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Iron Weed

Iron Weed

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Published by Jim Beggs
A very incomplete rough draft of a paper on William Kennedy's Ironweed.
A very incomplete rough draft of a paper on William Kennedy's Ironweed.

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Published by: Jim Beggs on Apr 21, 2010
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1Jim BeggsEnglish 864Prof. Jim Cahalan“The Turnpike to Salvation”: Postmodernism in William Kennedy's
 Ironweed 
William Kennedy's novel
 Ironweed 
engaged in fundamental problems of human existencein a very nuanced, non-totalizing manner. Not too surprisingly, attempts to neatly analyze thenovel under a singular theoretical approach have produced readings that were opposed to oneanother in terms of theory and politics. Often an article or essay somehow feels inadequate whenit cannot make a totalizing statement or argument about a work of literature. The novel clearlyaddressed what it meant to be a bum, the suffering of individuals under capitalism, guilt, and the potential for redemption for a troubled figure such as Francis Phelan. While Kennedy dealt withthe criss crossing layers of human experience, he placed an emphasis on the links between placeand the understanding of self. The novel demonstrated a materialist conceptualization of bums,their subjectivities, their positions within society and their low place under national capitalism.The tensions between the materialist philosophy of the novel and its aesthetics reveal the novel asa site of class conflict. Considerations of place and the postmodern reveal the configurations of discourses that constrain and compel people on paths not of their own choosing. Religion, class,and the literary intertwine in
 Ironweed 
producing a dense fabric difficult to unravel.In some ways Kennedy played down the historical setting of the novel, with the GreatDepression receiving only a brief mention rather late in the novel. However, Phelan's guilt over killing a man during a trolley strike foregrounds the history of the labor movement and thegovernment's violent responses to unionizing for improved conditions of labor. The presence of dead people from Francis's past indicate his highly troubled nature, perhaps being either  psychological or spiritual hallucinations resulting from his guilt over their deaths. Classifying
 
2Francis's hallucinations as the manifestation of schizophrenia reduces the complexities of thenovel for me, and potentially makes abnormal an alternative experience, whether spiritual or existential, as Foucault might have argued. The difficulty in pinning down one specific approachto analyze the novel marks it as philosophically postmodern. It engages with postmodernismcritically. Francis's life as a bum, his return to Albany, the reawakening of his sexuality and hismemories within Albany reveal Kennedy's desperate struggle to ascribe meaning and worth to thesuffering and hopelessness of the “weeds” on the margins of United States society.The histories of capitalism and the labor movement within the United States were crucialto
 Ironweed 
. Modern methods of transportation such as trains and trolley have been markers of modernity and capitalist development in the United States. They have been associated with brutalcapitalist land grabbing and the exploitation of farmers, such as in the case of Frank Norris's
TheOctopus
. Francis witnessed the accident and the memory of seeing the train hit his father, send itin a fifty foot arc through the air, and landing mangled on the ground haunted him for the rest of his life. “So many people go crooked when they die” (15). The mangled body of his father helped preserve the memory of the mangled body of his son for Francis, heightening his own agony andtransferring some of his guilt over his son's death to his father's. By the time that Francis returnedto Albany, the modernity of the trolleys had already worn off. “Terrific machines, but now they'regoin'” (21). Temporally, Kennedy situated the moment of Francis's return at the postmodernmoment when the novelty of modernity has worn off and the formerly glorious marks of progresswere now scars on the landscape. After seeing steam rise from a manhole on State Street “Francisimagined the subterranean element at the source of this: a huge human head with pipes screwedinto its ears, steam rising from a festering skull wound “(63). Violence and wounds were thesources of the unattractively and seedy urban landscape of Albany. The macabre image revealed
 
3the truly horrific toll that urban development and sprawl took upon the citizens and the naturalenvironment of Albany.The strike that Francis participated in was not dealt with great depth in the narrative andonly revisited at various points for Francis to experience a guilt trip for the unfortunate eventsthat transpired during the strike. He helped to string up bedsheets on the trolley wires and lightthem on fire to halt the trolley cars, which were being driven by scabs brought in to replace thestriking workers. In response to stone throwing from the striking workers, soldiers sent to escortthe scabs and the trolley car fired on the workers. The repressive state apparatus exercised forcein order to contain the threat of the labor movement. From a New Historical perspective, it would be irresponsible not to consider the union busting of Ronald Reagen, who fired over 10,000 air traffic controllers in 1981, only two years before the publication of the novel. As Christopher Craig noted in an article on teaching
 Ironweed 
to undergraduate students, it was easy to viewFrancis and the other characters as enduring the consequences of their own poor choices. Such areading to a certain extent might obscure the history of the maintenance of underclasses for capitalist exploitation. “Like other socially conscious novels of the late postwar period,
 Ironweed 
sometimes struggles against its own political priorities” (29). While the novel seemed quite progressive politically, a reader can easily become judgmental of Francis's tendency to go “on the bum” and run from his troubles. Something happened when Francis returned to Albany, particularly when he learned that his wife Annie had never revealed any aspect of Francis's rolein the death of their son Gerald. There is a material aspect to Francis's suffering and expiation, but his transformation took place on other levels as well. Craig's most helpful point was toidentify the novel itself as a site of class conflict. The novel reproduced the tendency during theReagan era to obscure the real causes for economic recession and enact punitive measures against

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