An Introduction to American Odd

A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Kooks, by Donna Kossy
America, by which I mean the United States, has been called a lot of things: a laboratory of democracy, a city upon a hill, and the land of opportunity. This nation has also produced a lot of odd stuff. Inspired in part by the literary blog ireadoddbooks.com and Michel Foucault, this essay series seeks to explore the stranger intellectual crevices of this great nation of ours. In previous essay series I sought to answer The Big Questions (“What does it mean to be human?”) and investigate the erotica genre. A similar through-line occurs in the subject matter selected for this essay series. “What makes these works odd?” and “Is there something within American culture that cultivates this oddness?”
What is American Odd? For me it is a catch-all umbrella term for the strange, peculiar, idiosyncratic, and unclassifiable. This goes back to Michel Foucault. When he began teaching at the College de France he chose his own academic title. The title he chose was chair of the “history of systems of thought.” During his academic career Foucault investigated the intellectual archaeology of systems and institutions we take for granted (the hospital, the prison, human sexuality, etc.). As it pertains to this essay series, I’m looking into non-mainstream systems of thought. These range from experiments in the literary avant-garde to manifestos to conspiracy theories. Also included are religions and roadside attractions and comics one can find in the newspaper.
This is an essay series of interrelations and resonances. I’ve always been interested in Mormonism. I’ll look at The Cremaster Cycle, Matthew Barney’s epic of five films. Mormonism plays a key role in Cremaster 2 with its re-enactment of Gary Gilmore’s murder spree and execution. I will also look at a biography of the Prophet Joseph Smith. No ordinary biography, this one was written by his mother. Considered both a prophet and a madman, Charles Manson speaks for himself in The Manson File, an anthology of his writings, art, and song lyrics. Chicago-based oddities will include Martin Gardner’s book on the so-called Urantia Cult and the art and writing of Henry Darger. Other oddball selections include Zippy the Pinhead (the newspaper comic), roadside attractions (Zippy has conversations with Muffler Men), The SubGenius Foundation, and Donna Kossy’s endlessly fascinating book Kooks. In addition to these books, I will also check out Gilbert Sorrentino’s trilogy Pack of Lies, an avant-garde fictional hall of mirrors, and Alexander Theroux’s novella Three Wogs. Theroux remains the oddest voice in American contemporary literature.
The only predetermined perspective I will bring to this essay series is that of aesthetic appreciation. The intent is not to debunk or disprove these idiosyncratic systems of thought. Whether it is a fringe religion or a conspiracy theory, my aim is not to critique but to find out what motivates people to believe these things. I will also avoid medicalizing or psychologizing the subject matter. No easy task, since it is easy to classify Henry Darger, conspiracy theorists, and fringe religious believers as “insane” or “crazy.” To take the example of artist and writer William Blake, offering a psychological diagnosis for his personal self-made mythology adds nothing to aesthetic appreciation.
Humans are pattern-making creatures. Conspiracies help certain individuals and groups make sense of the world. Despite my position of non-judgment, I won’t sit on my hands or utter some platitude about how all belief systems are equal in value. They are not. In Donna Kossy’s Kooks, there are swaths of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and other awfulness. It just happens to be awful belief systems that don’t fit into the usual garden variety hate literature. This essay series will be a delicate balance of the celebratory and the critical. The important factor will be investigating why individuals believe they way they do. “Why?” is the toughest question to answer.

Karl Wolff has been a local TV production assistant, museum curator, and undergraduate teaching assistant. He currently reviews books for CCLaP, the New York Journal of Books, runs his own blog (The Driftless Area Review), and has written features for Milwaukee's own Alcoholmanac Magazine and INFO* Magazine.