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"They were killed because their outlawry was so profitless."

I'm continuing to work my way through Nelson Algren's story-and-essay collection The Last Carousel. In "After the Buffalo", he delivers a sympathetic portrait of Bonnie and Clyde, concluding that they weren't so much criminals as much as outsiders on the wrong side of respectable society. Here he makes the connection between the infamous outlaws and the hardscrabble American South which created them.
Neither Barrow's forebears nor Bonnie's had performed gallant deeds for ladies in farthingales against a background of trellised honeysuckle and the scent of magnolia. Their home had not been pillared mansions bearing Greek entablature. Their homes had been cabins and shanties and wagons. Yet it had not been the gentlemen of the Old South, but these wilderness castaways, among whom the myth of the cavalier persisted most strongly.

Driven out of England by Cromwell, the myth found sanctuary in the American South. And flowered its finest amid cotton-mill waste. And in those grubby small towns where Main Street was rutted by wagon-wheels; and the last gas-lamp on the outskirts looked tired all night long.

A myth sustained, during the Civil War, not by Southern commanders and politicians, but by the Southern farmer, hillman and tradesman of the rank and file. These were the ones whose savagery in battle kept alive a myth as unreal as a dream; a dream that they were fighting and dying in defense of white-columned mansions; although their own fences were sagging and unpainted. A Quixotic belief, though their own lives were brutal and mean, that they fought to save their honor. And it was this fantasy, when the war was lost, which informed their refusal to accept defeat...
What strikes me most about this passage is that though Algren strays from his more familiar subject matter, his authorial voice remains constant. (That "the last gas-lamp on the outskirts looked tired all night long" could have come right out of The Man With the Golden Arm.) Though it's not about the hopeless urban hustlers and prostitutes he is best known for writing about, this passage is unmistakably Algren.

As is this marvelously succinct and biting conclusion:
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were not gunned down simply because they were outlaws. They were killed because their outlawry was so profitless. There were no payoffs, no kickbacks, no graft and no fees involved in rawjaw robbery. Had they had the enterprise - as others had - to arrange fake bank robberies for a percentage of the take, they might have become respectable and prosperous members of a business community.
Perfect, simply perfect.

January 3, 2010 in Books | Permalink

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