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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quote of the Day | April 16, 2008: Answering the Call of the Genes

From Hunter S. Thompson's 1966 Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs:

Nelson Algren wrote about them in A Walk on the Wild Side . . . Algren's book opens with one of the best historical descriptions of American white trash ever written. He traces the Linkhorn ancestry back to the first wave of bonded servants to arrive on these shores. These were the dregs of society from all over the British Isles -- misfits, criminals, debtors, social bankrupts of every type and description -- all of them willing to sign oppressive work contracts with future employers in exchange for ocean passage to the New World.

Once here, they endured a form of slavery for a year or two -- during which they were fed and sheltered by the boss -- and when their time of bondage ended, they were turned loose to make their own way.

In theory and in the context of history the setup was mutually advantageous. Any man desperate enough to sell himself into bondage in the first place had pretty well shot his wad in the old country, so a chance for a foothold on a new continent was not to be taken lightly. After a period of hard labor and wretchedness he would then be free to seize whatever he might in a land of seemingly infinite natural wealth.

Thousands of bonded servants came over, but by the time they earned their freedom the coastal strip was already settled. The unclaimed land was west, across the Alleghenies. So they drifted into the new states -- Kentucky and Tennessee; their sons drifted on to Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Drifting became a habit; with dead roots in the Old World and none in the New, the Linkhorns were not of a mind to dig in and cultivate things. Bondage too became a habit, but it was only the temporary kind. They were not pioneers, but sleezy rearguard camp followers of the original westward movement. By the time the Linkhorns arrived anywhere the land was already taken -- so they worked for a while and moved on.

Their world was a violent, boozing limbo between the pits of despair and the Big Rock Candy Mountain. They kept drifting west, chasing jobs, rumors, homestead grabs or the luck of some front-running kin. They lived off the surface of the land, like armyworms, stripping it of whatever they could before moving on. It was a day-to-day existence, and there was always more land to the west.

Some stayed behind and their lineal descendants are still there -- in the Carolinas, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee. There were dropouts all along the way: hillbillies, Okies, Arkies -- they're all the same people. Texas is a living monument to the breed. So is southern California.

Algren called them "fierce craving boys" with "a feeling of having been cheated." Freebooters, armed and drunk -- a legion of gamblers, brawlers and whorehoppers. Blowing into town in a junk Model-A with bald tires, no muffler and one headlight . . . looking for quick work, with no questions asked and preferably no tax deductions. Just get the cash, fill up at a cut-rate gas station and hit the road, with a pint on the seat and Eddy Arnold on the radio moaning good back-country tunes about home sweet home, that Bluegrass sweetheart still waitin, and roses on Mama's grave.

Algren left the Linkhorns in Texas, but anyone who drives the Western highways knows they didn't stay there either. They kept moving until one day in the late 1930s they stood on the spine of a scrub-oak California hill and looked down on the Pacific Ocean -- the end of the road. Things were tough for a while, but no tougher than they were in a hundred other places. And then came the war -- fat city, big money even for the Linkhorns.

When the war ended, California was full of veterans looking for ways to spend their separation bonuses. Many decided to stay on the Coast, and while their new radios played hillbilly music they went out and bought big motorcycles -- not knowing exactly why, but in the booming, rootless atmosphere of those times, it seemed like the thing to do. They were not all Linkhorns, but the forced democracy of four war years had erased so many old distinctions that even Linkhorns were confused. Their pattern of intermarriage was shattered, their children mixed freely and without violence. By 1950 many Linkhorns were participating in the money economy; they owned decent cars, and even houses.

Others, however, broke down under the strain of responsibility and answered the call of the genes. . .

It would not be fair to say that all motorcycle outlaws carry Linkhorn genes, but nobody who has ever spent time among the inbred Anglo-Saxon tribes of Appalachia would need more than a few hours with the Hell's Angels to work up a very strong sense of deja vu. There is the same sulking hostility toward "outsiders," the same extremes of temper and action, and even the same names, sharp faces and long-boned bodies that never look quite natural unless they are leaning on something.

Tags: Hunter S. Thompson, Hells Angels

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