What if journalists were to explore the United States? The idea is far from original. From time to time, the project is undertaken by foreign reporters in the United States, or by American journalists who have previously been foreign correspondents. Books by foreign journalists in recent years include insightful ones, like Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent (2012), by Edward Luce of the Financial Times, and bad ones, like The Right Nation (2005), by Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (among other huge mistakes, Micklethwait and Wooldridge attribute the gun culture to the frontier—which was no different in the historically much less violent Canada than in the United States—rather than to its real source, the southern culture of masculine honor). The travelogue by an American foreign correspondent who brings reporting skills honed abroad to describing travels across America is also a well-established genre, including Robert Kaplan’s An Empire Wilderness (1998) and Philip Caputo’s new The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean.
George Packer might easily have written another book of this minor kind. A staff writer for the New Yorker, he, like Kaplan and Caputo, has been a foreign correspondent, publishing The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq in 2005. But in The Unwinding, Packer attempts something far more ambitious and original than another book in which a veteran reporter explores Darkest America and shares his hard-won research findings for the enlightenment and titillation of elites in the coastal enclaves.
In its form, The Unwinding is manifestly an homage to the U.S.A. trilogy of John Dos Passos: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). Although the Dos Passos books are set mostly during World War I, their sensibility clearly stems from the Depression era, when Dos Passos, like many other writers in the so-called Red Decade, was radicalized by the collapse of American and global capitalism. This cultural shift spurred the movement of many writers and artists away from modernist abstraction and toward documentary reporting, fiction, painting, and film—often with an edge of protest. Many liberal American intellectuals, including some who had lived and studied in Europe, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Stephen Vincent Benét, addressed themselves to what might be called, in the style of the medieval chronicle, the Matter of America. In 1927, Benét wrote the manifesto of this particular turning in American culture, “American Names”:
I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat. . . .
I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
In a similar manner, and on a similar scale, Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy organized a vast amount of American subject matter with the help of narrative techniques that remain avant-garde nearly a century later. He blended chronicles of the lives of fictional characters with capsule biographies of real people. And throughout the three novels he interspersed “Newsreels,” with headlines and fragments of newspaper stories and song lyrics, and “Camera Eye” sections told from the viewpoint of Dos Passos himself.
Although none of his characters are fictional, Packer is similarly innovative in his epic retelling of American history from 1978 to 2012. Over a generation that arcs from the bitter 1970s to the aftermath of the global financial crash, he follows the lives of several main subjects: Dean Price, the scion of a poor southern tobacco-farming family, who dreams of personal and regional success in a new economy; Jeff Connaughton, who travels between Washington and Wall Street; and Tammy Thomas, a young woman trying to survive in the embattled Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio. In one representative vignette, the story of Tammy’s struggles opens out onto a glimpse of a working-class community that Packer goes on to suggest has since been lost amid the spiraling insecurities of a postindustrial, and frenetically globalizing, economic order:
Tammy had a friend, Sybil West, whom she called Miss Sybil because she was Tammy’s mother’s age. Miss Sybil once wrote down in a little spiral memo book all the things that she could remember from when she was coming up on the east side in the fifties and sixties.
confectionery w/music for teens
buses that hook up to live wires
Lincoln Park w/pool
knife sharpeners w/monkeys to entertain kids
farmers selling fruits + vegetables in neighbor-hood trucks
City at that time was so safe people slept w/ doors unlocked. People very neighborly + much interaction occurred in schools as well as neighborhoods.
The tales of Tammy and the rest are braided together with capsule biographies of celebrities of the last several decades from politics and finance, the arts and the military and the media. In these digests of American lives attached to more familiar bold-faced names, Packer counterposes a series of paired short biographies that might seem at first glance to be random but add up to an intuitively coherent collage: Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell, Raymond Carver and Robert Rubin, Oprah Winfrey and Andrew Breitbart, Jay-Z and Elizabeth Warren. The effect of these cameos brings to mind photo-essays in People magazine redone as sketches and scribbles by the ’30s social-realist protest artist Ben Shahn.
The third set of strands in Packer’s massive tapestry consists of places chosen as icons of the period: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Tampa, Florida.
The fourth recurring element, the equivalent of the Newsreels in U.S.A., consists of textual collages designed to evoke particular years. In Packer’s hands, these yearbook entries consist of seemingly random news dispatches and quotations, such as this partial selection of news events, headlines, song lyrics, and political slogans from 1984:
On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984. . . . BANK SECURITIES UNITS MAY UNDERWRITE BONDS . . . It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago? . . . I had a job, I had a girl / I had something going mister in this world / I got laid off down at the lumberyard / Our love went bad, times got hard . . .
Packer is most successful when he lets his subjects indict themselves, as in his sketch of Gingrich:
Decades later, Gingrich scrawled his destiny in notes on a classroom easel, like ancient hieroglyphs in praise of a conquering warrior:
Advocate of civilization
Definer of civilization
Teacher of the Rules of Civilization
Arouser of those who Fan Civilization
Organizer of the pro-civilization activists
Leader (Possibly) of the civilizing forces
A universal rather than an optimal Mission
In a single bravura sentence like something out of Faulkner or Joyce, Packer proceeds to brilliantly sum up Gingrich’s contribution to the polarization of political discourse in our time:
His memos included vocabulary lessons: if you discussed your opponent with words like betray bizarre bosses bureaucracy cheat corrupt crisis cynicism decay destroy disgrace impose incompetent liberal lie limit(s) obsolete pathetic radical shame sick stagnation status quo steal taxes they/them threaten traitors unionized waste welfare, you had him on the defensive, and if you described your side with change children choice/choose common sense courage crusade dream duty empower(ment) family freedom hard work lead liberty light moral opportunity pro-(issue) proud/pride reform strength success tough truth vision we/us/our, you had already won the argument.
Less effective are Packer’s attempts to read world-historical significance into figures from pop culture such as Oprah Winfrey. Yes, it is tempting to use Oprah’s on-air philanthropy as a symbol of the disconnect between bad economic times and American consciousness in the period that Packer has chosen to chronicle: “As their financial troubles grew, she would thrill them by selecting one of them and wiping out her debts on the air or buying her a house, or ramping up Oprah’s Favorite Things at Christmas to give away luxury items like diamond watches and Tory Burch gray flannel totes.” But the temptation should have been resisted.
Packer’s avant-garde technique brings other weaknesses with it. At times it seems as though there are as many characters in The Unwinding as in George R. R. Martin’s seven-volume epic A Song of Ice and Fire, the foundation text for HBO’s convoluted Nordic saga Game of Thrones. Packer’s intertwining narratives proceed more or less chronologically from the 1970s to the early months of the Great Recession, avoiding the chaos that might have resulted if he had jumped around in time during that period. Even so, the book assumes that readers either lived through the decades that Packer covers or know their history well by way of study. The Unwinding is thus a kind of fantasia—a set of variations on themes that are implied but not present in the text of this chronicle.
The absence of an overarching narrative that puts the pieces into context brings to mind Eliot’s The Waste Land, which took its final form after Ezra Pound persuaded Eliot to discard much of the connective tissue: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” A book like this, manifestly inspired by the documentary realism of the Dos Passos trilogy and similar works, is, like its source genre, its own kind of protest literature, so it would be formally amiss to complain about its politics. Still, in a spring 1969 interview with David Sanders in the Paris Review, the elderly Dos Passos—who by this point in his career had reversed his prior political allegiances to become a staunch Cold War business conservative—acknowledged the dangers posed by politics to work like his. As he explained, “contemporary chronicles” composed in the vein of the U.S.A. books demanded a very particular kind of writerly discipline:
A lot of very good writing has been more or less involved in politics, although it’s always a dangerous territory. It’s better for some people to keep out unless they’re willing to learn how to observe. It is the occupation of a special kind of writer. His investigation—using blocks of raw experience—must be balanced. Sartre in his straight, plain reporting was wonderful. I can’t read him now. A writer in this field should be both engaged and disengaged. He must have passion and concern and anger—but he must keep his emotions at arm’s length in his work. If he doesn’t, he’s simply a propagandist, and what he offers is a “preachment.”
While for the most part The Unwinding honors the strictures of emotional detachment that Dos Passos sketched out here, Packer sometimes succumbs to the temptation of sermonizing. The conclusion to his chapter “Mr. Sam: Sam Walton,” for example, is a lazy rehash of liberal clichés:
Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. . . . And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy’s, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in.
This illustrates the most serious weakness of Packer’s project, which is also the weakness of a certain strain of American liberalism—the failure to distinguish the villainy of particular individuals and selfish elites from the lamentable collateral damage caused by technologically driven economic progress. Packer’s title, The Unwinding, refers implicitly to the “unwinding” of the New Deal social contract, respected in the postwar years by “modern Republicans” like Eisenhower and Nixon. That accord among labor, government, and business hinged on an economic order in which a large share of the workforce consisted of male breadwinners in unionized industrial jobs and on family farms. Since then, technology has displaced farmworkers at a stunning rate, and innovations in manufacturing (along with the offshoring of production facilities to nations like China) have shrunk that sector’s importance for American workers. Many traditionally female clerical jobs of the postwar economy that once supported the middle class, from secretarial work to data entry for early computers, have been eliminated by automation. In industrial and industrializing nations alike, the jobs of the future are being created chiefly in personal-service fields, in health care most of all.
Of all people, American liberals must be careful to distinguish the needless suffering inflicted on America’s working class and poor by unfair policies that favor elites from the necessary and transitory suffering caused by movement from one “techno-economic” era to the next (to borrow a coinage of the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s). To conflate the two is to be reactionary, not progressive.
In the 1930s, for example, a number of liberals denounced New Deal agricultural mechanization programs for displacing southern sharecroppers, and criticized New Deal hydropower projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for flooding the former homes of poor rural people. As it happens, I am a descendant of southern sharecroppers, and the farm my grandfather grew up on is at the bottom of an artificial lake in central Texas. Nevertheless, when I recently saw the film of The Grapes of Wrath again, I found myself cheering on the bulldozers as they knocked down the tenant farmers’ shacks. I doubt the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Joads would have any nostalgia for tenant farming.
As with particular occupations, so with particular regions. When the Erie Canal opened up the fields of the Midwest for grain cultivation, many farmers in New England were wiped out, and the area was partly depopulated by westward migration. Back then, a skillful writer might have produced a picture of the consequences of economic desolation as poignant as Packer’s descriptions of life in the Rust Belt. But those parts of New England were pockets of misery in what was otherwise an age of technological and democratic advance.
Our age, unlike the Jacksonian era, is not a time of democratic advance—a factor that makes it all the more imperative to distinguish the ills of a rising oligarchy from the collateral effects of technological change. To do otherwise is to risk seeming anachronistic a decade or two from now. It is startling to find the great John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, denouncing something as benign as power steering in The Affluent Society (1958) as an example of decadent consumerism run amok: “The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, lighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. . . . Is this, indeed, the American genius?”
Liberals risk losing themselves in nostalgia when they are diverted from reforming the structure of power and wealth to lamenting change itself. In the 1920s and ’30s, many progressives and small-town conservatives united to oppose the displacement of local grocers by national chains like A&P and Woolworth. Now it is Woolworth (or Macy’s, in Packer’s book) that is contrasted with sinister big-box stores like Walmart. No doubt in twenty or thirty years we shall read paeans to the wholesome, old-fashioned virtues of Walmart and Sam’s Club if they are driven out of the market by direct robotruck delivery from automated central warehouses.
If I ask tough questions about George Packer’s idiosyncratic version of American liberalism, it is because his background and perspective are so similar to my own. Counting southern populists and educated Jews among his ancestors, as do I, Packer provided an elegiac account of the decline of midcentury American liberalism in his memoir, Blood of the Liberals (2000). The Farmer-Labor liberalism that underpinned the New Deal and the Great Society has ever less in common with twenty-first-century progressivism, which, as in the case of Barack Obama, combines the center-right economics of the old Rockefeller Republicans with a kind of identity politics that the wealthy and powerful can indulge on the cheap. Had the book been written later, Packer might have added a cameo and noted that in the spring of 2013, following his reelection, Obama called for cuts in Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security program and was reportedly considering selling off the centerpiece of FDR’s economic-development program, the TVA.
The unwinding of the New Deal proceeds. There is much to lament, and Packer strikes the elegiac tone well in a brilliant and innovative book that transcends journalism to become literature. For inspiration, readers will have to look elsewhere.
Michael Lind is cofounder of the New America Foundation and the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (Harper, 2012).