joined the army, yeah, that’s where he’s been And the jackhammer’s digging up the sidewalks again

In the neighborhood


Nel quartiere

Le uova inseguono la pancetta nella padella Il cane guaisce ai piccioni vicino alla corda del campanile La notte scorsa i cani hanno fatto razzia nei bidoni della spazzatura E i lavori edili ti disturbano sempre

Nel quartiere

Di venerdì c’è un funerale e di sabato un matrimonio Sey tiene una pistola sul lato del registratore di cassa I fottuti camion delle consegne fanno troppo rumore E non ci facciamo più consegnare il burro

Nel quartiere

Big Mambo prende a calci il suo vecchio cane da caccia I bambini non possono mangiare il gelato, perché il mercato è crollato I giornali scendono lungo la via E quel maledetto letto* mi ha inchiodato di nuovo

Nel quartiere

Ci sono due ragazze filippine che ridacchiano vicino alla chiesa La finestra è rotta e il proprietario non è in casa Butch si era arruolato, sì, ecco dov’era stato E il martello pneumatico ancora scava nei marciapiedi

Nel quartiere

*(A flatbed isn’t a bed with blankets but a big truck that has hemmed in the singer’s parked car.)

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