1937: Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Literary Style:

Mitchell is a genius at investing a reader in what’s happening on the page—a 950 page novel went past much more quickly than I’d have guessed.  This is not to say that I think she couldn’t have used a good editor or better pacing at times (about which a little more is said below), but she clearly had a talent for writing, and it’s appreciated.  Most of her central characters are really compelling—the enigmatic but undeniably charismatic Rhett, the saintly (yet appealing) Melanie, the brooding lost “knight” Ashley, etc.  Even her relatively minor white characters, like the Fontaines and Tarletons, like Miss Pittypat and Archie, have a liveliness to them.  There’s no question that, as you read, you become personally involved in the storylines, rooting for certain outcomes.  The death of a major character is genuinely moving, and its aftermath hushes the rest of the story.  Had Mitchell not died well before her time, I think she might have risen to more prominence as an American author—perhaps not its most “literary”, since I don’t think her use of language and theme is especially deep or insightful (though it might have grown with time), but among its most popular, and for many good reasons.  There is a reason this book stands at the front of sales figures in the United States—of the books produced by American authors, none have outsold it, and I can see why.  And yet, if you’ve been following my progress through the novel, you know my feelings don’t stop there.

Scarlett is a major obstacle for me, and I think there’s little that can be done about her—she is the novel, and your take on her will inevitably dominate your feelings about the book itself.  Every other character distances themselves from the reader at times, sometimes hundreds of pages at a time, but Scarlett never gives us breathing room.  Mitchell wants us to encounter her very closely….but why?  There is a tragic arc to Scarlett’s life—she matches the classical definition of the tragic hero whose flaw is her downfall—but to me that arc doesn’t pay off.  In part this is because I think the novel is too unwieldy in length to give resonance to her story: by the time Scarlett is ready to face her flaw and acknowledge her tragedy, it has been too long for me.  Like Rhett, I had been willing to wait for her, but not that long—her revelations at the end are no more appealing to me than they are to Rhett, and like him, I no longer give a damn about her.  I think there were opportunities to avoid this in the novel, but Mitchell would have had to write a very different book, and almost certainly a much shorter one, in order to make it work for me.  And frankly, I’m not sure Mitchell wants the character to work—a tragic hero, in the end, at least gets the benefit of realizing what they’ve become.  Scarlett undoes this personal growth, though—her last lines in the novel more or less mirror the last lines in the film, if that’s your only tie to the story.  It’s as though the aging Lear, holding the dying Cordelia in his arms, is bending over her and with the last lines of the play says “Dear, tell me how much you love me.”  It feels a bit profane—as though the character and the work are punching the reader who has let down any guard.  I had at least tried to invest myself in Scarlett’s growth, in her ability to recognize the emptiness of her “old charm”, etc., only to find at the end that she is not moved.  Even Macbeth, the tyrant and slayer of children, earns something true and good in his final cry of “Lay on, Macduff”, his willingness to face Fate and not to run from it.  But Scarlett is denied this, and to me it reads, as it has for much of the book, as though Mitchell has nothing but contempt for Scarlett—as though she wants to punish Scarlett for being herself as much as Booth Tarkington punished Alice Adams.  I know not everyone reads the character, and her relationship to the author, in this way, but the feeling is too overwhelmingly present for me to understand how else to see her.

A cartoon threatening that the KKK would lynch...

An image from 1868, depicting the work of the Klan in whose success all the characters invest themselves to some degree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lastly, what can I say about this novel’s attitude towards race?  I’ll give one example to explain how complicated this is for me—at one point, midway through the novel, I am fully invested in a very tense chapter.  All of the characters we know and care about are working against a very difficult circumstance, in which the wrong word or action may mean death for several beloved people.  I know I personally was almost on the edge of my seat as I read, hoping they would beat the odds, hoping that no one would be caught, cheering them on: Mitchell’s writing was working very well.  And then I stopped and realized what I was doing.  All of these characters were in trouble because they, as members of the Ku Klux Klan, had killed a free African-American man in an act of vigilante justice, and I was cheering their ability to escape without being caught by the soldiers stationed in Georgia for the prevention of this kind of violence.  And the disgust I felt for myself and the characters and the author and the whole weird mess of the situation was really awful.

Now, I know the novel can be read in all sorts of ways: all I can tell you is how I read it.  I don’t like being caught up like that, any more than I like a novel to get me rooting for a rapist to assault a woman and get away with it, any more than I could read a novel about the Holocaust and be rooting for the Gestapo to find the Jews hidden in the attic.  I’m not saying that a novel can’t help me explore what it must be like to be a man who commits sexually violent acts, or what it was like to be a German citizen in 1942 and to see the world through those eyes.  I’ve read novels that helped me explore those viewpoints in ways that unsettled me and challenged me, but didn’t make me feel as though I was being co-opted, being asked to stand on the sidelines and cheer.  GWTW is the latter kind of experience, for me as a reader, and for that reason I found many moments of my reading experience deeply unpleasant, to the point that I didn’t see at times how I could continue (in spite of my investment in the characters and in the resolution of the plot).  This is a big complicated novel, and I know there are a lot of places to grab hold of it—I could even feel that complexity as I read, but for some reason I couldn’t grab a hold of it in any way but the way I did.  I can’t explain why.

Historical Insight:

There are two different grades to be given here. As an insight into the South in the 1930s, and as it must have been for Mitchell to grow up in throughout the early 20th Century, it is astonishingly important: a novel that expresses all the complex relationships Southerners had to the idea of the “Lost Cause” and the antebellum South and the imposition of Northerners and their values, etc.  I think there are echoes here also of the hunger and fear that gripped many families during the Great Depression, since Scarlett goes through real deprivation at Tara at the end of the war, and I think there’s something powerful to explore there also.  This is a vitally important book for understanding how the world and the country’s past look through the lens of that society, and Mitchell is very good at providing a wide range of characters and experiences to help illuminate her vision of the war and its aftermath.

But this book has also imprinted on the minds of many Americans a vision of the South and of Reconstruction that is appallingly misinformed—it depicts slavery in the kindest, gentlest possible way, without anyone to challenge or offer context for shockingly bold claims about how nice life was for slaves and how much they appreciated it (and really preferred it to freedom in a number of respects).  It depicts Reconstruction about as accurately as the Nazis depicted German Jews in the Weimar Republic—it regularly plays up stereotypical racist images of freed black men as lazy, peanut-eating, barefoot, illiterate idiots who divided their day between voting illegally to tax ex-Confederates and give the money to carpetbaggers, taking wages and then doing no work for their employers, and sexually assaulting any white woman they could get their hands on (knowing that the Yankee courts would always protect them, no matter how many white women they raped).  I really can’t pull any punches here—the descriptions of Reconstruction are almost criminally irresponsible, and I can’t forgive them under any flag labeled “fiction”.  It was, as far as I can tell, what many Southerners truly believed in the 1930s—that, had it not been for the noble members of the Klan, the South would have lost every cent it had to Northern thieves, and every white woman would have been raped or murdered with impunity.  But it is almost unendurable for me to read.  These little snippets about the Reconstruction era only occur every so often—in total terms, maybe only 1% of the book is given over to the kind of content I’m describing.  But it doesn’t take much to really turn my stomach, and much of this certainly did.

Rating:

Given all of that, how can I encapsulate my response in a phrase?  I’ll say it this way: under my unscientific rating scale, I’ll give Gone With the Wind a “let the reader beware”.  I think it is one of the most important books in the nation’s history.  I think anyone wanting to understand the nation’s history with race, anyone wanting to understand the North-South dynamic, and anyone wanting a window into how this nation changed and grew over the course of the 20th Century almost has to read this.  It would be required reading in any class I tried to teach on those subjects.  And I think it has many moments where, away from the elements that disturb me so much, it is powerful storytelling by one of the nation’s better yarn-spinners—Mitchell might have been our Dickens (if not our Shakespeare), given time to grow.  But I do not think I will ever be able to read it again.  I know many people who, given their preferences as readers, would get no joy, and much pain, from trying to read it even once.  For those who can read it, I think there is something important about approaching the book thoughtfully—ready to interrogate your own feelings, informed about the real history of the period, willing to let the story work on you as it goes.  This is probably the most troubling and problematic book I will read in my Pulitzer journey, as well as one of the most important to the nation.  It is almost certain to be the most memorable of the Pulitzer winners, for me personally.  And I think I’ll have to leave it there.

The Last Word:

It’s one of my testaments to Mitchell’s talents as a writer that, unlike most of the novels I’ve read for this blog, I wasn’t keeping an eye out for a good “last word” passage as I finished—I was too engrossed in the events, to attentive to the conversations, to pick out the right bit for sharing.  As always, I hope to show you some of her most characteristic writing and a glimpse of the novel at its peak—moreover I give her the last word, and not myself, in a chance to win you over if she will.  As it is, I’ve come back to the novel and am a bit uncertain what to select: in the end, I’ve decided to share a bit of Rhett Butler being blunt with Scarlett, which to me is almost always the high point of the book.  This isn’t their very last conversation, but it comes late in the story, when Rhett is ready to let Scarlett have a bit more truth than even he usually loads upon her.  The topic, as usual, is her feelings for him, her feelings for Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett’s rising level of frustration:

“Oh, yes, you’ve been faithful to me because Ashley wouldn’t have you.  But, hell, I wouldn’t have grudged him your body.  I know how little bodies mean—especially women’s bodies.  But I do grudge him your heart and your dear, hard, unscrupulous, stubborn mind.  He doesn’t want your mind, the fool, and I don’t want your body.  I can buy women cheap.  But I do want your mind and your heart, and I’ll never have them, any more than you’ll ever have Ashley’s mind.  And that’s why I’m sorry for you.”

“Sorry—for me?”

“Yes, sorry because you’re such a child, Scarlett.  A child crying for the moon.  What would a child do with the moon if it got it?  And what would you do with Ashley?  Yes, I’m sorry for you—sorry to see you throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make you happy.  I’m sorry because you are such a fool you don’t know there can’t ever be happiness except when like mates like.  If I were dead, if Miss Melly were dead and you had your precious honorable lover, do you think you’d be happy with him?  Hell, no!  You would never know him, never know what he was thinking about, never understand him any more than you understand music and poetry and books or anything that isn’t dollars and cents.  Whereas we, dear wife of my bosom, could have been perfectly happy if you had ever given us half a chance, for we are so much alike.  We are both scoundrels, Scarlett, and nothing is beyond us when we want something.  We could have been happy, for I loved you and I know you, Scarlett, down to your bones, in a way that Ashley could never know you.  And he would despise you if he did know. . . . But no, you must go mooning all your life after a man you cannot understand.  And I, my darling, will continue to moon after whores.  And, I dare say we’ll do better than most couples.”

“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.

1934: Lamb in His Bosom, by Caroline Miller

Literary Style:

I’ll admit that, since abandoning my “update” posts halfway through the novel, Miller made some progress climbing out of the deep hole she put herself in.  Not sufficient progress to warrant my recommending this book to you, I should make absolutely clear.  But it has put sufficient distance between itself and the bottom of the barrel that I think Miller should get some kind of acknowledgement.

Miller is at her best when she is drawing out the features of the confined, isolated, lonely lives of the people of the rural Deep South in the antebellum period, especially the housewives.  At times, she manages to portray their combination of grit and innocence, of piety and practicality, in a very hushed and humble way that really does shine, if only for a few paragraphs.  In those moments, I am reminded most of Thornton Wilder’s much better Pulitzer-winner, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and his ability to weave understanding of a character out of very little dialogue, preferring the juxtaposition of significant moments and images.  These moments do not last.

This is because Miller is a writer out of her depth—reading the novel is like listening to a well-meaning 7th grader declaim a Shakespearean soliloquy, or watching a dog swim.  No matter how much you may admire the mixture of courage and foolhardiness involved, you can’t really praise the skill exhibited.  It’s just beyond their ability (in the case of the 7th grader, perhaps they’ll grow into it; in the case of the dog, it’s a matter of finding some other outlet for its talents—the jury’s out, as far as I’m concerned, regarding which category we should place Miller in).  Her dialogue is usually pretty lousy, and her narration is often not much better.  She falls into the same trap as other writers of dialect—because she doesn’t know how to express complicated and mature ideas in the sing-song slang of the backwoods, she ends up producing characters who aren’t capable of complicated or mature ideas, which is irritatingly patronizing.  Worse yet, her dialect comes and goes—the narrator talks in perfect English half the time, only to lapse suddenly and without warning into words and phrases only slightly more decipherable than Eliza Doolittle‘s (pre-Higgins).

And Miller’s plots are a mish-mash.  At times, I commended her for giving us some straight accounts of life on a struggling farm.  As someone obsessed with genealogy (my own, and other people’s), I’ve seen the records—the numerous children dying young, the accidental deaths happening to people in their prime, the toll that childbirth after childbirth took on very young women.  There was something moving (and tragic) about seeing a lot of these events enacted.  But Miller can’t quite manage all the work she has to do—too often she simply drifts into sentimentality, or else into unseemly family chaos (the Jerry Springer themes surrounding poor “loose” Margot never really go away).  And when she handles difficult moments, her eyes always seem to be on the wrong things, almost as though she doesn’t understand which moments we want to be present for, and which thoughts we need to be given insight into.  Imagine Sophocles telling the story of Oedipus marrying his mother, Iocasta, as the social faux pas of a woman who wore white despite its being her second marriage, and the tragedy of a man who didn’t realize until after his wedding that his wife’s age meant that she would never understand the pop culture references he was making.  Your jaw hits the table as the narrator slowly works around the room, avoiding the elephant but describing the dust bunnies under the couch in real detail.  I may be exaggerating, but only slightly—Miller never really seems to understand what in the story is worth relating.

Because of this, Miller writes with her head down, failing to look ahead to see where the story is going: in the end, there seems to be no particular point to the book.  It ends abruptly and in perhaps the worst possible way, leaping away from every character of importance to someone long since written out of the story.  She explains in painstaking detail “whatever became of X”, but since A) we already figured that’s what had happened, and B) X is almost completely unimportant to the novel at that point, the choice to close with several pages of X is baffling.  This is especially true given that she had narrated several other characters into at least mildly tense situations that more or less cry out for some kind of resolution.  But Miller may have forgotten about them entirely.

Miller writes sweetly at times, and it’s clear she felt a lot of sympathy for her main characters.  I suspect she saw herself in Cean—certainly her stories are the liveliest, and the life of her mind is the most believable.  There were moments as I read this book that made me almost think of recommending it—almost.  But then I remember how even the best scenes are larded up with bad writing, and how the narrative bounces around so unexpectedly that it really doesn’t linger on anything worthwhile for long enough.  There’s no denying that, having lived through the first half and therefore invested myself (on some level) in the characters, I got some enjoyment out of watching them grow up, and see who married who, etc.  But it’s no real argument in favor of you attempting the same thing.

Historical Insight:

As mentioned above, Miller is effective at evoking the solitude of life as a farmer in the relative wilderness of rural Georgia—what it would be like to grow up never meeting anyone of another race, to grow up using words like “ocean” and “wave” as metaphors (say, in a beloved hymn) without ever having seen even a decent-sized lake, let alone the sea.  This gives her some small amount of latitude to explore why poor Southern white people might have been invested in the institution of slavery despite the fact that they had never benefited from it directly, and never would.  She does so only in the leanest and most glancing of ways.  Stribling’s Reconstruction-era novel, The Store, which had won the Pulitzer just the year prior, is immeasurably better at examining the South and what race and conflict meant to that culture.  So, a slight nod of the head to Miller for giving me insight into the lives of Southern women and rural farm life as it concerns their husbands, their families, and to a small extent, their religion.  I just can’t do much with that knowledge, given Miller’s inability to draw on a larger picture.

Rating:

On the unscientific scale, Lamb in His Bosom receives a “there’s no way I can envision you sticking with this book long enough to extract its few worthwhile elements”.  At its best, maybe 2/3 of the way through, there were definitely situations I liked better than any comparable paragraph in maybe half of the Pulitzers I’ve read.  But I can’t envision why on earth I would have stuck it out if I hadn’t been compelled by my Pulitzer pledge to keep going.  And I can’t say, all in all, that the benefits are even close to commensurate with the amount of time I had to invest getting there.  If for whatever reason you think yourself inordinately interested in the home life of rural Southern farmers, and you’re particularly forgiving of dialect, sentimentality, and loose plotting, I imagine you could read and enjoy this book.  But don’t consider this as any kind of endorsement.

Last Word:

It’s tempting to choose one of Miller’s best passages here, but I realized that it would kind of be a misrepresentation of her work, since the rare moments I enjoyed were certainly neither typical of her novel nor characteristic of her goals as a writer.  It’s also difficult to find passages that stand up, anyhow, since most of their success stems from my knowing and being invested in the characters (to the extent that I was), which you won’t have going for you.  So I thought I’d grab a fairly typical moment from the world of Cean Carver Smith, where she is thinking about her family and of the future, since I think it’s always interesting to notice places where novelists envision historical characters looking forward.  It at least has the merits of avoiding almost entirely any dialect intrusions (for a whole paragraph!), and while it’s undeniably sentimental, there’s something sincere at the heart of it.  Here is the narrator’s account of Cean’s musings one day:

Through the varying seasons the crêpe myrtle shed its bark, its fluttering loam of bloom, its leaves, like a pretty woman changing her garments of differing colors and texture as befits the season.  Cean sometimes wondered how a senseless thing like a tree or a flower can feel heat and cold, can count days and months like a body, can change her garb to suit the weather.  Two years gone, Lonzo had brought her a century plant from the Coast, and Cean set it in a far corner of her yard and watered it.  She wondered how anybody would ever know if it counted a hundred years right till it was time for it to bloom.  She would not be here, nor Lonzo, nor the last youngest child that she might bear.  She would never know; the only way would be to write this flower bush’s true age out in Pa’s bible, and let her grandchildren wait and see about it.  But she did not like to ponder over such matters.  In a hundred years the almanac would say Anna Dominy Nineteen-Fifty, and she would be dead and rotten long ago.  There would be nothing alive that she had known—not a child, nor a cow, nor a bird.  Yes, the ‘gators were long-lived creatures; they would go on bellowing in the spring; and the turtles would go on sticking out their ugly heads on leathery necks.  The pines would go on living, and Cean’s boxwood and evergreens.  But she and hers would be gone, like prince’s-feathers and old-maid flowers and bachelor-buttons that die with killing frost, leaving only dried seeds for a careful hand to garner if it will; blazing-star and mulberry geraniums will leave roots to sleep in the earth like a wild thing; Cean would leave no roots to wake again to the sun of another year.  Her children, she judged, were her seeds and roots and new life.  Godalmighty must have meant it to be that way.

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.”