Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Stealing Enchantment

I’ve always been a bit enamored of the 1930s in spite of the crushing effects of the Great Depression that detrimentally affected so many. Yet it is that economic deprivation that brought people together. It began with sweeping Republicans out of office after their capitalist neo laissez faire policies and after decades of setting the tone for an economic life in the United States in the late 19th century through the the early 20th that allowed financial speculation to nearly lead to the downfall of an economic system designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Out of that collapse came a wave of Democratic Party leadership that favored people who deserved to have a chance to climb out of the pit dug for them by avaricious capitalism.
Even while the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted policies that provided relief and put people back to work through provisions like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), capitalists dug in their heels globally and went into a martial kind of mode to save themselves and then to regain power. This began in Italy and then in Spain and Germany.

Charles Wertenbaker

The growth of industrial capital, in a thinly veiled local example, is embodied in the 1950 novel by Delaware author Charles Wertenbaker entitled The Barons about three cousins in the early 20th century coming together to save a failing company and transform it into an industrial giant. Sound familiar?
Wertenbaker favored one of those cousins, portraying him, even in the midst of family scandal and personal foibles, as a leader who at least seemed to appreciate that the acquisition of wealth begins with hard work and not merely financial machinations or even good bookkeeping as his two other cousins believed, and who is in a position to do “a big, good thing.”
One can easily suppose that one of the major struggles of the 20th century was for capital to regain a foothold over the economic life of the world, accomplished as a result of global war. However that martial means that capital invented to save itself was ostensibly defeated after the end of World War II. That invention called fascism, which had over run Europe and threatened to supplant democracy in the United States and having already compromised genuine social progress in the Soviet Union, was never ultimately defeated.
Such was the conclusion determined in Charles Wertenbaker’s final novel, The Death of Kings from 1954. In the novel, the main antagonist, Louis Baron, the son of Stuart Baron from his previous novel The Barons, who had closely resembled A. I. duPont, resembles Henry Luce who runs a national magazine that could be easily mistaken for TIME magazine. Under Louis Baron’s aegis is assembled a network of political paranoia, a subterfuge of suspicions driven by villains, some of whom are unwitting, blinded by fear, and in the case of one who resembles Whittaker Chambers, outright and overtly evil.
The story in The Death of Kings begins with the devastating events just before the outbreak of World War II, particularly the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It was an event that split the Left, began the process of diluting a united Left in sympathy with progressive policies of the Roosevelt administration, and ended a “time of enchantment” during the 1930s, which would have been the title of Wertenbaker’s next novel, and the middle book of a trilogy that would’ve begun with The Barons and ended with The Death of Kings. 

Shortly after finishing The Death of Kings Wertenbaker contracted cancer, whether because it had run in his family or was triggered by the yellow paint he and a youthful friend had found and used to paint an entire house when working as laborers for Dupont near Wilmington. In any case, Wertenbaker considered cancer a somatic personification of evil. He made little more than some notes for A Time of Enchantment. About the proposed novel he declared:
“In all large organizations where one man is at the top, the others near the top will fight to get there, and so the morality of that organization will be conditioned by the struggle for power, and that morality will determine the organization’s external, as well as its internal, dealings. The only way to avoid this power complex, this power struggle, is by keeping the organization small and powerless (as in a very small business or a very small kingdom) or by curbing the power of the top man by vesting power in other –– and frequently hostile –– organizations (as in the checks and balances of the U.S. government or kingship in Britain). Let loose the struggle for power anywhere, and it will destroy all other concepts.”
While the phalanx of martial capitalism threatened to consume all of Europe, meanwhile in the United States, investments of government funds into the social welfare of our citizens was fueling progressive policies. Even some corporate leadership displayed some social responsibility, but it was government that established Social Security, unemployment insurance, greater enabling of labor unions, and cultural programs like the WPA’s artists, writers, music and theatre projects that fueled speculation that the projects might morph  into a cabinet level Department of Culture, and that was an enchanting notion.
However the seeds of fascism were hiding not only in the isolationist/America First woodwork, but in places like the Dies Committee of the U.S. Congress, having reared its ugly head in the attempted fascist coup d’etat exposed by General Smedley Butler in 1934. In Wertenbaker’s The Death of Kings we see a depiction of the right wing and fascists sympathizers gaining a foothold inside an important post war media vehicle. By the end of the novel Wertenbaker casts a wary eye at Spain with the remaining fascist regime under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The die had already been cast regarding the prospect of fascism in America. We had won the war, but we were loosing the battles, and over the next seventy years we would continue to loose battles while the legacy of Roosevelt’s policies got chipped away and the prospect of a time of enchantment faded from our consciousness. In this manner, Wertenbaker’s final two novels were not only prophetic but are now long out of print.