Will Moviegoers Want the Real Story of John Dillinger?
Mr. Gorn teaches history at Brown University. He is author of Dillinger’s Wild Ride: The Year that Made America’s Public Enemy Number One, published by Oxford University Press. He’s never smoked in his life.I just finished a book called Dillinger’s Wild Ride about the famous depression era bank robber. In the past, I’ve written about brawlers, labor rebels, and outlaws. In other words, I’m a city desk historian. History’s city desk is where tips come in and stories go out about molls and pols, cops and robbers, incidents and accidents.
City desk history is often micro-history. We tell stories small in their dailiness, and, we hope, large in significance. Now micro-history always comes through the door with that “micro” prefix first. It seems a little frivolous, especially compared to what might be called “macro” history, big history—economics, diplomacy, politics, policy—which, if you change one little letter, becomes “macho” history.
While others think large thoughts about the state of the world, here at the city desk we specialize in the daily carnival: human weakness, oddball characters, vice and corruption, outrages, violence, and death. We’re world-weary, a little bleary-eyed from short deadlines, too many cigarettes, too much scotch—from seeing too much of life. What we cover is the stuff of gritty movies: film noir, history noir.
And it so happens that just as my Dillinger book is coming out, a film about the outlaw’s life is also appearing. Michael Mann, director of Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Collateral has made a new movie called The Public Enemies on the life of John Dillinger (there have been several previous ones), opening on July 1, and starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard. The film is based on an eponymous and well-researched book about crime in the early 30s by the journalist Brian Burrough.
I had nothing to do with the movie—not for want of trying—but what explains the coincidence of the film and my book is the 75th anniversary of Dillinger’s death this coming July 22; we were both aiming for that date. Everyone says that I’ll get lots of attention for the book because of the film. Maybe; I hope so. In my dreams, I’m that little Volkswagen beetle, tail-gaiting the eighteen-wheeler, riding its slipstream.
Still, there is that same old problem (at least it is an old problem for me) of finding the audience for a popular story told in a serious way. There is no way to compete with the movies. On the verisimilitude scale, I’m sure the film will be very solid; Hollywood is pretty good at avoiding anachronistic cars and out-of-date fashions, especially in big-budget productions. And with Michael Mann in charge, the story will be largely accurate, though there will be lots of truncating and over-dramatizing, and some made-up plot twists thrown in for excitement’s sake. But what a film can do better than any book is give us the feeling of being there—you just can’t capture on the printed page the fearsome power of a Thompson machine gun or the excitement of death-defying car chases the way movies can.
So while I am hopeful of a little spillover attention from the film, I worry that it will create expectations that no serious book of history can fulfill. Professional historians are not supposed to make up dialogue, or pass off inferences as truth, or repeat unsubstantiated stories as facts. I cannot possibly be as interesting as Johnny Depp. The best I can do is to find an audience that wants to go a little deeper into the context and meanings of Dillinger’s life than a film can take them.
The dilemma of entering the arena of popular culture as a professional historian is also nicely encapsulated in my first (and right now only) reader review on Amazon.com. I got three stars out of five, a little humbling. The guy says that I wrote an average biography, and that there is “very little in these pages that any knowledgeable student of the Public Enemy era probably doesn’t already know.”
Still, the review is rather positive. Dillinger’s Wild Ride is “nicely written and well researched.” The book is “an attempt to understand the public’s fascination” with Dillinger. It “closely examines” how Americans thought about John Dillinger then and now. But that is the crux of the problem. The writer concludes that Dillinger’s Wild Ride is “more of a sociological study than a straight-up gangster bio.” There it is: I wrote the wrong book. Nine out of ten people found the review helpful.
I’m not sure exactly what the lesson is in all of this. Maybe it is time for me to move on. But I like the city desk, like history noir, and I appreciate my audience, even though I’m not sure who it is, even though at this early moment for the Dillinger book, it doesn’t seem to appreciate me. So what’s a city desk historian to do? What I always do. Take another drag and keep writing, keep living by my code, knowing that it is a bitter, indifferent world out there. That, and think about better days, which hard experience teaches me probably will never come.
comments powered by Disqus
Jon Mansfield - 9/2/2009
No need to be so glum, Mr. Gorn. You have written a fascinating and insightful book that very effectively contextualizes the Dillinger story in an America in the throes of the Great Depression. In fact, I have assigned the book to one of my students who is doing an independent reading course on the 1930s. Keep up the good work.