1929: Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin

Thanks to my good friend Graham, whose advice in a recent comment was to get this novel done and behind me, I bulled through the thing at lunch today, hence my somewhat rapid arrival (after weeks of slogging) at this review.

Literary Style:

My primary criticism of this book stands—Peterkin is trapped by her inability to be as racist as her parents’ generation (which is, it should be said, a good thing) and yet trapped by her failure to conceive of truly wise, intelligent, and articulate African-Americans (which is, no matter how much we make “it was the 1920s!” excuses on her behalf, a bad thing).  The result is a book that is at its relative best when it is furthest from the characters, most distant from their emotions and expressions.  I’ve detailed at length why this troubles me so, and won’t belabor the point here.

There were some good passages in the final chapters that continue to remind me of what the novel could have been.  The relationship between Mary and one of her children—a child who, as a result of growing up, has learned more about the world than they care to—is particularly poignant.  For a while I see a woman it would have been good to meet.  But the depth is an illusion, undercut by Peterkin the moment she can.

Ultimately it’s a profoundly disappointing book—Peterkin, out of a desire not to go too far in any direction, goes absolutely nowhere.  Is this book a defense of Mary (whose infidelities, after all, result from an abusive and unfaithful spouse) or a criticism of her (since it’s clear her promiscuity has harmed virtually everyone in her family)?  It fails on both counts, but is not better in doing so—it’s not as though this is a nuanced portrait in which I see both sides of Mary.  No, instead Peterkin tries to have her cake and eat it: Mary repents of her sins but will not leave them; she has a divine vision that calls her to a sincere change of life (but then takes it back under her breath); Mary wants to have all the comforts of conventional living with all the freedom of iconoclasm.  It’s childish, and Peterkin ought to know it.  Watching a child grow up to be a mother of ten (by nine different men, none of whom are in the picture) without ever taking responsibility for her life is simply sad, not revealing.

The book fails even to be a simple morality play.  The wicked prosper while the good suffer.  But no one seems to have any fun at all.  This novel is the novel every teenage boy I ever taught thought The Scarlet Letter was.  They never saw what Hawthorne was up to, and denounced the book for being boring, sentimental but unsympathetic, uneventful, and frankly unbelievable.  But I’d trade all of Scarlet Sister Mary for that one walk Pearl takes in the woods, or the thoughts that flit through Dimmesdale’s mind in an hour on the scaffold.  The novel isn’t as wretched as the worst Pulitzer winner I read (despite all my complaints), but it fails to convince me that Peterkin had any reason to write it beyond a vague interest in writing a sort of “Scarlet Letter” from a “black perspective”.  And in doing so, she achieves neither the former nor the latter.

Historical Insight:

The book doesn’t do enough here, but its marginal successes here are about its only saving grace.  The depiction of African-American piety, with its notions of grace and sin, along with the vivid experience of its church meetings and Brer Dee “lining out” hymns, is absolutely the strength of the book.  I don’t know if I can trust Peterkin to be accurate, but it’s interesting enough that I believe in that slice of life, and want more.  The rest is silliness—Peterkin doesn’t know the first thing about cotton-picking, and does very little to conjure a believable life for a mother of ten in a world before electronics and home appliances.  A real Sister Mary would be working her fingers to the bone trying to earn money, cook, clean, wash, tend to, etc., the needs of such a vast family with no significant outside help.  But instead she seems to have the carefree life of a teenager.  There may be young children in the home, but Peterkin’s uninterested in making that seem remotely vivid.  There’s something to this book that calls to me—I’d like to read a real African-American take on church-going and growing up a “sinner”.  But it’s not coming anytime soon…Gone With The Wind, to name but one, is one of the hurdles between me and black authenticity.


This novel rates at “unworthy of your time”.  It has none of the worst excesses of The Able McLaughlins that made that novel fun to hate.  It’s just a waste of good paper and ink—at best, the rough draft of a novel Peterkin could have written with the help of an aggressive editor and at least one genuine black American with the willingness to share a real story.  It’s a shame she never did.

The Last Word:

Since you’ll never read this book, I don’t mind sharing the very last scene in it: Mary has just had a painful experience involving the death of a child.  She has spent days without food and water, praying to God for help and repenting all her sins.  She has begged her way into the church because she wants to “walk in the light” again.  And now that the elders have decided to forgive her and make her a Christian again, here’s the last scene, involving the old conjurer, Daddy Cudjoe, and the charm he gave her that allowed her to use black magic to seduce the many men she’s seduced:

Meeting was over and the people came up to welcome Mary back into the fold.  They shook her hand until it was numb, her arm ached with weariness, but her heart was warmed through with so much kindliness.

Old Daddy Cudjoe came last, after most of the others had gone and only Andrew waited outside to see Mary home.  He took Mary’s hand and shook it, then he cut his eyes all around to be certain Maum Hannah could not hear him when he whispered:

“If you gwine to quit wid mens now, Si May-e, do gi me you conjure rag.  E’s de best charm I ever made.”

Mary looked straight into his eyes and smiled as she shook her head.

“I’ll lend em to you when you need em, Daddy, but I couldn’ gi way my love-charm.  E’s all I got now to keep me young.”

“Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong.”

This advice from Uncle George Amberson comes at least an hour too late to the impetuous Georgie Amberson Minafer.  I take back my earlier comment that I can’t see Georgie as domineering, since he clearly is.  It’s a strange side of him, though–he goes from bristling at the idea that Lucy’s father, Eugene, thinks ill of him straight to a disastrous confrontation with the town gossip, purely because there is “talk” about Eugene and Georgie’s widowed mother, Isabel.  This meltdown of Georgie’s is interesting to me: first of all, when his uncle points out that there’s nothing wrong with a widow and widower getting married (the mourning year has passed), Georgie has no response other than to be appalled that anyone would think this marriage would be acceptable.  But what is it that bothers him so?  He was never close to his late father, Wilbur Minafer–is this Georgie processing his guilt at never having known his dad?  Is it that he feels Eugene will prevent Lucy from marrying him, and he wants to return the favor?  Or is it as simple as he says it is–that one’s good name is the most important thing about them?  But Georgie doesn’t seem much like John Proctor to me.

What is terrible about Georgie is that, even when given the chance to consider things calmly, he refuses.  And the pattern of his life continues–his mother knows, on some level, that Georgie is wrong, but in the end she cannot fight him.  She abandons her home and the man she loves (or might have loved, given time) to roam the earth despite her failing health, all so that Georgie can be satisfied that she will never marry Eugene.  But what kind of life is this?  Even Oedipus would find it hopelessly confining–Georgie, in denying his mother any life outside of her worship of him, will spend the rest of her life as her gloomy chaperone.  His will, his appetite for dominance, has outgrown any reasonable bound: he is a child who believes that only screaming will accomplish his ends.  His most pathetic moment–being ordered out of a home built on a piece of the old Amberson estate by the old gossip who lived there–was the moment where it seemed Georgie might rein himself in, might acknowledge that it was time to grow up.  He might realize that “being an Amberson” gives him very little authority (all of it merely social), and that his bad manners have spoiled any chance he has to gain the town’s respect.  But no.

The funny thing about all this is that Tarkington seems to be on his side.  Georgie is fundamentally old-fashioned–his quarrel with Eugene is essentially an Old Money vs. New Money quarrel (at least at first).  He wants to reject progress, dress as “important men” once did, and preserve the good old class structure in town.  It’s the Morgans who are more democratic, passionate, unconcerned with what the gossip will be.  And yet every chance Tarkington gets, he laments the fall of the old order, the old town, and bashes the arrival of the automobile (thanks to Eugene Morgan’s factories) in very unsubtle ways.  The two themes seem hopelessly contradictory, and I can’t understand why they are here–given that the impersonal 3rd person narrator is unlikely to repudiate earlier assertions about how dirty and awful the modern age is, can it be that we are to empathize with Georgie?  Or is the narrator supposed to, in some mysterious way, be him?  The style of the novel is confusing its message, for me.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m detached from the novel–not engaged by it.  But I’m frustrated with it, and it’s hard to see where it’s taking me.  The Morgans seem without flaw to me, and Georgie irredeemable (though I anticipate an 11th hour redemption, regardless).  I think the interesting characters in the middle of all this are the real Ambersons–the decrepit old Major, Uncle George (whose practicality doesn’t always show up at the right time), and Isabel Minafer, George’s hopeless mother who may yet salvage her life if she can cut herself free from the wreckage of her son’s insatiable will.  And Aunt Fanny Minafer, whose despair has fueled a lot of the trouble here in the later stages of the book, but who is at least a complex person (if a bit tiresome).  But I think Tarkington is much more interested in Georgie’s fall from grace and how immovable the Morgan kindness proves to be–if I’m right, I’ll be disappointed at the book’s ending.  I hope not: come on, Booth, why do the Ambersons matter?  Throw me a rope.  Only 100 pages to go–review tomorrow, in all likelihood.

“And since the primordial day when caste or heritage first set one person, in his own esteem, above his fellow-beings, it is to be doubted if anybody ever felt more illustrious, or more negligently grand, than George Amberson Minafer felt at this party.”

George Amberson Minafer, only grandchild of the old Major, is even more thoroughly unpleasant than the above sentence can suggest.  Being the expected heir to the town’s wealthiest family, he behaves with contemptible arrogance in every possible way–it is not enough for George Minafer that he believes he is the most important man in town.  Everyone else must publically and consistently show that they acknowledge their own inferiority.  He learns, with time, to mask this with a veneer of polite conversation, but it lurks under the surface constantly.

And yet, so far, he is the one alive character in town–everyone else seems a mere backdrop to his outrageous appetite for attention.  It’s becoming a frustration of mine with Tarkington: he’s a talented writer (or so I would say), yet he’s so transfixed by George that it’s hard for him to get anywhere with another character (I am perhaps 15% of the way into the book–the past couple of days have left less time for reading).  I wonder where he’s going, and fear this will be a “George learns to be a good man” novel.  If it is, it buys into George’s belief that he is always the most important person in the room.  Ernest Poole does not have Tarkington’s facility with words, but Poole at least knew that characters need to reach outside themselves a bit–the Gales may have been selfish and childish, but these actions constantly run them into the lives of real people and force at least a meaningful conflict.  George Minafer is so publically worshipped (while being privately criticized) that the book is becoming a series of episodes in which I want to punch George in the face, but no one in the room with him can do anything more than sputter and then give up.

I’m still intrigued by the word “magnificent”, by the way.  The OED first suggests “Of an immaterial thing: imposing, exalted, sublime.” but I’m thinking Tarkington’s intentionally baiting us with that, and is now ready to bludgeon us with “Of a person: characterized by display of wealth and ceremonial pomp.” or “Sumptuously constructed or decorated. Also, in wider sense: imposingly beautiful, splendid.”  There is little that is sublime about George Minafer (or the rest of the Amberson clan, as far as I can tell), but much that is both pompous and designed to impose with its splendor.  But the Ambersons may surprise me yet.

1918: His Family, by Ernest Poole

I’d like these reviews to take on a sort of regular structure over time, but as yet I’m not sure what that will be.  The only thing I’m sure of is wanting to divide a review between the literary merits of a novel, and its historical value.

Literary Merit:

His Family was certainly an enjoyable read in many ways–Poole creates characters that are sympathetic and at least somewhat complex (particularly the central figures of Roger, Edith, and Deborah).  The dialogue slips at times: Poole’s decision to write a novel of “important ideas” occasionally turns his characters, particularly Deborah, into placeholders that allow him to dig into particular attitudes regarding society in the modern era.  But I’ve seen a lot worse, and normally I didn’t feel this damaged the book.  He does have a tendency to get “preachy” through the mouths of characters, and when he wants the narrative to create an emotional reaction, he tends to simply pile on phrase after phrase in one long sentence.  Sometimes I was carried along by those phrases and felt the intended emotion, but only perhaps half the time.

Plot is probably the book’s greatest weakness: Poole rests most of the forward motion on the (oft-repeated) idea that Roger promised his wife on her deathbed that he would remain involved in their children’s lives, but struggles to connect with them.  This is a good character trait, or at least one I found compelling, but Poole allows all the other conflicts to come and go as a result.  Laura sparks tension but then disappears for ten chapters.  Deborah’s over-commitment to her job is resolved rather quickly.  The novel seems to end at least three times before it does, always because Poole thinks he needs to stay with Roger’s story to the very end, but I think he may have miscalculated there.

Overall, though, this is exactly the kind of a book that a book club could enjoy, if it was still in print.  There’s nothing overly complicated about how the story works, how it’s narrated, or who these people are.  There are recognizable character types, and plenty of room for disagreement by readers (whether any of the characters behave rationally, for instance, or whether or not Roger should have blackmailed Deborah into her marriage to Allan Baird as he did).  I can’t say I end up seeing this as a “great novel” in the way that Gatsby or To Kill A Mockingbird are–it lacks some of their depth, it tries a little too hard to sell the reader on a single moral.  But I enjoyed reading it, and if I ever stumble into an affordable used copy, I’d almost certainly buy it.

Historical Value:

The added value of these older books, I’m realizing, can be pretty powerful when read in historical context.  Poole likes returning to the question of whether the new century will be better than the old one–whether the Great War will mean the end of all wars or the beginning of war without end.  As I mentioned in a previous post, scenes took on much deeper resonance with me because I could read this book in the light of the Depression, WWII, and all the other events of the modern era.  I’d say that this book is particularly good when trying to turn our attention to immigration–for me, seeing the modern immigration debate in the context of the passion surrounding immigration in the 1910s was an interesting exercise, and is something that will stick with me.  Of all the characters in the book, I think my favorite was one who appeared in a single scene: a poor young Polish librarian who, when he had only nine dollars in his pocket, spent seven of them at the city court to change his name to Isadore Freedom.  That’s what it meant to him, and that fact alone, read in context of the horrifying conditions in the tenements, reminds me how complicated this is.  Isadore had come to a country full of prejudice and squalor (as far as he was concerned), and yet the freedom it meant to him became a part of his identity.  Isadore (and others like him) helped this book become a way for me to see the social problems of American cities at the turn of the 20th century: other books could do this better, I have no doubt, but this book does it well enough that I’m grateful for it.

Rating: I hate these, and have no notion of the scale I’ll operate on.  But for now, on a scale of “Never Read It” to “You Must Own This”, I’d give His Family a “You Would Enjoy This”.  I know most people will never pick it up, but if you do, you’ll meet some people worth remembering, and think about some things worth considering, especially here at the end of the so-called “modern” era that the Gales were watching emerge.

Last Word:

The lingering message of this book regarding the childishness of humanity is interesting, especially because it becomes increasingly obvious that Poole intends this to cut both ways.  It is the childishness of these people that blinds them to other people’s needs, that makes them feel hesitant and ill-at-ease in nearly every new situation, that causes them to lash out in fear when they feel threatened.  But because people are childlike (or at least these people in middle-class America in the 1910s), they rebound more quickly from setbacks, they see more possibilities than they have a right to see (and achieve them), and they can still experience the wonder of being alive that is so powerful in the young.  Even Roger is able to tap into this youthful power: I still don’t know whether Poole meant to say that these people had something special in being “young”, or whether all people ought to see themselves as “young”.  I will keep wrestling with this notion downstream I think–these certainly can’t be the last “childish” characters I encounter.  We’ll see if the Ambersons (though “Magnificent”) manage to be as juvenile.

And I gave Ernest Poole and Roger the first words when I started the book–only fair I let them finish with this excerpt from the very end of the book, as Roger prepares for his death:

“…and with a breathless awe he knew that all the people who had ever lived on earth were before him in the void to which he himself was drifting: people of all nations, of countless generations reaching back and back and back to the beginnings of mankind: the mightiest family of all, that had stumbled up through the ages, had slaved and starved and dreamed and died, had blindly hated, blindly killed, had raised up gods and idols and yearned for everlasting life, had laughed and played and danced along, had loved and mated, given birth, had endlessly renewed itself and handed on its heritage, had striven hungrily to learn, had groped its way in darkness, and after all its struggles had come now barely to the dawn.  And then a voice within him cried,

‘What is humanity but a child? In the name of the dead I salute the unborn!'”

“Mankind had suddenly unmasked and shown itself for what it was–still only a precocious child…”

“…And the picture rose in his mind of a child, standing there of giant’s size with dangerous playthings in its hands, and boastfully declaring, ‘I can thunder over the earth, dive in the ocean, soar on the clouds!  I can shiver to atoms a mountain, I can drench whole lands with blood!  I can look up and laugh at God!'”

The Great War has come.  I’d thought it was a non-factor in the book (which thus far made no mention of what year it was) because it didn’t concern these people in their private lives, far away from the battle…but no, Roger picked up the paper, July 30, 1914, and now everything has changed.  The petty childishness of the family (commented on before) is now dwarfed, in Roger’s eyes, by the childishness of the human race.  Seeing, as I do, from the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is hard not to read a phrase like “I can shiver to atoms a mountain” and not feel Roger (and Ernest Poole, who conceived of him) eerily looking through time to the horrors of the mushroom cloud.

The war and private tragedy are combining to crush this little family that I have come to care about (even though their weaknesses are on full display…perhaps never more so than now in the first months of the war).  It’s hard to read this book in context–I look at a passage like Roger’s watching his young grandchildren and asking himself what kind of world will be left, asking himself if they can escape war and poverty.  And I cannot help but think that George and Elizabeth will be young and married when the market crashes.  They will raise children in the Great Depression only to see their sons go off to Normandy’s beaches or fly to their deaths in the Coral Sea, to see their daughters tend Victory Gardens and dance at the USO and pray their loved one returns safely home.  The century ahead, which Roger looks to with hope–hope that it will prove to be all that the dreams of progress promise it will be–is hard to see in that light.  But maybe I’m making the 20th Century out to be more grim than it truly was–Roger was too early to understand it, and I was too late.

As the family pulls together (and not easily) to survive the winter of 1914-1915, Deborah (the idealist school principal) turns to her father and says “Every nation at war is doing it, Dad–become like one big family–with everyone helping, doing his share.  Must a nation be at war to do that?  Can’t we be brothers without the guns?”

Can’t we, indeed.  I wonder.  It seems like fear is all that speaks to our hearts in a voice loud enough to bring us together.  Is Deborah too idealistic…can anyone point to a time where people pulled together without the threat of violence (if not war)?  And if not, what does that say about humanity?  I’m near the end, now: the next post will probably be my review of His Family.  Whether or not I can find an answer that satisfies me, I hope I can find Ernest Poole’s–he wrote this before the war had ended.  What did he see in their future?

“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?)