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This past weekend I celebrated another year of my life with an annual visit to Big Sur on California's central coast. Named in Spanish for the big river of the South, El Rio Grande del Sur, Big Sur was barely accessible until the 1940's when Highway 1 was built along the precarious cliffs where the mountains of the Ventana Wilderness meet the rocky shore of the Pacific. Writers Robinson Jeffers, Jaime de Angulo, and Henry Miller brought fame to the region as a place for Americans and Europeans who wanted to get away from it all; in other words, to Drop Out.
1960's drug guru Timothy Leary gave us the mantra, "Tune in, Turn On, and Drop Out," but the Dropout was part of American folklore and mythology long before the 1960's, before getting stoned on acid became a short-lived part of the tradition. For me, growing up in the 1950's, a "dropout" was the paragon of everything a decent kid was not supposed to be. The term referred, of course, to an adolescent who dropped out of high school because he had other plans. Mark Twain's legendary fictional dropout, in his novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) dropped out before high school, and went rafting with erstwhile "good" kid Tom Sawyer and with an African-American pal named N-Word Jim, who was also a Dropout, not from school but from the whole slavery thing.
A contemporary dropout hero (villain to some) is Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard University in 1975. A high-ranking Boy Scout, son of a prominent Seattle lawyer, and a natural entrepreneur, Gates made $20,000 in a business he founded at the age of 14. In his joint venture with Paul Allen, he took a "leave of absence" from Harvard in order to form a company they called "Micro-Soft". In 2007, Gates did get a degree from Harvard, but it was an honorary one.
In his novel Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller created his own version of the Dropout myth. The book, which took decades to achieve fame and notoriety, and longer to make money was described by Miller as "a gob of spit in the face of Art." It is a rambling account of Miller's Paris years after he quit his job as a manager for Western Union, which Miller called it the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company. Supported by a taxi-dancer wife and handouts from friends, he struggled to survive in a 1930's Paris which was no longer the haven it had been for American expatriates like Ernest Hemingway. While there Miller collaborated with Anais Nin, who was not a dropout but the wife of a successful American banker with an overseas job. Miller stayed in Paris until the Nazi occupation forced him to leave, and after much traveling, settled in Big Sur, where he stayed until he got too old and had to move to Pacific Palisades.
Miller's version of the Dropout was another kind of dropout, a dropout from the corporate grind called the "Rat Race," a term I had heard in the 1950's while I was still preparing to become a racing rat. Decades later, I found much appeal in Miller's self-created dropout persona.
Bad boys, maverick tycoons, and ex-rat racers aside, the Dropout has always been part of the American ideal. From the beginning the United States has been a nation of dropouts, while paradoxically growing into the role of the world's leading racer of rats and largest exporter of a variety of rat races. Dropouts Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman celebrated dropping out from a conventional and oppressive social system. Whitman, incidentally (he was one of Henry Miller's heroes) dropped out of school at age eleven years. The earliest European immigrants braved the Atlantic ocean and a hostile wilderness in order to drop out of the rigid religious and class systems of the Old World.
Another version of the iconic American Dropout is the frontiersman, the man who lived beyond the edge of civilization. One such fellow was the ex-Pennsylvanian Daniel Boone, whose Quaker brother and sister married out of the faith, resulting in expulsion of the Boone family from their Quaker community. Boone himself, who eventually pioneered the settlement of Kentucky, preferred to wear felt hats, but fur hats made from the skin of a raccoon, Native American style, became the iconic symbol of the American frontiersman including Boone. The coonskin cap was popularized in the 1950's by Walt Disney, another high school dropout, who tried unsuccessfuly to get into the Army at age sixteen.Permanent Link to This Entry | | Technorati Tag: Dropout blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
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