“…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?)