Poetry Friday: May Day with Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The combination of May Day (with its many undertones of justice for the downtrodden—whether the moderate justice of the eight hour working day, which May 1 was intended to celebrate, or the more radical justice called for by socialists on this day for most of the last century and all of this present one) with the events in Baltimore (which, thankfully, are tending toward justice, now that we know that there will be serious judicial inquiry into the death of Freddie Gray) make it impossible not to post a poem.  Whether you like it or not, folks, it’s going to be a return to a poem I posted many years ago (with only a little commentary on my part and a response from one of you)—a return to the power and the uninimidated force of thought that was the incomparable Claude McKay, one of the most beautifully and unapologetically honest of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and he’s coming right at you (and me) with “If We Must Die”, which was written in 1919 and published in the also great James Weldon Johnson‘s anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1922.  Here it is:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

McKay pulls no punches in this sonnet, nor should he have to.  The injustices he addresses, while diminished meaningfully by the hard-won victories of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, are with us still—no fair reading of the treatment of minorities in our nation’s major cities can deny that completely (however much some may want to argue about how and to whom blame is to be apportioned).  McKay bolts out of the gate like a thoroughbred—“if we must die” is a brutal attention-getter, and to have the iambic bounce us right from that thought into “let it not be like hogs” is both genius and horrifying.  In the universe envisioned by McKay, death is inevitable, and unless we are careful, it will be an ignominious and panicked death, the death of beasts who have been cornered for the slaughter.  So, he commands, we must choose instead to go down swinging—not in some hip, casual, Tom Petty sense, but in the blood-and-bone sense of a man who knows the grave is in front of him and refuses to be the only one battered at day’s end.

This is unlike many of the sonnets I’ve spotlighted—McKay executes no unexpected turn at the end of the octet, no surprising connection blazing out of a final couplet.  The theme and the tone are sustained throughout.  He is too angry for artifice here—or rather I should say that he limits the sonnet’s grip on him to the mere boundaries of the form.  Inside it, rather than the artful musings and playful rhetoric of a poet in love with words, we see instead the passion of a wounded heart and the determination that words will mean something real.

It may seem odd that I, a literary blogger who doesn’t drift into politics all that often, should offer up McKay and this particular poem of his today.  It might also seem unsettling (even unpleasant) to some of you that I’ve shared a poem that pretty explicitly calls for violence and death—this might even surprise those of you who remember how sensitively and positively I’ve explored pacifism in a beautiful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  To all of you, I’ll just say this: poetry addresses every aspect of our human condition.  It must speak to our anger as much as to our love; to our moments of violence as much as to our moments of mercy.  In sharing Millay or McKay with you, in neither case am I asking for unquestioning acceptance of what they say—to the contrary, I think poetry is valuable in part because it usually demands that we question what we’re reading.  What I do ask for, though, is that we consistently ask those questions—that we don’t shut out McKay but instead try to hear what he might be saying, and what kind of lived experience might bring him to this sonnet.  That we extend the same courtesy to Millay, and to Frost and Whitman and all the other poets who come our way over the years.

Today, though, let’s concentrate especially on McKay.  Let’s ask ourselves how much violence black Americans a century ago lived through to give this particular black man—an artist and (so far as I know) a man who never in his life struck another man in anger—this poem and these deeply felt passions.  Let’s ask ourselves what about our nation might still inspire that kind of passion: even as we deplore the use of violence by citizens in the streets, we must ask ourselves what kinds of violence (physical and otherwise) exerted by the institutions and authorities in this country might provoke such a response.  I personally want no one to die in the street as McKay envisions, but that desire demands of me not merely that I ask the riots to end, but that I reach behind my nation’s facade of equality and opportunity to wrestle to the ground also that side of America that oppresses the lives of the least fortunate so forcefully that a riot can seem to them like the only way out.

“Mist’ Gerald, I is sorry to ‘sturb you, but I wanted to come here and thank you agin fo’ buyin’ me and my chile.”

I keep thinking about Gone With the Wind and Margaret Mitchell and race, and the plain fact is that it gets complicated.  Race is a tricky subject, so hear me out while I lay all my cards on the table right now (having finished Part One)—then, of course, sing out in the comments section if you think I missed the boat (or sank it, for that matter).  The O’Haras are undeniably good people—Scarlett’s parents, anyway—by the standards of their age.  Gerald, as noted in the quotation above, is a “kind” master because he not only bought Dicey, but was considerate enough to buy her 12 year old daughter, Prissy, also, because he knew it would make them sad to be parted.  Most masters aren’t quite as “noble”.  And before you gag and say this doesn’t seem kind at all, given that, you know, he’s owning people, let’s toss in that Gerald is widely known throughout the county as a man who will lend you money when times are tight, no questions asked.  His wife, Ellen, will drop whatever she’s doing, any time of the day or night, to go tend someone who is sick or dying, whether they are white or black, rich or poor.  And she is a racist, like her husband.  So what do we do with racism?

On the one hand, racism is such an ugly thing that I get our instinctive disgust—our feeling that anybody that openly racist is not deserving of an ounce of our pity or sympathy.  It would be like saying that we shouldn’t just flatly call Ted Bundy a “murdering sociopath” because he was a really good friend to some kids he grew up with, and kind to his neighbors, and he doesn’t get enough credit for that….we couldn’t really make that argument with a straight face, could we?  And yet.  We are forgiving of many faults, aren’t we?  We can maintain relationships with people who have committed grave breaches of ethics—people who have hurt others emotionally or even physically, people who have broken solemn promises, people who have committed crimes.  We still love them because they are our friends or our family, and we recognize that life is complicated.  Maybe we nudge them to change, if we can, or to accept their responsibility in the matter.  But when we cannot move them (as I cannot move the O’Haras), as in the case of very elderly relatives perhaps, don’t we allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel about them without having to constantly say “keeping in mind that my grandfather is racist, I love other qualities of his”?  I don’t know what my obligations are to a fictional character—are the evils of American slavery too large for me to see these characters in a positive light?  Am I putting too much pressure on myself to respond to the novel in the “right” way, rather than how it actually strikes me?  Would it be wrong to sit back and enjoy the novel, and root for the white protagonists, and not challenge its attitudes about race?  It’s just hard to know.  I don’t know what to make of the O’Haras, beyond that they are so likable on the page that I feel like I’d enjoy knowing them in real life, and that in real life I think I might have been morally justified in killing them if there were no other means of freeing the human beings they had enslaved.  And getting my brain around that juxtaposition of images is going to take some work.

The O’Hara we are most concerned with, of course, is Scarlett, who by now is widowed, having married in haste to avoid embarrassment (and inflict punishment, which seems to be Scarlett’s primary motive for almost everything she does to or with men).  Scarlett is almost thoroughly unlikable and almost thoroughly alive—very engaging to read about, as the emotions swirl and Scarlett wreaks her havoc, and I’m freed of needing to root for her at any moment.  The only thing holding me back from really enjoying her comeuppances is that Mitchell so obviously dislikes her too, and enjoys punishing her.  That kind of condescension angered me when it was Tarkington looking down on the title character in Alice Adams, but Scarlett’s such a nasty piece of work sometimes that I feel this uneasy kinship with Mitchell about wanting to see Scarlett disappointed.  It’s a weird feeling.  How on earth Mitchell’s going to sustain that strained relationship to her main character for another 800+ pages is really beyond my ability to guess, although it’s certainly intriguing for me as a reader, on some level.

Cropped screenshot of Olivia de Havilland from...

Olivia de Haviland as the girl Margaret Mitchell either thinks she was, or wishes she had been. Either way, she’s just a little too good to be true. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The inverse is more or less true of Melanie Hamilton, the most Mary Sue-ish character I’ve yet run into in my Pulitzer jaunt, that I can recall.  Were I to attend a barbecue at Twelve Oaks, of course I would have been sitting with Ashley Wilkes and Melanie, discussing Thackeray and Dickens, rather than hanging around passing dainties to Scarlett—she is not the kind of person I’d enjoy talking to, and they are (though they’d have found me a third wheel, eh?).  But I feel a bit odd rooting for a character who is so obviously just the author’s idealized version of herself, the saint-martyr who thinks no ill of anyone, the book-lover whose thoughts and conversations are ever so much more erudite than those of someone as crass and blunt as Miss Scarlett.  Of course Melanie’s likable—she’s not real, not in the vivid and dangerous way that Scarlett is.  Does it make any sense to say that I’d rather sit with Melanie at the party, but I’d rather read about Scarlett at the party?

A couple of quick thoughts to finish—first of all, the start of the war was handled all right by Mitchell, who does at least get some nice anti-war speeches into the mouths of characters it’s obvious the others should have been listening to.  But she glosses past all the reasons for the war, which is a bit shameful considering the way she’s already treating black people as though they really kind of enjoy being slaves, and have it pretty good.  The young men in 1861 didn’t shout “states’ rights” as much as they shouted that no Yankee was going to tell any Southern man what he could do with his slaves.  But the young men in this novel stick pretty much exclusively to the former.  Secondly, I am fascinated by the fact (ignored in the movie, unless my memory is almost totally shot) that Scarlett and her family are observant Catholics.  There’s a history of anti-Catholicism in America, especially in the mid-19th Century, and certainly no less in the South than anywhere else.  A much better, more perceptive writer would do something with that—the rich belle who is in some ways a minority herself in a society obsessed with minorities—but I just don’t think Mitchell has it in her.  She tells a good romance plot, I’ll give her that, and her characters sparkle pretty well.  But there’s precious little to think about under the surface, as far as I can see.  If Part Two, Scarlett’s move to Atlanta during the war, surprises me, I’ll have no trouble admitting it, but I have the sneaking suspicion that I already know what I’m in for.

“She loved him and she wanted him and she did not understand him.”

Oh, that Scarlett O’Hara.  Mitchell is unflinching about her—not just about her thoughtless attachment to Ashley Wilkes, as noted in the quotation that provides this post’s title, but about pretty much everything else.  She is impulsive and obsessive.  She has never had any female friends.  She fails to have any understanding of the inner workings of any person’s mind—not even her own.  All of this, I know from the narrator making it totally explicit—I’m not meant to infer this, but simply to know it openly.  So however I take this novel, I think it’s clear that it can’t be a wholesale defense of Scarlett, at least, and that on its own is encouraging.  Mitchell doesn’t seem to care if I admire her, anyway—whether or not she wants me to like her is still a bit mysterious to me.  Mitchell’s actually pretty talented with this character development—over the novel’s 2nd and 3rd chapters, I’ve gotten a pretty clear picture of how Scarlett thinks and acts, and her relationship to both her parents.  I also understand a lot more about both her parents—Gerald, the self-made and volatile Irishman, and Ellen, the cool and quietly authoritative Frenchwoman.  At first I thought Mitchell was playing a little too loose with them, especially when I learned that they married at the ages of 43 and 15, respectively (I need hardly mention how icky this is), but I’ll be darned if she didn’t give me a very plausible account of both lives so that I really did believe this 15 year old girl might have chosen to marry the aging Irish plantation owner, and he her.  The novel’s investing me in the O’Haras pretty successfully, and that’s making for a reasonably nice reading experience.

Except for the freaking racism which will not go away.  What’s most troubling about it is how casually it shows up, both in the characters’ dialogue and in the narrator’s statements.  This is the first Pulitzer winner set among active slave owners—Lamb in His Bosom is in antebellum Georgia but all the farmers are too poor to own slaves, and while The Store presents relationships between people who used to be slave owners and slaves, it all takes place after the war—and I just can’t take how relaxed everyone is about it, especially because Mitchell’s making me like them.  It’s like being at a new friend’s house for dinner, and the conversation’s great and the food is lovely, and then as your hostess dishes up some more potatoes she remarks off-handedly, “you know, Harold used to be an accountant before he became a loan collector for a local mob boss, which he really finds more exciting, don’t you, dear?  Why, only last week, he had to cut off a man’s little fingers.  Well, he probably didn’t have to, of course, but it’s really the only way for folks to know how serious you are.”  And you’re frozen there, not entirely sure whether to just walk out, or argue with them, or stare intensely at the peas you’re trying to jab with a fork while silently praying that the conversation will get back to their charity work or their love of Impressionist art, since you’d really like to make some new friends who aren’t completely vile human beings.  Only I can’t walk out, and arguing with characters in a novel isn’t going to change them at all.  All I can do is hope she can sideline the racism enough for me to not feel too grimy and awful for liking these people, or else hope that I can find a way of enjoying the novel despite feeling like vomiting when Gerald O’Hara enlists Scarlett in a little “practical joke” he’s thought up, where he’ll tell his oldest and most trusted slave that he just sold him that afternoon.

Illustration of Jim and Huckleberry Finn, by E...

Huck and Jim: just one more example of the racist literature I should reject? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s take that racism thing in perspective, though, for a second.  Is it possible I’m being too judgmental?  After all, I love The Iliad, despite the fact that the whole story hinges on the possession of a slave girl (Briseis) and the characters I love in that poem are no more or less blasé about slave-girls than the O’Haras are.  I’ve always thought that people are too harsh on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though I’ll admit that Tom is downright callous about the slavery issue, and Huck never really makes the transformation we all want him to on the subject (though he definitely makes some kind of progress).  Is it wrong of me to hold Margaret Mitchell to a higher standard?  Or am I holding her to a higher standard at all—maybe there’s something different about race and slavery in this novel that justifies my feeling disgusted and angry in a way that I’m not with other works?  I know some of you have read this book, and more of you have seen the movie.  Am I bringing up a wall too quickly here, or am I just seeing a “profoundly racist novel” (to quote James Loewen again) for what it is?

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

So begins Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell‘s sweeping epic of the dying South, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1937.  This is a book I’ve both looked forward to and dreaded for months now, and at last it’s here.

In part that mixture of anticipation and dread comes from its familiarity—I grew up on the famous 1939 film adaptation of the story.  As a kid with an interest in American history, and the son of a woman who loved old Hollywood films, in an era when the sudden growth of cable meant that Gone With the Wind was in heavy rotation on movie channels that knew it would fill a big time slot and draw viewers, I could hardly have avoided it.  As it was, I think I must have seen the whole film from beginning to end at least four or five times, and probably saw portions of it much more often.  I could run down all the moments and images for you—Scarlett’s drape-dress, “I’ll never go hungry again”, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, even that opening image of Scarlett in a party-dress flanked by the Tarleton twins.  It’s the first Pulitzer winner with which I’m familiar, and in my experience it’s hard to read a novel when the movie’s too comfortable in your memory already.  But of course, it’s also a story I grew up enjoying, and there are iconic moments that I am at least somewhat curious to see on the page—will it be the same?

The anticipation and dread also comes, of course, from the fact that this is simultaneously a wonderful and horrible book.  Wonderful because it has reached so many people—lavishly reviewed hundreds of times over the years, Mitchell’s novel, since its publication, has sold more copies in the United States than any book of any kind other than The Bible.  If you didn’t know that already, let it sink in a bit.  If you’re in a house with bookshelves in it somewhere, chances are excellent that a battered old copy of GWtWis on the premises.  There must be something appealing about the book, even if it’s only appealing in a really cheap, pandering, saccharine Michael-Bay-meets-the-Hallmark-Channel way.

USS Atlanta (CL-104) is christened by Mrs. Mar...

Margaret Mitchell, cackling as she smashes a generation’s historical understanding of slavery and the antebellum South. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But it is also a terrible book, because its message, combined with its popularity, has more or less established and maintained the myth of the “Lost Cause“, the noble and tragic tale of America’s greatest and most beautiful society that was ruined by a bunch of meddling Yankees in the “War of Northern Aggression”.  Mitchell’s book has been swallowed wholesale by the American imagination, so that what we think we know about the South, and slavery, and Reconstruction, is all skewed by the lens of her angry and defiant belief that had the North let the South alone, things would have been better for everybody (including black folks).  (The brilliant and bluntly honest historian of the American South, James W. Loewen, calls Gone With the Winda profoundly racist novel“.)

So, with all that in mind, how on earth can I give this book a fair reading?  I come to it already predisposed to mistrust and fear its undertones, and already familiar with some of its gloriously appealing characters and moments (enough that I may get impatient with any side plots).  Furthermore, the beast is almost a thousand pages long (depending on the edition—the copy I have is a smidge over 950), so any thought of trying to “just get through it” is impossible—it would be like trying to sprint a marathon.  I’m going to have to pace myself, and write as I go, and give Mitchell the fairest chance I can.

With all of the above in mind, the start of the novel is pretty successful in some respects.  Mitchell’s got a sharp eye—not as sharp as Wharton’s, but very similar in some respects.  She and we know a lot more about the characters’ shortcomings than they do: the proud, ignorant Tarleton twins, and the deceitful, self-deceived Scarlett.  Mitchell is not very kind to any of them, jabbing at their vanity at one point, remarking dryly at their near-total illiteracy at another, and generally making it clear that they’re (respectively) a couple of puffed-up buffoons and a egotistical princess.  It’s hard, because I know this is Scarlett’s story.  Will she be another Georgie Amberson Minafer—an unbearable character who the author ends up indulging too often—or can the novel work as a criticism of her, despite her central place in it?  Or is it plausible that I can really be invested in her as a human who grows up?  So far her most distinctive features are her seventeen-inch waist (smallest in three counties, or so the narrator informs us) and the fact that she really likes screwing with young men’s affections, bestowing them on boys she cares nothing for and withholding them from the ones that matter.  Mitchell gets some nice shots in, perhaps best of all: “she could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject.”  It’s not ground-breaking prose, but it’s the sort of thing you might get about a character in an Austen novel (though generally not the heroine)—anyway, given some of the novels I’ve survived, it offers a bit of hope that the writing will be fun to read.

Really the main characters in the first chapter are the Tarletons, since Scarlett gets sidelined by the unpleasant news about Ashley’s engagement pretty early on.  The Tarletons are absolute numbskulls: in fact, I think Mitchell lays it on too thickly here.  The boys would have to be awfully idiotic to be as baffled as they are by events, or as childish as they are about their troubles.  There are nice moments where the narrator cuts them pretty sharply—she calls them at one point “healthy, thoughtless young animals, sleek, graceful, high-spirited”—but not quite often enough to make their fairly simple-minded chitchat fun.  I expect that the novel, which is investing me in the Tarletons more than the movie does, will show me at least some of how the war shatters these young bucks, and that Mitchell expects me to be at least a bit sad about it.  I guess I would be, if I knew them in real life, but as characters in a novel, it’s hard to imagine two boys more in need of a little deflation (had Eustace Clarence Scrubb been twins, I suppose he might have competed, although obviously he’s as like the Tarleton boys in personality and charisma as an oyster’s like a dolphin).

One last observation, about race: this book is going to bring out some anger from me on the issue of race and racism.  I see no way of avoiding that, unless the novel is far more progressive than everyone gives it credit for being.  But I will say something kind about Mitchell’s opening chapter: the slave character of “Jeems”, who belongs to the Tarleton boys, is surprisingly complex.  Not actually complex—nothing like Stribling’s really thoughtful portrayals of black Southerners in The Store, for example—but much better than I expected, given my memories of the film.  Jeems speaks in wretched dialect, of course, but he’s more thoughtful than the Tarletons—while they have no idea why Scarlett is upset, he notices right away that it has something to do with Ashley Wilkes.  He’s also stronger than I’d have guessed—when the Tarletons are talking about an officer in their “troop” (the Civil War is, of course, about to erupt), Jeems calls him “poor white trash”.  And after the Tarletons scold him for talking badly about a decent man, Jeems refuses to be cowed, and makes another disparaging remark about “swamp trash”.  Now, Jeems is still being used for sinister purposes—why does he look down on this “trash”?  It’s because the man doesn’t own as many slaves as the Tarletons do, and Jeems is allegedly proud of coming from such a wealthy plantation.  In other words, Mitchell’s co-opting him into defense of the system that de-humanizes him: I’m not forgiving her for that.  But I’m at least glad that, unlike the horrific comic caricatures employed by Booth Tarkington, Mitchell is going to allow her black characters a little backbone and personality….maybe even more (on both counts) than her white characters, or at least more than the Tarleton twits (er, twins, yes, I meant to say “twins”).

On a side note, given the book’s popularity, I’m willing to bet some of you have read it (and maybe others have it on the shelf and have thought of reading it)—I’d love a little company in the comments section on the posts about the book, since otherwise this will be a long and lonely trip.  I know, I just got done selling you on how this is a horribly racist book and now I’m saying “read it too!”  Obviously, you know what you can and can’t take in a book, and will make judgments for yourself.  As for me, it’s onward to the barbecue at the Wilkes’s plantation.

“He would have to learn to be meek.”

I’ve been waiting to give an update on my current Pulitzer novel, Honey in the Horn, until there was something worthy of remark.  I’m closing in on the half-way point, and I guess it’s time to remark upon the unremarkable.

H. L. Davis’s book is about the book I expected it would be based on its opening pages: a tale told by someone with very little native ability to edit themselves.  Almost no moment can pass without a story—it’s not enough to tell me that, when Clay hears a bit of news, he looks surprised.  I have to be told that his face looked as surprised as Old Man Simmons that night he found a polecat in his bed.  You see, the polecat had gotten lost in the snow and had somehow climbed in the upstairs window, and into one of the nightgowns left behind by Simmons’s wife who had run off…  Several sentences later, we’re back at Clay and ready to move forward until Davis can work out how to shoehorn in another little tale.  These tales vary widely in their level of charm and wit.  It reminds me a bit of old Nestor, Homer’s aging warrior who cannot admonish or exhort an Argive spearman without reference to some figure from the Greek Golden Age, except that all of Davis’s stories are about weird old men, usually experiencing some kind of physically injurious or romantically upsetting mishap, which tend to produce less awe-inspiring wonder than Nestor’s tales of Hercules, etc.  Forget Nestor—let’s bring the analogy closer to home.  It’s like being stuck at the table at your family reunion with your Uncle Melvin.  There are worse tables to be stuck at (you can see your younger sister stuck at “the racist table”, and wouldn’t change places with her for $50), but you’re wondering how many more stories there can possibly be about Melvin’s dachshund, or the few apparently prank-filled months he spent at Fort Bragg 45 years ago.  Sure, sometimes the dog story catches your fancy, or the tale of what he and “Crazy Eddie” did to the arrogant lieutenant’s jeep is humorous enough to pass the time.  But not often enough for you to quite forgive your parents for insisting that you attend the family gathering.

But my analogy is wandering too far afield, and it’s not Davis’s only fault.  The other grating aspect of the book is that the man’s eye for detail is incredibly unreliable.  I mean, I’ve read a number of pulpy novels in which the author (who knows nothing about guns) describes a gunshot victim as being “knocked back” by the force of the bullet (which is nonsense).  But Davis is so ill-informed (or so careless) that he at one point describes a shot coyote literally bouncing as the force of the bullet drives it to the ground.  If the man ever went hunting, clearly he kept his eyes closed at all the critical moments—and that goes for any physics classes he may have taken, as well.  For an author who thinks my fascination with weird Oregonian pioneers ought to be high enough to get detailed recipes for canning venison, his inattention to relatively minor matters is very strange.  No team and wagon on earth could have survived the hell-ride Sheriff Geary and Clay take down a flooded and badly-graded mountain road—at one point, the wagon is sideways, careening downhill at breakneck speed, and dragging the horses down with it like Messala in Ben-Hur. Somehow, the moment the wagon comes to a stop, the horses, which should be beaten into dog food at this point, get up and start pulling it again like they’d been taking a nap.  Now, I grant you, a novelist can do this sort of thing for humor—the circumstances which fill Bertie Wooster’s bedroom with cats in “Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch” are hardly likely, but P. G. Wodehouse gets plenty of latitude given that A) believability was totally irrelevant to his genius, and B) the stories are friggin’ hilarious, which covers a multitude of sins.  If Davis is trying to write a comic novel, it needs to be funnier—and I don’t think his intentions are comic.  I just don’t think he’s very good at much of this.

P. G. Wodehouse, Bolton's friend and collaborator

P. G. Wodehouse, whose talents were so marvelous that even comparing him to H. L. Davis favorably feels a bit like a slight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yet, you haven’t heard me squalling here about the wretchedness of the thing, as I have been known to do in the past (pick any post on The Able McLaughlins…or no, perhaps you’d better not).  This is because Davis does manage to keep a plot going, often by means of improbable coincidences and due to the fact that he has no particular interest in the other aspects of the novel—things like complex three-dimensional characters and care with language really don’t seem to be high priorities, at least.  The plot has careened about a bit, but I’ll credit him with settling on probably his most interesting character: the twentyish Clay Calvert, an orphan taken in by Preston Shiveley, who has (by a series of contrivances) gotten himself connected to a group of “wagon-campers” out of interest in (what else?) a socially unconventional yet beautiful young woman, and is roaming towards the hop-fields of Southern Oregon in their company.  This has some oblique connection to all the work Davis did with plotlines connected to the Shiveleys for the first few chapters in the book, but precious little.  Clay’s learning how to live on the run, how to avoid raising the ire of the folks on whose land you intend to bivouac (hence the meek quotation that heads this post), and probably some other things.  Davis is either bad at dialogue or unaware that it exists: in either case, he doesn’t write much of it, so our insight into these characters is limited a bit by a third-person narrator more interested in weird stories about Old Man Simmons than in what might be going on psychologically with Clay.  But there’s some tension and a little intrigue—enough to make this merely a sort of disappointing but readable novel along the lines of Years of Grace more than anything bad enough to really draw my ire and inspire a couple of nicely savage blog posts (apologies to those readers of mine who look forward to them—I don’t think Davis is likely to inspire many fireworks).

There’s more to say, which I’ll try to keep brief—Davis slides back into the casual racism (in this case, towards the Native Americans of the Pacific Coast) that was pretty widespread in the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s, but which the 1930s had been starting to trend away from.  As usual, it’s not the mean-spirited and therefore loudly ugly racism, but rather the mild-mannered racism of someone who thinks we shouldn’t mistreat other races, who after all have so many challenges being born just a bit stupider and more sexually perverted than us white folks.  I won’t try to work out which kind is more offensive to me personally, or whether it’s possible to see it as a kind of evolution towards some kind of half-way decent attitude about human beings of every tribe and color.  It just depresses the hell out of me every time it surfaces.

Lastly, I’ll admit I am just slightly curious to see if Davis can work his way out of trouble.  The only cause for hope is that Calvert and his band of wanderers are headed out of the valley where he knows everyone.  It’s just possible that this transition will get Davis out of his “storytelling mode” long enough to give me some kind of reason to invest in the characters.  Clay is awfully low on personality, although still light-years ahead of Luce, the woman he’s interested in, whose personality traits mostly boil down to being unconventional and being beautiful, thus far.  With a couple of hundred pages to go, though, he must have some kind of conflict in mind to get things going, and it’s plausible to me that this could at least rise to the level of being a good potboiler.  The possibility of “great literature”, alas, we left in the rear-view mirror about when the wagon starting running downhill, dragging the team with it.  And it’s largely been downhill since.  But we’ll see where the road takes us.

1933: The Store, by T. S. Stribling

Literary Style:

Stribling’s talent lies in presenting human characters—specifically, the ways we do and do not perceive our real feelings and motives, the ways in which our self-absorption limits and distorts our understanding of events, and the ways we come to learn who we are.  He is not a flawless writer in other respects: several of his subplots just seem to end in mid-air (likely because he intends to return to them in the sequel—this being the 2nd in a trilogy—but that’s no excuse for handling them shabbily now).  I’d argue that he’s skilled in setting, but not as skilled as the best writers are: I am not as truly present at Toussaint and Lucy’s wedding, or at The Colonel’s day in court, as I am at Gatsby’s parties or following Newland Archer into Ellen Olenska’s home.  Overall, this novel feels to me like the best outing of a merely solid writer—the single All-Star season amid a career of reliable play, the one vivid lead performance for the character actor whose life is otherwise characterized by words like “supporting” and “also starring”.  But it’s no less enjoyable for being somewhat anomalous: Stribling finds people and situations worth investing in, and he manages to invest in them.

At the end of the novel, he really does finally bring the boat around (later than I’d hoped and expected) to the course he’s wanted to chart all along—the cruel racial dynamics at the heart of Florence society, the violence that lives underground most days, the simple fact that The Colonel’s inability to recognize “his” African-Americans as real people like him is perhaps his most crucial and lasting flaw.  I admire Stribling’s courage in tackling these issues—a Tennessean by birth, schooled in Florence, Alabama, itself, and living in the South throughout his literary career—especially given that 1933 was a long time ago, racially speaking.  When The Store hit the shelves in 1933, Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land, and racial covenants restricting black families from living in white neighborhoods were perfectly legal.  The trend in American society was, bizarre as it may seem, moving towards segregation: the NFL, which had been racially integrated, segregates itself officially in 1933.  The Scottsboro Boys had narrowly escaped execution only two years prior, and Billie Holliday wouldn’t sing “Strange Fruit” for another six.  For a white Southerner to speak real black characters into the poisoned atmosphere of Southern race relations is a worthy and courageous choice.  That Stribling doesn’t do enough to elevate those characters (with one or two exceptions), and that he presents his trilogy as being essentially the story of the white Vaidens (with the black Vaidens as important but lesser elements) is, for me, forgivable.  He does as much as an artist like him could reasonably have attempted, and it works on enough levels to be a novel I can still engage with thoughtfully here in 2012.

Lastly, I think Stribling should also be praised for his scope.  The novel handles issues of property rights (and legal action), the “mystic ties” that bind old soldiers (and their families), the questions of faith and God and public observance, and a host of other topics too numerous to be listed.  He really is trying to capture the feeling of life in a reasonably small town, where everyone is in everyone else’s business.  I am glad he chooses to present a small town that is not filled with simple people and simple problems.  And I’m willing to accept that a certain amount of the flaws I found in the book—particularly Stribling’s seeming inability to tie up loose ends and make characters and their decisions mean something—are in fact just Stribling’s tacit acknowledgement that lives do not go as easily and sensibly as plots do in novels, and that some things happen because they happen (and not because any later significant events will be connected with them).

Historical Insight:

Top marks here for Stribling, who is really the first Pulitzer-winning author to deal with racism—the American societal disease—directly and honestly.  I’ve had writers who moved above it (Wharton, Cather), writers who played it for cheap laughs (Tarkington) or sentiment (Peterkin), or writers who dealt fairly with non-white characters but outside the paradigm of whites and minorities in American society (Wilder, La Farge, Buck).  Stribling recognizes that to tell the story of race relations in the South is to tell our story.  That this story can’t really be told until all the people involved are presented as real people.  He doesn’t get far enough into the heads of African-Americans for my liking, but he does more than I could ever have expected him to do.  My ideas about the South, and about whites and blacks in the South in the 19th Century, are smarter and more complicated than before, and I’m grateful to Stribling for giving me that.

Review:

My curious and idiosyncratic reviewing scale gives The Store a “I definitely recommend this book”.  It’s not the best one I’ve read yet, but it’s absolutely worthwhile.  Some will like it more than others.  Some will have a harder time than others with the constant racism and racial slurs used by the white characters.  Some will be more or less in need of raised awareness about the racial issues Stribling takes on.  But I’d be surprised if anybody who likes a good (and thought-provoking) American novel would be disappointed by The Store.  I’m sorry it’s not better known, and I hope its reputation rebounds, since I think it’s a novel that continues to have something to say to Americans.

The Last Word:

As always, I defer to the author for the final words—a last little glimpse at style and content before moving on to the next work.  In this case, a conversation from late in the book between two black women, Gracie and Lucy.  Gracie is the daughter of a slave woman and a white man—a slave herself once, she became a mistress for many years to wealthy white men, and her son Toussaint “passes for white” in many situations (a source of great pride to Gracie).  Lucy is an educated young black woman—she shares her skills with young black children (and occasional white children) in a makeshift schoolhouse in the fields.  She is married to Toussaint, and has high hopes for their future.  Where my excerpt picks up, The Colonel has just left the two women, having offered Lucy and Toussaint a chance to work for him as domestic servants: Gracie has just asked why on earth her daughter-in-law didn’t jump at the chance:

“Well, first,” said Lucy, “I want me and Toussaint to lead our own sort of lives.  I don’t want to be too close to white folks.”

“Too close to white folks . . . why, everything we get is from white folks.”

“We don’t get our hair, or our color, or our voices.”

“M-m . . . we get ’em changed a good deal,” observed Gracie obscurely.  “But why do you want to stay here at all if you don’t want to be caretaker of the manor?”

“Because I would like for the colored people in the Reserve to see that a dark woman can live and talk and act with correctness and fineness without being associated with whites all the time.”

“Lucy,” said the quadroon uneasily, “I don’t like the way you look at things.  You take a kind of stand against white people.  Toussaint thinks everything you do is just right.  I hope you’ll never get him into any trouble.”

“The reason I ever loved him is because he didn’t bow his head to anybody.”

“The reason you loved him,” said Gracie with an undertone of bitterness, “is because he is a white man, and you know it.”

“I have seen more than you and all you People, I know more.”

La Farge is proving to be a really sound story-teller—someone who uses very sparing characterizations and minimal descriptions of setting to create a sort of stage for the play to enact on.  It is very staged, and wouldn’t appeal to everyone: maybe most of all the Pulitzers so far it reminds me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, although Wilder was interested in philosophy, and I think La Farge is interested more in identity.  Slim Girl is a slippery figure through the section I’ve just read, in which she accompanies her husband to be with his people—a tense visit in which his family may order him to reject her, in which the truths she’s kept hidden will be revealed.  She doesn’t know how Laughing Boy will react, and is taut as a wire for chapters at a time.  The whole way, I keep revising my opinion of her.  Is she calculating—her love for Laughing Boy a convenient affection that adds some believability to her acting the part of the lovesick wife—or sincere?  How close to the edge of the precipice is she willing to walk, and is it because she loves danger, because she wants to be caught in her misdeeds, or because she can’t work out how to back down?  It’s nice to have a more complex character again…someone who is in a few small ways reminiscent of Ellen Olenska from Wharton’s masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, as a woman returned to a culture that has cast her out, who wants and does not want to be a part of it again.

La Farge is, in my opinion, shockingly sensitive to the culture given his time period.  His characters speech patterns are a little too halting, but very human and believable.  Here’s a long passage of Laughing Boy explaining himself to his old friend, Jesting Squaw’s Son, upon seeing each other for the first time since Laughing Boy’s hasty (and, frankly, transgressive, within his culture’s norms) marriage:

“I do not think you will know what I am talking about, but you understand me.  I want you to know.  I have been down Old Age River in the log, with sheet-lightning and rainbows and soft rain, and the gods on either side to guide me.  The Eagles have put lightning snakes and sunbeams and rainbows under me; they have carried me through the hole in the sky. I have been through the little crack in the rocks with Red God and seen the homes of the Butterflies and the Mountain Sheep and the Divine Ones.  I have heard the Four Singers on the Four Mountains.  I mean that woman.

It sounds like insane talk.  It is not.  It is not just because I am in love.  It is not what I feel when I am near her, what happens to my blood when she touches me.  I know about that.  I have thought about that.  It is what goes on there.  It is all sorts of things, but you would have to live there to see it.  I know the kind of thing my uncle says.  It is not true.  We are not acting out here, we are pretending.  We have masks on, so they will not see our real faces.”

Maybe the book has blinded me with my sympathy for Laughing Boy, but I don’t think so—I think that’s an example of a really thoughtful portrayal of a Native American (from a white man in 1930).  He uses the metaphor and myth of the Navajo, but in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative to me: Laughing Boy is trying to tell his friend what it is like to be in the kind of world-altering, immersive love that he’s in, and he uses spiritual language to aim at it.  He admits going in that his friend doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but hopes he will understand him: isn’t that a great phrase?  It reminds me of Chief Bromden’s “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”  There’s a surprising subtlety to Laughing Boy (given the usual portrayals of minorities in the fiction of this era), and what’s equally heartening is that he’s not an uncomplicated “good” character.  He cheats store owners to give his friends a laugh.  He admits to deceiving his family because he can’t trust them to trust him.  This isn’t some kind of “noble savage” narrative, and that’s its own kind of relief.  La Farge thinks there’s a real complicated story to tell in this setting of cultural tension and he’s brave enough to try.

I think I belabor the point about this novel’s thoughtful examination of minorities, and I want to step back and say why I do.  It’s certainly in part because fiction in the 1920s (Pulitzer-winning fiction) is more racist than I’d expected.  But I think in a larger sense it’s because I’m looking for the seeds of the civil rights movement in this country—for the sign that we’re going to grow up and stop being afraid of skin color and accents, the sign that America will learn to be America.  Part of this journey is me trying to find a country that frustrates and inspires me in equal measures, and the country I’ve been finding so far is deeply confused (borderline deranged, honestly) on the topic of race.  Minorities are either invisible or heartless savages or brainless dupes or thieving children, and regardless there’s no evidence from even the best of writers (Wharton and Cather, who had it in them to do this) that there was an interest in leaping into the unknown and trying to honestly see the world through the eyes of a character who doesn’t share the author’s race.  La Farge’s attempt to do this isn’t just good because it’s pleasant to read fiction without retching at the racism—it’s good because it tells me that, decades before the real progress begins but many, many decades later than it should have begun, Americans were starting to show a willingness to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective.  I think we’re still very bad at that—though honestly, I’m not sure that most of the “civilized” nations are a lot better (look at issues of race and ethnicity in much of Europe, for example).  But because of who America is and what the promise of America represents, we intentionally set the bar higher for ourselves.  We said that all are created equal, and that we were willing to die for that principle.  Many Americans have—not just Washington’s men at Valley Forge or Grant’s in the Wilderness, but women and men throughout the country in the 1920s and 1930s who were lynched because of their unwillingness to defer to the racist boundaries that had been laid down around their lives, and more still throughout the rest of the 20th Century.  Maybe even today.  It would be good—good not in the bland everyday sense of that word (like “this sandwich is good”) but in the real, sturdy, enduring sense of the word (like “goodness and mercy shall follow me”)—to see that these dead shall not have died in vain, as Lincoln said.  It would be frivolous to say that a simple little novel about the Navajo is what they died for.  But it appears to me as the first real literary flickering of the hope that would tear down the Jim Crow laws and spark civil rights movements in every minority community in the United States for half a century.  That’s the reason I can’t stop dwelling on it—because it’s one of the highway signs I’ve been looking for on the road to America.  This is a good novel, and I’m intentionally cutting back on the details I’m giving you.  It’s because I want you to read it, and I hope you will.