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May 05, 1971 - Image 12

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
Michigan Daily, 1971-05-05

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Page Twelve

THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Wednesday, May 5, 1_971

Wi Rogers: Imagemaker...

William Brown, IMAGE-
MAKER: WILL ROGERS AND
THE AMERICAN DREAM,
University of Missouri Press,
$10.00.
By ROBERT W. CONROW
Books Editor
The American Dream is a
well-worn issue - woven of our
imaginations, made of our mus-
cles, and, all too often, soiled
by our errors. It is the dream
of Martin Luther King for a
day when the sons of former
slaves and the sons of former
slaveowners will "sit down to-
gether at the table of brother-
hood." Transformed it becomes
the dusty bumper sticker on a
coal miner's car in West Virgin-
ia. On the one hand it is only
an imaginary fabric of gossa-

mer threads and eagle's down,
but on a more frighteningly
realistic level, it is represented
by the very real blood stains
found in Dallas, at Kent State,
or on a veranda in Memphis. To
see the Dream as merely a pro-
duct of our imaginations is to
deny the underlying Nightmare
-that is, to deny the impact of
its failure on individual human
lives.
A recent issue of Esquire
Magazine describes how Berna-
dine Dohrn (at the time work-
ing in New York City for the
National Lawyers Guild) react-
ed upon hearing of Martin
Luther King's death. A friend
recalls, "I'll never forget that-
she said she was changing into
her riot clothes: pants." Later
that night they trashed a jew-
elry store. It was her first trash-
ing experience, and it marked

the end of her attempts to work
within the system.
In Detroit, James Johnson Jr.,
a similar exile from the Amer-
ican Dream, is on trial for kill-
ing two foremen and a fellow
worker after being fired from
his job at Chrysler's Eldon
Avenue Axle Plant. At John-
son's defense stands the right
of every man to a fair share in
the American Dream unhamp-
ered by exploitative automak-
ers. "I just wanted to be 1 e f t
alone to do my job," says John-
son. "I wanted to come in, do
my job, get paid on Thurs-
days and go home. My job was
my only source or survival. It
was either that job or I went on
_welfare."
The tragedies of Bernadine
Dohrn and James Johnson serve
awesome testimony to the force
of the Dream's failure in our

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society. Yet most attempts at
portraying this Dream are as
illusory at attainment of the
Dream itself.
By comparison, Imagemaker:
Will Rogers and the American
Dream represents a refreshing-
ly honest attempt to redefine
the undefinable. William Brown,
wisely dropping all pretense at
writing yet another biography
of Rogers this wife and several
others have already performed
this task, instead focuses on
those aspects of Will Rogers'
philosophy most closely corre-
lated with the ostensible princi-
ples of the American Dream.
According to Brown, Will Rog-
ers so strongly identified him-
self with the deepest hopes and
highest aspirations of Amer-
icans that, in the process, he as-
sumed the status of what Brown
terms "a mythic national hero,
believable because he (was)
most symbolically one with the
national eidolon, the god with
four faces the American Adam,
the American democrat, t h e
self-made man, and the Amer-
ican Prometheus."
The task of placing a mre
mortal (dead less than half a
century) on the same perch
with the Great Bald Eagle is,
of course, no mean feat. Yet
Brown performs his chore with
the deftness of a skilled tech-
nician. Once it is conceded that
a man's literary remains can be
fairly shuffled into chapters re-
sembling the four faces of
Brown's deity, then the result-
ant assemblage can be seen as
a highly commendable restora-
tion job.
In considering face number
one, few who ever met or saw
Will Rogers could deny the
strong imprint of the American
Democrats on the man. In fact, if
ever the man were to truly re-
semble the bird, it was no
doubt behind the podium when
he jammed both hands into his
coat pockets, cocked his should-
ers, and assumed the natural
role of the convention-free, at
ease, speaker.
This image was reinforced by
his shirtsleeve philosophy. There
were times when Rogers' egal-
tarianism (in the stance of the
American Democrat) sounded
almost revolutionary. In 1926,
he spoke out forcefully, if sar-
donically, against a proposed tax
revision to relieve the "suffer-
ing" of the country's wealthy
beneficiaries. Rogers told his
followers that he could remem-
ber one pitiful tale "where a
Son had to give up his mem-
bership in over half of his Golf
Clubs." Such tales as these,
said Rogers, had convinced the
"Proletariat Senators that if the
Father died with a hundred
million that he had wormed out
of our country, that the spoils
all belonged to the Children
and no part at all to the Com-
munity that had made it pos-
sible to accumulate this heavy
jack. In other words," he added,
"they claim his Descendants
were more responsible for him
making it than the state he
made it out of."
Brown's deity, however, cor-
relates more successfully with
Will Rogers the Democrat than
Will Rogers the Self-Made Man.
Although it was true that Rog-
ers was the grandson of a
Cherokee, it was not so true
that he was born in abJect pov-
erty, To the contrary, his fath-
er had been a highly successful
rancher and a Judge. Still,
Brown is careful to point out
in his correlations of the man
and the Dream, that the deity's
survival depends not so much on
the facts of the case as on the
willingness ofthe people to be-
lieve in It. His fans needed lit-
tle Prompting to become con-
vinced he had struggled single-
handedly from Oklahoma rags
to highest riches. In truth,
wrote his wife, he had been

denied virtually nothing,
During the Depression years,
Rogers' followers turned tow-
ards their totem as a source
of reassurance in the old virtues

"but there is quite a bit of
energy yet in earning one." By
means of personal appearance
and unadorned prose Rogers
could offer yet another carrot
to the success myth at a time
when, for many, the American
Dream had turned sour.
0.
S
To this point, one may ack-
newledge a certain validity in
.the beauty of Brown's strange
god. But when Brown then
superimposes the faces of the
Adam and the Promethean to
that of the Democrat and the
Self-Made Man, his mythical
being takes on a kind of hor-
rifying visage which the au-
thor either does not see or else
refuses to acknowledge.
It was easily apparent to many
that the man who seemed to
embody the traditional values
of the 19th Century (The
American Adam) would have to
make radical changes to ad-
just to the technological d e -
mands of the 20th Century.
Rogers would have to trade in
his lasso for a radio (and "talk-
ie pictures") and his horse for
an airplane. Like the Prome-
thean, he would reject the stiff-
ling traditions of the past to
bring light to the people in their
darkest hours of the Depression.
The airplane would satis-
fy his need to see the n e w
country just over the rise;
its soaring wings would give
his lifelong quest a Prome-
thean east to a people whose
nostalgia for the days of nor-
malcy would blend with their
zest for a gleaming mehani-
zed future. He would be equal-
ly welcome to a public shaken
in Its faith in progress by the
Great Depression. He was
suited to embody progress in
a time of need.
The home-grown cowboy, now
coupled with the machine, was
set free from his formerly
earth-bound status. "If Lind-
bergh was the number one pilot,
Rogers was the number one air
passenger." The American
Adam now exhibited all the
signs of the Promethean.
Neither Rogers nor his more
recent reviver, Brown, seems
aware of the underlying horror
of this cowboy-cum-Superman
creation. But the image is strik-
ing in its portrayal of Amer-
ica's willing substitution of the
Nightmare for the Dream,
Somehow, during the trans-
formatin, the Dream's struc-
ture had been replaced by the
scaffolding, The tall talking

cowboy, transformed by the
machine, had become a near
parody of his own message. Or,
as the title of a current tele-
vision series implies, the Dream
had become the Machine.
In the case of the man, It
was, perhaps, inevitable that
the creation should force its
own destruction. On that final
August 15, 1939 appeared t h e
following account from W ll

+I

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r

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