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Hammering Down I-25 | The Nation

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Hammering Down I-25

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In the 1920s The Nation published a series of articles by prominent writers about their home states, later assembled into a book titled These United States. We have commissioned a number of contemporary writers to write new portraits--a sort of "These United States Revisited." This is the second to appear in our pages. --The Editors

About the Author

James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke is a novelist who lives in Louisiana and Montana.

Most of my literary effort has been spent writing about the South and the American West. Geographically, I have always felt at home in either region. But the historical era with which people my age identify is less easily defined.

Americans of my generation, those born in the Great Depression, are transitional people, and as a consequence we tend to look at the historical calendar in the same way the two-faced Roman god Janus looked back at the preceding year and forward at the one to come. Because of the privation of the times we were born into, we throw away nothing, consider the wasting of food a theological offense and consider most financial institutions suspect. In some ways we feel we are sojourners in the present, with invalid passports, a bit suspect ourselves for the attitudes we hold.

George Orwell once described England as a protean creature, stretching ceaselessly into the past, forever changing, forever the same. I think the same could be said of the United States. The changes I've witnessed in my lifetime are enormous. But the strength, resilience, courage and compassion that are inherent in every aspect of the American value system remain unchanged. Unfortunately, our greatest weakness and vulnerability is still with us too--namely, our willingness to place our faith in charlatans, flag-waving demagogues and upscale hucksters who would turn the Grand Canyon into a gravel pit.

When I was a child, southern Louisiana was a misplaced piece of Caribbean culture where more people spoke French than English, almost all the dirt roads and state highways were canopied with live oaks, and each morning came to you like a gift, filled with birdsong, smelling of chicory coffee, ponded water, spearmint growing in a brick courtyard, night-blooming flowers, lichen crusted on stone, moldy pecan husks and fish spawning in the bayou. Time was static, and the salmon-colored vault of heaven over our heads was simply an extension of the idyllic natural world into which we had been born.

In his autobiographical book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller wrote of his visit to New Iberia during the Second World War and of the innocent way of life that characterized New Iberia's Acadian people, whose cypress cabins and houseboats and pirogues along Bayou Teche were shrouded in mist in the predawn hours, and the only sounds were fish flopping in the lily ponds.

Of course, the old injustices were here, too: massive illiteracy, rule by the plantation oligarchy, the denial of equality to people of color, wage exploitation of the poor, the great discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots.

The irony is that in many ways the deleterious aspects of early Louisiana society have found greater permanence in the present than the Edenic world described by Miller. For the most part, the plantation oligarchy is gone, but it has been replaced in economic and political influence by the petrochemical industry.

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