Monday, May 16, 2022

Review of "Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life" | Disability Studies Quarterly

Originally published at Disability Studies Community Blog

Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life
Gustavus Stadler
Beacon Press, 2020

Image of book cover featuring title and profile of Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life is an eponymous man-behind-the-myth look at an abiding figure of folk-music and left-wing Americana. Against the popular (and populist) conception of Guthrie as a rugged, rambling, and hardheaded archetype of freewheeling Old Left communist politics and salt-of-the-earth masculinity, author Gustavus Stadler presents a man whose life’s labors were informed by a profound awareness of vulnerability, fragility, and debilitation. An Intimate Life is also more than pure biography as it is an opportunity to explore the broader concepts of love, sexuality, disability, and communism in the context of the early-to-mid-twentieth century United States, as refracted by the personage of Guthrie. Though not a work of the Disability Studies genre, per se, the issues of normativity (and deviance), madness, impairment, and physiological stigma and shame are featured prominently throughout the book.

Indeed, this book is an intimate biography and a biography of the intimate. More than Guthrie’s strident politics or ideological journey, Stadler focuses on the private correspondences, diary writings, and personal friendships that reveal Guthrie as a deeply sensual human being. Rather than conjuring the image of a man violently strumming a guitar amidst the throes of revolutionary fervor, An Intimate Life elicits the sensation of a man delicately rolling a pencil between his fingers as he prepares to put innermost thoughts to paper. It is more Walt Whitman than Karl Marx, who is put into communion with Guthrie in this book. In describing the import of Guthrie’s semi-autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory, published in 1943, Stadler writes that it tells “the story of his [Guthrie’s] interest in troubled people and damaged bodies that needed intimate attention.” This includes scenes of “men improvising relations of care, of quasi-domesticity” while riding in train boxcars across the Midwest. It also significantly includes Guthrie’s “haunted” relationship with his mother, Nora, “through his deeply traumatized depiction of [her] decline,” due to Huntington’s disease.

Nora Guthrie began expressing increasingly acute symptoms of Huntington’s, viz. physiological and psychological loss of control, when Woody was still young. The people of the small Oklahoma town in which the Guthrie family lived began to comment derisively upon and shun Nora for being “crazy.” In 1927, Woody’s father had Nora committed to a state institution for the “insane,” where she died shortly thereafter. The young Woody, ignorant at the time of both the diagnosis and the heritability of Huntington’s disease, would have been shocked to know that a similar fate awaited him in his elder years. In fact, the adult Woody Guthrie of the 1950s was resistant to the Huntington’s diagnosis given to him by doctors; he instead attributed his advancing physiological and psychological impairments – and his increasingly frequent and extended stays in various state institutions and psychiatric hospitals around New York City – to alcoholism.

There are other often-overlooked elements of Guthrie’s story that Stadler gives extensive treatment to, such as the importance of his relationship with his long-time partner and wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia; Guthrie’s fascination and complicated relationship with sex, sexuality, and homosexuality; and the abstract artistic expressionism of his later years, after he began exhibiting symptoms of Huntington’s, which focused on questions of racism, whiteness, and white supremacy in the U.S. Additionally, Stadler presents an even-handed, if not sympathetic, interpretation of Guthrie’s lifelong commitment to working-class revolutionary politics and the American communist movement, which enjoyed something of a surge in popularity in the New Deal 1930s.

From a disability and madness studies vantage the most interesting sections of An Intimate Life are to be found in the latter chapters of the book, which examine Guthrie’s experience with and reflections upon being institutionalized. Between 1956 and 1967, when he died at the age of fifty-five, Guthrie cycled between a number of state institutions, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily. The conversations and observations he obtained from others in these institutions profoundly impacted him. ‘Shell-shocked’ war veterans, old leftists, ‘deviant’ victims of the 1950s persecution of homosexuality – such people furthered Guthrie’s awareness of the social effects of stigma, marginalization, and shame. Mediated by a callous and cruel capitalist social system and an imperious medical establishment, Guthrie saw in his fellow ‘patients’ not people who were primarily victims of their various diagnosed pathologies – many of whom Guthrie maintained were “sick in [their] own healthy [emphasis added] way” – but victims of a “crazy mixed up” society.

In a fascinating stroke of comparative insight, Stadler contextualizes Guthrie’s experience by making recourse to the apt poetry of Allen Ginsberg. In 1956, the same year that Guthrie entered the Greystone Psychiatric Hospital near New York City, Ginsberg published the famous poem, “Howl,” which references Greystone and other New York institutions, inhabited by “twenty-five thousand mad comrades.” When Ginsberg writes in the opening line of the poem, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” he may well have had numerous specific names in mind, as Ginsberg witnessed many friends, contemporaries, and family members committed to institutions over the years, many of whom identified as communist, queer, or otherwise non-normative.

An Intimate Life has a lot to offer those interested in a diverse array of subjects. It is a story of the shifting ideological climate of the United States between the 1900s and 1950s, as working-class politics went from milieux of itinerant syndicalist organizing, to New Deal and Popular Front socialism, to revanchist and repressive Cold War anti-communism. It is a story of sexual politics, gender variance, and the socially-constructed deviance corresponding thereto. It is a story of American racism, lynch mobs, white supremacy, and critical self-reflective whiteness. It is a story of disability, illness, normativity, stigma, and institutionalization. And it is a story of love, romanticism, the beauty and bane of family intimacy, poetry, music, the sublime, and the sublimated.