A new story and an old story
Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple who pointed a pistol and an assault weapon at peaceful protesters in St. Louis last June, have filed suit against a news photographer who snapped their rumpled likenesses. The picture went viral and they instantly became an internet meme.
I can only hope that the judge is not insane and summarily dismisses the case. But the plight of the McCloskeys reminded me of a similar — and similarly tragicomic — case from years ago.
One of my favorite books is The Egg and I, a bestselling memoir originally published in 1945. The author, Betty MacDonald, lived on a remote chicken ranch and her stories were sensitive, observant, and often hilarious, but there were also meta-stories about her tales, and the McCloskey story reminded me of the biggest Egg and I meta-story.
In the 1920s, MacDonald was newly married to a man she thought was a sedate Seattle office worker, when he announced that he had sold their house and bought a chicken farm in the distant wilds of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. MacDonald had grown up in the era of wives dutifully playing only a supporting role in their husband’s life, so she left her books and warm urban life to chop wood, carry water, and slop the chickens. The whole scheme, marriage included, collapsed after a few years but in that time she accumulated enough wonderful stories to — quite literally — fill a book.
Her nearest neighbors were a couple of miles down a rutted and narrow dirt road, but due to her farming naïveté and her loneliness, she visited them often. It’s fully halfway into the book before she introduces this neighbor family, but they became the center of the meta-story. MacDonald is clearly aware that, while she’s telling the truth, she is likely guilty of some hyperbole, and she doesn’t really show her neighbors in the best light, so she courteously anonymizes them by calling them The Kettles. Ma and Pa Kettle.
The Kettles were friendly and open, but they lived in squalor and filth, with countless feral children, braying donkeys, and barking hounds. Ma Kettle was slovenly and fat, Pa Kettle was devious and shirked every form of work.
Here’s a typical passage.
When I got to the house I found Mrs. Kettle in the throes of cleaning the bathroom and jubilant over an apronful of tools, the top of a still and an unopened package from Sears, Roebuck which had been missing for a year or so. The bathroom was definitely an after thought tacked on to one wall of, and accessible only through, the parlor. It was just a bathroom, containing a solitary tub and evidently used only through the warm weather. Knowing they had a good stream, a ram and a water tower, I asked Mrs. Kettle why they didn’t install an inside toilet. She was incensed. “And have every sonofabitch that has to go, traipsin’ through my parlor? When we start spendin’ money like drunken sailers it won’t be for no lah-de-dah toilet.”
The author goes on for pages hilariously describing the foibles and foolishness of the entire Kettle clan. Virtually all of their misfortunes — of which there are multitudes — are self-inflicted, due to their indolence, ignorance, and attitude. But they are not deterred. This next passage is core to understanding the Kettles.
With misfortune constantly stalking them and poverty and confusion always at hand, I was amazed at the harmony that existed around the Kettles. There was no bickering or blaming each other for things that happened — there was no need, for the fault didn’t lie with them, they figured. Taking great draughts of coffee, Mrs. Kettle told me again and again where the fault lay. “It’s them crooks in Washington,” she said vehemently. “All the time being bribed and buyin’ theirselves big cars with our money.” To Mrs. Kettle there was but one Government and that was in Washington, D. C. She had no knowledge of any county, city or state governments. “The whole damn shebang” was in Washington, and Washington to her was a place where everyone was in full evening dress twenty-four hours a day attending balls and dinners which seethed with spies, crooks, liquor, loose women, Strauss waltzes and bribes. Politics were the Kettles’ out. When the manure in the barn was piled so high Paw couldn’t get in to milk the cows or Tits Mervin had given her a black eye, or there was no chicken feed or money to buy any, Mrs. Kettle would say, “Look! Just look what them crooks in Washington has did. They put them new fancy laws on time payments so Paw can’t get a manure spreader. They give Mervin his Indian money so he gits drunk and hits Tits. They’re payin’ the farmers not to raise chicken feed and the price is so high I can’t git the money to buy it. If you want to know what I think,” she would take another strengthening gulp of the coffee, then glaring at Paw, Elwin, Tits and me, would conclude, “I think them politicians can take their crooked laws and their crooked bribes and stuff ‘em.” They would all nod wisely. The blame had been put squarely where it belonged and nobody on the Kettle farm had to go sneaking around feeling guilty.
About fifteen years after her adventures in the woods, MacDonald’s memoir is published and it is a huge success selling over a million copies in the first two years. She becomes something of a celebrity. Hollywood licenses the book and, in 1947, turns it into an movie starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, both big stars in their day.
In the movie, the Kettles are portrayed as merely bumbling and ineffectual, rather than mean-spirited and selfish but the consensus is that the best and funniest parts of the movie are those including the silly neighbors. Marjorie Main, who plays Ma Kettle, even gets an Oscar nomination. Audiences loved the Kettles so much that Hollywood eventually produced nine feature films about them. It’s the popularity of the book and movies that gives rise to the meta-story.
In the wake of the success of the book and movie, Albert and Susanna Bishop sued MacDonald and her publisher for close to a million dollars claiming to be the real Ma and Pa Kettle and asserting that they had been subject to “ridicule and humiliation” in their portrayal. Eventually there were multiple suits and much greed and bad attitudes on display. Most of the court cases were dismissed.
The behavior of the real-life Bishops, who had never been named by MacDonald, in filing their suits, broadcast to the world their real identities. Their claim that they were ridiculed only has validity if their real names are known, otherwise it’s a simple matter to deny it was they. But their greed was clearly stronger than their modesty, and by filing suit they boldly proclaimed to the world that they were, in fact, exactly the greedy bumpkins that MacDonald had portrayed pseudonymously in her book.
The McCloskeys, in their rumpled dockers and inexpertly-held firearms, could have quietly slipped back into their McMansion and gone about their lives simply saying that they had been misrepresented. But by filing suit against the photographer, they are boldly proclaiming to the world that they are, in fact, exactly the people that they appear to be: self-victimizing snowflakes, blaming others for their failures. Their self-righteousness and sham rectitude is bottomless and their victimhood is as fake as their castle. The Kettles are fools in the country, and the McCloskeys are fools in the suburbs.
I’ve seen the 1947 movie and it is, in a word, terrible. I have not watched the Kettle spinoffs but maybe someday I will. But Betty MacDonald’s original book is still an engaging and fun read after 80 years. The rutted road where the MacDonald’s chicken farm once was has been renamed to “Egg and I Road.”
And yes, MacDonald writes about Native Americans in a way that, while socially acceptable in the 1940s, is considered offensive today.