Monday, January 13, 2014

the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact

Something in the air links change to change, later making evident a pattern, a fundamental shift. One such kindred event: around the time Fitzgerald’s first “Crack-Up” essay was on national newsstands, the first formal Alcoholics Anonymous group was being organized in Akron, Ohio, making public the fellowship that Bill Wilson and Bob Smith had begun privately at Smith’s house.

- American Scholar

I have, probably unlike Hampl, actually been to AA meetings, because I'm an alcoholic, and one of the things you learn fairly well is the history of AA, because the idea of "two (or more) drunks supporting each other" is still the basic thesis of the entire organization. So I read that and thought What?

The first Crack-Up essay was published in Esquire's February 1936 issue. The exact beginning of AA is different to pinpoint, but the official website offers a detailed timeline:

In an effort to strengthen his prospects’ chances for recovery, Bill welcomes alcoholics to his home at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn. The Tuesday night meetings soon give way to temporary residency for some participants — the kind of “way station” arrangement that Dr. Bob and his wife Anne have pioneered in Akron.

Oxford Group meetings for alcoholics continue at the large home of T. Henry and Clarace Williams, with Dr. Bob sometimes joining Mr. Williams to lead meetings. The recovering alcoholics of the group refer to themselves as the “alcoholic squadron of the Oxford Group.”

Clarence S., a Cleveland resident who attends Oxford Group meetings in Akron, announces that he and other Clevelanders will be starting a group open only to alcoholics and their families. Like some other breakaway groups, they will also adopt the name of the Big Book mimeographs now circulating in Akron—“Alcoholics Anonymous.” In May 1939, the first A.A. meeting in Cleveland is held in the home of Al G. (also known as Abby G.), a patent lawyer. 
I know some people see this as pedantic nitpicking. But the fact is the first "official" meeting of the group known as AA wasn't until 1939 (in Cleveland), and there wasn't anything "formal" about AA in 1936. There certainly wasn't a formal split from the Oxford group in Akron until late 1939. AA wasn't much in the national consciousness until the famous Saturday Evening Post article in 1941.

-- If you want to go on about how Fitzgerald's essays were "a sharp pivot, marking a fundamental change in American consciousness and therefore in narrative voice" and so on (you really want American confessionalism to start with Fitzgerald in Esquire? What about Harris's My Life and Loves? What about the early nonfiction of Richard Wright and James Baldwin? What about all the goddamned Early AmLit captivity narratives? -- BUT ANYWAY). -- If you want to declare something like that, fine. But "these two cultural (or spiritual) occasions, which began their public lives at the same time, in the depths of the Great Depression, are linked in the way that history alone can make obvious, displaying a shared landscape" -- just -- no.

(Where did she get this information? Wikipedia? Where are the copyeditors? -- on the goddamn breadlines, that's where.)

(What's more, Fitzgerald explicitly rejects the connection with alcoholism, or even addiction, Hampl is trying to make -- he says flatly "William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became a public charge. What led to his alcoholism, or was bound up with it, was a collapse of his nervous system...." The book he's talking about is Asylum, a 1935 memoir of Seabrook's seven-month stay in a mental institution. If you want to talk about a "cultural shift" involving addiction, confession and alcoholism, the developing influence of the Big Book in the early forties is a better example.)