Ghosts of You and Me in ‘Ghosts of America’

Jackie Kennedy in shadows while watching the 1960 presidential debate.
Credit: Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Shutterstock.

Spooky stories and barren winter go hand-in-hand. Humans of the 8th century passed the long, dark nights with the saga of Beowulf’s monster hunting. Trauma and tragedy run rampant in Shakespeare’s 1611 work A Winter’s Tale. Centuries later, the Victorians fused yules and ghouls via Christmas yarns like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Christmas-themed “The Body Snatcher,” Sir Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber” and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  

Keep the tradition alive this winter by immersing yourself in a narrative more timeless than any Christmas story, and more chilling: Caroline Hagood’s Ghosts of America: A Great American Novel (Hanging Loose Press).*

The central hauntee here – the Scrooge – is Herzog, a middle-aged, misogynistic author famous for his “biographical novels” of even more famous women. His first big hit was about Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Now he’s turned his pen toward Jackie Kennedy – and it’s not going well. Probably because Herzog’s too obsessed with his aging, drunken body, his faltering inspiration, and his incessant peeping on a young woman across the alley. 

Herzog knows he’s objectifying this woman – just as he knows he objectifies the women he writes about. It’s all wrong and he’s disgusting – and yet he persists. He’s both aware of and ashamed of his flaws but only because that shame lets him maintain his flaws with less guilt.

He’s such a major pig that when a fortune teller warns his life will be visited by spirits who look like beautiful women, Herzog says, “I think I salivated a little hearing that one.” He soon changes his tune.

Herzog’s first ghost appears as Jackie Kennedy, and she’s there to speak her truth: “You’ve been miswriting me… I am here to set the record straight.”

Jackie explains she’s far more complex than the media and public imagination permitted. She’d dreamt of being a writer, of being a photographer, of seeing the world – but those dreams were forced into the background as a fairy tale was woven around her. With each click of a camera and with each column inch, Jacqueline Bouvier’s true self was subsumed by so-called Camelot: “They shot and shot, and I could feel myself transforming from photographic inquirer to photograph. I had been reborn as image.”

Inside, Jackie says, she was Achilles; outside, she was miscast as Helen. 

Jackie thus became lost in a miasma of others’ hopes and expectations, surviving only by shaping her own version of herself. “I carved myself into the perfect woman… I was both painstaking artist and accomplished artwork.” Just as men like Herzog construct women, so too do women construct themselves to endure those constructions. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they don’t. 

When Jackie vanishes, Herzog doesn’t meditate on her words. He doesn’t internalize and consider her message. Instead her gets horny for writing – horny for his writing, specifically. He will put Jackie’s words on paper – in his words.

“Are you fucking kidding me, Herzog?” The ghost of Valerie Solanas bursts onto the scene, disgusted at Herzog’s predictable reaction, i.e., turning Jackie’s “whole searingly beautiful monologue as fodder for a geriatric jack-off session masquerading as literature.”

After first celebrating her role as a gender theory pioneer – “I had trouble with gender long before even Judith Butler” –, Valeria notes how the many ways the media and public distorted her pre-Me Too philosophy, just as it distorted Jackie’s entire existence. That isn’t a coincidence. It’s systematic.

“I was a philosopher—but America only respects action, only values violence, really. And phallic symbols. Look at the literary canon. Besides being named for an actual weapon, it means something along the lines of ‘measuring rod.’ 

So the very establishment of our literary and cultural foundations was always just a pissing contest, a high-brow dick-measuring session….” 

It’s here that the author Hagood’s true intention becomes clear. As the title suggests, Ghosts of America’s about more than haunting of one man. It’s about the haunting of all literature, and all of us. Hagood’s Herzog’s more than just a fictional character. He’s a stand-in for a whole genre of male author: the male author who use women as pawns, literally and figuratively.

As Solanas/Hagood tells Herzog/us, “Your drive to create, all of you, has often been at the expense of the ladies. Let’s not forget how Hitchcock said, “Torture the women…. Poe’s big writing advice was—get ready for it — ‘to include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.””

From Ovid to Poe to Saul Bellows to Denis Johnson, an author Hagood’s Herzog fetishizes, literary men have built entire careers on diminishing, demonizing, torturing, downplaying or fetishizing women.

And from the mythological princess Philomela to Ali McGraw’s Jenny Cavilleri in Love Story to Jackie Kennedy in real life, women have been objects of tragedy as much as objects of desire, and almost always at the hands of men. Even the big baddie in Beowulf was a woman: Grendel’s mom, the mother of all evil. 

If the woman’s not the villain, she’s a tragic figure, in real life and in fiction. As Jackie told Herzog before fading away, she was recast after JFK’s assassination, “I had become no longer a lady but a walking symbol of everything that hurt in the world. Some composite of La Llorona, Philomela, and all the sacrificial, ghostly women of this earth… It seems our grandest narrative is that of the woman blessed and made immortal through horrific trauma.” Her cycle as a symbol was now complete.

Yet Solanas doesn’t entirely fault men for their literal and literary abuse of women. She/Hagood allow a little bit of empathy for their plight. Men too suffer under societal constructions, just like Jackie, Valeria, and everyone else: “Yes, it hurts men that they can’t be sad themselves, and that’s another part of the story, and yes, men are also abused and have to survive it…”

We are all haunted by archaic constructions and norms. We are all miscast because the roles are too limited: men are one way, women are another, and those roles are ingrained in every aspect of our history and culture. 

Mercifully, as Herzog/Hagood remark, this cycle of social assumption and personal construction need not be permanent. It’s gone on for eons, but the curse can be broken. We can rewrite the roles and free ourselves by looking beyond the surface, by using what Herzog/Hagood call an “internal lens we ignore until we can’t any longer.” 

By using that lens, we can exorcise the ghosts of America, and the ghosts of the world. In doing so – by seeing through the obsolete and dangerous constrictions – we all – writers, artists, everyday people – can unleash true creativity. “Morphing is, of course, the basis of creativity,” Herzog remarks, citing Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And that creativity – it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note I’ve known Caroline Hagood for 20 years – since we were freshman at Vassar. That does not mean I was poised to like her book. In fact, if I’m being honest, the idea of reading a prose poem about a misogynistic author haunted by the women he objectifies was not particularly appealing. In other words, I read it as a favor to a friend, but I enjoyed it because it’s inimitably enjoyable. It’s spell-binding and clever and astounding in the spectrum of literary references, connections, and tropes Hagood includes and, at points, skewers. A prose poem as elegant as it is serrated, as masterful as it is penetrating, Ghosts of America is part spooky story, part sociopolitical evisceration, part literary fantasia, and all insightful.

Caroline Hagood’s Ghosts of America: A Great American Novel (Hanging Loose Press) is available at SPD and Amazon.

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