Monday, November 28, 2016

My Little Book-Historical Connection to Alice's Restaurant

This book is my copy of the English edition of Ernst von Salomon's bestselling Fragebogen (The Questionnaire [1951]).

Von Salomon (1902-72) was a German right-wing extremist of the interwar years, implicated in several acts of political violence, including the assassination of German Prime Minister Walther Rathenau. Though he never gave up his extremist beliefs, he moved in heterodox arch-conservative circles and claimed that he never became a Nazi. He was nonetheless briefly imprisoned as one after the War. Several years after his release, he published his memoirs, for which he sarcastically employed the format of the lengthy questionnaire (Fragebogen) on past political activity that the Allied occupation forces used to implement their de-Nazification policy.

The translator is the World War II intelligence officer and novelist Constantine Fitzgibbon, who also produced the English version of the memoirs of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss. Ironically, his half-brother Louis Fitzgibbon became a noted Holocaust denier. 

The late Robert Wistrich was unsparing in his portrait of von Salomon as a typical "noble fascist" (as the German term has it): a violent extremist who had contributed to the death of German democracy and then claimed to have moral or practical qualms about the vulgar Nazis and their terror, yet profited from the regime and its backing, and after the war was unrepentant, drawing a false moral equivalence between Nazism and Allied occupation. The book, he said, "was a bitter, cynical personal testament, which exposed his utter indifference to questions of guilt and repentance."

The blurbs on the back cover, among my all-time favorites in this genre, are in the same spirit as Wistrich's sketch. (Hugh Trevor-Roper was the historian of Tudor-Stuart England who, while working as an intelligence officer in 1945, was tapped to write the account of The Last Days of Hitler [1947].)

I acquired this at Paul's Books, one of the great used bookstores in Madison, WI (I went to school with the kids and knew the late owner, as well as his widow, who maintained the store and always greeted me effusively whenever I returned in later years). I bought it because I was taking classes and doing research on Nazism. It turned out to command my interest for other reasons, as well.

It has to be one of the more unusual items in my library: because it is an "association copy," valued for the connection to the author or owner rather than for its intrinsic nature. In this case what makes the book unusual is not just the fact that it made its way from the northeast to the midwest, but the "Alice's Restaurant" connection. How it got to Paul's bookstore, I have no idea.

Alice's Restaurant

Many (particularly those who lived through or developed an affection for the era of the counterculture) will know this modern folk classic and the backstory. If not, the Massachustetts Cultural Council's "Mass Moments" explains:
[On November 28, 1965] 20-year-old Arlo Guthrie was convicted of littering in the Berkshire County town of Stockbridge, and the song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" was born. The son of legendary musician Woody Guthrie, Arlo and a friend were spending Thanksgiving with Alice and Ray Brock at the couple's home in a former church. Alice asked the boys to take a load of trash to the town dump. When they arrived, they found that the dump was closed, so they threw the trash down a nearby hillside. Guthrie turned the story of their subsequent arrest and court appearance into a best-selling record.

The story of "Alice's Restaurant" begins and ends at a church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. By the 1960s, the small, pine Gothic Revival building had lost its congregation. The Episcopal diocese put the building up for sale, and in 1964, Alice and Ray Brock purchased it. After a formal de-consecration ceremony, the young couple moved in.

The Brocks were a creative and charismatic pair who had been influenced by Jack Kerouac and other members of the Beat Generation. Ray was an architect and woodworker, Alice a painter and designer. Both worked at a private school in nearby Stockbridge. They transformed the former church into a quirky but welcoming place where their students and other young people could find refuge from "establishment pressures," especially the Vietnam War and the draft.

Ray and Alice served as surrogate parents for the young women and men who camped out, sometimes for weeks at a time, at the church. The neighbors were not happy about the arrangement. They viewed the Brocks and their guests as drug-using, long-haired hippies. Agitated residents honked their car horns and yelled as they drove past; they wrote letters to the editor protesting the presence in their community of what they called a "beatnik commune."

It was in this context that police officer Bill Obanhein reacted so strongly when the church group was implicated in the Thanksgiving trash dump. That evening, the Brocks received a call from Obanhein. He had spent "two very unpleasant hours" going through the debris until he found an envelope with the Brocks' name. Alice confirmed that Arlo and his friend were the culprits. Obanhein summoned the boys to the police station.

"Officer Obie" later admitted that he had no sympathy for longhaired, nonconformist teenagers, although he conceded that they were basically "good kids." He decided to give them a scare and make an example of them so that the town would have no more trouble with hippies. He arrested the pair and put them in a jail cell until a furious Alice Brock bailed them out. Two days later, they appeared before a blind judge and his Seeing Eye dog, who "viewed" Obanhein's photo evidence of the trash dumping and convicted the two young men of littering. He fined them $25 each and ordered them to clean up the trash.

After paying the fine and completing the cleanup, Arlo Guthrie began composing what would take up one entire side of his first album. Eventually 18 minutes long, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" evolved slowly over the next two years. The first verses written recounted the events of Thanksgiving 1965. Later Arlo added lyrics critical of the Vietnam War. When Alice Brock opened a restaurant in Stockbridge in early 1969, the song found its refrain, "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant." Then, finally, there was the draft. Called before his New York City draft board for a hearing on his fitness for military service, Arlo faced a final question: "Have you ever been arrested?" In the song, his conviction for littering saves Arlo Guthrie from the draft. In reality he was classified 1A, but his lottery number never came up.
I first learned of the incident when I was in middle school. We were having a sleepover at a friend's house, and when we got up the next morning, my friend's mother said, "Alice's Restaurant is on." Because her name was Alice, I at first thought she was just referring to her breakfast menu, but then she played the album in its final version with the Vietnam lyrics, and I made another step forward in my cultural literacy.

A Birthday in Massachusetts

Back to the book. The owner, whose rather conventional bookplate graces the inside cover, wrote a long inscription on the flyleaf, recounting bicycle travels in Massachusetts with friends, culminating in a birthday celebration at which several friends signed the volume.

The last two names are those of Ray and Alice Brock. Not a book I would ask my close friends to sign, and an odd circumstance for future hippies, perhaps, but such are the discreet charms of book history.


"51 things about Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ on its 51st anniversary" (Boston Globe)

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