Thursday, August 05, 2004

Joyce Carol Oates Looks At the Movies and Monroe

Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s major novelists, has written Blonde, a fictionalized account of the life of actress Marilyn Monroe. Oates like Monroe came from a poor white family and matured during the 1950s. The novelist says that when she saw a picture of the actress at seventeen, “she reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes.”

Monroe, whose given name was Norma Jean Baker, is called Norma Jeane in the novel. Oates describes Monroe as having a terrible working class childhood in Depression Los Angeles. The child was fatherless. Norma Jeane’s mother, who was a worker in the negative-cutting lab for a Hollywood Studio, had that Depression dream of redemption through glitzy stardom, but the mentally unstable mother tried to maim her daughter and then was put in a mental hospital.

At first the mother seemed like one of the grotesque creatures who might have stepped out of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, but Oates is much more class orientated than West. Oates makes Norma Jeane, abandoned to grow up in orphanages and foster homes, symbolic of all the abandoned children in Depression America in the chapter aptly titled “The Lost One”: “These were children lacking names. These were children lacking speech, comprehension. Injured children, many badly burned." Oates’s Norma Jeane Baker was one of those abandoned Depression children seen in Dorothea Lange’s photos or Steinbeck’s narratives.

When Oates describes Norma Jeane Baker’s pained relationship with her mad mother, how accurate is it to the actual life? If the novel is compared with a biography of Monroe’s life such as Anthony Summers’ Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, it soon becomes apparent that Oates has omitted many details of Baker’s horrific childhood. In the novel Norma’s grandmother Della was a loving figure who died when Norma was around six, but the real life Della, who rarely saw her granddaughter, had a mental breakdown and was taken to Norwalk Mental Hospital as was Monroe’s mother. If Oates would have included detail after detail of the horrors of this childhood, the novel would have sounded like grotesque melodrama. Wisely, she didn’t. For example, instead of describing the four foster homes Norma was in, she describes one. Instead of describing Monroe’s numerous abortions, the novelist only describes one. Oates is writing fiction, not biography, and uses the fictional writer’s ability to select and shape her material.

Oates does situate her heroine within the tradition of working class literature using realism when she describes the Depression as the “season for abandoned children. And nowhere in greater numbers than in Southern California." Most well-known writers of working class realism are male: Jack London, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, et al. Upton Sinclair in The Jungle used realistic detail to pile on descriptions of polluted meat processing while Steinbeck used that same realism to describe the havoc dust storms wrought in Grapes of Wrath. In a similar manner Oates describes in gory realistic detail where abandoned babies were dumped in Depression Los Angeles.

Despite these descriptions where Oates sounds like a ‘30s proletarian realist, the writer in a Los Angeles Times interview has said that while she admires Steinbeck, she does not like his methods and was instead inspired by modernists like Dos Passos and Joyce. In an interview with Oates published in the Atlanta Constitution she says that Blonde’s “line of descent, so to speak, may derive from John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., with its lively, inventive portraits of ‘real people’ mixed with fictional characters. Dos Passos’ Henry Ford, for instance, is an obvious ancestor of E.L. Doctorow’s emboldened portraits in Ragtime.” Other important novelists in this tradition who mix history and fiction while trying to write the Big American Novel encompassing statements about American culture and history are William Styrons’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Don De Lillo’s Libra, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Norman Mailer’s
and others.

Oates changes that previously male tradition of the American novel about history by writing about a female heroine. Oates depicts Norma Jeane Baker as the archetypal American heroine symbolic of the Depression, the 1940s, and then 1950s. In the Atlanta Constitution interview, Oates says, “I created an ‘epic’ form to accommodate the complexities of the life. It was my intention to create a female portrait as emblematic of her time and place as Emma Bovary was of hers."

After Norma Jeane was portrayed as the typical abandoned Depression child, she was then depicted in the early 1940s as a bored stay-at-home teenage housewife with an oppressive husband. She rushed off to war work to become a defense worker on the assembly line at an aircraft plant where she still had hope and plenty of it. She was a Miss Rosie the Riveter in the splendid chapter "The War" showing how she, like millions of other American women, escaped poverty by making planes or ships. What could be more symbolic of the 1940s than Norma in her coveralls making airplanes? But this short moment of empowerment was soon over when the war ended.

By the late 1940s Norma Jeane was like millions of other American women pursuing the more “female” occupations: in her case, she was a model and aspiring actress. What could be more symbolic of 1949 than Otto Ose photographing Norma for the nude calendar? Desperate for money, Norma posed for the nude calendar for which she got $50, Ose got $900, and other men got millions.

The photographer Ose was a former Communist now critical of Communism and is a Jew who, after Holocaust hated 99% of humanity. Yet he started teaching Marxism to Norma who was fascinated. When doing that famous nude photo shoot he called the United States a "booming fascist state ... and girls like you are luscious pieces of candy for whomever's got the dough to buy them....” He posed her body as a piece of candy on crushed velvet. Oates splendidly catches his ambivalent emotions. As he photographed her nude, betraying her with his camera, he was at the same time sympathetic as a poor girl without family or connections who was “... a piece of luscious meat to be marketed. In her prime, and her prime would not last.” Oates uses Ose as her mouthpiece to analyze how poor women would be marketed in the 1950s in the film industry and in magazines like Playboy.

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