Review in American Studies International, Feb. 2000


The Fatalistic Hobo:
Jacob Holdt, Touring, and the Other Americans

by Ole Bech-Petersen




Ole Bech-Petersen is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the Institute of History, Culture and Society at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense University, Denmark. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and was recently a visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota. He has published articles on collective memory, the contemporary far right, and cultural exchanges between Denmark and the United States, and is working on a dissertation about Danish literary travel in the US.

In a story from East Harlem in the 1970s, African-American writer John Edgar Wideman describes a young foreign photographer, who has hitchhiked across the United States for years, "north and south, east and west, crisscrossing the country without a penny in his pocket, somehow managing to eat, find places to sleep, buy film for his camera." He writes of him with a mixture of resentment and awe. He is repulsed by his body odor, laughs at his "clownish drawers," and loathes him for being his guide to a neighborhood he thought he knew, on a search for an apartment where a black man was killed during a police raid. But this mysterious stranger, a "tall ship listing, swaying, sea-smacked, driven by crazy winds," also fascinates or simply puzzles. "Should I believe what he says?" (1.)

The person in Wideman's story is a literary double of Jacob Holdt, a Danish high school dropout and radical activist who traveled in the United States in the 1970s and after his return wrote a photo documentary and travel book about his experiences. Holdt left Denmark in 1970 and worked on a farm in Canada for a year before he decided to travel overland through the United States to Latin America. But when he encountered the counterculture and anti-war movements in the United States, he decided to stay. For the next five years he hitchhiked across the country, at first almost randomly, then more systematically, to document African-American poverty, sometimes settling for a while, but always moving on. Before Holdt left Denmark, he had arranged with a small Christian Democrat newspaper to occasionally dispatch articles from his trip, but he did not plan to write about the United States and never intended to publish an entire book. Still, he began to record his experiences in the United States in photography and when he returned to Denmark in 1975, created a touring slide show of the 15,000 photographs he had accumulated. The slide show, which became known as American Pictures, was transformed into a book by the same title in 1977 with the appropriate subtitle A Personal Journey Through Black America.

Through a baroque combination of photography, personal anecdotes and agitprop sociology, Holdt's book portrayed the United States as a violently oppressive and polarized society of injustice, racism and inequality, especially for what Holdt called the African-American "underclass" in the rural South and ghettoes in the North. (2.)

American Pictures was released to almost unanimously favorable reviews in the Danish press. Reviewers especially noted the almost overpowering sense of deprivation in the book and its stark authenticity; and many of them welcomed the book as a counterpoint to the too laudatory images of the United States that they felt prevailed in Denmark. One reviewer noted that the account would shock and perhaps offend many. "Many will probably deny that this is real.

What Holdt is telling stands in so complete contrast to the conventional view of the United States that it is not hard to imagine how the psychological defense mechanisms will be activated." But in fact, American Pictures, although it was never an uncontroversial book, became an instant success and has become the best-selling Danish book ever about the United States, as well as an international bestseller with translations into several languages, including English.

In 1981, Holdt released American Pictures, the movie, which consisted of a compilation of still photographs merged with his own voice-over. Visiting college campuses with slide-talks and workshops on anti-racism, Holdt still tours the United States annually, drawing upon material from American Pictures supplemented with material added from more recent trips. In 1997, the project also graduated into cyberspace with the creation of an American Pictures web site. (3.)

This article examines the American Pictures book in particular.

The purpose is not to examine whether the image of the United States in the book was right or even fair. In retrospect, many have been troubled by the one-dimensionality and sermonizing righteousness of the book, and few of the self-appointed Danish "experts" on the United States, who perhaps have been envious of its spectacular popularity, today consider American Pictures a "serious" contribution to the Danish sense of the United States. I share many of their concerns, particularly about the retrograde sexual and racial views in the book, but also believe that American Pictures in spite of and sometimes because of these flaws, raises important questions about travel and identity. Holdt's experience and subsequent publication elucidates a complicated relationship between travelers and hosts, about a position I call "touring," and about the possibilities and limits of using the United States to mobilize new racial and national identities for non-Americans.

American Pictures was peopled with a spectacular cast of characters-from a black murderer in New Orleans, an alleged 134-year-old ex-slave in Florida, and a black lesbian prostitute in New York, to flaming white racists and limousine liberals everywhere (one of the more memorable parts detailed a bender with Burt Bacharach, United States Senator Tunney, and Ethel and Ted Kennedy). Holdt met these people through a combination of luck and a pragmatic attitude to travel that he described in the book as "fatalism" (234).

In his story, A Voice Foretold, Wideman's half-mockingly imagines Holdt's fatalistic attitude toward travel in a style of broken English.

When a car stops for me I get in. No matter who is driver. How many in car. If they stop, I get in. Rich, poor, young, old, man, woman, black, white. All stop. With all I ride. Sometime they offer smoke, drink, food, maybe place to stay few days. I take. Sometime they ask me to do things. Some things not so nice, but I do what they ask. You know, man. Saves trouble, man. You know. Not always so nice. Maybe not what I want, but I survive. I am still here. I learn much about your country this way. (4.)

Holdt, who traveled on a shoestring budget, threw himself at the mercy of the people he met. Hundreds of them took him in, gave him a ride, or donated money for food or film. They also provided him with the raw material for the book, which consisted primarily of amazing yet believable stories about the people he had actually known and met. One Swedish reviewer called Holdt a "completely reliable Münchhausen." (5.)

The fatalistic way in which he traveled gave his experiences an improvisational quality, which was reflected in the formal qualities of the book. Holdt threw American Pictures together in two weeks after Information, an independent left-wing newspaper that sponsored the touring slide show, sent him to the international book fair in Frankfurt where the book was commissioned for several countries before it was even written. The writing, which mainly consisted of the script from the slide show combined with personal letters, was rambling, the structure was sloppy, and the photographs were unsophisticated snapshots that could have been (and were) taken by someone with no photographic training. On the surface, American Pictures became a success almost in spite of itself. But the amateurish crudeness served an important function. It gave the book an unpolished, inartistic, uncalculated and unpretentious quality. I choose the negative adjectives carefully here. They suggest that compared to most other travel books, American Pictures had a heightened and undeniable air of immediacy and sense of naked authenticity.

But fatalism accomplished more. It also determined the kind of presence Holdt established in the "contact zone." Mary Louise Pratt uses this phrase in her important study of the relationship between travel writing and colonialism to describe the space where people who have been separated come into contact, usually in unequal relationships of power. I apply it here in a related fashion to refer to the space where travelers and hosts meet and exchange ideas, information, and identities. Holdt by his own account wanted to understand the people he met on their own terms, to immerse himself.

There was of course a strong element of impermanence in the book. Not only did Holdt travel more or less constantly through space, but he also moved between cultures by shuttling back and forth in his journey as well as in the narrative between people of enormous wealth and people of obscene poverty, one day living with a racist white tomato grower and next among the African-American and Mexican migrant workers on his farm. These abrupt crossings of usually impenetrable boundaries, which Holdt called "contrast journeys" (209), caused a strong sense of displacement in the book. Yet there was an even stronger impulse towards belonging to and even becoming the world he wrote about. Holdt used the fatalism of his encounters to gain access, to see from the inside, to acquire the privilege of an insider's vision without paying the dues of permanent settlement. "I always tried to live myself completely into people's minds." (6.)

To describe this impulse we must introduce a new critical vocabulary. Theorists of gender, class and race in particular, in what is now a familiar debate in many disciplines, have discarded the conventional wisdom that identities are fixed and unchangeable. They have examined how identities are constructed, enacted, and negotiated, and have begun to complicate our understanding of identity by showing how people borrow other people's identities to create new temporary or permanent identities for themselves. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as "touring," an elastic term that can be used to describe a variety of practices. Touring means something more than the common literary problem of empathy and is usually meant more charitably than what people have often called slumming. I use it here to refer to instances when members of dominant groups move to a position of identification with subordinate groups through immersion. Touring is a transformative process that is potentially subversive of established identity hierarchies. It is not necessarily intentional and can still function when it is not deliberate or even conscious. Holdt, however, did consciously work at renewing his own identities. (7.)

Touring is especially appropriate in Holdt's context in reference to race. Holdt wrote at great length about the African-American sharecroppers in the sugar and cotton plantations in the South, and the prostitutes, "super flies," and transsexuals of the northern urban underworld. These were the book's "Other Americans," to borrow Michael Harrington's flexible expression. The prominence of these groups in the book allowed Holdt to present American Pictures as a corrective against what he thought was the conventional Danish view of the United States: a land of happy, white middle-class consumers. To be fair to the many Danes who have written about the United States, immigrants and visitors as well as those who wrote through secondary sources, "Other Americans" had been present in previous accounts in shifting incarnations. There are many famous and less famous examples of interest in Native Americans, the white working-class, and African-Americans, who were catapulted into prominence in the Danish sense of the United States by the jazz craze between the world wars. Yet there was something different about the way Holdt encountered and wrote about the "Other Americans." What was new was not simply that he wrote with greater empathy than most prior Danish observers. Nor was it simply that he had longer and more intimate personal contacts. As many contemporary reviewers recognized, what was new was the nature of the presence he established in the contact zone. "He was hobo with the hobos, identified with outcasts, with the prostitutes, with the homosexuals, the drug abusers, those who had to steal simply to make the most basic living. He lived with them, accepted their values and unwritten rules," one reviewer wrote. Holdt used the access that fatalism gave him to experience the world of his hosts from the inside. (8.)

Holdt demonstrates an example of what Ann Garnsey has referred to as "racial touring," which she uses to describe the "literal, metaphorical, imaginative, or symbolic identification with, impersonation of, or `traveling' to a racial position or `territory' that is different and considered Other than one's own privileged racial position." In other words, I argue that Holdt assumed a new racial identity that borrowed from his African-Americans hosts in order to understand and feel the complexity of their racial experience through an immersion in their lives. Holdt worked with, lived with, and slept with African-Americans, and the experience affected him in profound ways.

Holdt was not a stranger of disguise. He passed as a delegate at the 1972 Republican Convention and as a Klan member at a Klan rally and often wore a wig when he hitchhiked to disguise his long hair. But what happened was not the same as racial passing. Unlike for instance a John Howard Griffin, the white author of the famous Black Like Me who traveled through the South in black disguise in 1959, Holdt did not pretend to be black or know what it is like to be black.

He did not even try to be inconspicuous. For instance, shortly after he arrived in the United States, he began to grow a long braided beard that marked him as an outsider everywhere he went. Sometimes in American Pictures Holdt claimed blackness as an authentic identity that he felt emerged from his experience, but only in the sense that he associated blackness with the kind of outcast status that he experienced himself. More importantly  and more radically  he presumed that he could establish a black position and understand blackness from the inside. (9.)

One place to look for examples of the type of touring Holdt performed is American Pictures' seven hundred evocative black and white photographs. Reviewers generally agreed that they gave the book an authenticity that would have been lost in the sometimes very polemical text. Holdt told in the book that he began to photograph because he could not communicate a real sense of the poverty that he witnessed in words. When he wrote about his experiences in letters home, his disbelieving parents sent him a pocket camera. The photographs that he reproduced in the book then existed in a complementary relationship to the text. There was not a direct correlation on every page between the text and the photographs. Yet the photographs served a necessary function in relationship to the rest of the book because they individualized the situations Holdt wrote about and authenticated the text by representing the kinds of people and kinds of experiences he told about in writing. The stories that the photographs and the text told, even when they were not the same, were identical.

The photographs in many ways recalled the famous photographs of urban poverty from turn-of-the-century New York by Danish-American photographer Jacob Riis. Both were informed by a sense of moral outrage and belief in the necessity of social reform, and this, mixed with the fact that they grew up in the same region of Denmark and shared the same first name, made comparisons inevitable, especially for many reviewers in the United States. Holdt, who first heard of Riis when he saw a copy of How the Other Half Lives in a bookstore in San Francisco in 1975 and stole the book, also claimed Riis' mantle by beginning the preface to American Pictures with a quote from How the Other Half Lives. Yet the similarities are misleading and should not overshadow the considerable photographic differences. (10.)

What distinguished Holdt's photographs was that they assumed a far greater intimacy between the photographer and the photographed. Some of this had to do with differences in photographic technology. Unlike Riis, who carried a large plate glass negative camera, a case and a tripod, Holdt used a small pocket camera that made him less conspicuous and made it possible for him to take informal snapshots. These snapshots showed people at work, on the road, and at play. A large number showed people in their homes. We see people in their beds, a mother with her baby child, a drunk who has passed out on the floor. We also see an Alabama bank owner in front of a gold-covered safe in his home and John D. Rockefeller who sips a drink at his kitchen table. Generally-but with exceptions-the photographs recalled the work of Riis less than they did the Swiss-born Robert Frank's controversial photo documentary

The Americans from 1958, which also showed people in unguarded and often unflattering moments, or the classic documentary of rural poverty in the South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. Yet unlike Robert Frank, Holdt knew the people he photographed, at least superficially. And unlike Walker Evans (but perhaps not unlike James Agee), he was a greater part of the world he photographed and assumed a greater intimacy between the photographer and the photographed. The best photographs were the portraits that were so distant that they gave a sense of the space the photograph occupied, yet so close that they gave a sense of the individual life of the photographed, more often than not a life of despair and desperation. (11.)

Holdt aspired to personally understand the people he photographed. We see this best in the many photographs of nudes, showering, sleeping or in one case making love. Many of these photographs were of African-Americans. The nude photographs, which are not surprising because many of his encounters were of a sexual nature, powerfully accomplished the quality of immersion that Holdt aspired to. The photographs also suggest a more disturbing problem with the entire book. I am thinking here not just of the fact that most of them were of women, nor that many of them were of African-Americans, although this placed Holdt in an exploitative tradition of white male representation of women of color (one Swedish reviewer complained that the nude photographs were "sexual trophies"). The main problem is that the book in general and the photographs in particular showed people in a state of extreme vulnerability.

American Pictures openly addressed questions of economic power and social disfranchisement, but dealt simultaneously and perhaps predominantly with psychological oppression, specifically with how the people that Holdt met lived in a culture of fear that prevented human intimacy. This, he claimed, was especially the case with African-Americans who according to Holdt had internalized white assumptions about race and suffered from racial self-hatred. (12.)

This view was the most serious problem with American Pictures.

It allowed Holdt to play the role of a European therapist to Americans' neuroses. By his account, the people whom he met were starving for intimacy. In return for their hospitality, he sometimes offered entertainment-stories about his experiences-but more often offered his body or simply his attention to give these people an intimacy they allegedly did not know. Holdt's picture of a lack of human intimacy also-and this is a more serious accusation-stigmatized African-Americans. To be a member of the African-American under-class for Holdt referred not simply to social and economic oppression, but to certain patterns of behavior. Holdt believed that "the psychological terror of white capitalism" (188) destroyed African-American community, love and self-respect, but his logic easily degenerated into a reactionary mentality that blamed the victim for almost pathological inadequacies. It can be difficult to understand how he came to these conclusions. When he first came to San Francisco, Holdt stayed with members of Angela Davis' Lumumba group; he photographed for the Black Panther Party newspaper; he became actively involved in the prison reform movement in California; and he generally was very familiar with and spoke respectfully of the many empowerment movements in this period that were working against the pathologizing view of African American culture that pervaded American Pictures. Many of the black activists he knew, including Davis, criticized Holdt's views in conversations with him.

This, to his credit, he made no secret of in the book.

This reminds us that touring can serve conservative purposes and is not always oppositional. Yet Holdt believed he "successfully" toured to a position of identification with African-Americans. He felt he was beginning to look at the United States through black eyes.

We see this in his indiscriminant use of the pronoun "we," which sometimes referred to white Americans, sometimes to Danes, but on at least one occasion was to include himself among the black farm workers in the South who were watching the Florida-bound campers from the cotton fields: "Each of their mobile homes consumes as much gas as we can afford after an entire day in the cotton fields" (22). But did Holdt tour? The photographs suggest that he often viewed the "Other Americans" through the eyes of the white outsider. Holdt knew this, as when he wrote about his involvement with black criminals: "I wanted to photograph the crime from the point of view of the criminals, but in order to photograph I had to stand at a distance from them and so was no longer `part of them'" (236). In one instance in Harlem when he hid in a door during a face-off in the streets, a white police officer crouched in front of Holdt, whereby the photographs he took of the incident were from the officer's angle, not from the black "criminal" in the street. Here his status as photographer functioned as a marker of difference. This points to a larger problem in writing, which David Spurr has touched on in an analysis of the relationship between journalism and empire where he argues that the journalist's role as witness marks exclusion as well as privilege: "The privilege of inspecting, of examining, of looking at, by its nature excludes the journalist from the human reality constituted as the object of observation." (13.)

In other words, Holdt sometimes constituted himself as a non-participating outsider. Unlike the people he wrote about, he could always return to his former white identity by moving on and leaving. On several occasions when he was staying with poor African-Americans in the rural South, he was forced to leave when local whites learnt that he had breached the color line. At least once, this racist response had fatal consequences. When he was living with a single black mother in rural Alabama, local white men firebombed her house to punish her for Holdt's presence. Her brother burned to death in the fire. Holdt was away when the firebombing occurred, and the incident brutally showed that his subjects, not he, had to live with the consequences of his presence.

In other similar projects of cross-racial and transnational encounter, we see a distrust of racial touring. The Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz, who spent two years doing fieldwork in an African-American working-class neighborhood in Washington D.C., tried to experience the community he researched from within, but resisted total immersion. "Of course, I could not become like a ghetto dweller.

I would not have been comfortable trying too hard to be someone else than my ordinary self, and certainly there is almost nothing as contemptible as an outsider who tries to affect the style of an in-group but who is constantly falling out of it." John Edgar Wideman wrote condescendingly of "the black lilt, slur, lisp, and dance" that Holdt "mimics in his speech, his walk" and referred to his imagined figure of Holdt as a "white outsider from another country." The familiarity Holdt claimed with blackness in his book was certainly sometimes, at best, pretentious. In a letter to his parents a few months after he arrived, when he had been taken in by three black students in Detroit, he wrote: "The longer I live here, the more I look at the whites with black eyes. A slow transformation happens with you. The black faces become close and familiar and therefore warm, while the whites seem distant and unfamiliar and therefore cold" (166).

Yet there was by his account an understanding and appreciation among the people he toured that touring required and resulted in a dramatic transformation of identity. Perhaps the clearest recognition of this was also the most hostile. When the tomato grower in Florida saw the photographs of the migrant workers on his farm, he almost accused Holdt of lack of racial integrity: "If you hang around these `slummed' people, a `slummed' book is all you are going to get. It all depends on what kind of people you talk to" (36). (14.)

My discussion of racial touring so far has only addressed the racial position Holdt was touring towards (blackness), not the racial position he was touring from (whiteness). To understand the other side of this transformative process, we must remember that Holdt was not only white, but came from a country that from an American perspective was and is almost unimaginably white, inhabited by these "pale pink and white people," as New Negro writer Nella Larsen described the Danes in her novel Quicksand. Today, under the influence of the growing literature of race theory, it has become commonplace to argue that racial identities in the United States are constructed in opposition to and relationship with each other. But when we discuss race in the Danish context we must remember that Denmark historically has been an almost uniformly white country. This, compared to the United States, has resulted in a decreased white racial self-awareness. I am not suggesting here that Danes do not have a racial identity or that they are not raced, but that their racial identity, their whiteness, has often been "culture-less" in the sense that race has not been constitutive of how they have regarded them selves. (15.)

This is a typical characteristic of dominant cultures, which construct their own (racial) identities as unmarked. The success of racial touring must be judged not simply by whether those who tour immerse themselves and experience blackness from the inside, but whether they racialize themselves and become aware of their white ness and confront white-skin privilege. If racial touring is not ac companied by racial cognizance, it can serve as a reproduction of domination by confirming established racial hierarchies. There was little sense in American Pictures of what in Holdt's own identity had compelled him to tour, except the vague idea that as a social outcast he had a special kinship with the marginalized members of the society where he traveled. He wrote far less about the racial position he was touring from than the position he was touring towards. Yet touring provided a significant if limited opportunity to racialize himself in the sense that he became cognizant and confronted white supremacy by traveling to an anti-racist position.

But the "selfing" of identity for Holdt was not simply, or even primarily, racial. I want to suggest that racial touring here can only be understood with simultaneous reference to nation. To describe this, I use the phrase "national touring," which refers to situations when people identity with, impersonate, or travel to a national position that is different from their own. I here apply racial theory for questions of nation, but especially argue that it is impossible to talk about racial touring without at the same time talking about national touring. This intersection of race and nation was what distinguished Holdt from the white Americans who have also toured racially. Racial touring required national touring simply because the people he toured among were not Danes. But when he traveled nationally, Holdt toured to a position of identification not just with Americans of color, but to a position of identification with all Americans or a composite of Americans.

Holdt fantasized about national escape and used the United States to live out that fantasy. In a 150-page letter, excerpted in the book, that he sent to his Danish friends from Canada, he fired an angry jeremiad at the Danes: "a people of evil, degenerate, conformist, contaminated, inhuman `humans'" who lived in a "kingdom of death" (4). As he wrote in 1992 in a revised edition of the book: "I wanted to get away from society's straight-jacket, and the greatest and most decisive step in that process is across the border from your own country." The United States almost served a recreational purpose, in the sense that it functioned as a release from Danish cultural, social and political conformity. Holdt had begun to feel "just as American as Danish" (92), and he added in 1992 that he regarded the United States as his "second homeland." He simply liked the United States, because of the hospitality of its people, the tolerance of eccentricity, and the refusal of impossibility. "I loved the American people more than any people I had ever known" (270). (16.)

We must be skeptical of such language, however. Holdt never slid into jingoistic patriotic boosterism - of the kind Jacob Riis delivered in his autobiography The Making of an American  but he pretended that the national touring towards a position of identification with Americans was complete. Yet there are things in the book that suggest otherwise. Because Holdt was not a United States resident, he had to leave the country every three months and go to Central America, Canada or Europe to renew his tourist visa (he went to Denmark once). These trips, which remind us how travel is controlled by the logic of the nation-state that mandates that outsiders cannot cross borders freely, functioned as a marker of national difference. But sometimes Holdt also placed himself on the outside voluntarily. When he hitchhiked, he carried a yellow sheet in front of him: "Touring USA from Denmark." The book contained two photographs of himself by the road with the sheet. In one he stands at the limit of a small town, Denmark. Every time he used the sign he abandoned his immersion in the United States and extricated himself from the national position he was touring towards. The sheet signaled to drivers not primarily that he was Danish, but that he was not American. The purpose was to make the people he encountered less apprehensive and dislodge the distrust that he believed dominated encounters between Americans. Holdt, who realized the full implications of this, was uncomfortable by the use of his foreignness and found it "sad."  (17.)

Yet the strategy was irresistible. It showed that he could drift in and out of his toured national position at his convenience, as he did when he eventually returned to Denmark in 1975. The year before he had married an African-American woman. The marriage threw him into a deep depression. He became "ghettoized," he said. Holdt at this point, by his own account, was so immersed in the United States that he began to internalize its assumptions about race. He became abusive, was involved in petty crime, and began "to hate blacks."  (18.)

He also began to see how he had benefited from male white-skin privilege, in the sense that fatalism was not an option for female travelers and travelers of color. After a good friend, the prison reform activist Popeye Jackson, was killed, Holdt returned to Den mark and wrote American Pictures at a distance from the national and racial positions he had toured for five years. This in part contained his touring as adventure. On one level, this was simply a survival story of a white preacher boy who ran away and returned. The book sometimes encouraged this reading. "Four times I was mugged by robbers armed with guns, twice I was mugged by men with knives, twice the police in fear pulled their guns at me, several times I was surrounded by groups of blacks in dark alleys and al most got killed, once I was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan, many times the bullets whistled around me, twice I was arrested by the FBI" (8).

Yet American Pictures in fact expressed a significant national cognizance. Holdt extricated himself from the United States, but did not return unchanged and began to make creative use of his touring experience to fashion a new national identity. In this sense the United States served as a site of national renewal. This process already began in the United States. Holdt turned on, but instead of dropping out, tuned in. Throughout American Pictures, although this was never the major theme, he saw the United States and Denmark in comparison. There was a sense that the United States could learn from the welfare state example of the Scandinavian countries, but always a stronger sense of what the United States could teach him, for instance what the black liberation and anti-war movements could teach about the link between domestic and foreign colonization. Touring here served as a path to increased national self-knowledge, or what could be called "national selfing."

The question of touring has broader ramifications outside the relationship between the observer and the observed, especially for the role American Pictures came to play for Danish attitudes to the United States. To investigate this role, I turn from the textured analysis to a more speculative debate about reception. To discuss the reception of this book, or of any book, is to presume certain things about the readers. This is problematic. The way this is often done is to work from reviews. This is also what I have done on a number of occasions so far, but the strategy is deceiving since it creates a fiction of knowing based on the responses of one or more professional readers. What I am about to do is bound to be an incomplete exercise, but I proceed nonetheless to begin to ask how the book has traveled in Denmark.

There is no doubt that the project changed many in its audience. One Dane who saw the slide show was quoted as saying: "It turned me into a different person." But in terms of the emphasis so far, the overarching question is what racial and national touring precisely accomplished. Was the transformation only individual or did Dan ish readers of American Pictures tour with Holdt to new and other positions? These are difficult questions, but necessary nonetheless. First of all because American Pictures was a comprehensive national intervention with massive repercussions on how Danes have viewed the United States in the past almost quarter-century. Even the title of the book  coined by Information  signaled that it was about more than the people who appeared in the book and was about a totality of "America." This should make us wary and perhaps remember the warning of Stephen Crane on assignment in Mexico City in 1895: "The most worthless literature of the world has been that which has been written by the men of one nation concerning the men of an other." But reservations aside, we cannot overestimate the role the American Pictures project has had on how Danes have made sense of the United States. Second, Holdt wrote American Pictures with a clear intention of instructing the reader and changing racial and national attitudes. He has sometimes seemed puzzled that so many took him so seriously and has appeared uncertain of what exactly the book has accomplished. When he was interviewed in Film Comment after American Pictures the movie was released in the United States, one of the questions dealt with his reception in Denmark. Asked whether Danes considered him an eccentric or a hero, he answered simply that it is "very hard for me to really find out what they think." Holdt has not been entirely clueless, however, and he has written and spoken several times about the Danish reception of his views. (19.)

Holdt has had serious misgivings about the way he feels American Pictures has been received. The most serious misgiving concerns race. He feels now that the book has been misread as a specific cri tique of American racism, as opposed to a more universal racism with implications for Denmark. Authors are often misread, but this may be an example of an author whose own writing invites a read ing that is contrary to the message he professes to send. One of the problems is that he did not directly relate the issues he raised about ethnicity and race to similar issues in the Danish context. For a self described anti-racist, Holdt was shockingly blind to empire and ra ism in Denmark. He wrote almost nothing about the Danish colonial project in Greenland that was still going on when he wrote, and completely failed to address the (for Denmark) considerable influx of immigration from Turkey, the Balkans, and Asia in this period, which was already triggering a serious anti-immigrant backlash.

When the revised 1992 edition was criticized for ignoring questions of race in Denmark, Holdt published a self-criticism in a Danish newspaper where he explained that the new Danish edition was a direct translation of the revised United States edition and regretted that he had opted not to write a new edition specifically for Dan ish readers, thereby missing a chance to add to the then consider able public debate about racism in Denmark. The real problem, how ever, is not that Holdt did not specifically relate his argument to similar issues in Denmark, but that he removed the anti-racist attitudes he did express from the Danish context by treating the racial situation in the United States as the product of particular historical conditions. Holdt wrote for instance that poverty in the United States was "more cruel and psychologically far more destructive than any where else in the world" (82). He also argued that racism in the United States was the legacy of an exceptional capitalist form of slavery, which he believed caused African-American self-hatred. Holdt in other words constituted the United States as a separate case. (20.)

This is a familiar pattern from European debates about the United States. Danes (and Europeans of other nationalities) have generally thought of the United States as a radical departure from Europe, not as Euro-centric Americans would maintain as its logical extension, and they have described it as a different, exceptional and sometimes abnormal society. This was how most European writers, artists and scientists conceptualized "America" in the sixteenth century, and the sense of rupture has persisted into twentieth century commentary, which is still underscored by a discussion of the degree of what is referred to as "American exceptionalism." This is not surprising. It is easier to describe differences than similarities between cultures, and people usually write about places by exploring their difference. Yet when foreigners like Holdt "exceptionalize" (I use the verb to suggest that there are actors behind) the United States, there are serious ramifications. The problem is not-as most of the many critics of American exceptionalism within the United States have argued that the idea necessarily constitutes the United States as better or homogeneous (Holdt did neither), but that it removed the United States from Danish relevancy by creating what Johannes Fabian else where has called a "denial of coevalness" between home and else where, between American and Danish culture. (21.)

American exceptionalism inserted the distance between Denmark and the United States that Holdt was trying to collapse through touring. Under these circumstances, racial touring accomplished nothing or very little, and it is possible that the book's racial discussion has simply become, as Holdt anticipated in a personal letter reprinted in American Pictures, "a single white man's ivory tower" (97). Holdt probably increased many readers' empathy with African-Americans, but by constituting race in the United States as exceptional he re moved the topic from questions of ethnicity and race in Denmark. In the afterword to the 1992 edition, he complained about the "constant turning against the United States instead of looking at our own growing European racism," and said that the one-sided reaction of the audience to the slide show often forced him to "defend the United States against the feelings the show had created in the audience." He also wrote that "I have no doubt that many people in the United States have a deeper understanding of racism than for instance in Denmark." His own project has done too little to remedy that situation. This would not have been an unreasonable expectation. (22.)

The picture is different if we look at the role that Holdt's national touring may have played in relationship to his readers. It is ironic in light of his fondness for the United States that many people have pigeonholed him as "anti-American." This has been true both of his critics, who have argued that he should have foreground some of the more flattering aspects of American society, and of his sympathizers, who have (mis)used the project for one-sided criticisms of everything American. The most baroque example of this was when Holdt was approached by the KBG in Denmark soon after he began to tour with the slide show in 1976. Holdt maintained contact with the KGB for a while until it became clear that the Soviets were trying to mobilize the American Pictures project in a Cold War campaign against Jimmy Carter's human rights campaign. (23.)

With this tendency to read American Pictures as "anti-American" in mind, it seems that his national touring, much like his racial tour ing, became an ivory tower for a single Dane and failed to cause readers to travel to a new national position and ask new questions about Denmark. Yet many Danes would in fact have been very re ceptive to his national touring, especially some of the members of certain radical youth movements in this period, who shared many of his ambiguous sentiments towards the United States and were likely to read the book. These movements-and I am thinking primarily of the anti-war movement, the student movement, and the Danish equivalent of the "New Left"-have often been called "anti American." In certain ways this is not an inappropriate description, since they often organized around an anti-imperialist critique, especially of United States foreign policy in Southeast Asia. "Anti-American," we may guess, was also how many radicals saw themselves. Yet to call them so misses the complexity of the Danish radical relationship to the United States.

The late Danish writer Dan Turell has referred to his generation as the "American-Danes," people who grew up in the 1950s with Dick Tracy, the "Yellow Rose of Texas", and Louis Armstrong. "In one way or another I always did feel Danish, but as if Danish meant Mom and Dad, and I was American, as if that was the extended family, the common denominator." When they came of age politically in the 1960s, the fascination with the United States went deeper for many American-Danes. The "children of Marx and Coca-Cola," as the saying went, knew about American music and film, but also about American radical political experimentalism, from the civil rights movement and black liberation to the anti-war movement, which often loomed as large in their view of the United States as the J. Edgar Hoovers and Richard Nixons. They realized that something was happening out there, and unlike Bob Dylan's "Mr. Jones," they knew what it was. Some of the most enthusiastic European leftist observers, like the French Jean Francois Revel, even assigned world historical significance to American radicals by declaring the United States a prototype of world revolution. Few Danish radicals took this vanguardist, utopian position, but they saw great hope nonetheless in the American left and often articulated their criticism of the United States from positions within American culture. (24.)

The collective story of the radical relationship with the United States and Holdt's own experience intersected in the notion of touring. The best example of this intersection is a symbolically loaded event in 1976 where Holdt was a minor player. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Danish-Americans on vacation in Denmark have met every July 4th in Rebild, a national park, for the largest Fourth of July celebration outside the United States. In pageants, songs and speeches, they have created a binational patriotic celebration that has become an arena both for enacting their new national loyalties and for reassuring Danes of their continued allegiance to Denmark. But as most celebrations, this one has seldom been simply what its leaders want it to be. During the Vietnam War, the celebrations were often accompanied by radical counter-demonstrations. This competition for space in the Danish meaning-making of the Fourth of July culminated at the Bicentennial in 1976 when the regular celebration was interrupted by several hundred radicals, some in black-face, many in Indian disguise on horseback. The demonstration, which was orchestrated by the Sun Wagon, a Danish equivalent of the more famous San Francisco Mime Troupe, created a long public outrage, much of it focusing on a bag of bull's blood that had been thrown at the stage and soiled the Queen's dress. (25.)

The counter-demonstrators wanted to remind the participants in the regular celebration as well as the Danish and American television viewers at home (the counter-demonstration took place during a live broadcast from Rebild on ABC) of injustices by the United States against domestic minorities and Southeast Asians. But what is most remarkable from our perspective is that in order to enact their statement about United States government policy they mobilized other American identities, primarily but not exclusively through costumes. These identities were, first of all, Native American. Indianness, as Philip J. Deloria has shown us recently, has been a constant resource for white Americans to define and play with vernacular and national identities, from the Boston Tea Party to the New Age movement. But the example from Rebild in 1976 reminds us that Indianness can also empower non-Americans in similar ways to the ones Deloria has described for the United States. (26.)

The incident at Rebild raises complex questions about touring and identity and the intersection of race and nation. On the surface, Holdt and the other counter-demonstrators simply mobilized one United States (its minorities) against another (its government). By dressing up in Native American costumes the participants toured to a position of identification with Native American culture from which they could critique United States government policy. But to do so the counter-demonstrators toured nationally by speaking from deep within a national American radical position. Unlike for instance the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who three decades earlier, commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation, had written the classic liberal discussion of race in the United States, The American Dilemma, Holdt's radical generation no longer thought of the United States as a cradle of democracy and harbored few illusions about American benevolence. But like Myrdal, and like generations of radicals in the United States, they saw American poverty and racism in exactly the same historical terms-as the violation of the ideals handed down by the American Revolution and criticized the United States from a position within American history. The Americans who were "othered" in this process were not simply the conventional "Other Americans," Native Americans or African-Americans, but perhaps all Americans. Danes in this example understood "other" not in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of nation. (27.)

Ironically, by touring to a position inside American culture, Holdt and others like him fed on the global influence of the United States. Other European radicals in this period protested this direction. In 1965, when he was invited to give a series of lectures on Flaubert and philosophy at Cornell University, Jean-Paul Sartre, who by this time was an avid anti-imperialist, declined in order to protest the war in Vietnam. In an interview in Nouvel Observateur, reprinted in the Nation, he explained why. First of all, he did not believe in the possibility of engaging in a meaningful dialogue. But he also declined because he refused to consider the United States the global center. "It is the greatest power in the world? Granted. But note. It is far from being the center of it. When one is a European, one has the duty even not to consider America as the world's center." (28.)

Holdt did not agree and indicated that the United States was a significant and even necessary intellectual destination for radicals at this time who had to understand it from the inside. This maybe is the final irony of the global influence of the United States: that even its critics feed on American culture, history, society and politics to articulate and explain their criticisms.

1 John Edgar Wideman, "A Voice Foretold," The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).

2. Jacob Holdt, Amerikanske billeder: En personlig rejse gennem det sorte Amerika (Copenhagen: Informations Forlag, 1977).

3. Torben Krogh, "Et system, der gør næsten alle til ofre," Information, May 10 1977, 6.

4. Wideman, 114.

5. Johan Günther, "USA, nerifrån och upp," Aftonbladet, October 1 1978.

6. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).

7. See Eric Lott, "White Like Me: Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness," in Cultures of United States Imperialism, eds. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 474-495; Mark Pittenger, "A World of Difference: Constructing the 'Underclass' in Progressive America,"  American Quarterly, 49:1, March 1997, 26-65; Elaine Showalter, "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year," in Men in Feminism, eds. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Methuen, 1987), 116-132.

8. Jens Ravn Olesen, "Rystende dokument skabt på solidaritet,"  Kristeligt Dagblad, June 10 1977, 10.

9. Ann Garnsey, "Racial Touring in Twentieth-Century America: The Politics and Possibilities of Whiteness" (Ph. D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1997), 9-10; John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961).

10. Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: C. Scribner and Sons, 1890). Amazingly, considering Riis' towering reputation in the United States, How the Other Half Lives has never been translated into Danish.

11. Robert Frank,  The Americans, with an introduction by Jack Kerouac (1958; New York: SCALO, 1998); James Agee and Walker Evans,  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941).

12. Sture Stiernlöf, "Närbilder från överflödslandet,"  Arbetet, June 4 1978.

13. David Spurr,  The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 13.

14. Ulf Hannerz,  Soulside: Inquiries into Ghetto Culture and Community  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 207; Wideman, 114, 112.

15. Nella Larsen,  Quicksand and Passing, ed. Deborah E. McDowell (1928, 1929; New York: Rutgers University Press, 1986).

16. Jacob Holdt,  Amerikanske billeder: En personlig rejse gennem Amerikas underklasse (Copenhagen: Forlaget Per Kofoed, 1992), 4, 14.

17. Ibid., 69.

18. Ibid., 71.

19. Dane quoted in "Pilgerfahrt zu den Entrechteten,"  Der Spiegel, March 6 1978, 180 (177-180). Crane quoted by Spurr, 55-56; Mitch Tuchman, "American Pictures,"Film Comment, 19:1, February 1983, 25.

20. Jacob Holdt, "Forsøget på at skrive en bog der gør alle tilfredse,"  Information, July 8 1992, 9.

21. Johannes Fabian,  Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

22. Holdt (1992), 301.

23. Jacob Holdt's involvement with the KGB was "exposed" by a Danish tabloid newspaper in 1992 and caused a significant media stir. Holdt explained his version of the KGB involvement in the 1992 edition. Here he wrote that although flattered at first by the attention from the Soviet Union, he was not interested in using the book against Jimmy Carter. Because of the interest that the KGB showed in the book he regained copyright of the book from the publisher in a legal battle and stopped future publications, Holdt (1992), 295-297. The United States government, according to the Village Voice , responded to American Pictures by commissioning an exhibition by the African-American photographer Roland L. Freeman, which presented a more favorable view of race in the United States. This exhibit toured in Norway, Iceland, Portugal, France and Denmark. See J. Hoberman, "Annals of the Poor," Village Voice, September 11 1984.

24. Dan Turell, "$torebror $am," in Dan Turèll: Et udvalg omkring en generation, ed. John Mogensen (Varde: Skov-Dansklærerforeningen, 1981), 58; Jean-François Revel, Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun (1970; New York: Dell, 1972).

25. For the counter-demonstrators' version of that day, see Rebild-bogen: Undertrykkelse, teater, medier, meningsdannelse: en dokumentation for skole og hjem (Copenhagen: Demos, 1976). For similar contestations of the Bicentennial in the United States, see John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 226-243.

26. Philip J. Deloria,  Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

27. Gunnar Myrdal,  An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper, 1944).

28. Jean-Paul Sartre, "Why I Will Not Go to the United States," Nation, April 19, 1965, 411.




  Copyright © 2002  Jacob Holdt


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