Poetry Friday: Dorothy Parker

In my ongoing mission to weave back and forth between the somber poems of death, war, and loss and the cheerful poems of life, love, and satisfaction, today is slated to be a more fun week, in the wake of G. M. Hopkins’ sonnet of depression seven days ago.  And so it commends to our attention a poet who, whether or not she was as happy as she led us to believe, always had a spark in her sentences and a quick jab at the end of every poem to turn a grimace into a knowing grin.  I speak of today’s birthday girl, Dorothy Parker, who would be 121 today if she was alive (and yet I’m sure she wouldn’t look a day over 107).

Happy birthday, Dorothy!

There’s an earnestness to those eyes, I’ll admit, but it’s the firm set line of that jaw that tells me she was no one to trifle with.

You know her work even if you don’t immediately recognize her name—her witty barbs were the centerpiece of the famous Algonquin Round Table, and her talents as a screenwriter earned her two Academy Award nominations, most famously for A Star is Born.  She had her dark side—a lifelong battle with depression, which culminated, like Robin Williams’, in suicide late in life (in Dorothy’s case, well into her 70s)—but the face she showed the world in her poetry was normally a brave one, tough enough to take the hardest life offered, and keen-eyed enough to see through society’s little games.  And so I offer, in her memory and as a birthday salute to her, Dorothy Parker’s poem “Interview”:

“The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints…
So far, I’ve had no complaints.”

Parker never clarifies how this is an “interview”—is this a set of remarks she envisions making to some fictional journalist, or is she casting heterosexual romance in the setting of a job interview (where what’s described and what’s expected are often two different things)?  Or something else entirely?  It’s hard to say.  What’s easy is to grab right away the poem’s key thesis, the casual way Parker describes the sheltered life of the supposedly desirable woman and how her eyes must gleam as she remarks to us, finally and so coolly, “so far, I’ve had no complaints”.  It makes me laugh every time—Parker’s ease in branding herself as a wild, untamed, painted woman, and her obvious amusement at the idea, proponed by goodness-knows-who, that men would find a woman like her anything but fascinating and desirable.  You feel it right away in all her phrases, which are almost condescending as she imagines the kind of person who would be scandalized by a “wicked word” (I think “wicked” is very intentional there) and are so innocent that they cannot even recognize when the man in front of them is suggesting a dalliance.  There’s a power to the poem, beneath (and intricately involved in) its humor: the strangeness of our society’s double standards for women seeking relationships with men, which suggest a norm of purity that few can live up to, and yet confront women simultaneously with the reality that impurity is encouraged rather than frowned upon by the other side of the equation.

It’s not subtle, despite how sly it is—you’ll note that Parker never actually admits to anything, herself, instead allowing us to infer whatever we will from the simple admission that she’s “had no complaints”—because Parker knows how easily she’ll win us over.  Even the most conservative among us, folks who well might see themselves as pure and who would in fact never read an erotic poem, would (I think) have to acknowledge that the saucy smile Dorothy beams at us in that last line is a winning one.  If she entered the room you were in, whether you wanted to imitate her or not, it’s hard to imagine you could take your eyes off of her.  Her poetry certainly has that fixating effect, for me, and for many others.  So I hope it brings a little smile to your Friday, and that those who like what they saw here will nose around a little to find some of Parker’s other stuff—not all of it is quite this level of genius, but most of it is just as cheekily irreverent (and therefore captivating).

“Sometimes you do a crime, an’ you don’t even know it’s bad. . . .”

. . . Maybe they got crimes in California we don’t even know about.  Maybe you gonna do somepin an’ it’s all right, an’ in California it ain’t all right.

Steinbeck and the Joads are both increasingly interested in rules, in laws, in boundaries.  On the one hand, this development is not at all strange in American fiction—some of the most well-known American novels predating Grapes of Wrath deal with rules of one kind or another (The Scarlet Letter deals with the strictures of Puritan society; The Age of Innocence with the social obligations imposed by the old families of New York; etc.).  But the interesting thing for me about the considerations of rules and laws in Grapes is how distant and even mysterious the rules are for the characters we follow.  The Joads and the Wilsons engage in a dialogue at one point—is there a law against stopping along the side of Route 66?  Even when this idea is dismissed, Tom still insists on the notion of rules that bind human beings—when Wilson tells Tom he doesn’t own the roadside and can’t say anything about it if the Joads set up camp, Tom insists, “you got a right to say if you wan’ neighbors or not”.  Later, Pa Joad and several other folks engage in a long discussion about the death of Grampa—is it against the law to bury him themselves?  Why?  What will the consequences be if they break this law?

These events are preceded by the even more explicit conversation I quote from at the beginning of the post, where Tom is trying to assure his mother that breaking parole won’t be an issue, because they’ll only care if he commits another crime, and he’ll steer clear of that.  Ma is thorough in thinking about this—it’s one thing for Tom to have such an intention, but who knows what’s wrong or right?  What if it is right to do something in Oklahoma, but wrong in California?  Who can live in such a world?  All of this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of confused rules that have forced the Joads into this position.  Somehow, without their knowing it, the rules changed.  They’ve done the same things they always did, but conduct that once was enough to keep them on their land and surviving (if not thriving) is now insufficient to keep them from being cast off it.  There seems to be one rule for them and their kind, and another rule entirely for the rich men who now own the land.  Steinbeck weaves again and again into this question of authority—the characters want to know what they are obligated to do, but seem to struggle in knowing whose laws they are to keep.  What is right conduct?  Socrates and Tom Joad have the same question.

There’s a moral and theological angle here, too, that I’m not quite ready to examine, but I think it bears mentioning.  Jim Casy, doing his best to pray for Grampa in the hour of his death, only gets to “forgive us” before death halts his prayer in its tracks—left unsaid is the “forgive those who trespass against us”.  Is this merely an accident, or does Steinbeck mean for us to understand the implication that these simple folk want to be forgiven but don’t understand how badly they are sinned against?  When Tom goes to write the note for Grampa’s grave, he settles on the opening of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  Why the emphasis on the Joads’ need for forgiveness?  (Side note: I loved the verse Tom initially picks at random out of the Bible—Genesis 19:18 “An’ Lot said unto them, ‘Oh, not so, my Lord.'”—which Ma rejects as not meaning nothin’.  As Steinbeck clearly knows, that verse is when the angels are taking Lot out of the city of Sodom to save him and his family from destruction, and he is begging them not to be sent so far away from his home.  The mountains, he said, were too far away, and he would die in traveling there.  The irony is dark, but revealing, I think, about what these characters do and do not understand.)  All of this will have to be made sense of eventually.

Missouri migrants living in a truck in Califor...

A Missouri family’s truck on the road to California — how on earth Al Joad could keep a thing like this from falling apart in the first 50 miles is a mystery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I read, the more emotionally powerful the scenes become—the sturdy kindness of the Wilson family to the Joads, the willingness of all these poor people to look out for each other, even the roadside waitress selling nickel candies at two for a penny to the scrawny Okie children.  There’s a sense of the goodness that characterizes America at its best—a society that, despite all the talk about rugged individualism on the frontier, embraces the notion that we are all our brother and sister’s keeper.  A society of simple folk who would never turn away a hungry stranger, who accept kindness with gratitude but are a little reluctant to receive anything they think of as “charity”.  At its best, it’s definitely the most moving Pulitzer novel I’ve read, and one of the most emotionally gripping books I’ve ever read, period.  It’s also so consistently good at providing genuine moments—Granma’s slow realization of her husband’s death, the boy’s excitement that drops instantly into nausea and sorrow at the death of the dog, Al’s quiet despair as he proves unable to maintain the cars to the standard he knows they need.  It’s not even that I’m in love with the characters (although I sometimes am): it’s that I believe in them so much I think I’m on the road with them.  I think they really happened.  And in other guises, under other names, they did happen, by the thousands, on the long roads like Route 66 through the Great Plains and onwards to the Pacific.

All right, I have heaped enough praise on Steinbeck for weeks now—it’s time to make one of my few criticisms, since after all no work of art is perfect.  I do get a bit impatient with some of the soaring impersonal rhetoric from Steinbeck, especially the passage where he speaks at length in praise of “Manself” and this notion of progress and aspiration and I don’t know what all.  You can almost hear him thinking as he writes, “Hot damn! This is good stuff!”  I’m not opposed to an author being obviously a little in love with how great their stuff is (see my praise of Melville, for one), but Steinbeck’s arrogance is at times a little intrusive.  He has so much power in the scenes he underplays that it’s especially grating to feel as though he’s now showing you all his cards.

The one criticism I keep expecting to unload, and can’t?  Steinbeck’s women.  Given my experience with him, I figured they’d be caricatures or worse, but so far they’re well-written and seriously portrayed.  They’re not (usually) the focus of the scene, but there’s a lot of complexity to Ma Joad, and he’s hinting at it with Sairy Wilson.  Even excitable “Rosasharn” (Rose of Sharon) seems the right mix of maturity and girlishness for a teenager facing pregnancy and possibility all at once on the long road to California (and, she clearly believes, economic freedom for her and her husband).  I wish they were given the chance to say a few more wise things, but honestly there isn’t that great an imbalance of wisdom on this road, and I think Steinbeck’s respect for the women, especially the older women, is clear.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for now I really can’t complain even a little bit.  Keep it up, John.

1939: The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Literary Style:

Barn on ' property in Cross Creek, Florida

A barn in Cross Creek, Florida—Rawlings lived nearby, so this is part of the setting that I imagine inspired her. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Yearling has been, as you’ve seen, a bumpy ride.  There are certainly things to praise about Rawlings’ novel—her use of setting, most critically, and also some of her character development.  At its most winning, it’s an engrossing experience, walking me through a world I don’t particularly know (the swampy farmland outside of Volusia, Florida), and helping me understand an era of small subsistence farming that is important to remember.  The storm and its aftermath are probably the best section of the book for me, since they really bring home how hard it is to live where the Baxters do, and how inventive and enterprising they have to be just to keep food on their table.  Those moments certainly help me understand why many people loved this book when it came out—it wasn’t just a Pulitzer winner, but a major best-seller—and why some still read it and recommend it to others today.

But the other side of The Yearling gets to be too much for me.  I’ve already talked about my uneasiness with how Rawlings uses gender in the novel.  The end of the story does a little to redeem it, especially when we see Ma Baxter in a slightly new light in the events around Christmas (as well as Grandma Hutto’s canny solution to a very serious problem).  But it also perpetuates the ideas about women that persist throughout the novel.  In the end, there’s only one parent that matters to Jody Baxter—only one whose betrayal really stings, only one who he need apologize to, only one relationship that really matters in any way as far as this novel is concerned.  As I said before, I get that there’s a lot of accuracy in Rawlings’s portrayal of Jody as a boy fixated on becoming a man, and on being a man like his father.  I just wanted a novel that knew Jody’s vision was blinkered.  And instead I got a novel that did its best to portray a world that was in reality what Jody thought it was from his perspective.  I’ve read enough Pulitzer novels by now to know that I’m not asking for too much there.  But I will say that other great novels of the era do have gender issues.  I think Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is really excellent, but I could lay the same charges about gender at its feet that I do at The Yearling‘s.  Am I being a hypocrite, then?  Maybe.  Or maybe it’s that A) Steinbeck’s novel has more interesting and important things to say (when it’s not talking about gender) than Rawlings’s novel does, and B) Steinbeck’s novel is not aimed at fifth graders.  Anyway, I’m willing to be swayed on this point, and willing to acknowledge that I see how a reader could work around this objection.

I’ll try not to give away much about the ending, but my real hatred of how Rawlings ends the book is a major factor in my souring on it overall.  It’s no shock to anyone, I hope, that Jody’s beloved pet deer is doomed—this, as I said at the outset, is how these novels go.  Because I was expecting it, and understood it was necessary on some level, it’s not the death in particular that I object to.  It’s how manipulative and cruel the whole scenario is.  Rawlings devises one of the worst possible outcomes—in doing so, she has to sideline characters and make other characters fools for the sake of getting the most gut-wrenchingly agonizing ending she can.  The whole plot machinery squeals and grinds as she wrenches the novel into MAKE-THEM-WEEP mode.  And unlike other stories in this genre—Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, etc.—the animal’s death doesn’t even mean something.  There wasn’t something like love or hope at the heart of this sadness.  Only unalterable Fate; unavoidable Despair.

In the end, if everything Rawlings and her characters say is accurate, Jody’s beloved father is a fiend—a man who, out of the desire to be kind, has proven more cruel and psychologically damaging to his son than many a lesser father might have.  Furthermore, the moral he wants his son to walk away with—and, given the novel’s structure and Penny’s place in it, the moral that Rawlings surely is trying to inculcate—is a vicious one: in Penny Baxter’s universe, humanity is alone and frightened.  We toil in desperation and solitude; we cannot trust one another or the ground we walk on; the sooner a child learns that life is empty, the better.  I understand how a man like Penny might reach these conclusions, and how a novelist might want to explore these powerful ideas, but coming at the end of an otherwise cheerful little nostalgic tale about an innocent boy and his love for a pet, it’s really unfair to the reader, and unjustified.  Rawlings may want this ending, but she hasn’t earned it.  Penny Baxter shifts from being Atticus Finch to being one of the slavers of Astapor, forging in naive and trusting Jody his little Unsullied warrior who will serve him well.  He explicitly acknowledges that Jody can escape the unendurable (and ultimately unsurvivable) subsistence farm the family lives on, and then makes his son promise not to flee for a better life, but to stay here in his abandonment and his loneliness in order to fill his father’s shoes.  As I said, I don’t mind the dead deer.  It’s casting the boy into a living hell that I mind.  Rawlings’s cheap sentiment at the end of the novel, which seems like an attempt to bandage the open wound of having read the final chapters, is almost nauseating.  It mocks the idea of happiness, and it reminds us how badly the ending suits the novel we have been reading.

So I’m left with a novel that’s well written on the sentence level, although not always well-constructed.  On the one hand it makes characters we enjoy and want to spend time with, and on the other it uses those characters to undermine any reasonable treatment of women in the novel.  It’s sweet and nostalgic, right up to the point where it becomes almost bizarre in its efforts to shock and harm us—in doing so, it perpetrates consequences on Jody Baxter that I can’t forgive.  There’s no reason a novel can’t be dark, even dark and great—ask me about Mary Doria Russell and The Sparrow sometime—but you have to earn it, and Rawlings doesn’t.

Historical Insight:

As a part of the whole, this really does a great job of getting inside the world of the struggling farm in the Deep South—its misses (the authentic experience of women on the farm) are notable, but so are its hits.  It is less vivid than Now in November, and less sweeping (and sympathetic to women’s stories) than Lamb in His Bosom, but taken in conjunction with them, I found a lot of it to be really interesting and insightful.  There are pieces I wish Rawlings had done more with—Southern identity in the post-war period (Penny is a Confederate veteran, but we hear little about this), their connection to the wider world (other than a little about “going to sea” and some speculation about Jacksonville, they feel too isolated, even given their circumstances)—but overall this is definitely the side of the novel that should get high marks.  She cares about these bygone days, and wants us to care about them too—she largely succeeds.

Rating:

According to the unscientific rating scale in use here, this gets a “Read only if forearmed against its weaknesses…and whatever you do, don’t put this in a child’s hands.”  If you go into this book ready to interrogate its relationship to gender, and prepared to fight back against the conclusion it tries to present, there’s a worthwhile read locked inside it.  I’m not recommending you do this.  But I can see people enjoying this book, under those circumstances.  The one thing I have to emphasize, though, is that I really don’t think you should have a child read this—really, not even if you have nostalgic memories of this from your own childhood.  Our kids get enough “man=good, woman=bad” messages from our culture and media, and there are plenty of great stories that avoid that problem entirely—no shortage of other options there.  And whatever you want your child to grow up believing about humanity and purpose, I’d urge you not to blind-side them with this book’s ending.  It’s not that the deer dies, like I said above—animals die in kids’ books, and it generally doesn’t scar them.  But the author booby-traps this novel—the final message is utterly enervating without being consistent with the story we’ve read, and it blows up any possibility for hope.  A kid can read plenty of books that explore dark or serious themes while avoiding what Rawlings does here.

The Last Word:

Rawlings’s work with setting is lovely, so I’ll let her take us out that way.  This passage is from late in the book, but there’s lots of this throughout—here’s the opening of a new chapter:

“March came in with a cool and sunny splendor.  The yellow jessamine bloomed late and covered the fences and filled the clearing with its sweetness.  The peach trees blossomed, and the wild plums.  The redbirds sang all day, and when they had done with their song in the evening, the mockingbirds continued.  The ground doves nested and cooed one to another and walked about the sand of the clearing like shadows bobbing.

Penny said, ‘If I was dead, I’d set up and take notice, a day like this ‘un.’

There had been a light shower during the night and the hazy substance of the sunrise indicated there would be another before night.  But the morning itself was luminous.”

“I didn’t keer to praise you in front o’ the men, but you done noble.”

There’s a lot to like about The Yearling, as I mentioned in my last post.  The work Rawlings does with the setting—the anxieties and the poverty associated with subsistence farmers clinging to the high ground in the swamps and prairies of central Florida—is really very compelling, and many of the characters manage to be interesting enough (and on occasion, deep enough) to win me over to thinking this is a good book.  There’s a little fumbling with the story itself, as Rawlings can’t quite fit the pieces together beautifully—it’s like a pretty white gown whose seams have all been sewn in black thread.  Transitions are sometimes a bit ham-handed, and at other times she lets the tension drop in mid-air, as though the camera cut from Lassie leading Timmy’s parents well-ward to Timmy eating a bowl of breakfast cereal the following morning.  The book is large enough (and, honestly, contains enough filler) that there’s no need to pare back the endings of scenes like this, but it happens with some regularity.  Still, I’m bobbing along relatively smoothly: in most respects, this is a novel I’ll like well enough, but will probably not think much about once it’s set down.  There isn’t much to engage with, beyond nostalgia and a little vicarious thrill as Jody and his father experience some of the dangers of the natural world.  Generally speaking, though, it makes me happy as I read, and often that’s all we ask of a novel—I’m thinking on that ground alone, I’ll be giving this book a thumbs-up.  All of this is true.  Except it’s not really, and here’s why.

One major criticism I put off in my last post is the one I’d like to talk about here—Rawlings’ novel and its relationship to gender.  The book’s idea of femininity is weirdly strained, given that a woman wrote it…or maybe it’s not weird at all, given the ideas about gender that were prevalent in America circa 1939?  Perhaps some of my more informed readers will enlighten me.  Anyway, the book’s important characters are all men—the two families, the Baxters and the Forresters, seem to have only male children.  The mothers in these families have no names other than “Ma”, as far as I can tell, and they are not portrayed very compassionately.  The only other women in the story are another nameless woman, “Grandma Hutto”, who is praised by the male characters, as far as I can tell, for her masculine wit (and her very feminine charms), and Twink, a young woman over whom two men fight.  Jody, the lens through which the book’s events are seen, is constantly shaped to be more manly—even recognizing that this kind of gender stereotyping would have been common at that time, the novel never seems to think that women’s doings are important.  Jody’s father tells riveting stories that everyone longs to hear—the mother, when she tells a story, says something pointless and uninteresting (both to Jody and myself—Jody’s distaste for his mother is pretty evident in that chapter).  Jody leaves his mother whenever he can, and even when the three Baxters are together, it’s the two men against Ma—they tease her, they deceive her for their own amusement, they unify against her whenever she takes a stand.  On the one occasion that Ma disagrees with Jody’s father, Penny, and Jody agrees with his mother’s side of the argument….he still takes Penny’s side, yelling at his mother not to backtalk “his Pa” while secretly thinking that for once Penny was wrong (but that his mother shouldn’t say so).  When Jody’s friend dies, it’s the men in that family who mourn most openly, and whose loss is made most real—the friend’s mother is barely visible on the sidelines.  And Jody’s anger at the divisiveness over Twink leads him to think horrific thoughts about this young woman he’s never met—rather than feel anger at the men fighting over her, he literally soothes himself to sleep by daydreaming gleefully about her being lost in the wilderness, or eating the poisoned meat they set out in the wolf-traps and dying in fitful agony.

Cover of "The Able McLaughlins"

Anytime I have to clarify that a book is “not quite as bad as The Able McLaughlins“, you know we’re in deep water.

I have to say, I find all this unsettling.  It simmers in the background even when I am enjoying the rest of this story—although I am sure there are young women who grow up loving this story, I wouldn’t put it in the hands of my niece, let alone my daughter.  The messages about masculinity’s superiority to femininity in every way, and the Madonna/Whore complex the female characters seem to be locked into, are just too pervasive, and the rest of the tale isn’t redeeming enough.  This raises a fair question, I think—why would I give my nephews a book that sends this kind of  message about gender?  I shouldn’t, in honesty, and so I guess I’m reaching the conclusion that, for me, this book has a weird flaw that makes it hard for me to envision giving it to a child to read.  Rawlings isn’t relentlessly disgusting in her sexism—this isn’t a repeat of Margaret Wilson’s casual use of rape and emotional abuse in her “love story” at the heart of The Able McLaughlins—but I feel that it’s obviously here, and there’s no need for it.  Even Honey in the Horn ascribes more agency to women than this novel does; despite all its faults, Lamb in His Bosom believes above all in the value of telling the story of poor Southern women on subsistence farms.  I suspect that Rawlings is limited here by her lack of agility as a writer—it did not occur to her that the novel could reveal both Jody’s sexism (which would be inevitable, raised in the culture and time he is) and undercut it at the same time.  Stribling’s work in The Store was a great example of this, where the white characters express their racist ideas about the local African-Americans, but every line is subverted by the very simple details shared by the narrator at key moments about how the real world actually looks.  It wouldn’t be hard for me to understand how important “Ma Baxter” is to Jody despite his coldness to her.  It wouldn’t be hard for Rawlings to give these women names, and on occasion to let them make a very articulate speech on their own behalf.  It wouldn’t be hard to find a way to show me Twink in actuality, rather than leaving her to be described in the terms of the men who want to possess her (or, worse, who want her savaged or killed because she disrupts the bonhomie that would otherwise be enjoyed by the men living in the area).  Rawlings is clearly gifted as a story-teller.  Someone should have helped her become a better novelist.

These are harsh words, I know.  I’ve mulled them over extensively before feeling like I need to say them.  I don’t know how seriously these feelings sink my opinion of the novel—I’m in a bind a bit similar to Gone With the Wind, although I don’t think the charges against Rawlings’ novel are as serious as they were against Mitchell’s.  In the end, I’ll have to write a review that weighs all of these pieces and tries to make something of them.  I have a little hope that the end of the novel will reveal some things about Ma, or Twink, or another of the women in the novel, that help rehabilitate some of the worst sides of the book’s attitudes about women.  We’ll see if hope becomes reality.

1935: Now in November, by Josephine W. Johnson

Literary Style:

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

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

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

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

Historical Insight:

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

Rating:

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

Last Word:

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

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

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

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

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

“After this, ‘lessen I’m with ye, you keep home, little ‘un.”

Ah, the sweet nothings spoken by a husband to his beloved wife—or so they appear as interpreted by Caroline Miller in this blog’s current Pulitzer-winning novel, Lamb in His Bosom.  There is a sort of logic to Lonzo, I’ll admit: his injunction demanding that Cean stay home does stem from a momentarily frightening snakebite, which might inspire anybody to be a bit overprotective.  Fortunately for Cean, the snakebite proves utterly uneventful—she has no lasting harm from it, her unborn child is unaffected by the snake venom, and a few pages later we’d all be hard-pressed to notice whether Lonzo is even particularly interested in enforcing the “do not leave the house, ‘lessen ye’re with me” decree.

Uneventful is perhaps the kindest and cruelest thing I can say about the novel, at present.  Miller is seemingly fascinated by the humdrum details of life at home.  Imagine someone narrating your everyday morning routine—“He is careful to set the toothpaste cap on a flat surface, so that it does not accidentally roll away.  He then retrieves the toothbrush from its holder, which is designed to keep the bristles upright, allowing them to dry between brushings.  This kind of foresight is important to a thrifty household.”—and then extend it for a few chapters.  It’s hard to understand why I’m reading, or what any of these people have to do with the idea of storytelling or fiction.

I recognize, there may be something subtle happening here.  It’s at least a little cheering to see a female character kept in the spotlight: we follow Cean’s daily life, and not Lonzo’s.  But it’s hard to tell whether anything that happens to her is of significance.  Their lives are so simple that very little distinguishes one day from the next, and the rare moments of apparent importance (like the day she is bitten by a snake) recede into the distance like ripples swallowed into a sea far too placid to take notice of them.  If Miller seemed interested in using these details to explore the psychological experience of the sheltered and isolated farmer’s wife, I could make sense of this.  Alternatively, she could be operating like Melville in Moby-Dick, who used the routines of whaling as a sort of baseline for the narrative….only Melville’s details are at least describing a kind of work that is dangerous and somewhat thrilling, and Melville uses the banality of whaling as a sort of contrast to the epic and almost excessively outlandish behavior of the captain and crew in certain scenes.  Miller doesn’t have either of these elements working for her.

And, at the point where I’ve left off, she’s losing her one advantage, since she’s turning the narrative from Cean now to her husband, father, and brothers as they take goods to the coast for trade.  Granted, this may open up the novel a bit, bringing in new characters and possibilities for interaction.  But it’s hard to be invested in them—I’m 10-15% of my way through the book, and now I’m on the road with five men I don’t know, all of whom are walking far away from the only character Miller has bothered to invest me in.  It doesn’t matter that they’re her family—I have no idea who they are, how they relate to each other, or why I care about them.  This isn’t a tragedy….just a mild discomfort, like being seated at a table full of the bride’s friends at a wedding reception you are attending solely due to a childhood friendship with the groom.  Maybe I’ll end up loving my afternoon, but I’m half-way through the salad course and I’m not feeling optimistic.

I don’t want to doom my reading experience—I know that it’s easy for anxiety about a novel to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But so far it feels as though I’m in a novel that has been put together somewhat carelessly, and with very little attention to the critical elements of plot and character.  It’s hard to tell what I can latch onto to get me through: we’ll see where I get to this weekend.

“What a pity our child is a female whom no one could want and covered with smallpox as well! Let us pray it may die.”

This will be a brief update, but a necessary one, since I want to start processing the extreme gender issues in The Good Earth early.  The above quote is appalling—its offensiveness diminishes only slightly if you know that, in context, Wang Lung has just realized he and his wife have been too loudly pleased with themselves and their son, so that he must shout some loud negative comments in case an evil spirit is waiting to cause them misfortune.

The thing I need to process is that the book’s appalling record on gender—Wang Lung’s uncle refers to his daughter as his “worthless oldest slave creature” only a few pages farther in, and there is no shortage of other examples if I wanted to keep going.  Because this book manages to strike me less deeply than misogyny in other novels I’ve read for this project, and I want to work out why.  I feel as though I’m cutting it slack for being some sort of “authentic” record of a society that was very hostile to women…but somehow I wasn’t willing to cut the same slack to novels about misogyny, say, in America’s heartland.  Why is this….and is this a fair response?

Right now my theory is that I’m reading this book almost sociologically: I’m distanced from the anti-woman language.  And while misogyny among American farmers feels like I’m watching my great-grandparents, I don’t feel that kind of connection with Wang Lung.  I’m going to admit openly this may be a terrible way to read—that’s part of why I’m airing it now.  I certainly don’t endorse the attitudes of Wang Lung and his society.  So should I react against them (and, by extension, this novel) more aggressively than I am?  Or is my differential reaction a basically acceptable thing because this is how humans are: we’re offended by any racism, but hearing your own uncle, or boss, or mayor say something racist is much more embarrassing and awkward than hearing the same remarks from someone on the other side of the world?  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  So many of my fellow citizens—my friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc.—come from the other side of the world, and so, only a few generations ago, did my family.  Should I really put up fences?  Call one misogyny a pernicious evil, and look with sadness at another misogyny as “they way it was in that culture at that time”?  I don’t know.

I can’t imagine being a woman reading this, and I wonder if any of the women who read this blog will chime in, especially if you’ve read this novel (or a novel like this, set in another culture that is brutally anti-woman).  How do you react?  And is your reaction altered at all if, as in this case, the novelist is a woman?  What if, in the long run, she critiques this perspective?  My only difficulty is that I can’t see how she will.  There are no outsiders in the story to provide that kind of reaction, and it’s hard to imagine enjoying a novel where it’s me and the narrator against every character.  I have to think about this, I guess, and wanted you to know the hill I was climbing.