Mining the Heart of the American Left to Address Today’s Bleak Realpolitik
Mel Freilicher will be reading and discussing “American Cream” in San Diego City Works Press’ Release Event at Verbatim Books, located at 3793 30th Street in North Park, on Friday, Oct. 27, at 8 p.m.
Longtime San Diego resident, writer, educator, and activist Mel Freilicher was the editor of the regional literary journal Crawl Out Your Window for 15 years and taught at San Diego State and in UCSD’s literature department for several decades. In addition to this, Mel has published in a wide range of publications and anthologies including two chapbooks on Standing Stone Press and Obscure Publications.
His last two books on San Diego City Works Press, “The Unmaking of Americans: 7 Lives” and “The Encyclopedia of Rebels” engage radical American history in a way that brings together serious fiction, history, fantasy, memoir, humor, and political commentary in the service of excavating some of the lost stories of the American left and countercultures.
With “American Cream,” Freilicher gives us yet another unique window into the past as a way to cope with the dark present. As writer Stephen Paul Martin explains, “Within the nimble universe of Frelicher’s language, we see these people as we’ve never seen them—as people. But also as subversive signifiers in an unprecedented aesthetic design.”
In the following interview, Freilicher talks more deeply about his style, the portraits he creates, and the political significance of his work.
“American Cream” continues in the same vein as your first two books, “The Unmaking of Americans: 7 Lives” and “The Encyclopedia of Rebels” in that, as Rae Armantrout observes, it “occupies the intersections between history, fantasy, and memoir” in an innovative fashion. How would you describe your style? Why write this way?
So I decided to use already existing characters, like Jane Eyre or Nancy Drew, and have them interact in various ways with historical figures.
Mel Freilicher: For a long time, my writing has been dealing with American radicals from past eras: I wanted to learn more about these admirable, generally submerged, barely visible historical figures. (Almost none of my lit/writing students at UCSD knew anything about even the more prominent ones, like John Brown.) My books are heavily researched, and I try to accomplish a number of feats: provide biographical and contextual information about the real figures, citing sources while sometimes critiquing them (as to their slant and omissions, mainly).
I’m also a huge fan of 19th-century novels which I feel was the brilliant heyday of the novel: while it seemed pointless, even counter-productive, nowadays to be creating ever more fictional characters and plots, I’m drawn to many of the genre’s conventions of characterization and narration. So I decided to use already existing characters, like Jane Eyre or Nancy Drew, and have them interact in various ways with historical figures. These scenes were meant to be comic, fresh, absurd enough to clearly be distinctive from the actual information.
Your new book takes us on a wild journey through American history where we encounter characters from popular culture as well as political figures and radical activists of all sorts. Who are some of the key people whose histories you interrogate in “American Cream” and what do you find most compelling about them?
Mel Frelicher: At first, the fictional characters, especially from children’s books such as those of Horatio Alger, mostly stood as clichés from a whole class of popular literature that was too unrealistically wholesome for anyone’s good. But that changed, as I went on writing various pieces in “American Cream.” I found myself trying to make some of these interactions of colliding worlds increasingly credible. Incredibly corny to say this, but in some sense, these characters started to take on a life of their own.
For example, Moppsy Bobbsey (her goody-goody twin brother Floppsy is still a Young Republican), ends up leaving New York, and hanging out with anarchists and Wobblies, as WWI inexorably approaches. Along with her best friend and sidekick, Laura Ingalls, author of Little House on the Prairie (usually referred to as Laura d’Ingalls Puce, due to her brief marriage to carny barker, Patrice Puce), they haunt Chicago’s Bughouse Square, at the very real Dil Pickle Club, the most extreme bohemian, radical outpost in the city (Mae West would perform there when she was in town).
“Mystery at the Ski Dump” involves Nancy Drew going to the trial of the Chicago 7 (much of the text is taken from the utterly bizarre transcript of that trial).
In the actual Bobbsey Twins children’s books, the family, of course, has African American servants. In “American Cream,” one of their children, Daniel, a jazz musician, and Moppsy meet up again as adults, and become fast friends in Chicago where they both attend the (also very real) Hobo College. Daniel’s family’s fate is tied to that of his mother’s intimate friend, Alice Rhinelander, a mulatto who married into one of the wealthiest families in the country. In the very real, infamous Rhinelander court case, the family tried to have the marriage annulled by claiming that their scion had been deceived, and didn’t know about the “taint” of Alice’s race. They lost, but only after Alice was forced to strip to the waist to show the jury her body; Alice received a hefty divorce settlement (along with endless hate mail). This particular piece also retells a number of rather tragic anecdotes from Carla Kaplan’s excellent, “Miss Anne in Harlem: White Women in the Black Renaissance.”
As I myself do, both Moppsy and Laura Ingalls revere Elisabeth Gurley Flynn, a major IWW labor organizer from her early teenage years, a crucial figure in the Wobblies’ many strikes and free speech campaigns. My protagonists follow her activities intently, especially the IWW’s efforts to integrate black and white workers into one big union. Flynn was a fascinating figure: growing up in the Bronx, her Irish parents were Sinn Fein supporters; she was involved in the important Greenwich Village feminist group Heterodoxy; was a founding member of the ACLU; and after a stint in prison, she joined the Communist Party USA (for which the ACLU expelled her), and remained active in it until she died.
“Mystery at the Ski Dump” involves Nancy Drew going to the trial of the Chicago 7 (much of the text is taken from the utterly bizarre transcript of that trial). Similarly, a transcript of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings is a focal point of another piece in which Scrooge McDuck also testifies, while Huey, Dewey, and Louie are keen, and vocal observers. Several other pieces contain lengthy discussions of the development and growth of both the NAACP and the Black Panthers.
In many ways, your work constitutes a uniquely humorous, angry, and melancholy history of the left. What takes you to this place? How do you see our current moment?
Mel Frelicher: In the first two books of this series, I mixed personal anecdotes, mostly about my own past grassroots activities, with historical events, in an explicit attempt to assess the means to emotionally and intellectually cope with today’s bleak realpolitik. I found this helpful, and my own autobiography doesn’t appear in “American Cream.”
Laughter may not be “the best medicine,” as the Reader’s Digest used to proclaim (maybe they still do!), but it certainly helps…
As for the current state of things, obviously Trump is a catastrophe of the greatest magnitude: racism, xenophobia, and homelessness are running rampant. Capitalism remains, in my mind, an inhumane system, designed with a surplus labor pool as a chief structural component—people who are completely expendable, and for reasons (of automation, outsourcing, and other neoliberal tricks) of which SD Free Press readers are quite aware, their numbers can only grow greater and greater; working people have lost most of the base of support (that is, the work itself), and are largely ignored, except in electoral politics rhetoric. The U.S. seems headed toward being a third world country with huge military might. The planet is in ecological meltdown. Not happy prospects in any way.
There are, of course, plenty of heartening signs in environmental activism, the slow food movement, groups like Black Lives Matter, Sanctuary cities, Right to the City, all sorts of local and regional grassroots cultural/political/media groups, along with mainstays like Amnesty International, Oxfam, ACLU, Doctors without Borders. What an uphill battle, though!
It likely always has been so: imperialism and ethnic cleansing are such hallmarks of human history. I try to make these books funny. Laughter may not be “the best medicine,” as the Reader’s Digest used to proclaim (maybe they still do!), but it certainly helps: along with kindness and empathy, it is one key to a viable future. Hopefully, learning from the past is another.
A copy of “American Cream” can be purchased here.
Mel Freilicher will be reading and discussing “American Cream” in San Diego City Works Press’s Release Event at Verbatim Books, located at 3793 30th Street in North Park, on Friday Oct. 27, at 8 p.m.