a history of rat races

The search for the origin is, to borrow the title of a Gerald Genette book, a  voyage to Cratylie, that is, to the mythical moment in which the powers over things and thoughts first emerged from chaos and commenced their scheming. Of course, we’ve come a long way from Cratylus, baby – or so all the scientists say. Still, what is more fun, and what gives one more a sense of peaking into some secret corner of the public consciousness, than tracking down the origin of great catchphrases? To do this properly is not simply a matter of dredging up some obscure reference from the world’s archives, although I am sure that is how they do it at the OED, and quite right too. But to make the voyage interesting, one has to go beyond the obscured fact. The mystery here concerns something with a total social meaning – with all that implies of the acids of psychosis, the collective ecstasy, the secret runs of dopamine in the individual’s Piranesian brain  that were  encoded in the word choice. It is the panorama of world history in the form of a fully formed phrase that we want. A phrase that comes prethought. The mere discoverer of facts here may insist all he wants to on the dated instance, plucked out of some corpus, and all respect to his nose and industry -  but his etymology will always fall short of the glory of the phrase's repetition and the unconscious connotative power that spreads it over the principalities and powers.

And so it is, not unexpectedly, with “rat race”. I admit that I’ve daydreamed about the voyage of this phrase through the time and space of the twentieth century, so American, so epic. Or perhaps lyric?  No, epic, in as much as the phrase summons up and muses over the great shift from agriculture and industry to service and circulation that is associated with American capitalism by the bonds of holy Hollywood – and whose spasmodic end we are, perhaps, witnessing now. It is a word etched in cinemascope rather than handheld video recorder.

The “rat race” is part of Karl Kraus’s ‘technoromantic adventure’ of the twentieth century. Kraus was referring, in 1919, to the juxtaposition of the propaganda for world war I, with its antiquated rhetoric of chivalry and honor, and the reality of the battlefield, with its cutting edge poison gas and its warriors masked like monsters out of the middle ages. Life in the developed economies, writers knew by 1950, was a rat race – it was what those developed economies produced, just as the undeveloped ones produced disease, an overemphasis on the agricultural sector, and the ferocious recycling of the developed economies’ waste materials – its odd old plastic bottles, its thrown away treated woods, its strips of corrugated aluminum.

Okay, so much for the mood music. There are two paths that lead, according to the most reliable experts, to the ‘rat race.” And there is also a third, according to myself. Happily, there is something synergistic about these paths, something that makes the origin and diffusion of the phrase ‘rat race’ highly symbolic of the cultural specialties for which the U.S.A. is known.

 The first birth of ‘rat race’ was, appropriately, in the popular culture of music. In the 1930s, there is a record of a dance in Louisville, Kentucky called the “rat race”; the observer who noted the term in the journal of American speech called it a “low dance”. According to John Kleber’s Encyclopedia of Louisville, the dance was peculiarly associated with Kentucky’s only big city. “Some say the Rat Race got its start in the Portland area. Although the origin of the name is obscure, old-timersnote that rats were once so numerous in Portland that people had to invent innovative ways to exterminate them. At night one could see the rats running everywhere, as the residents formed what they called a Rat Chase.”

Kleber claims that the dance was a “sort of slide and glide” step seen more often in barrooms than ballrooms. At this point, note, the human is chasing the rat – the human remains the subject, the rat the object.

The next appearance of rat race is in a military context. The OED gives a quotation from a 1931 story in the New York Times: “They did the snake dance, or rat race as it is sometimes called, and they ended with their four-direction bombing attack” Apparently, just as the sliding and gliding male in the dance kept pursuing the ever retreating and gliding female, one  fighter plane would dog and tailgate another fighter plane, trying to drive it off course or rattle the pilot. American Speech, in 1941, records it as a “mounted review in armor force” – presumably, a defile of tanks. The “race” here is distinguished from a straight race, in which the runners keep to their tracks – instead, the race involves interfering with the other racers. By 1944, the “rat race” was, informally, the race to occupy Germany. Note, here, that the human chasing the rat has disappeared: all are rats, all are racing as rats. The lowest animal, vermin, is made equivalent to the soldier in a ritual that begins with humiliation and ends with an inverted prestige – the rat lords it over the human in a world in which murder is a duty and sparing life is a fault. The technoromantic adventure is rats business.  

The course of the phrase as I have depicted it so far is supported by the best authorities in the phrase and fable field, as well as Louisville antiquarians and WWII groupies. Underneath the surface shift from human to rat and from dance to death, one spots the grander outlines of two of the great 20th century American industries, entertainment and war, as they cross one with the other and form an enduring complex with multiple effects – from the rise of the FX blockbuster to the great burst of highway building (done as a defense initiative) that started in the 1950s, from war video games to the use of defense industries and military camps to develop the economically backwards American South in the pre-Civil Rights era.

But I think I can also discern a third source for the phrase. At least, I’ve always had an instinct that the phrase has connotations that certainly resonate with this other, characteristically American source, which takes us back to the 1890s when, at Clark University, and then at the University of Chicago, and at the Worcester Hospital for the Insane, certain psychologists –most notably Adolf Meyer, a Swiss immigrant to the U.S. who worked at the Worcester Hospital and Henry Donaldson, a neurologist at the University of Chicago – began to promote the gospel of the albino rat. It was Meyer who began to breed the rats (imagine the scene! The cages in the basement under the flickering electric light, the creaking of the floor above as the mad shuffled about, and our inventor with his family of vermin), and the albino was perfected by Donaldson in the twenties with the Wister rat, which became the standardized lab rat. After  the 1920s, no large American university lacked its wing housing cage after cage of rats. Meanwhile, at Clark, a psychologist names E.C. Sanford and his students, Lucas Kline and Willard Small, were customers of Meyer’s. In Kline’s memoir he recalled talking to Sanford about the natural history of rats, such as he knew it from his childhood in Virginia: “… runways I had observed… made by large feral rats to their nests under the porch of an aold cabin on my father’s farm in Virginia. These runways were from three to six inches below the surface of the ground and when exposed during excavation resembled a veritable maze.”

The maze idea was taken up by Willard Small, who wrote the first great American rat paper, Mental Processes in Rats, in 1900 (and by what lexical drift did the name Willard emerge in the seventies in a popular horror movie about armies of rats?) and introduced the maze – in the center of which the psychologist placed a reward, food. In 1900, behavioralism had not yet erased scandalous mentalese and mental processes from out of the life of rats and humans. Small’s inferences of mental processes fell into oblivion, but his maze, and other laboratory equipment (the problem box, the activity wheel) spread from one underground of cages to another. In 1910, it surfaced in the popular press in an article about animal behavior under expriment by John Watson, the pioneer of behavioralist psychology:

“By such experiments we have established the fact that when animals learn to open doors, run mazes, etc. by their own unaided efforts, they achieve the first success in nearly all cases by some happy accident. If a rat is hungry and is confined in a large cage with a small box containing food which it can get access to only by raising a latchi, it begins its task by the display of a repertoire of instinctive acts, common to every member of the rat race. It runs around and over the box, gnawing the wires, pushing into every mesh of the wire with its nose, clawing, etc. This random instinctive exercise of energy results early in the knowledge of the fact that the door of the box is  the only movable portion. The rat’s activity becomes centered here. Since the latch is attached to the small door, the chance has rapidly become better that some movement of the rat, such as butting or clawing, may raise the latch from the socket. In a period of time which may vary from to minutes to twenty, or even longer, this happy accident will occur, the door will then fall open, and the rat get the foot. Will the animal on the second trial run immediately to the latch and raise it?”

On such questions corporate, military and organizational behavior rose and fell, at least in the command and control America that followed World War II.  Although the running of the rats did not involve racing them, I find this cockeyed etymological meander too satisfying not to want it to be true. Watson, of course, only mentions the rat race as an indication of the race of rats, while rats running do not try to block each other from the food in the maze. But here one does spot, at least the turn from the human chasing the rat to the human becoming one – from old barbarous rat-catching to species-being, Gattungswesen, as Ludwig Feuerbach might have put it. And the problem boxes, mazes and cages by a thousand transformations reappeared as offices, compensation systems, psychological personality quizzes and the interstate highway system.    

In 1932, E.C. Tolman wrote: “I believe that everything important in psychology (except perhaps such matters as the building up of a super-ego, that is, everything save such matters as involve society and words) can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determiners of rat behavior at a choice-point in a maze.”

Who can doubt that such truths were inscribed deeply in the American subconscious? The problem is the super-ego; but erect mazes that lead the animal by easy steps to from the choice-point to the reward or punishment you’ve left for him, and you set your mind at rest. . It is all a question of building the mazes – the tv maze, the car maze, the job maze, the education maze – and pushing the American beast through them.

It is this third path to the phrase that fascinates me, the beast that I am, standing at a choice point and peering near-sightedly down dark passages, stirred obscurely by the thought of my positive reinforcement (to be gobbled up rapidly, spilling crumbs) at some impossible center.