Thursday, 25 November 2010

It’s A-OK in Oklahoma

The Culture of Oklahoma, edited by Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill (U. of Okla Press, $14.95) set me thinking. What it comes down to is that Okies have a humongous inferiority complex apparently generated more by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath" than by the Dust Bowl effects he described.
Strangely, a repeated refrain throughout Oklahoma’s 11 essays is that the novelist was praising, not dissing, the Joads for their great hearts and character. So a variety of specialists try to pin down what Oklahomanness (ugly neologism) really is.
A fool’s errand. What could, say, Will Rogers, Oral Roberts, Bud Wilkinson, David L. Payne and E.W. Marland possibly have in common, other than paying the same income tax? And who the hell, you’re most likely thinking, are Payne and Marland?
Well, Payne is a kind of Okie folk hero, Mr. Boomer, who tried to manifest his destiny by leading land-hungry out-staters into the then-Indian territory—to be repulsed by the U.S. Cav. He burned out at 48, alas, before Sooner Time, that epochal land grab which commenced on April 22, 1889, when some 50,000 Okies-to-be got on their marks at Arkansas City, Kansas, to race towards the plots of their dreams in Guthrie, a last stop on the Santa Fe R.R.
There were several more land grabs into Indian territories before Oklahoma (Choctaw for “people” plus “red”) settled down into the funk these ideologues are trying to wish it out of. (Whistle tunes from “Oklahoma” when you really get blue.)
As for E.W. Marland, he’s one of my greatest unknown American heroes. He studied engineering in Ann Arbor, then started working for coal leasers until he got wind of Okie Paradise. There his gold turned really black, as he hit some gushers. He parlayed it into an outfit where he dared to compete, well by well, with Standard Oil. And for a while he did it.
What appealed to me was his vision for his home town, Ponca City. He despised the new zillionaires who messed up their money-making backyards, then tracked down to Palm Beach to cavort with other continental mess makers. He started turning Ponca City into the utopian company town—cultural centers, sporting complexes, health facilities, the works. Alas, he spent so much time and money on his ameliorative schemes that he lost his business to the bankers—and CONOCO.
I like to think that Marland’s mystical populism was pure Okie at its best, except that he was from Pittsburgh and educated in Ann Arbor.
I felt I was getting closer to the Okie muse in the chapter on football. I love the mot of U. of O. prexy George Lynn Cross before the legislature: He wanted more money to make a university the football team could be proud of. (The members broke up at his joke—but didn’t loosen their purse strings.) It is plausibly argued that the Pigskin Belt’s sports obsessions are lower common denominations, a sort of secular religion that gives meaning to folks who resent being put down as rubes.
The single most interesting chapter is Arn Henderson’s “Low Style / High Style: Architectural Origins and Image Distortion.” It’s more Joad bashing: the damning image of Okie architecture as sod houses followed by tacky clapboard farm houses. That’s regional Great Plains vernacular, which was soon superseded, he says.
Henderson explicates several Guthrie structures designed by a Belgian immigrant named Joseph Foucart. Those eclectic designs are indeed savory to this day, the kind of sudden skyline apparitions that justify the Golgotha of long Greyhound rides. Common materials (bricks from local red clay and similarly-hued sandstones are a palette H.H. Richardson taught us to love) topped by stamped metal sheets out of mail order catalog.
Mark Twain used to sneer amiably that the trouble with American architecture was that it had Queen Anne fronts and Mary Ann behinds. Foucart could be said to trade in Oral Roberts tops and Will Rogers bottoms.
But wait, wait. Beat not thy Okie breast. “Our recent architectural history is also rich. Some of our finest buildings were designed by internationally prominent architects. There are three structures in Oklahoma by Frank Lloyd Wright. There are numerous buildings, especially in Tulsa, Norman, and Bartlesville, designed by Bruce Goff; several of them are among his finest works. Two Oklahoma buildings have received the coveted Twenty-Five Year Award of the American Institute of Architects; the Price Tower in Bartlesville by Wright and the Bavinger House in Norman by Goff. Few other states in America can claim this distinction.”
Heh, I can’t think of many (any?) statesmen who would go so filiopietistic in public. (Next door, Arkansas glows over its indigenous genius, E. Faye Jones, but I can’t imagine them bragging about him like this.)
I’ll tell you what such an aesthetic inferiority complex leads to—the supermodern, international competition-derived Oklahoma Repertory Theatre across from the bus station in Oklahoma City.
When these local boosters stop worrying about what the U.S. thinks of them and simply lay out their own quirky and fascinating history, the collection soars and scores. Take the short and unevenly happy history of Sulfur, the Bromide Salts Capital of the Universe, before germ theory and “the Doctrine of Specific Etiology” undermined the credibility of sucking up sulfur water and paddling around in mud packs irrigated by the same muck. The city fathers didn’t sit around and mope about their now disused springs. They damned a few creeks and made their turf into Paradise Lake.
Meanwhile, my memories of Oklahoma remain special: the Wewoka lass with whom I spent some marvelously confusing months in the woods of Northern California; that early morning epiphany when the guy I chatted up in the lobby of Tulsa’s premiere Art Deco skyscraper (erected, like me, in 1927) turned out to be its architect (since that was his first commission and since he had just retired, you can imagine what a non-stop tutorial that accident led to); my first—and last—Tulsa rodeo, at which my hanging Minolta led to my being impressed to shoot Miss Tulsa (except that, while I was being led through acres of rumbling horse rumps, I shot off my last exposures accidentally, I made a simulated click with my teeth for Miss Tulsa and cleared out of there.)
So my advice to you Okie-knockers: Lighten up. You’re as A. Okie as you really are. No more. No less. But that’s the same state of awareness in all the other 49 as well. Don’t make your life more miserable than it need be by obscuring your blue skies with social scientific piffle.
But do listen to your historian sage, Howard R. Lamar. His wise essay on fine-tuning your part in the revisionism going on in Western history is worth the price of the paperback. Be sweetly cynical like the great Will Rogers. And ignore the inane Oral. Then it won’t matter what other states think of you.
If you have reason to think well of yourself, what others wonder won’t matter a bit. O.K., Okies?
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 25, 1993

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