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.”

“Novels are written the way people wish life could be lived, Sydna, not as things really happen.”

I’ve taken a liking to quotations like the one above, in which The Store’s main character, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, attempts to reason with the emotional daughter of the woman who jilted him at the altar long ago.  Novelists seem to like these little asides that assert what novels will and won’t do—in general, I find that novels are referred to as unrealistic flights of fancy, or at least that is how they are referred to in these Pulitzer winners.  I find it strange, since I think it’s fair to say that almost nothing about The Store reflects the way T.S. Stribling wishes life could be lived: to the contrary, I think it’s his best attempt to reveal how things really are.  So why does he (and why do other authors like him) take shots at the novel?  Is it self-deprecation, or a sort of reverse psychology designed to make readers shout “no, novels are vivid and realistic!”?  I always find these passages curious.

Stribling is proving a minor disappointment in this latter stretch of the book.  Most of his talents are still fully at work—the skill and honesty with which he depicts a series of strained conversations between The Colonel, Sydna, and Sydna’s mother Drusilla Crowninshield, is really marvelous.  Drusilla in particular is excellently realized, with a sharp eye and sharper tongue, and a very solid head on her shoulders.  She feels very real and somehow a little larger than life—she would have gotten on splendidly with Mrs. Manson Mingott (from The Age of Innocence), and I think Wharton would not be at all ashamed to have written Drusilla.  She’s a character with enough dimension to stand up to Wharton’s realism, anyway.  I wish there were more opportunities for her to talk in this novel, since the conversations really sing when she’s in them.

My disappointment in Stribling comes from the fact that he keeps missing the chance to do something as thoughtful and detailed with the African-American characters.  There are nicely moving conversations, and there’s certainly a plot of significance involving them.  But they never rise to quite the rhetorical levels achieved by Drusilla and The Colonel, or even such lesser lights (and lesser intellects) as Jerry Catlin in courtship with Sydna Crowninshield.  Stribling won’t give them quite as much scope, or allow quite as deft an insight, and it’s a shame.  I had hoped, and half-way expected, that he was setting himself up to pivot several black characters into the heart of the story, perhaps most of all Grace Vaiden and her son, Toussaint.  But we’re denied that pleasure, and I think it weakens the book’s power to an extent.

The more I read, the more I feel that I really am missing out on the first chapter of the trilogy (for which this novel forms the middle book).  In other “middle books” that won Pulitzers, I didn’t notice much, if any, difficulty, but here I keep sensing that I’m missing the depth and significance of certain encounters.  It would be like starting with The Two Towers—it wouldn’t be hard to get into the story, but there would be moments (someone named Gandalf is back? why are Frodo and Sam so interested in the fact that this Faramir guy had a brother named Boromir….maybe they knew him before? man, this Smeagol guy seems pretty intense about something or other…) where even the narrator’s helpful insertions wouldn’t quite give the reader the full resonance of images and conversations.  I get the very strong sense that it would have helped a lot to have read the first novel, where I surmise that The Colonel and Drusilla and many of the other middle-aged characters were as young and impetuous as their children (Jerry, Sydna, etc.) are now.  There are subtleties to a number of conversations—half-finished thoughts, looks or nods of seeming import—that I’m not able to do enough with.

One last thought for this reflection: I feel like I’m learning a lot more about the economic realities for Alabama in the late 1800s.  The weakening of cotton, the rise of the little “company stores”, the conviction that a “Demmycrat” in the White House would unleash the purse strings and pour patronage like manna onto the impoverished worthies of the Old South.  I can see how the system is trapping not only the black sharecroppers but the petty white men whose minor successes only chain them more and more tightly to a business that will never really grow.  There’s a tension that feels like violence in the air in this little town, and someone will have to pay the piper sooner or later.

I’m flying through this thing now—by Friday or Saturday I’ll be posting a review, I think.  My hat’s off to Stribling for writing a really solid novel thus far: here’s hoping he can finish it with the same talent he’s exhibited up to this point.

“He detested lying to anybody, not because he had any scruples against it, but because it appeared cowardly.”

That quotation from The Store sums up a lot about The Colonel’s character pretty aptly, and demonstrates why I’m finding real depth in Stribling’s novel.  Colonel Miltiades Vaiden is a man who does the right things for the wrong reasons—and a few wrong things for what he, at least, believes to be the right reasons.  There’s a moral flexibility to The Colonel that is interesting because his spectrum doesn’t run from good to evil, like a character in a melodrama.  His spectrum seems to be based much more on honor, like a samurai’s bushido or Achilles’ pursuit of timë and kleos, only he combines this obsession about personal glory with a personality that seems much too milquetoast to carry out his career with success.  I alluded to Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman played by William H. Macy in Fargo, in my last post, and there’s a lot of Jerry in The Colonel still, despite the fact that Miltiades is a war veteran who clearly had access to a better reserve of courage at one point in his life.

The Colonel’s straining for glory hits some unexpected curves in the point of the story I’ve reached—I continue to be intrigued by his plot line, even as he becomes more and more reprehensible.  What I like best about Stribling is the way his novel sides with the African-Americans living in Florence in the subtlest of ways—he lingers on certain images (the starving family in the darkness rejected by Jerry Catlin, the look in Grace’s eyes as she delivers bad news, etc.) like a director taking an extra beat at the end of a scene before the movie moves on.  The narrator is a personless omniscient 3rd person voice, so there’s no one to opine about the plight of impoverished black people—just the reality of who they are as people, and it’s a reality Stribling never lets too far away from the stage, even though it rarely takes the spotlight.

One of the sides that I therefore find most fascinating is the attitude The Colonel holds towards the people who were formerly his family’s slaves.  They bear his surname of Vaiden, and continue to feel a connection to him.  He feels the connection also, and carries it in a variety of ways—at times he seems sympathetic, and deals with them almost as though a distant family member, but too often their names and lives seem to be his possessions.  He can deal with them as he likes, not because they are Vaidens, but because they are the Vaidens’—no longer legal property, but still somehow beholden to him (in his mind) because of some unspoken bond between them.  The fair hair and eyes of some of these young African-Americans is such a visible marker, for me, of the real biological connections between the families, but Miltiades seems blind to it.  Given my examination of my family’s history (which is explored online in two places thanks to my conversations with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates about his and my ancestors—black and white families named Smack and living in the same Maryland town—and what I’ve come to learn about them), this is personal for me.  And personal in a way I hardly know how to share.  Was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather a Miltiades, looking down on (and simultaneously emotionally bound to) Ta-Nehisi’s ancestors, his own son or nephew or cousin?  Or were we better than that, somehow—a family who accepted the black Smack families as freed individuals before the war?  Is it possible they could have acknowledged real kinship to each other?  And what would it mean to me, if so?  If I am lucky, some day I may find out the truth about our connection—by which I mean, only to know that he and I share an ancestor (and what that implies).  But the rest of it—the truths I want to know about how these men and women thought of each other and spoke to each other, how they made sense of their lives in relationship to each other—these are truths I cannot even think of looking for.  They are lost to me.

So reading The Store draws me (and weighs on me) because I can see how complicated these relationships were after the war (Stribling makes them feel very honest, at least—I trust that he is showing me the real South at the time), and almost against my will I am forced to walk in the white Vaidens’ shoes.  I ask myself how this complicated blend of ideas and feelings, some of them contradictory, came to be, and how long it would have to take to change those feelings.  I ask myself what events would really make these families separate and equal, to appropriate (and change the meaning of) the language of Plessy.  Would it take dying side-by-side in a war?  Voting side-by-side in a polling station?  Sitting side-by-side as children marry each other across racial boundaries?  When would the wrong bonds be broken, so that the right bonds can form?

Stribling’s doing something that works, here.  He knows how to play this game—how to distract with the left hand while the right sneaks the rabbit into the hat.  All the things that should go wrong for The Colonel go right, and the last things he expected to fall apart, do.  I’m still working out what this story is really about, but the more I read, the more I think The Colonel himself is a waved handkerchief, a puff of smoke.  His story is real and matters, but Stribling wants to keep me focused on him in order to bring other guns to bear.  I’m trying to pace myself a bit and enjoy this (as I did with Wharton’s novel), but I won’t be able to slow down much: I’m hooked.

“Honors used to seek men, but nowadays men seek honors.”

Finally.  After a string of novels that meandered between “acceptable” and “dissatisfying”, we have a real winner on our hands in The Store.  I don’t have unlimited praise to offer Stribling, but right now I’d say this is easily in the top 4 of the Pulitzers I’ve read so far, and it may be in contention for a spot as high as #2 on the list.

Getting at why is, in some ways, very easy.  Stribling is managing to present a wide array of characters who are all three-dimensional—full of that mixture of emotions, motives, flaws and strengths that make up people like you and me.  Even the above-average Pulitzer novels thus far have only managed to present one or two main characters in this level of complexity, with the exceptions of the incomparable Edith Wharton and the talented Thornton Wilder.  That I’m putting the relatively unknown T. S. Stribling in their company is high praise, I know, but so far it’s deserved.  What he captures most beautifully is how self-centered every human’s worldview is: Person A takes an action for some private motive, but Persons B, C, and D each assume A must be motivated by some personal slight or vendetta aimed at them specifically.  Stribling’s handy enough with the characters that I can simultaneously think it’s laughable that young Sydna Crowninshield would expect that family friend Colonel Miltiades Vaiden has taken a job at the Handbacks’ store out of some misguided attempt to protect her virtue and good name, and yet completely understand why, from Sydna’s point of view, no other motive can be half as believable.  Everyone’s private agendas are well known to Stribling and the reader, and we can see how they intersect—sometimes harmoniously, sometimes disastrously—and how two characters can be talking to one another, and yet be having two different conversations.  Stribling’s not operating at an Austen or Wharton level of psychological insight, but he’s doing very sturdy work and is making the characters come alive, which is all I need to get hooked.

And yes, miraculously, Stribling’s novel (set in the post-Reconstruction South) extends that level of complex dimensions to his black characters.  Racism is rampant in the town of Florence—slurs fly, and even the best white folks express the vilest sentiments with the most light-hearted of airs.  Stribling is being very honest in presenting this, but it would collapse the novel (for me, anyway) if he didn’t present black characters as individuals with some level of dignity and agency.  This is not, incidentally, the same as presenting the black characters as “the good ones”.  He’s actually taken care to demonstrate their motives as being similarly complex—the wizened “man of God”, Lump Mowbray, whose impulses are not entirely pure; the proud “white negro” (as everyone refers to him), Toussaint Vaiden, whose confidence is either inspirational or arrogant, depending on how you think a man should respond to condescension; Gracie, an experienced mistress, consort of the powerful and white, whose plans for her future seem on the borders of delusion.  They aren’t the butt of the narrator’s jokes, as black characters have been in many novels thus far.  But they aren’t here to teach us the virtues of enduring scorn with patience; they’re here because they live in Florence, and the vicissitudes of their daily existence affect events both large and small as much as the actions taken by a man like Colonel Miltiades.

The Colonel is clearly our main character, but Stribling has at least five plots on the burners right now—The Colonel’s dream of a better, more financially successful life; the strange interrelationships (and attending obligations) of all the men who served in the The Colonel’s Confederate regiment, and their families; the courtship of the delicate Sydna Crowninshield by the lascivious Lucius Handback (and others); the spiritual journey of the self-described “infidel” Jerry Catlin (The Colonel’s nephew); and the attempts by Toussaint and his mother Gracie to find a way to escape Florence and find a home where he (and she?) can pass as “white”, and the future that will come with it.  There’s a lot of overlap here, since The Colonel is a major figure in two plots, and is only one degree of separation from the other three.  This is a small town, and everyone is in everyone else’s business, whether it’s welcome or not.

The Colonel is fascinating to me, in part because he combines so much ambition with so much haplessness.  He’s dignified but without being accorded societal respect; he’s honest and decent in his public dealings, but more than a bit scheming and unkind in his private thoughts.  The sentence that begins this post is spoken to The Colonel, and expresses part of his paralysis: he thinks a man of his distinction and service ought to be lauded (and he expects someone to seek him out), but he thinks it would be gauche to thrust himself into the limelight.  But that kind of dignified privacy only really operates in full view of the crowd: in the shadows, he’s a bit less particular about his aims and means.  At the point I’ve reached in the novel, he’s about to try and undo a familial disaster he suffered two decades prior by engaging in subterfuge that is utterly unlikely to succeed: his Jerry Lundegaard moment, if you will.  He is just as appealing and appalling as Jerry is, and therefore just as watchable.  The Colonel also provides us with a really easy connection to all the levels of society in Florence—he thinks of himself as upper class, and has connections to that world, but he lives among the relatively low middle class.  He has business that takes him among the rural poor—where, significantly, he is generally idolized as a war hero who led many folks’ fathers and uncles in battle—and his commitment to a certain level of basic fairness (along with his past as an overseer on a cotton plantation) give him a place of some small importance in the eyes of local black farmers.  I know, I know…in some ways it sounds like I’m describing Wang Lung, who I could not stand in the last novel.  I can’t really say what appeals to me about The Colonel, beyond the fact that he seems more human than Wang Lung, and that his particular flaws make him far more of an underdog (and therefore more pleasant to observe and even root for).

The only thing that continues to bother me is Stribling’s ridiculous approach to The Colonel’s wife, Ponny.  As I mentioned before, he lays on about her weight pretty aggressively in the opening paragraph.  This continues throughout—the narrator never calls her “Ponny”,  but always “his fat wife” or “his fat wife, Ponny”.  Whenever The Colonel sees her, we get some remark on her “shapeless bulk” or how “non-sexual” she is in his eyes.  Stribling can’t say something like “He briefly embraced his wife as he left.”  He can’t even say “He briefly embraced his fat wife as he left.”  It’s usually something like “He reached his arm around her large back, his hand gripping her pudgy shoulder, as he laid a brief kiss on her ponderous, swollen cheek.”  I recognize that it’s important to build up how disgusted The Colonel is by his wife, at least physically (he seems at least somewhat affectionate toward her personally), since it ties into some larger narratives about what The Colonel has done with his life and how it might have been different.  But the extent to which he’s going with the adjectives and the repetition becomes a parody of itself.  It also degrades Ponny as a real person, and not just some globular plot point, more than I think he should—in the end, I’m just disgusted by her, and not sympathetic to her, because Stribling never shows her through anyone else’s eyes, and certainly not her own.  (This is a real contrast to the black characters, who are often spoken of in the harshest terms, but who stand on their own two feet, and about whom the narrator is generally very neutral, if not even somewhat sympathetic.)

In short, for once, I have a novel I think I can really recommend.  If you’ve been looking for a read, and want to take a trip through the post-War South with me, I think this will reward your investment of time.  I’ll have a lot more to say about this one, I think, and it’s really nice and refreshing to be able to look forward to reading it and sharing those thoughts.

“In response to his wife’s uncertain inquiry about the political speaking, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden called back from his gate that he did not think there would be any ladies at the courthouse that evening.”

Well, then.  So begins The Store, by T. S. Stribling, which (my copy, at least) announces itself on its cover to be “a stirring novel of the post-Reconstruction South”.  I’ve gotten as far as the third paragraph, and already I can see that 1) this is going to be another sexist novel, based on the way the Colonel and his wife are presented and interact, and 2) this is also going to be a stereotypical and badly written novel.  The third paragraph not only refers to the Colonel’s wife casually as “the heavy woman” but then goes on for sentences about how, as a fat woman, she’s obviously naturally outgoing, and really likes being in loud social gatherings like other fat people do.  Stribling’s got his thesaurus open, so she’s called not only “heavy” and “fat”, but “fleshy” and “ponderous”, all within a sentence or two of each other.  I wish I was joking, but I’m giving it to you pretty straight.  This may be a “chug down my medicine” book, but it’s a long thing, and it’s hard to move fast through this dreck.

Some brief thoughts (other than “Kyrie eleison”)—I suspected before I even got to paragraph three that any novel whose main character’s name is “Miltiades” is either going to be excellent or awful.  Seriously, isn’t “Miltiades” a name you expect from a novel set in the magical land of Eregoss, where the evil lord Dwildrim will be vanquished by Prince Miltiades’s mighty blade?  I presume his mother called him “Milt”.

This is yet another (saints preserve us) middle book from a ponderous trilogy—the Victorians had the three-volume novel, Americans (in the 20s and 30s, at least) have the trilogy set in the same little town.  I know that The Magnificent Ambersons (awful) and Early Autumn (decent but shaky) were Pulitzer-winning middle novels.  I think there was at least one other, so far.  I can’t help but see it as dirty pool: it’s hard enough enjoying most of these, without being disoriented also.

This is at least (I can say one good thing about it) a person writing what they know.  Stribling’s setting his novel in the north Alabama country where he grew up, and this particular novel’s set in the late Gilded Age of his childhood (the action begins when he would have been three years old).  An Alabaman writing about Alabama right after the Yankees were sent home and the white folk “took back their state”?  Well, I’ll get some insights into a worldview, I guess.  Keep your head low, though, Stribling.  I sense a disaster of McLaughlin-level proportions in the near future, and I won’t be shy about my opinions.