“I was thinking of hungry people…”

“…Hungry, oh, for everything–life, its beauty, all it means. And I was thinking this is youth–no matter how old they happen to be.”

One hurdle I have to clear at the outset–I’m realizing I just have to talk about these books as though you’ve read them, even if you haven’t.  I’ll try to identify characters and situations clearly, and not give away every crucial plot point, but to dig into what I’m thinking, there’s no vague way to do this.

As I get further into His Family, it’s becoming clearer that one of the critical problems of the rapid pace of modern life (as far as Ernest Poole is concerned) is that no one really grows up.  Everyone is constantly a beginner at life–Roger Gale, the aging patriarch, is racist, perhaps sexist, certainly not comfortable in 1910s New York.  But his racism feels less like a deep angry fear, and more the casual intolerance of a child who’s never played with a particular group of children.  At first it seemed this would be a book about how old-fashioned, conservative Roger can’t accept the world, while his daughters try to enlighten him.  But it’s steadily clearer that the kids are just as clueless–Edith who hopes somehow to mimic her deceased mother (and can’t accept the world’s changing any more than her father can), and on the other end of the spectrum Laura, whose desperate quest to find a world devoid of responsibility and full of fun would be at least amusingly understandable in a teenager, but seems recklessly doomed in the late twenty-something that she is.

Deborah, the middle child, the schoolteacher, seems the most grounded so far with her desire to reach out and save the lives of these tenement children (“all Jews and Italians”, according to Roger).  But she is anchoring herself to a belief in 19th Century progress that must have already seemed quaintly deluded in a world that was slowly grinding progress into death and blood in the trenches of Northern France.

The underlying problem for me, of course, is whether our culture is any better at dealing with modernity.  Are we less likely to behave childishly, to seek escape in entertainment or tradition or the hope of progress?  Am I?  And does Poole see these people for who they are, or is he as deluded as the rest of them–is he sympathetic to Deborah or Edith, or even, heaven help us, Roger?  I wonder.  Roger’s about to visit Deborah’s school with her–we’ll see if I can pick up the signals there.

(Side note: The children in these turn-of-the-century novels always talk so preciously…the dialogue of the adults seems far more natural to my ears than the kids around the dinner table.  Have children changed so much, or is it just that literary conventions about children have changed?)


5 comments on ““I was thinking of hungry people…”

  1. Elka (and Competent Girl) says:

    I’ve (we’ve) noticed that ‘side note’ coming up a lot in older literature and art. The children act like idealized little angels all the time, which even some documents from the time prove that they were not.

    One of the worst examples, in my opinon, is from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (I can’t figure out how to make italics on these cursed things), when Lucie’s young son is dying. He says some sweet thing about how he’s ‘sorry he can’t be there anymore’, and ‘not to be upset’ about him dying. I doubt that any real six year old would say that!

    To Competent Girl, it seems as though adults used to envision, or at least wish to envision, children as being innocent. While they are to a certain extent(duh), the authors and writers seem to try too hard to make their child-characters appear innocent and naive (can’t get the dots over the i- sorry).

    But then again, I’m remembering that quote from the Torah you had us study in which it was mentioned that the penalty for talking back to one’s parents was death. So maybe, a few thousand years ago, children really were… different.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      You two are certainly right about this being common…I’d forgotten that scene in ATOTC, but it’s a fine example. And even if we can believe that one six-year-old could be so mature and “wise beyond their years”, surely not every child acted that way.

      So, the envisioning of childhood innocence as a literary device…interesting. More interesting in this novel, honestly, since one of Poole’s most recurrent motifs is the emphasis that every one of these adult characters is “childish” (or at least “child-like”). Even Roger is constantly thinking/feeling how “young” he feels, how much he seems to be a beginner or inexperienced at even the things he’s been responsible for all his life. Yet somehow the children don’t act quite human. (I should note that, since this post, there’s been a little improvement–Roger’s oldest grandson, in particular, is showing some signs of life, although _very_ slowly.)

      And I hadn’t thought about the idea of religious impositions on children–thanks for the reminder about the Torah quotation. I think I’d find that more believable in a more Puritan society (maybe Roger was raised that way in New Hampshire in the 1840s). In this society, though, morality/religion are all up in the air in the new modern age: NY in the 1910s does not seem a very devout place at all, not even in Edith’s family. Could lingering “honor thy father and mother” expectations really bottle kids up this effectively? Maybe so. Ernest Poole certainly seems to think he’s providing an honest portrayal of how the kids behave.

  2. swankette says:

    I remember once upon a time in some history class or other having it pointed out to me that the children in Victorian paintings always look freakishly odd. The reason for this being that real-live children have heads that are proportionally larger than their bodies when compared to an adult’s head, but the artists would always paint them to adult-scale, because during those times children were thought of as simply miniature-sized adults.

    I suspect that sort of perception of where children fit into society in relation to the adults would also come forth in literature. Children should be seen and not heard and not have opinions of their own and all that.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      This is a good point, and one I considered. But why, if they’re miniature adults, are they incapable of conversing normally, when Poole’s adult dialogue is (usually) fairly natural? It feels like it’s just assumed that they’re missing some side of human nature that the adults have (sexuality? seems too easy an answer, and not quite right).

  3. Bonnie Hood says:

    I would suggest that since there were no kids books back in the day, and books were written for adults, kids were not really the focus. Just as they were supposed to be ‘seen and not heard’ in life, unless they were central to the plot, they would be lucky to get a mention, and an idealized, adult-like-personality mention at that.
    It really took kids books to change children from being portrayed as how parents wished they were, to the way they actually were.

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