In 1901 Mark Twain wrote an essay called “Corn-Pone Opinions.” It wasn’t published in his lifetime. It’s been published since, in various collections, but I didn’t run into it until I was flipping through the 2000 volume of the best American essays of the past century edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. “Corn-Pone Opinions” opened the book.
I can see why the editors chose it. Twain starts with a folksy tone and a marvelous description of a now-distant memory of spectacle. With an openness most would find shocking today, Twain reminisces about the sight of a slave he used to know, some fifty years before, whose knack for impressions kept local boys laughing. The slave mimicked the style and gestures of local preachers, and, when he sensed his master might be listening, the sound of a saw working its way through a board.
However much Twain clearly relished this memory of a slave would fool his master with saw sounds, he also loved what the man had to say. In a recognizable move, Twain took the man’s homespun wisdom, and built upon it, a witty brick at a time, until he had moved so far away from the rhetorical harlequin figure he had evoked to begin that he was now talking about the entire human race, and it all seemed just as hypnotically right and charming. Twain repeats one line in particular from this unnamed genius: “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”
Twain then built an extended argument about how true this is. He argued that the average man “cannot afford views that interfere with his bread and butter” and that if “he would prosper, he must train with the majority.” His argument is, again, classic Twain. The insights he delivers about groupthink and economic determinism are doubly attractive to American readers through their fusion with a frontier anti-establishment attitude, a leavening of wit and an occasional spice of misogyny, and, always, just enough distance so that the average man can replicate this very groupthink experience by saying, “Yes, that’s so true. I know so many people like that.” And never see himself in it at all.
And I’m no different. As I read it, I said, “Yes, so true,” thinking of the fads I’d seen in my lifetime, substituting leg warmers for hoop skirts, and actresses for princess as fad starters. And then I stopped. It’s been a full century. Is this image still accurate?
Immediately, the answer came to me. No, it isn’t. Things have changed. For one thing, the domestic economy has changed. Corn pone is no longer the homey dish that Twain eulogizes. In fact, it has become rather exotic, a regional dish enjoyed at bed and breakfasts before antique runs through a series of small towns and back to the suburbs to relax.
What then is our corn pone? Just as immediately, the answer came to me. The Quarter Pounder. The Quarter Pounder is just as mundane to the citizen of 2002 as corn pone was for the citizen of 1901, but what a difference is summed up in this statement! Corn pone, a cheap form of corn bread made without eggs or milk, is a food of the poor. Like grits or hush puppies, it is a food invented by the working rural poor, but is now traditional. Born of necessity, corn pone is a way to get the maximum amount of food from a minimum of ingredients and financial outlay. And, like Twain, people fond of corn pone remember it with specificity. Their mommas made it one way, their grandmommas another, cousin Stacy never did get it right, and if they ever found a woman who could make real pone here in the city, they’d be happy.
But until they do find that woman, these modern, urbanized workers eat at McDonald’s, our contemporary provider of cheap food for the worker. And where they once could recognize if their momma had been distracted by the burned edges, or if their little sisters were learning how to cook by the uneven texture of the pone, they relax instead at knowing that their Quarter Pounders will be, within statistical deviation dependent on worker distraction and slippage in training practices, exactly the same. Variations will be minor, will mean nothing, and will be immediately forgotten.
But take the analogy further. Twain was concerned about conformity in a small and local way; Twain was concerned with corn pone conformity. For all that he made points about our larger society, Twain’s analysis was grounded in his original image. In Twain’s analysis, people, especially Americans with their divided allegiances to God, democracy, and the dollar, were likely to accept the opinions of those around them. Just as the corn in their pone was grown in nearby fields, ground by a miller they knew, bagged by another of the string of entertaining slaves Twain wrote about, and then baked by those who loved them, the opinions Twain was concerned about were handed to his fellows by the members of their church, their families, their townsmen. Just as the seasonings that made individual batches of pone distinctive indicated the geographical and economic limits on the cooks, the shared opinions upon which Twain heaps such scorn were often circulating over and over because there was simply nothing else available. And the speed with which fashions swept through his society was fed by the same taste for spectacle that made Twain cling to those memories of a capering slave for fifty years until they found a place in his writing. We accept Twain as one of our greats because he is one of us. Twain is a corn pone philosopher.
And except in quaint, residual pockets, none of that is true today. In fact, you could say I celebrate the same things that concern Twain because I am concerned with Quarter Pound opinions, not corn pone opinions. I am concerned with conformity on a global scale, with the way Quarter Pounder culture is driving corn pone from our plates.
What was the first line that Twain’s dark genius preached? “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.” Well, where a man gets his Quarter Pounder isn’t the issue. He can get it from the spotless McDonald’s with the cheerful Pakistani manager I visited in Greensboro North Carolina. He can get it from the incredibly filthy McDonald’s in Charlottesville Virginia. This McDonald’s was staffed by Black, white, and Hispanic women who could barely understand one another’s words, but who slouched behind the cash register with exactly the same lack of hope. In short, he could get his Quarter Pounder from any of the more than 28,000 McDonald’s in more than 120 countries, and it wouldn’t matter. Maybe it mattered whar a man got his corn pone, but it doesn’t matter where he gets his Quarter Pounder.
In place of local meal and downhome opinions, what does today’s hungry man receive with his food? Trends. Trends that are planned, merchandised, and promoted with cyclic regularity. These trends do not sweep through our towns like fads. Instead, they provide the basic fabric for them. Each year, we can judge when the summer movies come out by the annual emergence of the latest plastic toys at McDonald’s. However, unlike popular songs, McDonald’s promotions are not so striking that we date our lives by them in memory. We remember the year that Vanilla Ice came out, or the year that Brittany versus Christina was the big debate but we don’t remember which year we got the Monopoly game pieces or Atlantis submersibles. These promotions, like the McDonald’s wrappers, are disposable. Like the playground equipment outside so many McD’s, they offer safe stimulation, providing just enough managed excitement to race our psychic engines and get us through the day. Not enough to hurt or change us.
Twain never says so directly, but his scorn for the trends that swept through his society gave the impression that he found them stupid, and that he felt himself distant from them. Not me. I don’t find my fellow citizens stupid, and I know I’m all tangled up with them. But I find them produced, processed, and managed like the McDonald’s workstaff. McDonald’s is infinitely flexible. It can absorb changes in education level, age, or ethnicity of its employees without blinking. McDonald’s don’t fundamentally care if the beef used in quarter pound of hamburger came from disease free local cows, from cows that were grazed on what until recently was irreplaceable rain forest land (as was the case in Costa Rica), or if it was raised in Iowa. Beef is beef. Employees are employees.
Twain’s essay has a logical flaw. He assumes that exposing conformity matters. That if his readers recognized that they were circulating opinions that they hadn’t produced themselves, they would spontaneously break free, powered by a self-pride that would— somehow!— allow them to overcome their economic positioning. This message can be found in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and in new family sitcoms every fall. Every seventeen year old who figures out how the world “really works” believes that he can get the rest of society to throw off the corn pone chains of public opinion which had been thrust upon them through accident of birth or a biased media. And then we’ll all be free! Hurray!
However, a funny thing has been happening in recent years. As Americans across the political spectrum start their magazines, newsletters, television and radio talk shows, listservs and websites, they haven’t gotten any freer. In fact, at the same time that access to a free market of ideas has flourished, and that choices have multiplied, certain other things have also happened. To name one, Americans have gotten fatter. They’ve gotten fatter when information about what constitutes a healthy diet is more readily available than ever. And an ever growing percentage of the American diet is made up of processed foods— processed, packaged, measured, and in all ways regularized for ease of consumption.
Recall, if you will, Twain’s corollaries of his slave performer’s corn pone text. He said that the average man “cannot afford views that interfere with his bread and butter.” In the world of the Quarter Pound opinion, it is become clear that a man, a woman, or a transgendered individual can hold any opinion he, she or s/he wishes, so long as that individual does not interfere with the flow of beef and bread. Oh, s/he can choose. Choose a Whopper, over a Quarter Pounder. Choose a Vegie Burger over a Quarter Pounder. Be daring, and choose a (vegetarian) Boca Burger over a Quarter Pounder! In 1901, a man had to “train with the majority” in order to prosper. In 2002, one can choose from a nearly infinite menu of meals/opinions. You don’t have to think like the majority, so long as you shop like the majority. Eat like the majority. Grow fat and apathetic like the majority.
And relax. It won’t be unpleasant. In fact, it’ll be fun. You’ll never have to choose between conforming like Twain’s good neighbors or laughing at subversive wit like Twain with his slave. No matter what you choose, there will be a performer to entice you into the checkout line with greater wit and originality than Twain’s old friend. Like a retro feel? McD’s offers Ronald McDonald, the classic clown. More fond of cutting edge humor and ethnic backlash? Try the “Yo quiero Taco Bell” dog. Masculine culture and radio drama scripting? The Budweiser lizards. And in each case, the dancing bear/ talking dog / capering clown of the franchise will be as charming as the spectacle-loving Twain could wish, but, rather like the slave Twain converted into a rhetorical prophet of individual freedom, will serve to make us at ease in our servitude.
In 1901, Twain, that grand and witty prophet of clear thought, ended his essay by reviewing a recent controversy that not one person in a hundred could now identify, the argument over free silver. Twain suggested that not one person in ten on either side had rational backing for his position, and suggested that we all “do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking.”
In 2002, I’d like to close by weeping for Twain’s lost innocence. I grant that not one person in ten has rational support for his or her position in the free silver argument, but I’m afraid that far more terrifying is the realization that we can be perfectly reasonable, and, like Twain’s shackled Socrates, not be able to use our reason to gain freedom. What’s worse, Twain’s cherished slave knew where his master was, when to pretend to be working to keep punishment at bay, where his shackles ended and his flesh began, and where he could run if he wanted to risk it all for freedom. I don’t. I don’t really know where my Quarter Pounder comes from. I don’t know where the processing of the Quarter Pounder ends and I begin. I don’t know if boycotting McDonald’s will free my mind (though admittedly, it might shrink my ass), or simply serve to nudge McDonald’s into a better market position. I don’t know if publishing this will be taken as evidence that the press is freer than ever, or if my despair will convince others that there are no options, and that conformity is the best option available.
I do know one thing. What corn pone was in 1901, the Quarter Pounder is in 2002.
Greg Beatty was most of the way through a PhD in English at the University
of Iowa when his advisors agreed that letting him go to Clarion West 2000
would be a good idea. Bad idea. He finished his dissertation on serial
killer novels, then gave up on traditional academia and returned to his
original dream of writing fiction. He's had over two dozen stories accepted
September 2001, with acceptances by SCI FICTION, 3SF, Palace of Reason, The
Fortean Bureau, Ideomancer Would That It Were, deathlings.com, and several
anthologies. Greg's non-fiction has appeared in the Raleigh News and
Observer, Future Orbits, Audiofile, Science-Fiction Studies, Strange
Horizons, the New York Review of Science Fiction and numerous other venues.
Contact Greg Beatty at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Greg Beatty at email@example.com
December 4, 2002