The bitter underside of freedom

My husband’s father was a traveling salesman back in the 1940s.  He sold forms to small businesses: receipts, inventory logs, invoices, etc.  He was movie star handsome, along the lines of Tyrone Powers and used his charms to make enough in a few months on the road to stay home the rest of the year and drink.

Tyrone Power

And from what I’ve heard, that’s about all he did.   When she’d had enough, my mother-in-law took her three sons and moved a thousand miles away.  The only time I heard her mention his name was when we drove through Wells Nevada where, as a young couple, they’d hopped off the north south line and waited for the transcontinental.  “Frank and I stopped here once,” she said wistfully.  They must have really been in love.

Wells Nevada, once known as a railroad junction, is now known for Bella’s Gentlemen’s club which rents rooms by the hour.

John Updike included Eudora Welty’s tale of a traveling salesman in his volume of the Best American Short Stories of the Last Century which I am slowly making my way through. The protagonist of The Hitch-Hikers (first published in 1940 in the Southern Review) is thirty year old man “traveling in office supplies” and that’s about all we’re told.  He picks up a couple of drifters because “the recurring sight of hitch-hikers waiting against the sky gave him the flash of a sensation he had learned to experience when he was a child.”  One of the men has a guitar while the other is “bogged in inarticulate anger.”  For some reason he decides to buy them a hamburger and find them a place to sleep for the night. Maybe because he knows what it’s like to be a stranger in town or maybe he is tired of the dream-like monotony of being on the road, stopping in small towns that are “too like other towns, for him to move out of this lying undressed on the bed, even into comfort or despair.”  No matter, his intentions backfire and one of the drifters ends up dead.  To the townsfolk, the man’s murder is a bit of diversion which will be forgotten in a few days time.  They hardly seem to care as he lies dying. The salesman realizes that although he’s gotten to know people in the town and even scores an invitation to a private party, if he were to disappear the next day, the town would hardly notice.  

“…none of this was his, not his to keep, but belonging to the people of the towns he passed through, coming out of their rooted pasts, out of their remaining in one place, coming out of their time.  He himself had no time.  He was free; helpless.”

Previously I had only read Welty’s tragi-comic stories of life in the south and so this one threw me for a loop (along with a few professional literary critics, I might add). According to Updike, the phrase “free; helpless” means that “our American freedom … to thrive, to fail, to the road – has a bleak and bitter underside.” To this I wanted to say WTF does that mean? But I didn’t have a better analysis. So I gave up and moved onto The Death of a Favorite by JF Powers. Despite it’s name, a delightful story.

Although I’m afraid to read John Updike’s analysis. How could a story told by a clergyman’s cat possibly encapsulate a uniquely American experience? What do you think?

17 thoughts on “The bitter underside of freedom

  1. I always question the analysis of critics on works where the author eventually is cornered and admits, “It was just a story I told. I didn’t want it to mean anything.”

    1. I think Updike felt he had to justify his selections. Welty may have meant nothing but that was the way the guy was feeling: helpless. He wasn’t a part of the community and just had to watch as they did nothing to save to stranger.

    1. I started reading Dear Life a couple of years ago, but stopped for some reason, despite the fact that I was enjoying the stories. Seems like a good time to resume.

  2. The danger of writing is someone finds a theme or idea you didn’t know was there. Is that a subconscious unpeeling of the writer or the critic?

  3. Free and helpless… Freedom is very tricky, very elusive, very uncertain. It can give us a lot, and it can take that little security that we had.

    A clergyman’s cat sounds promising to me.

    (Movie star handsome indeed)

    1. Being a part of a community takes away your freedom but gives you a part to play. The salesman is helpless because he’s not apart of the community. Or probably any community.

      The clergyman’s cat is about fifty times more clever and witty than the priests he has to deal with!

  4. Not having read any of the books you have mentioned or Dear life , I feel unqualified to comment. I will say though Geoff threw up an interesting question.
    “The danger of writing is someone finds a theme or idea you didn’t know was there. Is that a subconscious unpeeling of the writer or the critic?”
    I am going to ponder on that! 💜

    1. Many a writer has been dismayed by what critics say about the themes in their writing. JRR Tolkien in particular. Travers hated the way Disney portrayed her Mary Poppins. It’s just something writers have to deal with! Or ignore.

  5. Meaning? No meaning? Hidden meaning? Uh huh. Like you said in the comment above, that’s what being an English Lit major was all about. I was into it then, but now I just read what makes me happy regardless of what it says about me or what someone else said about it. As for a cat telling a good tale, I can believe it.

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