Commentary: ‘Strangers’ and the literature of the American political divide

Note: This is the first in a series of occasional columns that examines some of this year’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections and how they fit into the broader conversation about contemporary literature.

As I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Nathaniel Hawthorne kept me company. In the form of a bookmark, I mean.

This bookmark — a freebie from the American Writers Museum in Chicago — features an austere portrait of Hawthorne in his 50s and a quotation from his American Notebooks: “Every individual has a place to fill in the world, and is important, in some respect, whether he chooses to be so or not.”

It’s a line that echoes Ophelia’s proclamation of “Lord, we know what we are, but we know not what we may be” in Hamlet, just with an extra dash of Hawthorne’s particular brand of 19th-century New England snobbery.

I thought about Hawthorne a lot as I made my way through Hochschild’s book. What kept running through my mind is that it’s easy for us to see people in just one way. Hawthorne’s most famous work is about a Puritan community that’s in a furor over a woman’s private affairs. It’s easy to lump Hawthorne in with the Puritans and their line of thinking.

The real Hawthorne was anything but. He was mysterious and prudish, absolutely, but he also owned a pet monkey as a child, shoveled manure at the utopian Brook Farm to save up for his wedding and called his wife Sophia “naughty Sophie Hawthorne” when he wrote to her.

People are complicated, is what I am getting at.

This complexity is what Hochschild emphasizes in Strangers. She interviews members of the far right community within Lake Charles, Louisiana, to better understand what they’re feeling. It would be easy for Hochschild to reduce her subjects to simple caricatures and to lump them into one homogeneous group. But she approaches them with an almost radical sense of empathy — as well as a forthrightness about her own liberal biases — that ends up being quietly revelatory.

Hochschild’s book is part of the rash of books published in 2016 that attempt to shed light on America’s deepening and darkening political divide. Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, released a month and a half before Hochschild’s Strangers, do so as well. Search for one on Amazon, and the other two quickly pop up as suggestions.

In a similar vein, Joan Didion writes of the American South in her 2017 release South and West: From a Notebook. Drawn from her unfinished observations of a trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970, Didion finds herself baffled by a world where her normal reporting tricks don’t work and by a place that seems to be operating on its own sense of time. She writes, “The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”

A later passage helps the reader understand why the normally unflappable Didion gives up, never finishing the piece she intended to write.

“It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken,” she writes. “Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?”

When one of American nonfiction’s coolest customers and keenest observers admits defeat, it’s natural to wonder why anybody else should — or would — try.

But Hochschild put more than five years of work into Strangers, playing the long game of the sociologist. She makes it out without knifing anyone. (And if she did, she doesn’t mention it.)

Hochschild’s mission is simply to understand, or to get as close to understanding as she possibly can, seeking out the “deep stories” of the people she interviews. She describes the concept as a “feels-as-if” narrative.

“It removes judgment,” she writes. “It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.”

For those on the right-leaning side of American politics, that can often mean being characterized as outdated, backward, or worse. In a passage evoking the deep story of those on the right, Hochschild attempts to get into that headspace:

“ ‘Crazy redneck.’ ‘White trash.’ ‘Ignorant Southern Bible-thumper.’ You realize that’s you they’re talking about. You hear these terms on the radio, on television, read them on blogs. The gall. You’re offended. You’re angry. And you really hate the endless parade of complainers that seems to have settled over the land.”

The only word really missing from that list of pejoratives is “hillbilly,” but Hochschild has her finger on the pulse here.

When considering Hochschild’s book alongside its contemporary peers, it’s important to think about their titles and the initial impressions they create. White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy are undeniably catchy monikers. I wonder if that catchiness has something to do with their popularity. White Trash made The New York Times’ list of 100 notable books in 2016 (as did Hochschild’s book, which was also a National Book Award finalist), while Hillbilly Elegy remains a stalwart entry on the Times’ hardcover nonfiction best-seller list, having been there for 49 weeks.

Part of it is a primal pull. Of course we want to gawk, to read voyeuristically about the troubles of “hillbillies” and “trash.” Othering people with these terms makes them seem worlds away from us, not like those who we may actually know and encounter every day. These terms play to our worst sensibilities. Who could resist?

But it’s much harder to talk to strangers, which is what Hochschild does in her more mysteriously titled book.

We also have to consider the approach each author offers. Hochschild looks at the American right as a sociologist, Isenberg as a historian and Vance as a memoirist.

Isenberg takes a long view, looking at how a stereotype has evolved across 400 years. Vance’s view is undeniably narrow and extremely personal: He admits in his introduction that his book is “not an academic study,” and then proceeds to make good on that promise, focusing largely on himself and his family.

Hochschild’s approach is limited in its own way. Her sample comprises a small segment of the conservative Lake Charles community. But part of her book’s depth is in that shallowness. Because Hochschild checks her own political baggage at the door and truly listens to the deep stories of others, she’s able to come to a greater understanding, discussing the “types” she encounters in her research and how her subjects both fit and don’t fit them. She finds — like Hawthorne writes — the place they fill in the world as free-thinking individuals, not just as anonymous members of a larger group that sees the world differently than she does.

And throughout Strangers, Hochschild is willing to call herself out when she starts to return to her own way of thinking, falling back to her side of what she calls the “empathy wall.” She describes it as “an obstacle to deep understanding … that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs(.)”

We have a president who’s obsessed with building a literal wall between our country and one of our neighboring nations, not to mention the other ideological walls he’s erecting. So it’s admirable for Hochschild to seek out those empathy walls she writes about.

Better for us is the fact that she attempts to scale those walls and even vault over them. We get to learn with her along the way, even when she thinks she’s fumbling.

Ryan Pait is in his fourth summer as the literary arts reporter at The Chautauquan Daily. He holds a bachelor’s in popular culture studies and a master’s in literature from Western Kentucky University.

Tags : Arlie Russell HochschildCLSCStrangers in Their Own Land

The author Ryan Pait

Ryan Pait gets a different haircut every summer to keep the people of Chautauqua guessing. This is his fourth summer at The Chautauquan Daily, so if you’re tired of him, that’s OK. He recently graduated with his master’s degree in literature from Western Kentucky University. Don’t ask him about what he’s doing after this summer, but do ask him about the Nicole Kidman renaissance, the return of “Game of Thrones” and what he’s reading.