Given the number of times it’s been reissued, it’s surprising that Alan Harrington’s fable of conformity, The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, is out of print now. In some ways, it’s a classic text of the 1950s, a satire on normality written in the middle of what, in America at least, may have been normality’s greatest decade.
Harrington’s story centers on Hal Hingham, a sad and unsuccessful insurance salesman who lives in a small, seedy boarding house and has convinced himself and everyone he encounters that he’s a loser, a depressive personality everyone tries to avoid. Then, one night, contemplating suicide but lacking the will, he see an ad at the back of a magazine: “STOP! WHY ARE YOU SO UNHAPPY?” and “FAILURE? TRY CENTRALISM!” Hal sends away to one Dr. Modesto for the doctor’s little self-help guide.
The doctrine of Centralism seems the perfect philosophies for fifties:
1. Since your self grates on others, and makes you miserable, get rid of it.
2. In our society, in our time, it does not pay to be yourself. People laugh at you and call you strange–even it it was your father’s fault.
3. Look around you, and see who is the happy man. He is the one Just Like Everybody Else. “Oh, so that is the way to be?” you ask, and I say, yes, that is the way you and I must be.
5. The only place to be is in the center of their culture. Be more average than anyone!
6. From this moment on, HAVE NO SELF.
7. Have no mind of your own. Have no thought, opinion, habit, no desire or preference, no enthusiasm, love or fear of your own. Be the composite of your neighbors.
Hal sinks himself into the practice of Centralism, and heads off to put it to the test by returning to his home town, where he failed to rise even to the standard of his father, another hapless insurance salesman. With the power of Centralism behind him, however, he manages to sell dozens of policies within just his first afternoon back in town. He drives himself into a frenzy in which he loses all sense of himself and collapses.
At this point, however, Harrington seems to have hit an imaginative wall. Hal falls in with Merko the Human Fly, a carnival performer who trained himself to walk up the walls of buildings through sheer willpower. Then Harrington shifts his focus to Jack Swan, a small-time publicist in thrall with Gladys, the statuesque blonde room-mate of Hal’s girlfriend. We spend some time with Fred Purdy, Hal’s ultra-cynical boss. Finally, he sends Hal off in search of Dr. Modesto, who turns out to be a crazy old coot in a Nebraska asylum.
Harrington was certainly aiming his satire at the combined targets of middle-class American conventions and the sunny-spirited self-help prescriptions of Dale Carnegie, Earl Nightingale and others. He wrote much of the book while staying at his mother’s house in Tucson, Arizona, where he was visited by Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on one of their cross-country trips. In fact, Harrington appears in On the Road under the name of Hal Hingham.
I first read The Revelations of Dr. Modesto over thirty years ago, and since then, have carried a memory of it as a magical little book, something along the lines of Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams. On re-reading the book recently, however, I found it disjointed and often flat, with none of the charm of Frayn’s fantasy and not enough of the sharp edge required for satire. Ironically, Harrington tends to treat his characters with too much empathy to skewer them with sufficient cold-bloodedness. I wonder now if I was remembering the wrong book.