The History of Humboldt (Part V): Spatchcocking

The danger associated with being a Weird Word Nerd is that the words you use routinely get mistaken for “George W. Bushisms” or worse. For example, whenever I slip “spatchcocking” into a conversation, the word usually gets mistaken for having something to do with gay sex, à la “the Rick Santorum.” (In 2003, syndicated columnist Dan Savage, angered by a recent homophobic slur from the then-U.S. Senator, spearheaded an on-line campaign to get an outrageous gay sex act renamed “the Rick Santorum.”)

Spatchcocking has nothing to do with gay sex. Or at least, I don’t think it has anything to do with gay sex. To be honest, I haven’t googled it; nor have I googled “the Rick Santorum.” (I prefer to think that whatever Savage chose was something so outrageous that it would’ve made Liberace blush.)

The word “spatchcocking” actually comes from Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus uses it in the library scene, musing, “Why is the underplot of King Lear in which Edmund figures lifted out of Sidney’s Arcadia and spatchcocked on to a Celtic legend older than history?”

Spatchcock: (v) the overlaying of two or more disparate narratives, especially within a work of literature.

In addition to being a Weird Word Nerd’s paradise, Ulysses is also a spatchcocking of epic proportions, combining The Odyssey’s narrative structure, Hamlet’s philosophical undertones, and the biographies of both the author and William Shakespeare. That’s not confusing, right? So let me get this straight: the character Leopold Bloom is a fictional composite of Ulysses, Shakespeare, and James Joyce as an adult; while Stephen is a triple spatchcocking of Telemachus, Hamlet, and James Joyce as an adolescent? Thunderation! Such complexity explains why, for so many people, the sheer thought of opening a copy of Ulysses is scrotumtightening. (Those are two more of my favorite Joycean Weird Words.)

The idea of spatchcocking played an important role in the creation of The Minotaur & the Midwest, which was conceived of as a Nietzschean transvaluation of Midwestern values. (Nietzsche and the Midwest? Those two things have about as much in common as Rick Santorum and Liberace!)

When I began The Minotaur & the Midwest, I was working as a data entry temp for a health care provider in Portland, Maine. During the workday, I would carry pages of the manuscript, folded vertically, in my back pocket. Whenever possible, I would steal away minutes to write, which is, quite possibly, the worst way to compose a coherent narrative. My routine was made even more difficult by the fact that I shared a small, windowless room with both the departmental microwave and a co-worker who listened to some of the most godawful Pandora Radio Stations known to mankind. (Thanks to Pandora Radio MC Hammer, even to this day, I often catch myself humming the chorus to Warm It Up, which should adequately illustrate just how painful the situation was: we weren’t listening to Jump, we were listening to the other Kriss Kross song!)

If The Minotaur & the Midwest’s narrative progression didn’t gel smoothly, or even make that much sense, I wasn’t too concerned; at least the act of writing kept me away from having to listen to Pandora Radio Cher, Pandora Radio Selena, or Pandora Radio Little Shop of Horrors. (I dubbed my windowless room: The Little Shop of [Musical] Horrors.)

The Minotaur & the Midwest’s investigation into Midwestern values (“a blandly grandiose concept for a region not known for intellectual grandiosity”) began with a discussion of slavery and moved quickly across the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the 1857 Supreme Court ruling Dred Scott v. Sandford, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the 1886 Supreme Court ruling Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which declared that industrial institutions, like railroads, possessed all the legal rights of a person as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. It was this ruling that introduced the idea of the Minotaur into the narrative (“by achieving Corporate Personhood, industrial institutions were granted the legal rights of a human being, while retaining the appetite of an animal. And perhaps worst of all, they also achieved mythological immortality”).

Spatchcocked onto this narrative were short biographies of select member of the “Sons of the Midwest,” which I like to think of as a scowlier, growlier, hairier version of the “Daughters of the Revolution.” Such Sons included Joseph Smith (“In Ohio, Smith lived with the Johnson family, who had a fifteen year old daughter, named Miranda. Say it ain’t so, Joe. Old Joe couldn’t say no”), John Brown (“Uncle John’s reputation would have been greatly enhanced had he been born in a small, oppressed South American country”), John D. Rockefeller (“The Terminal Tower was not the only towering figure to rise out of Cleveland’s raucous industrial rabble”), and William Rainey Harper (“The bookworm and the Robber Baron made for strange bedfellows indeed”).

Rockefeller and Harper’s friendship featured prominently within the manuscript’s final chapter. What did William Rainey Harper (a native of my adopted hometown of New Concord, Ohio) and John D. Rockefeller (a native of my de facto hometown of Cleveland, Ohio) have in common? To begin with, a shared faith: they were both Baptists. But they also shared a faith much greater than mere religion: they shared a faith in the power of education. Both men dreamed of building a great university. This university would be located in the Midwest. It would be Baptist, of course. And it would be, in the words of Dr. Harper: “second to none.” Discussing the relationship between Harper and Rockefeller allowed me to further ruminate on one of my favorite topics: college.

Here is an excerpt from The Minotaur & the Midwest’s final chapter, titled ‘New Immigrants’:

How do you build a great university?

Well, how do you win the Cold War and get to Carnegie Hall?

Spend. Spend. Spend.

Early in the endeavor, when asked how much money he thought would be required, William Rainey Harper replied, “when the University has fifty million dollars, the first step will have been taken.” Three years later, Dr. Harper played hardball with the hardest ball of them all. At a meeting in Cleveland, when John D. Rockefeller offered Dr. Harper the presidency of the new university, the scholar responded that he would only accept the position if Rockefeller agreed to donate an additional million dollars. Even after the university had been established, Dr. Harper continued his relentless fundraising, claiming in a letter to Rockefeller that the university needed “four million dollars more than it actually possesses in order to do the work which has been undertaken.”

Such behavior gave William Rainey Harper a reputation. Once while vacationing in Constantinople, a newspaper in Portland, Maine remarked, “It might have been known that the Sultan would have to give in if Dr. Harper got after him. Abdul is lucky if he escaped so easily. He might have been drawn in for a subscription of a million or two for the uses of the University.” Even William Rainey Harper’s most patient patron, John D. Rockefeller, once grumbled that although he had given Dr. Harper an unlimited budget, somehow he had managed to exceed it.

But William Rainey Harper’s reputation was not solely defined by his boundless pursuit of bottomless pockets. He once received a letter from India written by an admiring Bishop, which declared: “in the realm of education, you are a Napoleon.”

Eighty million dollars was the cumulative sum that John D. Rockefeller donated to his new university. The only thing he refused to give was his name. On this he was insistent. John D. Rockefeller’s university was not to be named Rockefeller U. Instead, it was christened the University of Chicago. At the center of the university’s labyrinth presides the Rockefeller Chapel; next to it sits a monument to the school’s master builder: the William Rainey Harper Memorial Library.

What was the founding of the University of Chicago if not a crass, robber baron takeover of education in the Midwest? The region’s colleges were adept at weathering internal financial crisis, but they were ill-equipped to compete with a school whose endowment was Rockefellean. The University of Chicago more than doubled the pay scale for professors. It also promised publication, as it was the first school in the United States to own its own press. And if this were not enough, every school in the region was forced to live in constant fear of Dr. Harper invading their campus, checkbook-in-hand. Such an invasion had occurred at Clark University, where Dr. Harper pilfered two-thirds of the school’s faculty members and half of their graduate students. Such an act was not simply a hostile takeover: it was more like Napoleonic conquest.

One of Ohio’s oldest and most unusual schools, Antioch College, was once forced to fend off a similar capitalistic conquistador. Of all Ohio colleges, Antioch has undoubtedly weathered the most financial tempests. Ever since its founding in 1853, with Horace Mann at its helm, the school has been plagued by financial insecurity. Well aware of Antioch’s prestigious history, as well as its perpetual precarious financial situation, the owner of National Cash Register, John Henry Patterson, approached the school with a business proposal. At the time, NCR’s headquarters were located in Dayton, Ohio, which neighbors Antioch’s home in Yellow Springs. Patterson pledged to completely finance the school on two conditions. First, Antioch had to leave Yellow Springs and move to Dayton. Second, the school had to change its name to the National Cash Register College.

Antioch refused.

John Henry Patterson could be repudiated.

John David Rockefeller could not.

With the creation of the University of Chicago, the beast and its master builder had triumphed. Commerce had conquered college and with this conquest the will to slavery became educationalized. Faced with the bleak prospect of competing with John D. Rockefeller, one by one, Ohio’s colleges began a prolonged period of begrudging adaptation. Symbolically speaking, school after school agreed to change their name to the National Cash Register College.

John D. Rockefeller’s first visit to the University of Chicago coincided with the celebration of the university’s one-year-anniversary. From this visit, there exists a photograph of William Rainey Harper and John D. Rockefeller walking down South University Avenue together. Within the image, both men look confident, dignified, and full of purpose. Theirs is not a casual stroll. The capitalist King walking with the erudite Napoleon: even their steps appear precisely syncopated. Because of the timeless quality of black and white photography, it almost appears as if the duo is striding… into the future.

In their hands, both men hold sheets of paper. It is logical to assume that written upon these sheets are the speeches that each man will deliver at the one-year-anniversary celebration. In his speech, John D. Rockefeller will call the university: “the best investment I ever made.” In his, William Rainey Harper, while discussing John D. Rockefeller’s “great gifts,” will declare: “the entire history of education records nothing of a similar character.”

But what exactly was the character of John D. Rockefeller’s ‘great gifts’ to education?

Who can deny that college involves a great deal of simulacra? Dining halls resemble restaurants as much as dormitories impersonate apartment buildings. Such simulacra are meant as teaching tools. The ideology is that if a student can learn how to master simulacra, he will be able to learn how to master the real environment that is being simulated.

And what is the real environment that is being simulated? What real environment thrives upon straight lines, shift changes, and statistics? Not to mention, communal living and communal dining?

If a casual observer squints enough, does the college town not begin to resemble the factory town?

Keep squinting.

Squint at this young college student here. Does he not look peculiar? Listen to the language he speaks: does it not sound strange? Is it not a foreign tongue? Observe his loud, boisterous behavior. Observe when, where, and how he consumes alcohol. (Alcohol? I mean: beer beer BEER!) Observe his perpetual harried, half-hungover state of existence.

Keep squinting.

Observe this young college student’s eagerness to please, his willingness to work. Observe how he has left his home and how this departure leaves him feeling disconnected and lonely. Observe how he accepts his fate and is resigned to living a life devoid of home, health, comfort, and even family. Observe his restlessness and his feelings of unfulfillment.

Who is this young college student? Is he not an immigrant?

Four years of staggering student loans, disposed disposable income, and a pickled liver and what has this young student learned at his National Cash Register College? Has he not learned the immigrant’s creed that life is work? Has he not learned the philosophy… of his great-grandfather?

When an adolescent accepts the immigrant’s creed that life is work, the will to slavery has successfully been internalized.

Squint enough at a college diploma and it can begin to look like a shovel.

Within Ulysses, James Joyce mused, “If you subtract the motto ‘Time is Money’ what is left of England?” A similar question can be asked of the Midwest. If you subtract the motto ‘Life is Work’ what is left of the Midwest?

The answer is written all across the state: old canals.

Is it any surprise that a region that was once home to so many canals is now saturated with the will to slavery? After all, somebody had to be convinced to dig all of those ditches.


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