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.
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.
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.
Joe 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.
‘[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.