Thursday, April 30, 2009

Michael Butter's "The Epitome of Evil: Hitler in American Fiction, 1939-2002" analyzes Richard Grayson's "With Hitler in New York"

Just published, Michael Butter's new book, The Epitome of Evil: Hitler in American Fiction, 1939-2002, analyzes Richard Grayson's "With Hitler in New York" in a chapter on Steve Erickson's novel Tours of the Black Clock
Negotiating what American culture associates with the figure of Hitler, Tours of the Black Clock echoes Richard Grayson's short story "With Hitler in New York," published ten years earlier, in 1979. Grayson's story achieves a very similar effect by way of very different formal means.

Erickson's Hitler is obviously a version of the historical Hitler, although the novel withholds the name. Grayson attaches Hitler's name to a character that seems to have little or nothing in common with the historical figure. "With Hitler in New York" persistently evokes and questions the image of Hitler as the epitome of evil that the reader is familiar with.

The story is set in the 1970s and revolves around Hitler's trip to New York where he visits his Jewish girlfriend Ellen and an unnamed male narrator. The narrator and Ellen pick Hitler up at the airport, and over the following days they go sightseeing, have dinner with Ellen's parents, and sit outside "on the stoop smoking a joint and eating vanilla ice cream" (15).

The sense of the ordinary thus created, however, is persistently undermined by the presence of the name "Hitler." The participation of a figure named Hitler in these everyday activities compels the reader to view otherwise harmless events in a different light.

Hitler's comment about the heat in the airport's arrival hall — "It's like a bathroom" (14) — for example, inconspicuous if uttered by anybody else, takes on a darker meaning, as the phrase echoes the lie Jews were told on their way to the gas takes on a darker meaning, as the phrase echoes the lie Jews were told on their way to the gas chamber, namely, that they were going to take a shower.

In addition, the narrator frequently compares the Hitler he chaperones around New York with the image he previously had of Hitler. Realizing that Hitler "looks handsomer than [he] remembered him as being" or that he "never realized [Hitler] was so witty," he adjusts his view (14, 16). And the reader, of course, constantly compares the version of Hitler the story presents to what he or she knows about the historical figure.

The effect the story thus produces, however, is not, as Alvin H. Rosenfeld has argued, "the neutralization of the historical Hitler and the normalization of a new image of the man" (72). To claim that "With Hitler in New York" presents a "de-Nazified Hitler" means to read the story realistically and to determine that the character it features is indeed an aged version of the historical figure (73). The story of course invites but simultaneously discourages this identification.

However, it is ultimately interested neither in the historical nor in its own "Hitler." Instead, "With Hitler in New York" explores what is commonly associated with Hitler. It denaturalizes connections between Hitler on the one hand, and evil, sadism, or anti-Semitism on the other, urging its readers to acknowledge how stereotypical these connotations have become.

And yet, "With Hitler in New York" does not attempt to reconfigure the meaning of Hitler for U.S. culture. The story neither offers a different set of associations nor does it invite a revisionist interpretation of the historical Hitler. By contrast, Tours of the Black Clock pushes its critique several steps further, since the text, as I have argued above, questions the validity of the category "evil" as such.

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