The People who go to California to die

In Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), the character at the focus of the novel, if not quite its hero, is Tod Hackett, an artist who has come to Los Angeles to design sets and costumes for the movies. Hackett is fascinated by a character type he finds there—"the kind of person who comes to California to die"—who seems to be the clay out of which an American fascist could be modeled. Here's his first description of the species:

Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.

When, in preparation for writing my New Yorker article "It Happened One Decade," I began reading around in the literature of the nineteen thirties, I had the impression that the idea of going to California to die was metaphoric. I was surprised to discover in Edmund Wilson's American Jitters (1932) that it wasn't. Wilson wrote that at the time, San Diego led the United States in suicides, perhaps because "a great many sick people come to live in San Diego." If one allows for the poetic license of substituting Los Angeles for San Diego, it seems probable that West was inspired by Wilson's description:

The climate of Southern California, so widely advertised by Chambers of Commerce and Southern California Clubs, but probably rather unhealthy with its tepid enervating days and its nights that get suddenly chill, brings invalids to San Diego by the thousand. If they have money to move about and have failed to improve in the other health centers, the doctors, as a last resort, send them to San Diego, and it is not uncommon for patients to die just after being unloaded from the train. In the case of "ideational" diseases like asthma—diseases which are partly psychological—the sufferers have a tendency to keep moving away from places, under the illusion that they are leaving the disease behind. And when they have moved to San Diego, they find they are finally cornered, there is nowhere farther to go. According to the psychoanalysts, the idea of the setting sun suggests the idea of death. At any rate, of the five-hundred-odd suicides during the period of fifteen years mentioned above [i.e., between 1911 and 1927], 70 per cent were put down to "despondency and depression over chronic ill health."

I'm quoting here from the revised 1957 version of Wilson's essay "The Jumping-Off Place," because that's the version I happen to have access to at the moment, but the quotes of Wilson in my article come from the original American Jitters, which Wilson published in 1932, when his youthful vitriol was not yet tempered and his faith in Marxism still intact.

Cruel to be kind

“Random Facts of Kindness,” my review of On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (available now in the U.K.), is published in this weekend’s books section of The National (Abu Dhabi). Though I don’t mention it in my review, the design of the British edition is charming and features a black-and-white collage of Nietzsche, Freud, orphans, ladies, ministers, and other Victorian figures that runs not only across the front and back covers but also continues on both sets of the book’s end pages.

Zelda’s teeth

Most of the information about psychoanalysis in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night is pinchbeck, but I noticed something unexpectedly genuine when re-reading it yesterday. After Nicole Diver grabs the steering wheel from her husband Dick and nearly gets the whole family killed, Dick decides to take a vacation of sorts from the psychiatric clinic where he works and his wife resides. His excuse is a psychiatrists’ conference.

He had no intention of attending so much as a single session of the congress—he could imagine it well enough, new pamphlets by Bleuler and the elder Forel that he could much better digest at home, the paper by the American who cured dementia praecox by pulling out his patient’s teeth or cauterizing their tonsils, the half-derisive respect with which this idea would be greeted, for no more reason than that America was such a rich and powerful country.

The American psychiatrist who pulled teeth to cure schizophrenia was a real person: Henry Cotton, profiled by historian Andrew Scull last year in Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine, a book I’ve been meaning to read. Cotton believed that schizophrenia occurred when brains were poisoned by toxins produced by infection. To cure the psychopathology, he thought, you had to treat the infection. He therefore pulled out his patients’ teeth, tonsils, and long sections of their colons, killing many of them in the process. Cotton’s mentor, and to some extent enabler, was Adolf Meyer, and as it happens, Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, upon whom the character of Nicole Diver was not very loosely based, was in Meyer’s care at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in the early 1930s. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Meyer long letters protesting that he wasn’t really an alcoholic.

As near as I can suss out the chronology by skimming, by the time Zelda was in Meyer’s care, Cotton was in the process of being exposed as a fraud. But Cotton held to his scientific theories until he dropped dead in 1933, the year before Tender Is the Night was published. Fitzgerald probably resented Meyer’s authority, and he certainly envied it, so perhaps there was an intentional jab at Meyer in Dick Diver’s scorn for Meyer’s protégé. Or perhaps the novelist simply sensed what was bogus before the expert did.

Neither new nor rare

Historians have debated at length the question of when certain ideas about homosexuality came into currency. Here’s a piece of evidence, not previously reported to my knowledge:

In the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on 11 December 1868, a young man named Samuel M. Andrews was tried for murder. He pleaded not guilty by reason of “transitory insanity.” He was driven mad, he said, by Cornelius Holmes’s attempt to have sex with him.

It was a strange, sad case. According to the prosecuting attorney, Cornelius Holmes was not like other men. He was fifty-three years old at the time of his death and weighed 225 pounds. A bachelor, he lived alone in a boarding house. Though he had no occupation, he was said to be worth $20,000. The prosecution claimed that “The only person with whom he was at all intimate was the prisoner,” Andrews, who had killed him. The defense more or less agreed with this characterization of their relationship. Andrews “was almost the first young man Cornelius Holmes had ever met, who had not slurred him, & hooted at him,” Andrews’s attorney said. He added that Holmes “was not an idiot; . . . He was rather slow; played in childhood with children younger than himself.”

How intimate were they? The lawyers tried to bring this out. There was a telling exchange during the examination of a witness named Lysander Bartlett, a ship’s carpenter:

Question. Were Cornelius & Andrews intimate friends?

Witness. Mr. Andrews can tell you better than I can.

Chief Justice. You should not say to counsel that Andrews can tell you that better than I can. It is improper.

Witness. ‘Tis, eh? I knew they were intimate. . .

After Andrews was arrested for the murder, witnesses saw him kiss Holmes’s body.

In court, Andrews had a difficult task: he had to establish the nature of Holmes’s interest in him, and he had to make it sound plausible that he had resisted Holmes’s advances despite their persistence. He didn’t quite manage. He testified that “about nine years ago one stormy evening,” he and Holmes had shared a bed. “After talking awhile he turned towards me, & tried to put a part of his person between my legs, behind. I left the bed.” Though Holmes made other advances, the friendship continued. In fact there were hints that Holmes had thought of leaving his money to Andrews.

The murder came about one day when Holmes beckoned Andrews to follow him off the road and into the forest. Once they were alone, Holmes threw him down, tore open his pantaloons, put his hand in a relevant place, and said, “Now I’m going to have some, this time.” In a panic, Andrews grabbed a stone . . . That, at any rate, is what Andrews claimed in court, though he also claimed, confusedly, that he was “entirely unconscious of what took place.”

In summing up, the defense stressed how common Holmes’s tendency was:

Nor, gentlemen, is this any new crime. Go to our soldiers & sailors, inquire of our naval officers & see whether it is a new crime. The government would have you believe that this is an improbable story, because the crime is rare; gentlemen, this story is more than probable, for it is a crime which has always existed.

The prosecution, on the other hand, stressed how unlikely it was that Andrews would have had to kill Holmes in order to defend himself from rape. “Rape,” the prosecution insisted, wasn’t even the right word; in fact, the proper word didn’t exist, because the thing was impossible. The whole question of sex between men, the prosecution suggested, was probably a red herring: “There was in the present case no adequate evidence of any voluntary acts of indecency between the parties,” the prosecution argued, “but even if such existed, these had no tendency to prove an attempt to commit this act by force.”

In his instructions to the jury, the judge observed that Andrews had taken Holmes’s earlier advances quite calmly and had remained his close friend despite them. Taking the hint, the jury found Andrews guilty of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to twenty years.

(Source: Report of the Trial of Samuel M. Andrews, Indicted for the Murder of Cornelius Holmes, before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, December 11, 1868, including the Rulings of the Court upon Many Questions of the Law, and a Full Statement of Authorities upon the Subject of Transitory Insanity. By Charles G. Davis, of Counsel for the Prisoner. New York: Hurd & Houghton. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1869.)