The Unhappy Many

The Unhappy Many

THE AMERICANS: Photographs by Robert Frank, introduction by Jack Kerouac. Grove Press. 1959.

Shortly before Joe Hill was executed by the state of Utah, he requested that his ashes be scattered in every state of the union, except Utah. That state, he said, he would not want to be found dead in. One’s first response to The Americans, a book of photographs by Robert Frank (with an introduction by Jack Kerouac), is to extend Hill’s sentiments to the whole country. Here, in a country capable of vastly enlarging and beautifying the material life of its people, is a culture that not only produces an avalanche of dime-store trivialities but has succeeded in conditioning the population to accept them. Frank’s camera has caught Americans in offguard moments—a choice way to see what persons who are subjected to an ethos of production and distribution for profits really look like.

These photographs reveal Americans looking bored, lonely, waiting (for nothing), crowded amidst the rubbish of a high-geared industrial society, thrown together in incongruous relationships and settings.

America possesses a sort of double life—a vast commercial squalor on the one hand and an actual physical and potential cultural beauty on the other. Frank has made visible the first of these Americas which myriad power and propaganda blocs from the NAM to The Saturday Evening Post pretend does not even exist. To know that it does exist, one need simply go to any Greyhound depot and find he has missed his bus, or spend an hour in Times Square.

Photograph after photograph urge these claims—the stark save-money signs of gas stations in the country which seem like ironic cries for help, department stores beseeching YOU to remember your dead loved ones by buying a 69-cent white plastic-foam cross, neon-lit cowboy bars, lost young lovers in Chattanooga, couples sitting in shiny cars watching drive-in movies, people not knowing what to do with themselves when they are confronted by the week end—the list could be extended. These images might not fully explain why Americans annually consume sixty-billion tranquillizers or produce six-hundred-million gallons of liquor but they lend credence to such statistics.