Jim Cullen: Review of Steven Biel's "Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: How Two Bungling Psychopaths Became Bonnie and Clyde" (Now and Then, 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

Over the course of the last two decades, Steven Biel has become the foremost scholar of what might be termed the folklore of consumer capitalism. His 1996 book Down with the Old Canoe (recently reissued in an updated tradition) traced the collective memory, both in the immediate aftermath and the century following the Titanic disaster of 1912. In American Gothic (2005), he explored the meanings -- some contradictory, others downright zany -- that have been attached to the classic 1930 Grant Wood painting. Though fundamentally a different kind of enterprise, his first book, Independent Intellectuals in the United States 1920-1945 (1992) derived some of its energy from a preexisting fascination with the legendary writers whose careers he proceeded to reinterpret. Biel is unparalleled in his ability to unearth, and then link, disparate sources in American culture and establish organic links between them.

Biel's new e-book, Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: How a Couple of Bungling Sociopaths Became Bonnie and Clyde, represents another satisfying chapter in his body of work. Anyone who's managed to get farther than the 1967 Arthur Penn movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty -- which, in truth, is probably not all that many people -- consider the "bungling sociopaths" part of the title common knowledge. It's the "how" here that's intriguing. Biel's point of departure is the self-mythologizing poem the improvisational female outlaw fashioned for mass consumption at the end of her brief career as a gangster. (The poem is included as part of the e-book.) But Biel is less interested in the way Parker effectively wrote herself and companion Clyde Barrow into cultural history -- though he analyzes her work with the deftness of a literary critic -- than the way cultural history imprinted itself on her. With an almost archeological command of detail, he sifts through the books and movies Parker is known to have known. The years preceding her crime spree were a germinal moment in the formation of the gangster genre, which Parker absorbed and recorded in surprising detail. Such an approach permits a new perspective not only on characters like those played by James Cagney, but also real-life ones like Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger (who felt Bonnie and Clyde's ineptitude gave outlaws a bad name).

From there, Biel pivots to analyze media coverage of Bonnie and Clyde in the days preceding their deaths in a hail of bullets, as well as their subsequent mythology in movies that extend from Bonnie and Clyde to Natural Born Killers (1992). This tradition extends to a series of hip-hop songs by Tupac Shakur, Eminem, and Jay-Z (with Beyoncé as the voice of Bonnie). Though I suspect the couple represent a fairly arcane pop culture reference these days, it's probably only a matter of time before the simmering resentment against bankster culture gives avowed criminality a good name again.

Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem is part of "Now and Then," a new e-book series that mixes new works by established writers (Hilton Kramer, William O'Neill) along with reissues of classics by famous writers (Ulysses S. Grant, Jean-Paul Sartre). Running in the $1-3 range, these short books are part of the shifting landscape of publishing in the Kindle era, and suggest its emerging possibilities.  With this one, which runs about the length of a healthy New Yorker or New York Review of Books essay, Biel makes a distinguished contribution to an emerging literary form.


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