Book Review: Mavericks, Mystics and Misfits

An examination of Arthur Hoyle’s Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits, a book that celebrates the essential qualities of the American soul in the life and work of a grouping of those who refused to conform to the norm…

by: Stela-Carleta Calin

I have known and read the biographer and the essayist Arthur Hoyle for several years now. His debut book, The Unknown Henry Miller A Seeker in Big Sur, impressed me with its thorough research, its ample information, its true passion for the chosen subject. Henry Miller is America’s voice, America’s iconic image, Arthur Hoyle kept reminding us, and he should not to be forgotten by his fellow Americans.

In his second book, the author continues to look for the essential qualities of the American soul in the life and work of other personalities who refused to conform to the norm, drawing, with the same firm and gifted hand he accustomed us to, the complex portrait of that America rendered unique by its brilliant seekers, from one restless Henry Miller to other Mavericks, Mystics and Misfits. As he explains in the Introduction:

”These individuals have been chosen because their life stories, though often at variance with the direction of the mainstream society around them, exhibit certain enduring qualities of the American character that persist despite the changing circumstances of time and place.”

And here they are, a perfect ten, each one with his unique story to tell, each one different from all others, but every one becoming a solid brick in the foundation of a great nation: artists and writers, warriors and wanderers, settlers of the past and of the future.

It seems to me the essay has two purposes. On one hand, by diachronically revisiting the American history from the seventeenth century to present days to prove that every personality evoked contributed to the nation’s grandeur and, on the other hand, by choosing such different personalities, to define the American way of thinking and being, to gather the many qualities of the nation through its individuals, who had transformed even dissent into a value.

The story begins with a young Puritan minister named Roger Williams, who was to become “the first American” by opposing the bigotry of his time and building a settlement based on principles like the state and church separation that would be “incorporated in the Constitution of the United States of America and its Bill of Rights.” He represents America’s moral fiber.

Also a first, this time in American poetry, was Anne Bradstreet, considered by the author a gentle first feminist, for she transcended the role imposed on women in her society and religion (she was a Puritan too) not by direct confrontation but by art. She is the first yin of the America’s yang.

The wanderer Josiah Gregg was a witness and a participant in some major Far West events, like the gold rush and the Mexican-American war. Forever looking for a place a settle, but unable to find it because the calling of the Prairie was too strong to resist, he is the typical American misfit.

Thomas Paine, whose revolutionary writings “would push the wavering American colonies towards independence, rally the spirits of America’s military leaders and soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and lay out a vision of a constitutional government for a new federal republic,” and who would play a role also in the French Revolution, is the “archetypal maverick” of America.

Thorstein Veblen, who formulated the theory of conspicuous consumption and waste, in which he observed that the working class imitates the behavior of the leisure class, spending beyond their means thus reducing the social values to the elevation of “conspicuous display over the satisfaction of basic human needs” is the passionate sociologist, ready to diagnose and prescribe a cure for every America moral disease.

The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, this modern Ulysses who voluntarily chained himself to the mast of Faith, becoming a member of one of the strictest monastic orders, but who refused to cover his ears to the siren song of society, being at the same time, a “best-selling author who wrote poetry, fiction, memoir, and spiritual meditations, a gregarious socializer and bon vivant with a fondness for whiskey and jazz, a man with a strong awareness of social injustice and suffering who spoke out boldly about civil rights, disarmament, and war” is the tormented soul of America.

The Pawnee Indian Brummett Echohawk, who bravely fought in the WW2 as a part of the 45th Infantry Division, the Thunderbirds, composed mainly of natives, and who “is still remembered by those who knew him as a unique and remarkable man who believed deeply in the value of his Pawnee heritage and its importance to American history” is America’s past before its past, its guilty conscience.

I left for the end three stories that impressed me most: of the Crafts and their vision of redeeming America’s social injustice, of Judith Baca and her artistic vision of redeeming America’s past, and of the Brushes and their vision of redeeming America’s future.

William and Ellen Craft’s story shows once again what extraordinary things human beings can do with enough courage and determination. Both slaves born in Georgia sometime at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they met and married and escaped their condition in a spectacular, almost impossible way: Ellen, who was very light skinned as the illegitimate daughter of her master, disguised as a male planter going to Philadelphia accompanied by his personal slave. They succeeded, but did not stop there: they learnt to write and read in England where they also worked and gained enough money to buy a plantation in Georgia and build a school for black people, after the Civil War. If they had to give up the school eventually (but not the plantation) it was not because they weren’t successful in their enterprise but because of the envy and hatred of the white planters. A hostility that, one hundred and twenty years later, has not come yet to an end:

“The Crafts never succumbed to the racism that formed the basis of life in the American South. They endured it, and in their own way, triumphed over it. But this racism continued to drive public policy and relations between blacks and whites in the American South for the next fifty years until the federal government once again intervened during the 1950s and 1960s. Racism’s thinly veiled presence in our current political climate can be seen in the oft-repeated claims that Barack Obama, born in Hawaii of a black Kenyan father and a white woman from Kansas, is not a real American.”

Judith Baca’s story is no less impressive: daughter of Mexican immigrants, she used her background to fuel her art and to fight the social prejudices. Her career as a muralist began in the ‘70s, when she observed the graffiti in the Los Angeles parks and had the idea to put rival gangs to work together on a mural. The first work impressed the city authorities so much that she was hired to direct the Eastside Mural Program. Thus began the work on The Great Wall, inspired by American history, work that is still in progress. The artist used to say she feels that her work helps to heal a little the wounds of the world: “And it’s about developing some kind of loving approach to the world, in which I can use my skills — I’m not a dancer or a singer, I make images — to heal a social environment and a physical environment.”

I have to confess that for a moment I was disappointed that the chapter about Judith Baca was not the final one in the book, for it seemed to me it could have gloriously closed this historic periplus with an artistic synthesis, but when I began to read the final chapter, I understood: Baca’s story offers a fresco of the America’s past, whereas the Brushes’ story offers a glimpse of a possible, hopeful American future.

When they built their farm in Southern California, near the Los Padres National Forest in 2004, Warren Brush and Cynthia Harvan-Brush were inspired by a movement initiated in Australia in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, named permaculture (a shortening of “permanent agriculture”). The farm, respecting the principle that the land has to be worked in harmony with the environment, is a viable alternative in the fight with the climate change and successfully produces enough food to sustain more than twenty people.

“…permaculture offers us a hopeful, positive response. Its greatest value is its ethical framework, which asks us to live more wisely, more compassionately, within the limits that nature imposes and in harmony with the earth that is our home. Its principles show us how. I have seen them in operation at Quail Springs and Casitas Valley Farm and can testify that they work. Warren and Cyndi Brush, and thousands more like them across the planet, are leading us forward by reminding us of our deepest roots in the earth.”

In the very image of this little farm hidden somewhere in southern California, there is also a suggestion for that theme Judith Baca expressed in her painting: the theme of peace, hopefully to become the most generous of America’s gift to its citizens and to Earth.

Grab a copy of Mavericks, Mystics and Misfits here!

 

Stela-Carleta Calin has taught Modern Foreign Languages for more than 20 years at the University in Romania and at the College in Canada (presently teaching French at Dawson College in Montreal). She is the author of a bilingual (French-English) dictionary of real estate terms, and the author of a multilingual (French, English, Italian, Romanian) dictionary of musical terms for the use of the students of Music Academy “Gheorghe Dima,” Romania. Learn more about Catlin’s work and read her literary reviews at Once upon a Reading.

 

 

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