“They Don’t Know It, but We’re Integrated”

Thomas Pynchon’s “The Secret Integration” and The Saturday Evening Post

Terry Reilly
A cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Saturday Evening Post, December 1964.

Thomas Pynchon’s writing can be seen as a series of interlocking puzzles. The texts themselves have been regarded as “dense,” difficult,” and “confusing,” or, to paraphrase Tony Tanner’s description of the narrative of Gravity’s Rainbow, sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re reading about a bombed-out building or a bombed-out mind. His short stories and novels have attracted a great deal of critical attention from scholars who have tried, with little success, to arrive at essentialist readings of the titles. Several articles have sought to “explain” titles of some of the short stories–“Entropy,” “Lowlands,” and “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” to name only three–and much has been written but very little consensus has been reached about possible meanings of the titles of the eight novels–V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Inherent Vice, Against the Day, and Bleeding Edge. The texts are difficult and the titles are enigmatic, but Pynchon doesn’t stop there. He pays great attention to details such as the typeface and cover art of his novels, and where and when he places his writing. For example, Slow Learner, his anthology of short stories (most written when he was an undergraduate at Cornell), was published in 1984, and there are more than a few direct and indirect allusions to George Orwell’s 1984. The title may come from Orwell’s text (after electric shock finally convinces Winston Smith that 2 + 2 = 5, O’Brien says, “You’re a slow learner Winston”), and Pynchon’s introduction to the collection, a sort of revisionist personal history not unlike Winston Smith’s, may be regarded as a short story in its own right, rather than a conventional introduction. Despite all this gamesmanship and literary sleight of hand, Pynchon’s interests in topics such as science, magic, the uncanny and the paranormal, paranoia, the corporate state, radicalism, civil rights, and revisionist history have remained consistent from his earliest writing to the present.

In what follows, I will discuss an issue that occasionally surfaces in commentary on Pynchon’s writing: Why did Pynchon, who was emerging as an important voice among young leftist American writers, choose to publish his early short story “The Secret Integration” in The Saturday Evening Post, which at the time (1964) was an extremely conservative magazine? I will discuss this not in a conventional literary sense but rather with an eye toward ways that Pynchon uses the form of an apparently simple, entertaining adolescent boys’ story to engage and then to manipulate the Post readers; to invoke various features of the publication history of The Saturday Evening Post while simultaneously calling attention to the magazine’s limited scope and conservative bias concerning issues of civil rights and racial integration in 1964.

Pynchon has been interested in issues concerning race and civil rights since he first began writing and publishing. In his first novel, V., for example, Pynchon wanted to include an entire chapter on the character McClintic Sphere, the black jazz saxophonist (perhaps modeled on Ornette Coleman, though Sphere is also Thelonius Monk’s middle name) who appears in other parts of the novel. Corlies (Cork) Smith, Pynchon’s editor at Lippincott, suggested that Pynchon either eliminate or substantially revise the chapter because it raised contemporary “social issues” (civil rights and racism) that Smith felt were inconsistent with the rest of the book. Pynchon chose to eliminate the chapter.

Perhaps the clearest and most obvious statement of Pynchon’s interest in civil rights issues is his essay “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” published in The New York Times on 12 June 1966, approximately ten months after the August 1965 Watts riots in south central Los Angeles. Here, with a voice dripping with cynicism, Pynchon traces the hopelessness and desperation of poor people trapped in a predominantly black community. Pynchon sees no hope for improvement through integration or urban renewal, since, as he says, no one from the white community even wants to visit Watts, let alone start a business there, and he concludes that Watts seems doomed to repeat the violent events of August 1965 over and over again.

After the publication of V. and before the appearance of “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” Pynchon published his short story “The Secret Integration” in the Christmas edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The short story is remarkably different from these two other literary works. As John K. Young notes in “Pynchon in Popular Magazines,” “Whereas V. challenges the foundations of fiction itself, refusing to provide a coherent narrative framework … ‘The Secret Integration’ falls well within the generic parameters of the short story… . Few readers stop to ask what it meant for Pynchon, already a reclusive figure, to publish in … popular magazines during the mid-1960’s, or how we might understand these texts today after taking into account their original [places] of publication.” Young sees the publication of the story as an important point in Pynchon’s career, and argues that the author was driven by the double motive of “financial and cultural capital”–a desire both to make money and to become more established as an important mainstream writer. It may also be that Pynchon wished to take a strong position about the importance of civil rights at the time–that is, in the early days of the post-Kennedy Johnson administration and coeval with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reviews of V. had been mixed. Almost every reviewer acknowledged that the novel was brilliantly written, but many, such as the anonymous reviewer in Time magazine, found that while it made “a powerful, deeply disturbing dream sense,” nothing about it made “any waking sense.” When “The Secret Integration” was published, it seemed that Pynchon had come back to earth. Here was a relatively simple, straightforward story about a bunch of kids who seemingly could have just climbed out of a Norman Rockwell painting, a feeling reinforced by the location of the fictitious town of Mingeborough in the Berkshires, near Rockwell’s home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Moreover, the rather clear allusions to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer–signaled first by the name of one of the main characters, Tim Santora–implied that this was adolescent boys’ fiction, in the vein of Our Gang, the Hardy Boys books, or the Airship Boys series, a genre Pynchon would revisit in Against the Day.

According to Carol Polsgrove, in It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun? “Esquire” in the Sixties, Pynchon’s reasons for publishing in the Post seem clear; as a “big, general interest magazine,” it had a large circulation and paid well. Moreover, a number of famous mainstream American writers had published there. But as Young points out, Pynchon’s choice of the Post for this particular submission is “too deliciously peculiar” to make the selection seem entirely mercenary.

“The Secret Integration” was a good–albeit “peculiar”–fit for the Post in 1964. Pynchon’s short story engages with the politics and values of the Post by calling attention to and critiquing some of its conservative positions on issues such as civil rights and racism. Pynchon does this subtly, with a type of eclecticism that is both pastiche and parody, and he invokes and mimics some of the Post’s better-known contributors, including Norman Rockwell and Clarence Kelland, to remind readers how recent events–the deaths of W. E. B. Du Bois in August 1963 and Kelland in 1964, Rockwell’s decision to leave the Post in 1963, and the Civil Rights Act, passed on 2 July 1964–were changing the culture of both the magazine and the country.

In the early 1960s, the place for hot new young writers to publish fiction in a magazine was Esquire, not The Saturday Evening Post. Esquire was perhaps the nation’s most vibrant magazine–sexy, mischievous, irreverent, and hip. (Maybe you can judge a magazine by its cover: while the cover of the 1963 Christmas issue of the Post featured a candlelit children’s choir in a church, the corresponding issue of Esquire featured a picture of a scowling Sonny Liston in a Santa Claus hat.) The Esquire fiction editor L. Rust Hills’s idea of fiction, as well as of the literary life, fit into the ethos of the magazine perfectly. Hills began working at Esquire as the fiction editor in 1957; his specialty was introducing new writers to the reading public. As Polsgrove points out, “In the fall of 1963, NYT advertising columnist Peter Bart granted Esquire a place among America’s leading cultural magazines–The Reporter, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Review, Commentary, and The Nation.” The Saturday Evening Post was not even mentioned.

During Hills’s years as fiction editor, Esquire published the work of such literary heavyweights as Philip Roth, John Cheever, Norman Mailer, William Styron, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Bruce Jay Friedman, E. Annie Proulx, and Ann Beattie. The culmination of Hills’s first stint at Esquire (he was to leave and return twice during his career) was an illustrated chart in the July 1963 issue titled “The Structure of the American Literary Establishment,” identifying writers, agents, publishers, reviewers, and events that Hills determined to be at and around the “red-hot center” of American literary life. As Dan Wakefield remembered in a 1995 piece in The Nation,

“The Structure of the American Literary Establishment” … was pure point of view. The focus of the feature was a two-page spread that looked like a cross between a chart and a lava lamp. Onto these pages, fiction editor Rust Hills had grouped dozens of writers, agents, playwrights, and critics into such categories as “Writers Who Get in Columns” and “The Cool World.” The pinnacle was “The Hot Center,” which spanned the centerfold of the magazine under a splash of red-orange ink. The chart was satirical and keenly observed … and it threw the thin-skinned literary world into a tizzy.

Wakefield’s assertion that “a writer’s heat seemed to have more to do with his agent than his writing” is particularly apt, because the agent for many of the writers near “The Hot Center” was the diminutive Sicilian-born New Yorker Candida Donadio, who was not only friends with L. Rust Hills and Harold Hayes, Esquire’s managing editor, but at the time was Pynchon’s agent as well. So why didn’t Pynchon publish “The Secret Integration” in Esquire?

Perhaps the most important reason was that Hills left Esquire and took a job as fiction editor for The Saturday Evening Post in mid-1964. According to Polsgrove, Hills left for three reasons. First, Hills thought that the exorbitant contract Esquire gave Norman Mailer (“a monthly column for every issue for a year, and a major feature every three months, in return for guaranteed fees”) was taking up a great deal of the fiction budget that could better be used publishing new and exciting authors. Second, “nonfiction was crowding out fiction in Esquire.” And finally, the Post offered to double Hills’s salary and give him the chance “to publish as many stories in a week as he published in Esquire in a month.” The goal was to make The Saturday Evening Post’s fiction section, at least, as hip as Esquire’s. The strategy quickly failed. Hills left the Post and returned to Esquire after two years. The Post went broke a few years later, its last issue dated 8 February 1969.

On a different level, “The Secret Integration” almost had to be published in The Saturday Evening Post because of the ways that it comments on, critiques, and often satirizes the magazine and its policies. This occurs on several levels, three of which can perhaps best be expressed as location, characterization, and plot–all of which center on racism and integration.

“The Secret Integration” is set in Mingeborough, a fictitious town that Pynchon locates in western Massachusetts, somewhere near the genuine towns named in the story: Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Lenox. The name of the boys’ imaginary friend, Carl Barrington, alludes to the nearby town of Great Barrington, the birthplace of W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, who was born there in 1868. According to Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis, Great Barrington at that time was known as one of the nation’s most integrated towns and home to a number of free black land owners. When he was growing up, Du Bois attended an integrated church and schools, and his church raised the money to pay for his tuition to Harvard. Du Bois died on 27 August 1963 in Ghana, and the Civil Rights Act, based on many of Du Bois’s writings, was signed into law about the time Pynchon would have been finishing up “The Secret Integration” for publication. Given the three-month lead time for the larger magazines at the time, to appear in the December issue of the Post, “The Secret Integration” would have had to have been completed, proofed, and typeset some time in September.

Thus, the publication timeline for “The Secret Integration” is a bit murky. Did Hills already have the story in hand when he left Esquire for the Post, or did he accept it after he arrived at there? Hills had a good relationship with Donadio, so he may have corresponded with her rather than with Pynchon himself. (Donadio was in New York, Pynchon was in hiding but probably in Mexico through most of 1964.) Pinning the details down may have to wait until the Pynchon-Donadio correspondence is made available to the public, if it ever is.

The 14 December 1963 cover of The Saturday Evening Post was a portrait of the recently assassinated president, John F. Kennedy, by Norman Rockwell, and it was to be the last work Rockwell did for the magazine. Over forty-seven years, Rockwell had painted more than 320 covers for the Post, and historians disagree about the reasons he left the magazine. Elizabeth Montgomery asserts that the Post terminated Rockwell’s employment because “they felt he embodied an attitude and a time the magazine no longer represented,” while others–such as Thomas Daly, the curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts–more convincingly claim that Rockwell left because the Post wanted him to do portraits, and he wanted to do more narrative paintings on subjects and issues such as civil rights, poverty, and space exploration. The Post’s very conservative postures on many issues–including civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and only allowing paintings of minority figures in servile occupations–these scholars argue, did not jive with Rockwell’s own political views or those of his third wife, Mary Punderson, a retired schoolteacher. As support for the theory, Rockwell’s famous painting The Problem We All Live With–showing a six-year-old African American girl named Ruby Bridges on her way to an all-white school in New Orleans–appeared as the centerfold for Look magazine in the 14 January 1964 issue, less than a month after Rockwell left the Post. Rockwell’s paintings of African Americans seem to prove Daly’s point. Boy in a Dining Car (1946), painted for the Post, shows a young white boy being waited on by a black waiter on a train while New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967), painted for Look magazine, shows two groups of children as a black family moves into a white neighborhood.

Pynchon, of course, would have known about Rockwell leaving the Post, and it is probably not coincidence that the boy characters described in “The Secret Integration” resemble many of Rockwell’s boy characters, especially those of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in Rockwell’s illustrated editions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Another important figure in the relationship between “The Secret Integration” and the Post is Clarence Budington Kelland, whose first work for the Post appeared in 1916. Kelland wrote for the magazine for over forty years, from 1922 until 1961, and most of his contributions were children’s stories and tales of homespun adult heroes with colorful Pynchonesque names such as Efficiency Edgar and Scattergood Baines. Kelland was remarkably prolific. During his lifetime, he published more than sixty novels and over two hundred short stories and contributed to more than thirty movie scripts. Perhaps coincidentally, Kelland died in February 1964, when Pynchon was writing (or revising) “The Secret Integration.”

The similarities between Mark Tidd: His Adventures and Strategies (1913), Kelland’s first adolescent boy adventure novel, and “The Secret Integration” are too numerous to fully catalogue here, but several examples are enough to show that Kelland’s novel was an important source for Pynchon’s short story. Both works allude to the writings of Mark Twain, especially Tom Sawyer. Kelland signals this with the initials MT for Mark Tidd and one overt reference: “When we got better acquainted with Mark Tidd, he read a book called Tom Sawyer to us. I guess he got his idea of making us work out of that; he was always taking schemes out of books.” Similarly, Pynchon uses the initials of the name Tim Santora to invoke Tom Sawyer, and the actions of the boys replicate some of the action in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In both works, groups of boys form “secret societies” headed by “unusual” boys who love to invent things. Grover Snodd in “The Secret Integration” is described as “a boy genius with flaws,” and Mark Tidd is equally smart, but as a fat, lazy boy who stutters, he is at first the object of ridicule and jokes. These “secret societies” are made up of eccentric members: in Pynchon’s short story, the “Inner Junta”–an anarchist group bent on overthrowing the Mingeborough PTA via “Operation Spartacus”–includes Grover Snodd, Tim Santora, Etienne Cherdlu, Hogan Slothrop, and Carl Barrington, whom we later find is both an imaginary and a fictitious African American boy. In the Kelland novel, the members are Mark Tidd, James “Tallow” Martin, Plunk Smalley, Binney Jenks, and a man named Sammy, a Native American who has escaped from the Poor House and whom they subsequently treat almost as a pet. They also decide to form a secret society based on–and named after–the Ku Klux Klan. When one of the boys asks Mark what the Klan was for, he says, “For protection. They went ridin’ around at night rightin’ wrongs and scarin’ folks and runnin’ things in general. They wore white sheets over their heads.” Both secret societies have their own secret hideout, of course, and both have interactions with minority characters. In “The Secret Integration,” the boys meet Carl McAfee, the alcoholic African American bass player, while on an Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step call, and in the Kelland novel, the boys try to “help” Sammy by hiding him at their clubhouse. Thus, while both works address problems of racism, they do so in diametrically opposed ways. The boys in Pynchon’s story try to learn about terms such as racism, integration, and civil rights, and see no problem with having Carl as their friend, while Mark Tidd’s boys seem rather proud of their status as a junior KKK and make no effort to integrate Sammy into their gang.

In “The Secret Integration,” Pynchon refrains from using heavy-handed satire in his critique. Instead, he includes elements of pastiche and parody in his representations of civil rights, racism, the visual art of Rockwell, and the writings of Kelland, resorting to what Young calls his characteristic “subversive irony”: “The Post sells its readers an image of America that Pynchon’s story aims to subvert.” Moreover, “by publishing this particular story in this particular magazine, Pynchon compels his readers there–many of whom were probably encountering his work for the first time–either to misread ‘The Secret Integration’ altogether or to accept its critique of cultural values in a source that ordinarily confirms them.” Pynchon “at once invites the magazine’s readers to approach the story with familiarity, even as he seeks to undo that comfort through his particular focus on the sinister consequences of the children’s transition into the adult world.” In other words, part of the “secret” of “The Secret Integration” involves ways that Pynchon finds to introduce and discuss some of those topics the Post categorically sought to avoid, especially civil rights and racism. As Grover points out near the story’s end, in words that could refer to the magazine itself and its readers, “They don’t know it, but we’re integrated.”

Terry Reilly is professor of English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he teaches Shakespeare and early modern English literature, modern British literature, and contemporary American literature. His specialties are early modern English literature and law, and the works of Doris Lessing, Thomas Pynchon, and Jack London.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


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