Dear Dirty America

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Personville: the American Dream Turned to Poison

April 04
15:00 2012
ADAM MICHAEL LUEBKE
Los Angeles

One of my very favorite opening paragraphs of any novel is found in Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Hammet’s first novel takes place in a fictional town situated in Colorado, between two big mountains that kept the industrial pollution trapped overhead the ugly city, giving it a “uniform dinginess.” The first paragraph of this novel is a pleasure to read aloud, but it’s also a tale wrapped into a paragraph about a small town overtaken by thugs.

The thugs were brought into Poisonville by a corrupt old capitalist named Elihu Willson so they could beat down labor unions and get Willson’s city back for him. Whenever scummy men are brought into a situation to use their thuggery, they end up turning on each other and their boss, and begin their own power-grabbing antics. The city is turned into a cesspool of greasy criminals carrying out violent crimes.

I suggest you read Hammett’s short first novel. It’s worth it. You see a prosperous mining town in the late twenties as the basis for a championed, freedom- and prosperity-rich America. Personville. It’s about individual empowerment. Good work, good wages, good city to spend them in. The American Dream. Yet, somebody always wants to take over. Somebody wants to own the most and keep the rest down.

That’s the start of Poisonville, when the workers’ unions went on strike demanding fairer wages for their hard and dangerous work. Mercenaries and mob thugs were brought in to very literally crack heads and even fire a few shots if it was necessary to get the working class back in line with the old capitalist.

Personville, or a village for the person, for the individual, could never be attained without a powerful labor union, because the capitalist will always want to squeeze more labor hours out of human workers for lesser pay. The individual cannot be empowered in a poisonous culture or village where their labor is being unfairly extracted without proper compensation.

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