They were nearly all Isolatoes, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own. Yet now, federated along one keel, what a set these Isolatoes were!– Melville, on the crew of the Pequod in Moby-Dick
At various times in my life, I have lived alone and felt lonely, but until this past year I have never really felt isolated. I have isolated myself, though that choice has been informed by the pandemic that has shredded much of the social fabric to which I’ve belonged and that I’ve created over the course of several decades with help from friends and family.
In 1976, when I began to live in northern California, the only people I knew were my parents, who were already in their 60s and part of the back-to-the-land movement. The first community to which I belonged was the tribe of marijuana outlaws and criminals, who needed one another to survive cops, thieves and their own demons.
Then, after I started to teach at Sonoma State University in 1981, I belonged in the academic world which had its own hazards and advantages. I had perks: an office, a telephone, the use of a computer, a fax, a Xerox machine, and the campus library, which no one seemed to use, except the students during final exams week.
I cannot honestly say that I belonged to an intellectual community. Intellectuals were rare at SSU. On the whole, the faculty was uninterested in conducting research and writing books and articles, though there were exceptions, such as Sterling Bennett who taught German, wrote novels, loved writers like Goethe and Schiller and invited me to join a men’s writing group.
I jumped at the opportunity. While I wrote and was published in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat I rarely if ever met the women, including Alex Madrigal and Pat Holt, who edited my work and saw that it got into print.
My friends who were intellectuals lived and worked in New York, Boston, and Chicago. I reviewed their books and interviewed them for publication, and thereby created a long-distance community with the help of the telephone and the U.S. postal service. Many of these intellectuals and writers had been radicals in the 1960s and 1970s. I rioted in the streets with them, went to jail with them, wrote and distributed leaflets with them, attended meetings with them and sometimes talked about overthrowing the government and ending the capitalist system.
These men and women were comrades. Many of them are still my closest friends, though they live thousands of miles away from me. When I email them or talk to them on my cell I don’t have to explain to them, or remind them of our dreams and struggles. Sometimes they remember better than I do.
Back in the day, we watched movies like The Battle of Algiers and discussed it, and read Che and Mao and dissected their ideas. We smoked weed and got stoned and dropped acid and hiked and traveled to England, France and Mexico and belonged to a kind of global community of exiles and expats. We also fought among ourselves, at times treated one another like enemies, and walked away from marriages and relationships, communes and collectives.
I was married from 1977 to about 2000 when my wife and I divorced, and, while we had moments of intimacy and friendship, I often felt alone and lonely. My friend, Bill Barich, who once lived in San Francisco and who now lives in Dublin with an Irish woman, told me once that in a previous relationship, he felt lonely. It took me a while before I understood what he meant. At first I didn’t believe that one could feel lonely and still share a house and a bed with another person. I learned the hard way, by falling into a loveless marriage mostly because I was afraid of being alone. I ended up feeling lonelier than if I had been by myself.
I understand that it’s not easy to weigh things like “more” and “less.” They are subjective, but so is loneliness, which Otis Redding understood and expressed poetically in his song, “Dock of the Bay,” and when he sang, “this loneliness won’t leave me alone.” Loneliness can be a near-constant companion. Herman Melville understood and nailed what might be called “the American paradox” that links isolation and federation.
In Moby-Dick he describes the sailors aboard the whaling ship, the Pequod as “isolatoes.” It’s a good Melvillian word, “isolatoes.”
Melville explains that the sailors did not acknowledge “the common continent of men,” that each man lived on a “separate continent of his own,” and yet was “federated along one keel.”
The first isolatoes in American literature weren’t the crew members on the Pequod, or the ship’s captain, Ahab, or Ishmael, the narrator and sole survivor. James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, also known as the “pathfinder” and as “Leatherstocking,” was the first isolato. A white man, an outsider, a hunter, an Indian-killer and a pioneer who has no parents, no wife and no children, he appeared first in The Pioneers and in five other novels in which he lives mostly alone in the woods and forests of North America where European armies clash and empires rise and fall. Chingachgook is Bumppo’s companion. He, too, is an isolato; he doesn’t belong to the world of the “redskins” or the “palefaces,” as Cooper called Indians and whites.
Occasionally, Bumppo ventures into towns and settlements, though they are anathema to him. He runs from “civilization,” as Cooper called it, and at the same time he extends its reach by his very presence, continually moving westward.
There was no fictional character like Bumppo anywhere in the pages of nineteenth-century English literature. Cooper became a bestselling author and a celebrity at home and abroad. In Cooper’s view, the American novelist was faced with a daunting task because in the U.S. unlike England there were no “annals for the historian, no follies for the satirist, no manners for the dramatist.” There was what he called “a poverty of materials.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne went further than Cooper. He pointed out that in the U.S. there was no sovereign, no court, no nobility, no church, no Oxford or Cambridge, no fox hunting, no Epson, no Eton and no rugby. In the absence of English institutions and values, Americans were free to become isolatoes, outlaws, rebels, fugitives, criminals, robber barons, members of the Confederacy, and Proud Boys, along with Roy Cohen, Joseph McCarthy, Donald Trump and Mitch McConell. It’s not far, culturally and politically speaking, from the gun-toting anti-social Natty Bumppo, who slaughters Indians, to the rioters in Washington D.C. In Melville’s day, isolatoes could go to sea and slaughter whales. In Cooper’s day, they could slaughter Indians, herds of buffalo and other species.
For the past year, I have felt an isolato, yet I have also felt federated with others, who are also isolatoes. It helps to know that I’m alone. While I have spent days in my room, I have also ventured out, worn my mask, practiced social distancing, visited my brothers and my sister-in-law in the city, and gathered outdoors with friends.
I often think about my neighbor, Roi, a farmer and rancher, who argues that the break-up of the social fabric during the pandemic has been worse than the pandemic itself. “Public edicts, enforced by the policing power of the State, have isolated those already on the margins of society, “ he wrote me in an email. “The impact on the younger generation’s schooling will vastly overshadow the health impacts of the pandemic in the long-term.”
I understand Roi’s perspective, though not his behavior. He has never worn a mark or practiced social distancing. I have pointed out to him that despite fears, Americans on the Left and the Right have defied the rules, left their homes, voted, marched, rioted and been arrested.
The insurgents at the capitol on January 6, 2021, defied Dr. Fauci’s words of wisdom and aimed to shred the social fabric and disrupt the electoral process. Watching them on TV, I came to the realization, that all federations are not equal and that some Americans would like nothing better than to smash democratic institutions.
The modernist poet, T. S. Eliot, once revered the Ku Klux Klan because he loved ritual and lamented its decline in a world without genuine spiritually. Wearing white sheets, burning crosses and lynching Black men – the rituals of racism —federated white men and led to the deaths of thousands of African-Americans.
Globally, we have been through a lot together over the past year, as I’ve learned by talking to neighbors, watching TV and by emailing friends in India, Belgium and France. I also know—who doesn’t?—that surviving the pandemic, or not, depends on the particular culture and politics of a country, and also, in the case of the U.S., on the state in which one lives.
Too bad that California, which likes to think that it leads the nation in terms of all progressive things, has to a large extent botched the response to COVID-19.
Here, in the Golden State, we are federated by the failure of the public health system. We are also federated by a deep-seated, pig-headed refusal to understand and appreciate that certain matters, like life and death, sickness and wellness, are best handled by government agencies. In England, the British National Health Service has efficiently vaccinated much of the population quickly and safely.
Isolation is part of the problem. The Proud Boys and similar groups have lived on a continent on their own making. Still, isolation is not the only problem. American individualism, with its emphasis on the self, has led to freedoms for the few and vast social, political and economic inequalities for the many. If and when we muddle through the pandemic, we’ll have an opportunity to build a new social fabric. Repairing the old one won’t do, not even for isolatoes.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)