Media and History in DeLillo’s Libra

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while touring downtown Dallas. The death of the president and the subsequent arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald marked the beginning of a national frenzy for information. The public wanted to know more: more about Kennedy’s last moments, more about the young shooter with Communist ties, more about what could drive someone to commit such a sensational murder. As a result, the American media became a dominant force in society, providing not only information but a sense of order to an event which baffled the nation. This idea is manifest in the novel Libra, by Don DeLillo. Published twenty-five years after the assassination, DeLillo’s historical narrative chronicles Lee Oswald’s difficult childhood, defection to the Soviet Union, eventual return to the United States, and, of course, his involvement in the shooting. Throughout the book, DeLillo examines the role of media in contemporary society and Oswald’s own life, highlighting the media’s ability to shape one’s perception of reality.In the weeks immediately following Kennedy’s death, mass media passed along an enormous amount of information in various forms: video, photographs, facts, and speculations. In Libra, Jack Ruby describes the incessant media coverage of the event, saying, “All day he’d watched TV. . . This death was everywhere. Pictures of the grieving family. Reenactments at the scene of the murder. This was an event that had the possibility of being bigger in history than Jesus.” (DeLillo 428) The most notable example of media was the Zapruder film, released only days after the assassination. The Zapruder film is a home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder which provides the clearest images of the president’s death. While the film clearly shows Kennedy’s response to the fatal shot, it is ultimately inconclusive as to where that shot actually came from. Knight explains:“The film showed Kennedy jerking violently back and to the left in reaction to the fatal shot, and most viewers believed this obviously indicated a gunman on the Grassy Knoll (to the right front of the limousine). . . Others claimed that a jet of brain tissue flying from the front of Kennedy’s head caused his body to fly backwards after he was shot from behind. Most viewers found this counterintuitive if not totally implausible.” (Knight 385)DeLillo reinforces the ambiguous nature of the film, writing: “Experts have scrutinized every murky nuance of the Zapruder film. It is the basic timing device of the assassination and a major emblem of uncertainty and chaos.” (DeLillo 441) The film was played repeatedly on television and published frame by frame in Time Magazine, and with each successive viewing another theory of the shooting was born. Even today, the Kennedy assassination remains one of the most controversial events in history because the truth behind the event has never been conclusively determined; there are conspiracy theories which implicate everyone from the CIA to Fidel Castro, even the Italian mafia, Lyndon B. Johnson, or George Bush, Sr. While it would be easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as the product of mass paranoia, there are many critics who claim that these theories serve a higher social function. For example, Knight calls conspiracy theories “a way of making sense of structure and agency in a time when official versions of events and more academic forms of explanation fail to capture the imagination of a disillusioned public.” (Knight 21) It is my belief that these theories ultimately represent the public’s need to graft some sort of order onto the chaos which surrounded the events of the assassination. In the midst of the media-created surplus of information, society turned to conspiracy theories in search of a governing ideology which could explain the shooting.The power of the media is one of the driving themes throughout the novel Libra, which addresses the intrinsic relationship between media and history. The novel implies that because the past is just that, one is forced to rely on the media in order to gain a sense of understanding about historical events. Ultimately, however, media and history do not enjoy an entirely neutral relationship. The media can simply report history, but, like conspiracy theories, it also carries the power to apply a mediating order onto historical events which lack clarity. For example, after the assassination, the public turned to the media in search of answers, in search of some sort of closure. DeLillo describes this search, writing: “People were lonely for the news. Only the news could make them whole again.” (DeLillo 414) The media’s influence is examined explicitly within the novel through the Nicholas Branch subplot. Branch is a CIA agent commissioned to write a history of the assassination, yet he finds himself so overwhelmed with information and speculations that he cannot even begin to write. Here is DeLillo on Branch:“Branch doesn’t know how to approach this kind of data. . . Everything belongs, everything adheres, the mutter of obscure witnesses, the photos of illegible documents and odd sad personal debris, things gathered up at a dying—old shoes, pajama tops, letters from Russia. It is all one thing, a ruined city of trivia where people feel real pain. This is the Joycean Book of America, remember—the novel in which nothing is left out.” (DeLillo 182)Thomas elaborates on Branch’s frustration, explaining: “History becomes a fiction of minute detail and rambling narrative that ultimately, for Branch, reveals nothing.” (Thomas 121) Mott also describes Branch’s attempt to “account for every detail of existence”, arguing that “Libra clearly indicates that this penchant for total explanation leads, in fact, to total chaos. We simply cannot account for every detail, every nuance.” (Mott 142) DeLillo writes: “He feels disheartened, almost immobilized. . . But he persists, he works on, he jots his notes. He knows he can’t get out. This case will haunt him to the end. Of course they’ve known it all along. That’s why they built this room for him, the room of growing old, the room of history and dreams.” (DeLillo 445) Eventually, even Branch himself recognizes the futility of his efforts, conceding that he simply cannot separate history from fiction. Because Branch cannot discern a truthful account of history, he attempts to create order through a fictional account of the assassination. That is to say, I contend that Branch is the author of the other two plots within the novel, the Lee Oswald plot and the CIA storyline. “He enters a date on the home computer the Agency has provided for the sake of convenient tracking,” DeLillo writes. “April 17, 1963. The names appear at once, with backgrounds, connections, locations. The bright hot skies. The shady street of handsome old homes framed in native oak.” (DeLillo 15-16) Immediately following these lines, DeLillo’s narrative shifts to another scene. The new scene takes place on April 17, 1963, and it provides the reader with the backgrounds and locations of those connected to the CIA plot, like Win Everett and Laurence Parmenter. In similar fashion, Branch’s disclosure of T.J. Mackey’s real name is directly followed by a scene revolving around Mackey. (DeLillo 302) Ultimately, Branch draws upon the idea that “the writing of any history brings a persuasion and form to events.” (DeLillo 211) Thomas elaborates on this concept, saying, “It is in the process of creating a narrative that meaning is created. Without a narrative structure, the assassination will remain just another event.” (Thomas 121-122) Radford supports this claim, writing: “The past, far from being a hermetically sealed entity, awaits the sage historian’s intervention to edit, arrange, and describe what has happened.” (Radford 241) Branch imposes a narrative structure on an incident which lacks any other structure or explanation. It is through close examination of this narrative that one can observe the immense power of the media.Throughout Branch’s narrative creation, the author addresses the media’s role in the creation of fictional characters. The first example can be seen in the media’s glorification of JFK. DeLillo writes: “It’s not just Kennedy himself. . . It’s what people see in him. It’s the glowing picture we keep getting. He actually glows in most of his photographs. We’re supposed to believe he’s the hero of the age.” (DeLillo 67-68) This idealized version of reality remains even today, as the public ignores proof of extramarital affairs and health problems and instead chooses to embrace the media-created image which shows Kennedy as the personification of vitality, intelligence, and masculinity. This idea is also continually confronted through the novel’s portrayal of Oswald. While contemporary society is familiar with the idea of a cold assassin named Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra implies that this is simply another media invention. The entire narrative refers to Lee only as Lee, and it is only after the assassination that the media christens him with his full name. DeLillo writes, “He heard his name on the radio and TVs. Lee Harvey Oswald. It sounded extremely strange. He didn’t recognize himself in the full intonation of the name. . . No one called him by that name. Now it was everywhere. He heard it coming from the walls. Reporters called it out. Lee Harvey Oswald.” (DeLillo 416) With the designation of this moniker, Oswald’s true identity is essentially replaced with that of the ruthless character created by the media.This media creation is directly challenged through the basis of the Lee Oswald plot, which begins during Lee’s childhood and ends with his death at the hands of the overtly patriotic Jack Ruby. This story line offers insight from Lee himself, his wife Marina, and his mother Marguerite. It humanizes Lee and calls into question the validity of our assumptions about Lee Harvey Oswald. Throughout the novel, the author purposefully depicts Lee as an awkward yet somehow empathetic character with ordinary hopes and fears; he searches for his purpose in life, he quarrels with his overbearing mother, he falls in love and starts a family. In fact, DeLillo’s descriptions of Lee could apply to most Americans, as he writes: “He was a domestic soul, happy in the home, a householder who did the dishes, chatted with his wife about the wallpaper. . . He sat under a lamp, reading politics and economics, his wife always near, in a loose dress, pregnant, with streetlights shining on the river.” (DeLillo 208) Postmodern critic Lentricchia argues that these depictions of domestic bliss ultimately refuse to allow readers to distance themselves from Oswald, and offer instead “a far more unsettling vision of normalcy.” (Lentricchia 442-443) Cain compounds this argument by positing that “DeLillo takes a great risk, reiterating and fleshing out the domestic contentment—the love of wife, child, and home—felt by the calculating killer of the revered JFK as he ironically acts out American dreams of tranquil family life.” (Cain 278) While Lee’s domesticity in no way excuses his actions on November 22, it does point out the dichotomy between the authentic Lee and the media construct of Lee Harvey Oswald.Libra likewise addresses the influence of media on how certain characters construct their own personal identities. We see such an effect in Beryl Parmenter, the wife of one of the CIA agents masterminding the assassination plot. She highlights the immense power of the media as she constantly clips newspaper articles to send to friends. DeLillo writes:“She said the news clippings she sent to friends were a perfectly reasonable way to correspond. There were a thousand things to clip and they all said something about the way she felt. . . She believed these were personal forms of expression. She believed no message she could send a friend was more intimate and telling than a story in the paper about a violent act, a crazed man, a bombed Negro home, a Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire. Because these are the things that tell us how we live.” (DeLillo 261)Radford comments on these actions: “Beryl is not insulated from the media’s pernicious reach, as evinced in her obsession with news-clippings. . . That she communicates through these isolated vignettes highlights the debilitating detachment that results in a culture choked by superficial mass-produced reports.” (DeLillo 233-234) As Radford suggests, the overwhelming power of the media can be seen through Beryl as she uses that media to both express her unspoken emotions and dictate a sense of morality.The media’s influence can also be observed in the character of Marina Oswald, Lee’s wife. Upon her arrival in the United States, Marina is fascinated by the American culture, especially television. DeLillo writes:“One evening they walked past a department store, just out strolling, and Marina looked at a television set in the window and saw the most remarkable thing, something so strange she had to stop and stare, grab hard at Lee. It was the world gone inside out. There they were gaping back at themselves on the TV screen. She was on television. Lee was on television, standing next to her, holding Junie in his arms. . . She kept walking out of the picture and coming back. She was amazed every time she saw herself return.” (DeLillo 227)While one might assume this description is simply a comical presentation of a recent immigrant’s bewilderment, Thomas argues that “Marina’s ignorance of television functions primarily to draw attention to the medium itself.” (Thomas 115) Essentially, Marina lacks the ability to separate her true self from the self being shown on television. As her perception of self blends with what she views on TV, she also loses the ability to separate reality from the fantasy shown in and by the media.The media and its role in society manifest themselves as ideas most explicitly in the character of Lee, whose world is a “flimsy media-inspired fantasy.” (Radford 227) Lee relies heavily upon movies in order to establish a sense of self, and, according to Lentricchia, this is a common practice: as film becomes more culturally dominant, it also becomes a vehicle through which the viewer can see him or herself. Lentricchia explains: “Filmic self-consciousness constitutes, then, the contemporary form of self-making. . . To enter the mind of Oswald is to enter an especially intense—literary—version of such self-consciousness, a mind entirely preoccupied with the possibilities of its theatrical futurity.” (Lentricchia 446) Ultimately, Lee’s sense of identity is so unstable that he loses the fundamental ability to separate himself from the characters in the film.While stationed with the military, Oswald is fascinated by a visit from John Wayne. Whereas other Marines clamor for pictures with the celebrity, Oswald instead identifies with the fictional character played by Wayne. As Wilcox explains, “Oswald aspires to a role, and what better than the iconographic embodiment of the self-reliant individual, the ‘lone gunman’, a quintessentially American archetype relentlessly recycled in Hollywood film?” (Wilcox 342) The epitome of masculinity and independence, Wayne’s on-screen counterpart represents everything that Lee desires to be. In fact, Lee’s identification with Wayne’s character is so strong that he momentarily loses the ability to distinguish between himself and that character. DeLillo describes how Oswald inserts himself into Wayne’s film, saying, “He watches John Wayne a moment longer, thinking of the cattle drive. . . Rearing mounts, trail hands yahooing, the music and rousing song, the honest stubbled faces (men he feels he knows), all the glory and dust of the great drive north.” (DeLillo 94) A month before the assassination, Oswald again becomes mesmerized by film as he watches a double feature on TV. The first movie is Suddenly, starring Frank Sinatra as a young soldier who travels to a small town in order to assassinate the president. The second is We Were Strangers, featuring John Garfield as a rebel who plots to kill the Cuban dictator. DeLillo describes the clear link between Lee and the films, writing: “He felt connected to the events on the screen. . . A scratchy old film that carried his dreams. Perfection of rage, perfection of control, the fantasy. . . Lee felt he was in the middle of his own movie.” (DeLillo 369) As with the John Wayne film, Lee inserts himself into these movies; his connection to them is so powerful, and his own sense of self so weak, that the boundaries between media and reality become blurred.In addition to movies, Lee is also greatly influenced by other media outlets, such as books and newspapers. For example, after reading works such as Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, Lee finds what he had previously lacked: a sense of purpose in his life. DeLillo writes:“The books were private, like something you find and hide, some lucky piece that contains the secret of who you are. The books themselves were secret. Forbidden and hard to read. They altered the room, charged it with meaning. The drabness of his surroundings, his own shabby clothes were explained and transformed by these books. He saw himself as part of something vast and sweeping. The books made him part of something.” (DeLillo 41)For Lee, these books not only provide him with insight into Marxist ideals, but help to define his identity. They give meaning to his quest to insert himself into the flow of history. This quest is further augmented by Lee’s imagined likeness to Kennedy himself. DeLillo comments: “Coincidence. . . Did military service in the Pacific, like Kennedy. Poor handwriting, terrible speller, like Kennedy. Wives pregnant at the same time. Brothers named Robert.” (336) Drawing upon these similarities and desiring to be more like the idolized version of Kennedy, Lee tries to fashion himself into another version of the President. For example, “He read somewhere that the President liked James Bond novels. He went to the branch library on Napoleon Avenue, a little one-story brick building, and took out some Bond novels. He read that the President had acquainted himself with works by Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara. He went to the library and got a biography of Mao.” (DeLillo 317-318) Through these books, Lee tries to mold his sense of self in order to fit the images put forth by the media. While the media clearly played a significant part in the narrative prior to the assassination, it becomes even more important in relationship to Lee’s own assassination at the hands of Jack Ruby. The description of the shooting itself is presented in short, simple representations of the event. The author writes: “A shot. There’s a shot. Oswald has been shot. Oswald has been shot. A shot rang out. Mass confusion here. All the doors have been locked. Holy mackerel. A shot rang out.” (DeLillo 438) The effect of this method is particularly striking in that it echoes the voices of the media present at the time; it is as if the reader were literally watching Oswald get shot and hearing the live reactions. Similarly, Oswald spends his last moments imagining how his death will be viewed by those watching at home. DeLillo writes: “He could see himself shot as the camera caught it. Through the pain he watched TV. . . Lee watched himself react to the augering heat of the bullet. . . He was in pain. He knew what it meant to be in pain. All you had to do was see TV.” (DeLillo 439-440)Lee’s awareness of the media, even in death, is also noted by Beryl Parmenter as she watches continuous replays of the event. She says: “There was something in Oswald’s face, a glance at the camera before he was shot, that put him here in the audience, among the rest of us, sleepless in our homes—a glance, a way of telling as that he knows who we are and how we feel, that he has brought our perceptions and interpretations into his sense of the crime.” (DeLillo 447) Radford explains that Beryl’s observations symbolize “the collapsing of a distinction between public and private domains due to relentless media intrusion.” (Radford 236) Lee’s last thoughts fuse his own identity with that of the media and further blur the line between history and fantasy.After Lee’s death, the media is given even greater power to shape his identity. Because he is not there to defend himself, the media has free range to portray Lee however they choose—and they choose to vilify him. It is then left up to Marguerite, Lee’s mom, to offer a more authentic representation of her son. The Marguerite Oswald portions of the narrative are rare but memorable: they involve her speaking to a judge in defense of Lee, and though the judge remains an invisible presence in the scenes, Marguerite launches almost theatrical monologues in order to show the disparity between her experiences with Lee and the images put forth by the media. “A boy playing hooky in Texas is not a criminal who is put away for study,” she says. “They have made my boy a matter on the calendar.” (DeLillo 11) Later, she swears: “I have to tell a story. This is a boy the other children teased. It was torn, torn shirts and a bloody nose. I will write books about the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. . . there are stories inside stories.” (DeLillo 450-451) Throughout her monologues, Lee’s mother makes every effort to show that “Lee Harvey Oswald is more than meets the eye” (DeLillo 451) and openly criticizes the media for its destructive depiction of the boy she raised.Marguerite’s efforts are unsuccessful, however, for she too has implicitly accepted the media’s messages about her son. Radford comments that “DeLillo manipulates Marguerite’s voice to imbue the narrative texture with insistent rhythms of deterministic social critique, while simultaneously undercutting it by showing the predatory pervasiveness of the media and how it creates, confines, and seals the fates of its human subjects.” (Radford 231) In the closing pages of the book, DeLillo illustrates the ultimate power of the media, writing: “Lee Harvey Oswald. Saying it like a secret they’d keep forever. . . Lee Harvey Oswald. No matter what happened, how hard they schemed against her, this was the one thing they could not take away—the true and lasting power of his name. It belonged to her now, and to history.” (DeLillo 456) Marguerite, Lee’s own mother, can no longer separate the truth from the stories being told about him. Media has reshaped reality into its own image.