The American novel in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new show on HBO that is reputed to be the new “Sopranos.” I disagree with that praise because it doesn’t go far enough. “Boardwalk Empire” is like “The Sopranos” with Ph.D.s in history, political science, sociology, American literature, and, last but not least, mass media studies.

You don’t just get a gritty gangster drama here, with desperate men making desperate decisions. You get the entire world of the 1920s, complete with traumatized WWI veterans, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, incubator babies, the newly-invented vacuum cleaner, women’s rights, and even contemporary literature.

The story begins on day one of that grand, disastrous American social experiment we now call Alcohol Prohibition. A hungry crew of pimps, racketeers, loan sharks and corrupt politicians has gathered in Atlantic City to carve up their respective territories in the newly-illegal alcohol business and celebrate the idiocy of the good moral folks in Congress who voted for an alcohol-free America.

There are many bloggers elsewhere doing episode recaps and pop culture analysis and so on. I don’t want to repeat their work. But there is one thing I’d like to point out here and that’s the way the American novel has been featured in the show.

The second episode is titled “The Ivory Tower.” It becomes apparent right away that this term refers not to the hallowed halls of academe, but to the novel by Henry James being read by recent Irish immigrant Mrs. Margaret Schroeder in her hospital bed, where she is recovering from a severe beating by her late husband Hans that caused her to miscarry their child.

Hans’s death was ordered by the show’s lead character, the crooked wheeler-dealer with a heart of gold, Nucky Thompson. He ordered the hit not just to retaliate for Hans’s savage act of spousal abuse, but also to throw the police a suspect for a even more savage murder committed during a hijacking of an illegal booze shipment by Nucky’s disobedient protege Jimmy Darmody.

Margaret comes to understand that the huge wad of cash delivered to her hospital bed by Nucky’s sheriff brother Eddie is a payoff for her silent complicity in the fiction that drunken, abusive Hans, a baker’s assistant, was the mastermind of the whisky heist and the murderer of the four hoodlums found dead in the forest.

Margaret quietly plays along with this lie, but in the end, returns the cash to Nucky, quoting George Sand on charity. Nucky, of course, thinks George Sand is a man, but the highly literate Margaret, once the parlormaid to a barrister, quickly sets him straight.

The brilliance that I’d like to draw attention to here is the role played by the novel after which this episode is titled. James’ unfinished novel attacks the corruption and privilege of the wealthy of the Gilded Age. James found himself unable to finish the novel when WWI broke out and brought real tragedy and sacrifice to the gilded selfish world he’d sought to indict as folly.

Henry James died in 1916. If he’d lived into the 1920s, he might have found the inspiration to finish his novel. Margaret certainly seems to find moral inspiration from reading James’ novel, enough to refuse the financial largesse being offered to her by the wealthy and corrupt and gilded Nucky Thompson.

As it turns out, the feds don’t buy the idea that Margaret’s drunken husband masterminded a robbery and a quadruple homicide, so Jimmy Darmody has to leave Atlantic City. Before he leaves, he has a painful argument with his girlfriend. Jimmy met her when he was at Princeton, before the war. They used to talk about books, she complains. What happened?

As Jimmy heads north on the train to Chicago, where he’ll hook up with his new partner in crime Al Capone (who suggested the booze hijack in the first place and did most of the killing), he’s reading “Free Air” by Sinclair Lewis. In “Free Air,” a woman travels by car across America from from New York to the Pacific Northwest, learning through the love of a good working class man to give up the snobbish ways of her upper class family.

“Free Air” was one of the first road trip novels in America, a predecessor to “On the Road” by the late, great Jack Kerouac, which in turn gave rise to road trip TV shows like “Route 66″ and “The Fugitive,” and road trip movies like “Easy Rider” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

There was no TV back in the 1920s. There was no HBO. People had to satisfy their craving for complex engaging human drama from the printed page in the form of the novel.

It’s very pleasing to see that “Boardwalk Empire” is paying homage to the American novel in such an intelligent manner that both informs us about history and adds layers of subtle irony to plot and character development alike.


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