Title: Riding High! John VanCleve Writes to a U.S. Senator About Roosevelt, Communists and New Deal
Author: David Milton Proctor
Publisher: Brown Publishing Company, 1016 Baltimore
Discovered at: Mission Hills estate sale
Representative quote: If he [Franklin D. Roosevelt] is a liberal, then Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler are liberals because their methods and ambitions are very similar.
Unlike most of the volumes examined in this space, Riding High isn't chockablock with amusing evidence of Kansas City's illustrious (and, on occasion, ignoble) past. But it does show us a made-up common man denouncing as un-American even the most sensible reforms enacted by a popular Democratic president in troubled economic times. Which means the fake letters that make up this 71-year-old epistolary novel are as up-to-date as the real ones running in tomorrow's Kansas City Star.
Riding High documents the political awakening of a Greenbrier, Missouri, factory worker named John VanCleve, an everyday fellow who boasts about his lack of education and promises, "I am just a member of that crowded class known as the average man."
In the 1930s, as now, many Americans considered a limited knowledge of public policy the chief qualification for being an authority on public policy. That means VanCleve must be taken seriously when he warns, in Riding High, that the New Deal "might finish America." Or when he quails at "the goose-step of federal control" or predicts the failure of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fictitious" social security.
In a series of letters to an unidentified senator, VanCleve further insists that sit-down strikes will lead to revolution — and perhaps the abolition of private property. He compares the American public with cattle wandering the range and Roosevelt's bureaucrats with "self-appointed dude cowboys with lariats and branding irons." Railing against Roosevelt's Wages and Hours Bill, which established a 40-hour workweek as federal law, VanCleve points out just how much factory workers will suffer. "Workers paid 60c an hour and working forty-eight hours per week may be cut down to forty hours, resulting in a loss of $4.80 in pay."
American history is littered with real-life VanCleves, folks passionately opposed to reforms that might better their own lives. In this case, David Milton Proctor, the author who dreamed up the fictional VanCleve, is in every way the kind of elitist such-and-such the VanCleves of the world claim to despise. Born in 1881 in Ralls County, Missouri, Proctor became book-learned at William Jewell, earned a law degree from Columbia University, served Missouri as a state senator and Kansas City as counsel to the city. This means that he was, of course, the ultimate authority on the wishes of the average American.
To that end, he penned ranting satirical novels in the '30s. There was, for one, Pay Day, a 1936 anti-Roosevelt screed designed to help boost Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, a Republican presidential candidate, to the nation's top job. In it and the later Riding High, Proctor adopts the persona of a regular Missourian gravely concerned with the dictatorial bent of the policies advanced by Proctor's political opponents. He even accuses Roosevelt of considering men like VanCleve "boobs" — only the lawyer positing a common man for political purposes has true respect for that common man. (False Faces on Quality Street, a more valuable book, uses the same technique to carve up Tom Pendergast.)
Though today's opinion makers can't be bothered with writing novels, this brave tradition continues every time a politician or pundit presents mythic American common sense as a trump against the actual research of true experts.
Incidentally, in 1906, Proctor married the marvelously named Dayse Mary Whitecotton, a genealogist and herself a college graduate. Here's a formula for determining your own turn-of-the-last century Missouri bride name: Favorite Flower + Favorite Biblical Woman + Favorite Underpants. Mine is Lilly Esther Pinklace Plus Size.