An interview about Now in November, by Josephine W. Johnson

Blog veterans will remember my fulsome praise of Pulitzer winner Now in November, an account of a failing farm in the early 1930s, written as a first novel by Josephine W. Johnson.  The folks at website Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y., who interviewed me back in the fall to talk about my Pulitzer project in general (and as it specifically relates to rural literature, their area of interest), were kind enough to make Now in November their featured book for January, which I think (and hope) is in part due to my advocating for its inclusion on their site.

In any case, as a part of their coverage of the novel, they’ve interviewed me again, only this time it’s actually a joint interview with me and a friend of this blog, Nancy Gluck, who writes a blog called Silver Threads that I’ve recommended to you all before (and which is always linked to in the right sidebar).  Nancy and I are a good pairing—both admirers of Josephine Johnson’s novel, but for different reasons, and we certainly express ourselves in different ways and draw on different life experiences.  I gained a lot from hearing what Nancy had to say, about the book and about books in general, and I hope you’ll benefit from having a look at what both of us have to say.  (Side note: If you’re not particularly interested in Now in November, you may want to check out the interview anyway for the question where Nancy and I are each asked to give some book/author recommendations, since neither of us talked about Pulitzers.  And I call an audible at one point and talk about The Grapes of Wrath, for you Steinbeck fans out there.)  Here’s a link to the interview.

1935: Now in November, by Josephine W. Johnson

Literary Style:

Josephine Johnson finished with the same strength I’ve been raving about throughout the novel—this is a gem of a book, and all the more remarkable when you consider that it was a first novel written by a 24 year old.  It captures the Depression through the very humble lens of a single family on a failing farm, and it does so with a power that is, for me, as successful as what I’ve read of John Steinbeck.  Johnson is careful not to overplay the worldwide Great Depression as a presence, and generally steers clear of presenting any of the rich and powerful folks who are making life harder for the family farmer.  At times, I worried this diminished her message, but on the whole I feel it was the best possible decision: to pit the haves against the have-nots would make it too easy for us to rush past Marget’s real hopes and fears, and the lives of her family.  We would know what side to take up, and spend our energy railing against the fat cats.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a novel that calls for activism, but novels that do this distract us from listening, and it’s critical that we listen to Marget.  She is telling us, with courageous honesty, a story we need to be quiet to hear.  I think we have to listen to her, because while it is not our story, it might have been.  And it still may be, after all: the rains still fail for some of us, sometimes, and whatever that metaphor means in real terms to you or me, it’s important to face it.

I am moved by Johnson’s ability to evoke real understanding of several very different characters, and I’m struck by her ability to make women the centerpiece of the novel, especially young women—the three sisters are very distinct, very real, and their action (or inaction) is what drives the novel.  The men in this story are important, but only in relationship to the Haldemarne girls.  I hesitate just a little in calling this a “feminist” novel, because that word has been so abused in our society (and its meaning will vary widely depending on who reads it) and because Johnson would not have had that word in her head as she wrote.  But it feels like an authentically feminine and feminist story in a way that even the best Pulitzer-winning women thus far (Wharton and Cather, each a giant in her own right) didn’t aim for or achieve in their prize-winners, whether or not they do elsewhere.  I know I’ve been fixated on race over the last few novels, but I don’t want to ignore the importance of America’s growth and change regarding gender, and this book feels important to me as a leading indicator that women’s authentic lives were finally becoming more acceptable as worthy of public attention and interest.

Reviewers at the time were very much in love with Johnson’s voice, which has been called “poetry with its feet on the ground”.  She was compared to Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters, although I’m not sure I’d draw the same parallels—like them, she has a great respect for (and ability to evoke and describe) the interior life of the young woman at home, especially an introspective young woman whose mind is much more active than her voice.  She sees nature very differently, though, and her interests in story and character development fall in the very large gap between a Dickinson poem and, say, Wuthering Heights.  But that she was a rare talent is certain: not many 24 year olds are discerning about themselves and the world around them with the kind of depth Johnson (through Marget) displays in Now in November, and still fewer of them could articulate that way of seeing the world in the structure of a novel.

I’ve tried to say very little about the story itself even here in the review, as I want to encourage as many people as possible to read the book.  Unlike the other Pulitzers that sit at the top of my list of favorites (The Age of Innocence and The Bridge of San Luis Rey), this is a forgotten novel—a book that even lit majors have never heard of, a book you would not have been asked to read in 8th grade or in English 301.  It deserves to be read and enjoyed, and recommended, not for any reason other than that it is beautiful and it offers us no easy answers.  It’s the kind of book you can sink into a really good discussion about—which characters you sympathized with, what significance to attach (or refuse to attach) to a given moment or turn of phrase.  How to see the ending and what to take away from the experience.  Marget’s narration is lyrically done, a very pleasant combination of plain-spoken words about the daily life on a dying farm and sharp-eyed crystalline images of the natural world, both intimate and remote from human lives.  It’s a book that doesn’t rail against injustice—it shows you what it’s like to live immersed in it, without even understanding why or how the injustice is perpetuated.  It talks about love as it really is—equal parts elation and burden, often ultimately unfulfilling and unfulfilled, almost never (once we are no longer 16) really the Romeo-and-Juliet blind wrecking-ball.  I won’t call it the Great American Novel—its scope is not quite wide enough, its ambitions are not so high, and there are little stumbles for me that are easy to forgive but just enough to hold it back from the very pinnacle.  But it is a great American novel, and a brief one, and one that anybody past the age of 12 or 13 can read with pleasure—I hope its renaissance is coming soon.

Historical Insight:

As alluded to above, this book is as good as any fiction I’ve yet read about the Great Depression—we should keep in mind that I have not yet read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (it’s coming, though! 1940), but that’s still pretty high praise.  I’ve read plenty of American farm novels at this point (thank you, Pulitzer board, I guess), and this really does outshine them with its ability to bring out the anxieties inherent in depending on wind and rain and sun for your life.  The tensions between farm and city are here (though often very subtle), and Marget defends the life of the farmer in her characteristically calm fashion: you can see what America looked like from the vantage point of that farmhouse front porch in 1933.  It would be easy to nitpick here—to point out that the book could do more to expose the economics that underlay the problem, or to put us more in touch with what it’s like to be Marget’s father.  But the book does more than enough for me given its brevity, and its limitations are Marget’s—we don’t get more about economics because the character narrating for us doesn’t really know what’s at work, and we don’t see more from her father’s perspective because of how much he has alienated her and how unwilling he is to share his fears with anyone in the family.  Anyway, the bottom line is, if someone told me “I’m looking for a good novel that will help me really get a feel for rural life in the 1930s”, I’d recommend this before they finished talking, and then Of Mice and Men.  Yes, Johnson beats Steinbeck.  I’m trying not to overhype this little novel, but I love it much too sincerely to be less enthusiastic about it.

Rating:

Now in November receives one of the highest ratings I have yet issued: “You really owe it to yourself to find and read this book”.  I am not phrasing it in the imperative, as I did with The Age of Innocence, but I’m coming as close to that as I can.  I can envision someone disliking this book, but honestly unless you’re the kind of person who demands that your books be “cheerful” or your interests are very narrow (only certain genres, time periods, etc.) I’d be stunned if you didn’t at least enjoy the book, whether or not you reach my level of excitement about it.  It’s the kind of book a reader wants—an intriguing (unreliable?) narrator, good characterization, a vivid natural setting, and a skilled author who cares about craft and phrasing.  If it’s at your library, borrow it.  If it’s not, suggest they buy a copy.  Amazon will sell you a copy for $11.  I’m not promising refunds, but I expect you won’t be asking for one.

Last Word:

I’ve striven to avoid giving away too much of the novel, although I should probably note that it’s not full of too many twists and turns—this isn’t an Agatha Christie, and I think knowing a three sentence summary of the plot would barely diminish your enjoyment of the book.  Anyway, because that’s been my aim, choosing a passage to share as Johnson’s “last word” has been a little tough—I’ve selected one that gives away as little as possible, and have avoided by ellipsis anything I think gives too much away.  All I’ll provide as context is that this is after Marget’s lived through a lot, but before she’s lived through everything there is to face, and she’s offering a reflection on how she makes sense of her life:

“It is November, and the year dying fast in the storms.  The sycamores wrenched of leaves and the ground gold.  The ploughed fields scarred around us on the hills. . . .

I do not see in our lives any great ebb and flow or rhythm of earth.  There is nothing majestic in our living.  The earth turns in great movements, but we jerk about on its surface like gnats, our days absorbed and overwhelmed by a mass of little things—that confusion which is our living and which prevents us from being really alive.  We grow tired, and our days are broken up into a thousand pieces, our years chopped into days and nights, and interrupted.  Our hours of life snatched from our years of living. . . .

We have no reason to hope or believe, but do because we must, receiving peace in its sparse moments of surrender, and beauty in all its twisted forms, not pure, unadulterated, but mixed always with sour potato-peelings or an August sun.

There is no question of what we will do.  It is as plain before us as the dead fields.  We are not trapped any more than all other men.  Any more than life itself is a trap.  How much of what came to us came of ourselves?  Was there anything that we could have done that we did not do?  God—if you choose to say that the drouth is God—against us.  The world against us, not deliberately perhaps, more in a selfish than malicious way, coming slowly to recognize that we are not enemies or plough-shares.  And we against ourselves.”

“They would have been kind, I know, but kindness is sour comfort.”

I’ll keep this a little briefer than I might otherwise—Now in November is moving quickly since I’m really enjoying the read, and I’d rather not slow down too often to detail who is doing what.  But I want to record a few of my thoughts as I’ve been reading, partly for myself, and partly to try to continue my encouraging you to read the book.  It’s still really excellent, and seems very solidly on course to remain so.

There’s a quality to Marget’s narration that, at its best, really does rise to the best first-person narrators I’ve read.  At times perceptive about human cruelty (and her own weaknesses) almost to the extent that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is, at times as capable of hiding the truth from herself (and consequently almost hiding it from us) as Nick Carraway is in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.  Johnson can’t always sustain this momentum—this is, after all, her first novel, and the novel’s scope is limited enough by the setting (the isolated family farm during the Depression) that there isn’t always room to extend out the right metaphors and images.  But it works well enough often enough that I really am startled the novel has been so forgotten.  Johnson should be at least as familiar a name to us as Willa Cather or Harper Lee, in my opinion, or at least this book is about as deserving of a place in the canon as what I’ve read by those two women.  Yes, I’m comparing this novel to To Kill A Mockingbird.  In doing so, I am probably overstating the case a little, but not by much.  There’s psychological depth here, alongside a very vivid and horrifying look at what it’s like for a farm to dry up and blow away in the Dust Bowl.  It’s the kind of book I’m going to re-read more than once, because I know I’m missing some of its subtlety as I storm forwards to see how the threads come together.  I may be disappointed in the end—certainly any novel has the ability to fail in its final chapters and weaken the overall impression of the book.  For now, though, my enthusiasm is unflagging.

In part it’s because Johnson really does get inside the Dust Bowl—the plants turning to cinders in the fields, the lack of water so painfully real that my throat constricts as I read.  Hot, angry nights where Father sits in his chair reading the Farmer’s Almanac like some kind of Tarot deck, hoping to turn over an image of rain that will make it real.  The chafing of the horse’s shoulders as it pulls water from the pond miles to the bellowing cows.  A man, drowning in despair, pouring out gallons of milk in his strawberry fields to see if they can grow on it.  There in the dust a young woman describes her family tearing apart, descending into madness, destroyed by their own hope.  It’s remarkably compelling, despite being a plot that thrives largely on the absence of events—more than anything else, it is a novel about what doesn’t happen, and what will not come to pass.  I’m hooked.  A review approaches, perhaps with one more reflection before it arrives, and perhaps not.  Go get a copy from your library and see if I’m wrong about this one.

“This is not all behind us now, outgrown and cut away. It is of us, and changed only in form.”

Josephine W. Johnson, and her narrator, Marget, know a lot about human beings—what we love and fear, how we learn to live the roles assigned to us, maybe most of all what it means to be a part of a real family.  Marget’s tense, tight-jawed father still looms quietly over every family dinner, and the small actions of his wife and daughters all operate in orbit around his stoic panic over the mortgage and the ability of the land to yield what they need.  Marget is convinced (and how can I not be, with her as my guide) that this summer defines their lives—that it certainly expresses all they’ve lived thus far, and given her experience of life thus far it seems all but certain that it will chart the course of their future.  The import of the summer being narrated is still not apparent to me, though the arrival of a new hired hand (Grant, the minister’s son) seems obviously significant on a farm with three eligible daughters in their late teens or early twenties.  It doesn’t matter.  Marget is bewitching as a narrator—frank about her shortcomings and misgivings, perceptive about the desires and anxieties of others, sharp-eyed for an image from the natural world surrounding them.  Johnson doesn’t have the knife-like wit of the authors most in command of the language (yes, this is me signalling once again that I don’t think The Age of Innocence will be displaced from my “favorite Pulitzer novel” position), but she is remarkably good, and the book is a joy to read.

Johnson and Marget are very reminiscent of Thornton Wilder, whose novel is narrated in retrospect by an unnamed character who gives away the ending for the sake of the plot.  Marget hasn’t done that yet, but she’s writing from “November” and it’s clear the book won’t be about the “how” of what happened in the summer, but rather the “why” or “what it means”.  Wilder eschewed dialogue for patient and calm imagery, and as I said at one point:

Wilder thinks that a person’s life moves at a much gentler pace than other novelists do.  Most writers tackle detail with a passion, revealing character in the thousand tiny moments that make up a day, a conversation, an encounter.  Wilder sees us as speaking our selves in the long cadence of our lives, an unbroken line of chant that arcs up and down over the course of years, of decades. . . . He reveals the details of a life carefully, stacking the dominoes gently and slowly, until when we reach those rare moments of dialogue (written dialogue occurs perhaps 5 or 6 times over 40-50 pages on Uncle Pio) we can see all the threads of his life weaving together in the simplest of sentences.  It heightens the tensions underlying every conversation because Wilder has established why that conversation matters.

I repeat that passage of mine because Johnson gives me the same feeling.  It’s not a perfect analogy—Wilder’s book traces characters over decades, while Marget’s framing of the story allows her (at most) a decade or so of flashbacks across their years living on the farm, and really most of the description and action is boiled down into six months or so in what I take to be a summer in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  But Marget has that same basic belief about people—that who they are is essential, that it is very difficult to change, and that a true understanding of a person allows us to interpret and make sense of their whole life by reading individual moments in the context of the larger landscape.

And I think it’s a testament to Johnson’s craft and ability that, despite my extreme “American family farm fatigue” (described in an earlier post), this novel is winning me over.  It feels modern in its treatment of the farm in a way no one else has, maybe because instead of making it sentimental or titanic, it captures the mundane terrors of depending on rain and sun and seed to be dependable.  For some reason, as I read I keep hearing a soundtrack in my mind, and it’s Nanci Griffith (too often overlooked, and a delight)—in part it’s because she sings so sweetly but truthfully about the small farmer’s life, and I’ll admit it’s in part because a lot of Griffith’s lyrics are eerily echoed in the novel (I hummed “I Wish It Would Rain” for hours after Marget comments “I wish to God it would rain”, and there are many other coincidences….so many that I wonder if Griffith read Now in November as a child and internalized some of the phrases).  That probably won’t make sense to (or appeal to) anybody but me, but if this blog isn’t a record of my personal idiosyncrasies as a reader, I don’t know what else it is.

I don’t want to say a lot more about the book right now—detailing plots or characters.  This novel works, and if you think you have any sympathy at all for a book that examines the crumbling American family farm in the Great Depression through the eyes of a sensitive and articulate farmer’s daughter, I really think you ought to go out and find a copy of this book in your local library or used bookstore.  Start reading it, post a comment or two here, react to my review (when it comes) in real time.  I think it’s worth it.  As one more little taste-test to try to entice you, here’s a little of Marget’s narration at the end of a chapter, where she’s been thinking about her willful and wild older sister, Kerrin, and is tying those thoughts into a larger idea [the ellipses in the quote are in the original]:

“I wanted to forget her, wanted to pretend a little longer that tomorrow—some time—she would be different.  Or gone.  It seemed at times that this feeling of waiting, of life suspended and held in a narrow circle, would go with her.  I knew that this wasn’t so, that nothing would really begin that had not its roots in ourselves, but could not help feeling she was the thing that caused this smothering.  There was something in her—or lacking—that kept her from seeing outside the warped and enormous ‘I.’  It came to me that she would do anything she chose, because she saw wrongly and did not need any excuse but desire. . . . What is sanity, after all, except the control of madness?  But it must be something more, too, a positive thing—inclusion of love and detachment from self. . . . I had to fight up thought by thought to things known and recognized all my life, and yet until this year never realized.  But until May the first fog of happiness covered up much of this, and stood between me and the real seeing.”

“Now in November I can see our years as a whole. . . .”

“…This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now.  It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.  There were nights when I felt that we were moving toward some awful and hopeless hour, but when that hour came it was broken up and confused because we were too near, and I did not even quite realize that it had come.”

So begins Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1935.  It’s the first of the novels (as far as I can remember) to provide the title in its opening lines—a tactic I usually find a bit precious, even cloying.  But there’s something clear-headed about Johnson’s style that makes this opening work for me, enough that I decided to provide you with more than just the first sentence, since I like her cadence.  I’m cautiously optimistic about this novel: certainly so far it’s living up to the quotation on its back cover, where the New York Times calls the novel “firmly wrought, poetic in the best sense”.

One of the reasons I think it’s working is that we finally have a first-person narrator, after lots of “close third” that wasn’t done terribly well.  For me, the first-person narrator usually pays lots of dividends—I like the question of narrator reliability, and the limited perspective that even a reliable narrator requires.  It immerses me more successfully in the characters and relationships (speaking very generally) than third-person narrators normally can manage.  And Johnson knows how to pick a narrator, giving us the story of the Haldmarne family through the eyes of Margret, the middle daughter, who shares with us all the secrets and anxieties of a wise-beyond-her-years thirteen year old farm girl—her take on her tomboy older sister, Kerrin, and her sweet and sunny younger sister, Merle, as well as her long-suffering and gently encouraging mother and her proud, distant, hot-tempered father.  Margret sees with a poet’s eye, and chooses her phrases with what I see as care and precision.  Here, for instance, is a little portion of her first thoughts on her father:

“He wasn’t a man made for a farmer, Arnold Haldmarne, although brought up on the land when a boy, and now returning to acres not different much from the ones he used to plough.  He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have—that resignation that knows how little use to hope or hate, or pray for even a bean before its appointed time.  He’d left the land when he was still sixteen and gone to Boone, making himself a place in the lumber factories there.  He’d saved and come up hard and slow like an oak or ash that grows with effort but is worth much more than any poplar shooting two feet high in a season.  But now he was chopped back down to root again.  It’s a queer experience for a man to go through, to work years for security and peace, and then in a few months’ time have it all dissolve into nothing; to feel the strange blankness and dark of being neither wanted nor necessary any more.  Things had come slow to him and gone fast, and it made him suspicious even of the land.”

One of the funny things about this Pulitzer project is reading what other fellow pilgrims have to say about the same novels I read—mostly I find the conclusions they reach, and the statements they make, ridiculous.  (A key exception, of course, are the talented ladies—Diablevert and Dreadful Penny—at Along With A Hammer, whose posts are always thoughtful and well-reasoned, even though they and I don’t always see eye to eye about which novels are worthy of praise.)  I mention this because, in reading other reviews of the last novel, Lamb in His Bosom, I came upon a review from a blogger-who-shall-remain-nameless, who claimed that Caroline Miller’s writing was practically flawless, and that specifically she was a writer who “never wasted a word” in her narrative descriptions.  This had me about as gobsmacked as a fellow can be: it’s like hearing someone describe Ernest Hemingway’s style as “too flowery” or call Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek “a real potboiler”.  One of the clearest flaws in Miller’s prose was her inability to get down to brass tacks, and measure her words carefully.  Her adjectives were as thick as mayflies.  Anyway, it’s my opinion that Johnson, at least so far, is showing Miller how it’s done.  Her descriptions (as you can see above, and judge for yourself) seem to me to strike the right balance—this isn’t spartan stuff, but she also knows how to get the most mileage out of a phrase.  She isn’t turning little gems like Oscar Wilde, but given the narrator’s identity and the whole environment in which the story takes place, I think the style is really well-chosen.

My only complaint, at this point?  I am so tired of American farm novels, I want to leap from a window.  Nine of the seventeen I’ve read so far use the farm as a key setting, including the last four straight, and six of the last seven.  It’s a good thing Johnson’s style caught my fancy right away, because when I saw the cover and realized I was heading back to the bean fields, I really felt a sense of despair.  I like a good farming story as much as the next person, I think, but I guess not nearly as much as the Pulitzer judges of the 1930s.

So, we’re embarked.  My hope is that this will prove to be a really insightful take on a farming family in the Great Depression (yes, after multiple historical novels, we seem to have caught back up with the present), and that the psychological depth Margret has shown in analyzing herself and others will continue to be an important but not oppressive presence in a book I’m sitting down to read with pleasure.  But we’ll see where it takes us.