Don Draper and the American underclass

'Rainbow Pie'Two books came lovingly wrapped to the breakfast table on Father’s Day. The first was Joe Bageant’s Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir and the other was Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. At first glance the two books appear to have very little in common. I am a fan of the AMC cable TV series Mad Men, so Vargas-Cooper’s survey of American society and culture provides an interesting companion piece; and, coincidentally, I had caught a snippet of Philip Adams’ interview with Bageant only days before, so I had some sense of his interest in the politics of the American underclass. But having now read both books I see a fascinating synergy between them that finds its locus in the character of Don Draper.

'Mad Men'Draper Daniels was a creative director with the Leo Burnett advertising agency in the 1960s. It was Daniels who created the Marlboro Man campaign featuring rugged, ciggie smoking cow pokes on horseback . The campaign was regarded in advertising circles as a benchmark in the high art of hidden persuasion because it redefined the filtered cigarette, previously eschewed by male smokers as ‘feminine’. This at a time when tobacco companies were aware of medical evidence linking smoking with cancer. Anyway, Burnett had started his agency during the Depression and is the acknowledged father figure of the Chicago School of advertising. Having borrowed $50 000 to start the outfit, Burnett was doomed to failure by a local newspaper which predicted he would be out on the street selling apples in no time. In response, Burnett decided to give away apples in his agency and to this day you will find a bowl of apples at the reception desk of every LB agency around the world. I have crunched a few myself. So, Don Draper is based on the grey flannel suited Draper Daniels.

Don Draper

But there’s more: Don Draper is not Don Draper. He is Dick Whitman.

In the first series of Mad Men we learn that ‘Don’ switched his identity with that of the commanding officer he served with in the Korean War after the officer was killed in an accident. Prior to the dog tag exchange the protagonist had been Richard Whitman, the son of poor dirt farmers. In a largely untold backstory of triumph over adversity, the new Don Draper begins his new life as a used car salesman and goes on to become a denizen of Madison Avenue, marrying Grace Kelly look-alike Betty Hofstadt and landing a job as a copywriter, and later creative director, with the Sterling Cooper agency. Don goes to great lengths to conceal his secret past and I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated by revealing any more of the story. However, it is Draper’s sloughing of his redneck roots which connects the bright and shiny New York ad world with the very different world set out in Bageant’s Rainbow Pie. More of that later.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the LA correspondent for online pol-cult magazine The Awl, where she runs a blog on the Mad Men series. Her book provides a survey of the context and influences that define the series, with material on smoking (man, can they smoke!), drinking (and drink!), decor, sex, marriage, movies, work, style, politics and literature. Music is a notable omission. Vargas-Cooper’s bio mentions her work as a union organiser and how she read history and policy studies at UCLA. Mad Men Unbuttoned is entertaining and occasionally insightful but largely restrained in its analysis of the socio-political role of advertising in America. Clearly enamoured of the show and its central character, Vargas Cooper celebrates the shiny surface without disturbing it too much, which is understandable for a project of the kind. It’s hard not be seduced by 60s style and the series itself is very effective in promoting the mythology of postwar society, albeit with enough dark underbelly to keep it intelligent. Vargas-Cooper takes her lead from this approach and the book will no doubt be mopped up by enthusiasts of the multi-award winning show. ‘Mad Men’, she writes, ‘re-creates a discrete period of historic transition when the cultural trends and social mores that would come to dominate the second half of the decade are percolating and bubbling toward the surface.’ Fair enough.

White FamilyJoe Bageant might hold that Don Draper eats rainbow pie, a reference to the hobo song ‘The Sugar Dumpling Line’ that gave him the title of his book:

Lose all your troubles, kick up some sand
And follow me, buddy, to the Promised Land.
I’m here to tell you, and I wouldn’t lie,
You’ll wear ten-dollar shoes and eat rainbow pie.

Bageant is a sixty-something journalist, self-confessed redneck and champion of the American underclass, the 60 million white people he describes as ‘citizens whose role in the greater scheme of things has been to cushion national economic shocks through the disposability of their labor, with occasional time off to serve as bullet magnets in defense of the Empire.’ His book draws a line between the 44% of the population who were an agrarian poor that eked out a reasonable living in close-knit communities before WW2, like the one in West Virginia where Bageant was raised, and the drift of subsequent generations to the cities in search of manufacturing jobs once ‘agribiz’ moved in. Often unable to read at a functional level, hostage to Fox News and the Tea Party, Bageant sees his people today as a permanent underclass worth only as much as their flexible labour can buy in the marketplace of the human calorie. They are a people born of ‘whiskey, blood and prayer’. America was left as the last man standing after the war, moving quickly to consolidate its position as the new empire builder by converting its military-industrial complex to the peacetime project of mass consumption. Ammonium nitrate that had been used in munitions was re-branded as fertiliser and sold across the land to farmers and corporations for use in broadacre, mechanised agriculture and, in the meantime, creating an ecological disaster of soil destruction and water pollution for later generations. The technique was successfully exported to Australia during the boom days of wheat farming when we had something to export other than iron ore and black coal. It makes Bageant angry to think about it.

Joe Bageant

‘[T]here is no solution for environmental destruction,’ he writes, ‘that does not first require a healing of the damage done to the human community. And most of that damage to the human will has been done through work, our jobs, and the world of money. Acknowledging such things about our destructive system requires honesty about what is all around us, and an intellectual conscience. And asking ourselves, “who are we as a people?”’
Bageant tells the other side of the Mad Men story. The one about ‘hard-working and docile’ people struggling to get a piece of the rainbow pie. Herded into postwar factories to produce white goods, processed food and electronic gadgetry, these were people encouraged to go into debt to live the dream. In a triumph of the ‘rational efficiency movement’ of Taylorism the US economy surged into overdrive on the back of cheap labour and the national desire to consume the spoils of victory:

Madison Avenue was trumpeting all this as the new, more affluent, sophisticated middle-class American life that everyone else was deliriously enjoying. Seeing is believing, and we could see it right there, on the television screen: city people wearing bow ties were sipping martinis.

Bageant is under no illusions about the difficulty of educating the current generation of unemployed, angry people left high and dry by the Global Financial Crisis and looking for someone to blame. Many of them blame Obama, convinced that he is a closet Muslim without valid American citizenship. Sarah Palin makes a lot of sense to some of Joe’s people and he sees the irony in it. The US constitution has not a word in it about capitalism being the nation’s official economic regime but somehow, says, Bageant, the rednecks fight for it under the banner of patriotism. And yet his love for his people is undiminished. ‘Redneck men have a way of crying inside that manifests itself as a rigid, faraway look, a combination of pain, outrage, and fatal resignation.’

This made me think of Bob Katter, a man whose views and attitudes I don’t generally subscribe to but whose genuine belief in the rights of citizens sidelined by the whims of the global market cannot be easily dismissed. Rainbow Pie provides a plainspoken account of the personal experiences of a member of the American underclass who broke away just enough to be able to see how he had been shaped by the fickle forces of capital and corporate managerialism. In a wonderful passage Bageant relates how, as a child, one day on a rare trip to the city with his father, he wandered into a department store and was confronted by how out of place he was. ‘My clothes and skin seemed dirty under the clean, fluorescent lights … I could smell myself polluting the air of this sartorial temple.’ Then his father appears and yanks him back into the street, telling him never to go into such places because they were not for people like them. For Bageant, there is a lingering sense of class shame that lives within the American redneck, however proud and patriotic they might appear. It is the very shame that haunts Dick Whitman as he makes his way through the lofty towers of Madison Avenue.

Boris Kelly

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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  1. what a fantastic post! i too am a fan of mad men and have struggled with my instinctive sympathy for draper because of his background, when he is so hard on the women around him. then again, he’s hard on the men and himself too, because he’s basically broken. it’s a classic socialist-feminist conundrum.

    but i’ve always hoped that they would crack open more of his past and give some wider context and contrast to the glossy world he inhabits now, within that decade of ‘american splendor’ and what/who it cost. i’m at the end of season 3 now, which has explored it a little further. but yes, you’re very good not to include spoilers, so i won’t either!

  2. Great article Boris.I wasn’t aware of Bageants work before.It’s helped clarify some of the potent symbolism in Mad Men and given me a better understanding of the social and historic fabric within which the series is placed.Dons flight from his ‘natural’ self,.for want of a better word,..the sense of unreality which pervades his marriage,..can be extrapolated,.to the exploitation and pollution of the environment that the culture of mass consumption requires.
    Ab uno disce omnes

  3. The thing about reading Joe Bageant is that it makes you conscious just how rare it is for someone to talk about the US in terms of class, even though class is such an obvious fissure in the US society. You almost never hear a politician speaking about working class voters — and if you do it’s usually a rightwing populist. By contrast, ‘middle-class’ gets used so often that it’s almost entirely devoid of meaning.

  4. I was intrigued by your review, Boris. I’m yet another fan of Mad Men, though haven’t read Bageant (but now feel as though I should so will).

    It’s true that this underclass – the poor and white – is absent from discourse [excepting depictions of the Tea Party] and television and literature more generally unless they are the objects of ridicule [never envy!] – think The Wire, think Treme. In David Simon’s worlds, you are disadvantaged and oppressed if you are African American. Which is undeniably true.

    But what about the many poor and white who also lost everything in Katrina?
    I’ve now seen a number of documentaries about these people who are angry and articulate about that anger – Joe and Linda Flooded Out of Holy Cross from a recent Wholphin comes to mind.

    Where are these people in Treme? They don’t exist. The white people there are the educated and noble and middle class – upper, in some instances – or they are bohemian artists who chose to come to New Orleans and chose to stay. The reason? Maybe that it’s easier to dissect US inequality through a critique of race rather than class. I mean, you can make laws and television shows that attempt to combat racism. But how do you combat or resolve class?

    So Mad Men is the exception here. And while the explorations of Draper’s ‘shame’ are fleeting (I am nearing the end of the 4th season), the contrast is so absolute between the two worlds that more exposition would undermine the force of this character’s past. And I think the craving for this series lies in the fact that we are never able to forget what this world costs these characters and society – the American Splendor is constantly unravelling, and then being taped up again but it is always less splendorous than it was half an episode before.

    1. And even as I leave that comment, other television examples come to mind: True Blood and season 2 of The Wire. It could easily be argued that the white working class Simon depicts in season 2, the dock workers, is a very different kind of white working class to the one Bageant is writing of and that Draper came from.

      True Blood is more difficult to analyse and will require some thinking time.

  5. Thanks for the comments.
    John, nice to see you here on Overland.
    Jacinda, you said:
    “Maybe that it’s easier to dissect US inequality through a critique of race rather than class. I mean, you can make laws and television shows that attempt to combat racism. But how do you combat or resolve class?”
    I think the reason goes in part to Jeff’s point:
    “The thing about reading Joe Bageant is that it makes you conscious just how rare it is for someone to talk about the US in terms of class”

    The same could be said of Australia where politicians do talk opportunistically, and rather cynically IMO, about the working class but they use code like ‘working families’.
    Of course, it is a myth to regard Australia as a classless society but since the mid 1980s it has become unacceptable to use the language of class in mainstream political discourse.

    What I like about Bageant is his direct engagement with the question in an uncluttered socio-political narrative derived from his own life experiences. His turn of phrase is masterful. For example, when referring to MSM television news hosted by ‘….blonde meat puppet anchorpersons.” The podcasts of extended interviews on his blog are worth a leisurely listen with a notepad. It’s the kind of direct but amiable speaking we need here to bridge the gap between the urban intelligensia and the largely disenfranchised lower working class lampooned by The Chaser.

    My daughter is a big fan of True Blood but I’ve only seen snippets.

    1. ‘I think the reason goes in part to Jeff’s point:
      “The thing about reading Joe Bageant is that it makes you conscious just how rare it is for someone to talk about the US in terms of class”’

      Guess I meant that not only is it a rarity, but that there are reasons for the rarity.

  6. I heard Joe Bageant interviewed by Phillip Adams and was taken by his description of ‘rednecks’ as being staunchly unwilling to accept help from neighbour or state alike; as in, they believe in standing on their own two feet. This made sense to me and made me think about the fact that very disinfranchised groups of people surprisingly often prefer to vote against ‘left’ or socialistic-leaning parties, going for the capitalistic alternative. This creates quite a strange convergence, as in poor Americans not wanting the government to pay for health care, etc. Bageant was fascinating to listen to on this count and I’ll have to make sure I watch the ‘Mad Men’ series. Thanks for the post.

  7. Yes, that’s a good observation Finn. Bageant traces the tendency you describe back to the close knit Appalachian communities which were often mini economies based on barter and exchange. People kept account of exchanges of favours and obligations and, yes, this may be a factor in the underclass he writes about being disinclined to accept any form of ‘handout’. The sad irony, as Bageant observes, is that the causes of the disenfranchisement of his people are often lost on them.

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