January 28th, 2012 § § permalink
Below are the recently-announced shortlists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, with winners to be announced March 8.
Teju Cole, Open City (Random House)
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Knopf)
Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (Lookout Books)
Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner)
Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random)
James Gleick, The Information (Pantheon)
Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (Knopf)
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead: Essays (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)
Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (W.W. Norton)
Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace (Free Press)
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown)
Luis J. Rodríguez, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone)
Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt)
Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (Little, Brown)
John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press)
Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (Knopf)
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking)
Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press)
David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber)
Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf)
Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday)
Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture (Open Letter)
Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press)
Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (New Directions)
Aracelis Girmay, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions)
Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon Press)
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
Bruce Smith, Devotions (University of Chicago Press)
Between now and March 8, expect to see reviews of the Fiction, Criticism, and Poetry categories at least and maybe some from the other categories. A few will be revised reviews that I did elsewhere for the 2011 National Book Awards, but the majority will be brand-new reviews for here.
January 27th, 2012 § § permalink
Along with “A Rose for Emily” (1930), “Barn Burning” (1939) is one of William Faulkner’s most anthologized short stories. It is not hard to see why, as in barely twenty pages a wealth of conflict is jam-packed into it, with some nice dollops of easy-to-spot themes added to sweeten the mixture. In addition, “Barn Burning” serves as an excellent introduction to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County setting, as it references or introduces characters that later appear in novels such as The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959). But does all of this make “Barn Burning” an excellent read due to its own merits? In order to answer that question, it might be best to dissect this short story.
The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:
Faulkner has utilized smell effectively in two of the stories already discussed in this review series. From the descriptions of Addie’s rotting corpse in As I Lay Dying (1930) or the mysterious foul odor in “A Rose for Emily” (1930), Faulkner’s descriptions of smell accentuate the events that are occurring. Here in “Barn Burning,” by beginning with Sarty Snopes’ descriptions of the smells and sights of his father Abner Snopes’ appearance before the Jefferson Justice of the Peace inside his general store/court, Faulkner vividly impresses upon readers the rural, impoverished post-Civil War Mississippi of the 1890s. It is a place where the law is part-time, where more prominent townsfolk don several hats, and old animosities burble under the surface of social interactions. Abner Snopes is a wounded veteran, albeit more of the freebooting kind (it is noted that he is “walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate provost’s man’s musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago”), who exists at the outskirts of “polite” society. In this description, the smell description shifts suddenly from the cheese and fish to “the other constant one,” the emotionally-charged “smell” that denotes anger, fear, and hatred. It is an effective introduction to “Barn Burning” because from here Faulkner goes into the details of how Abner Snopes is viewed by the JP and the townsfolk, namely in the derisive “Barn burner!” that is yelled at him after he leaves the court and, at the “suggestion” of the JP, leaves Yoknapatawpha County, or at least the town of Jefferson.
Seen through the young (likely a preteen) eyes of Sarty (he is named after the legendary Colonel Sartoris, a figure who figures prominently in several of Faulkner’s fictions, as seen earlier with “A Rose for Emily”), the events of “Barn Burning” take on the vague sense of social ostracism and an almost cruel sense of family bonding, as seen here:
“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?” Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there.
Social standing was a major component of Southern society during not just the 1890s setting but also into the late 20th century. Families were the key unit and if one of them “went bad,” others related to them were suspected of having contracted this social malady. The Snopes were hounded for Abner’s previous horsestealing ways, wandering from poor homestead to another, often being persecuted by their neighbors for real and perceived wrongs. After a dozen such moves during Sarty’s lifetime, the family has come to the de Spain plantation, by far the most palatial of plantations for which the Snopes had sharecropped. Sarty is so taken in by the grandeur of the place (contrasted with his father’s sneering remarks about how “nigger sweat” had whitened the walls of the plantation house) that he thinks, in relation to his father’s propensity for pyromania:
They are safe from him. People whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are beyond his touch, he no more to them than a buzzing wasp: capable of stinging for a little moment but that’s all; the spell of this peace and dignity rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive…
These words are ironic in context of the latter half of the story. After a simple but callous faux pas (the tracking of horse dung across an expensive blond rug in the house) is compounded by the permanent stain caused by the use of harsh lye soap by the Snopes in an attempt to rectify this mistake, the father is left burdened with the cost of an extra ten bushels of corn to pay for the damages. Irate and feeling threatened, his threat to burn down the barn, compounded with Major de Spain’s tracking him down after Sarty warns him of his father’s intent, serves as a culmination of the bitterness and hatred on the part of Abner Snopes and the derision and contempt that the local gentry and townspeople have for Snopes that goes far beyond the immediate events of the story. It is a clash of wills and conceptions of how the world should be. It ends, inconclusively, in violence.
When I first read “Barn Burning” in college, I did not understand the story in full. Yes, the bitterness and hatred were readily detectable, but I did not grasp the technical aspects of Faulkner’s storytelling. He deftly uses dialogue and brief touches of stream of consciousness narrative to portray a mosaic image of this little snapshot of post-Civil War Mississippi a generation after the War Between the States had concluded. We “smell,” similar to what Sarty did in the opening paragraph, the fear, hatred, and contempt that oozes out of these characters. We get a vivid picture of the Snopes family’s vagabond ways and the burdens that family ties put upon someone who feared his father’s temper and wickedness. In hindsight, it was inevitable that violence would occur, yet the pettiness of the events that led up to this make the unfolding narrative a fascinating, almost compelling read. Unlike the previous stories discussed here, “Barn Burning” has as its primary point of view character a young boy, one who barely understands what is happening, yet knows something is wrong, both with his father and with the world in which he operates. It’s his voice that makes the action of “Barn Burning” memorable and through him we see the complexities of the events in a way that belies his youth. “Barn Burning” is a great “slice of life” story that contains deft characterizations and a vividly-drawn setting, making it a true delight to re-read after the span of several years.
January 25th, 2012 § § permalink
For hundreds of years, the Biblical story of Moses has resonated with the African-American community. An abandoned son, born of a downtrodden and despised people, raised among the ruling class, before he is called by God to save his people and to lead them out of the land of slavery to the promised land flowing with milk and honey – there are so many parallels to American slavery that tellings and retellings of the Exodus tale quickly became a staple of African-American sermons. In some quarters, particularly those who practice syncretic religious practices such as voodoo (also called vodun and hoodoo), Moses has been elevated to a status similar to that reserved for Jesus and the Virgin Mary. For some, Moses knew the mind of God and he utilized ten words taught by God to launch the plagues that infested Egypt, not to mention the ability to part the Red Sea and to make water flow from a desert rock.
Zora Neale Hurston, building upon the information she recorded in her 1935 non-fiction book, Mules and Men, utilizes these alternate views of the biblical Moses in Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). Those who are familiar with the biblical story will know the main events (Moses raised among the Egyptians, his flight to Midian, his return, the plagues, the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, and the forty years of wandering in the desert), yet Hurston recasts each of these events to fit in with how certain African-American communities, particularly those in the New Orleans area, interpreted Moses and the Exodus. Take for instance the scene at the Burning Bush:
The voice came again.
“Moses, I want you to go down into Egypt.”
“Into Egypt? How come, Lord? Egypt is no place for me to go.”
“I said Egypt, Moses. I heard my people, the Hebrews, when they cried, when they kept on groaning to me to help. I want you to go down and tell that Pharaoh I say to let my people go.”
“He won’t pay me no attention, Lord. I know he won’t.”
“Go ahead, like I told you, Moses. I am tired of hearing the groaning in my ear. I mean to overcome Pharaoh this time. Go on down there and I”ll go with you.” …
The Voice was hushed. The bush no longer burned. In fact, it looked just like it had yesterday and the day before and the day before that. The mountain was just as usual with the wind yelling “Whoo-youuu” against its rocky knots.
This passage alters slightly but in a key way the biblical version, which goes:
But the Lord said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. So indeed the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come, now! I will send you to Pharoah to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.
The tone is more plain-spoken, less grandiose. God is not commanding Moses as much as he is saying, “Hey, pal. I need you to do this for me. I’ll help, but you’ll be the face of my divine intervention.” There is also a pleading element to this piece that is not present in the biblical version. Hurston’s Moses is not as much of an abject servant here as he is a junior partner in a story of liberation. This passage is representative of the novel as a whole, as Moses is seen to be more the leader and God the patron that supplies (and occasionally chastises) his client with divine aid. Take for instance the plague of flies:
Next day at the palace Moses told Pharaoh, “The Lord told me to tell you He said, ‘Let my people go.'”
Pharaoh said, “We here in Egypt have known gods for thousands of years. I can’t see why I should pay this new voice you talk about any mind at all. Who is He anyhow?”
“Why should I lose time talking to deaf ears?” Moses retorted. “The question before the house is will you let the Israelites go?”
“Well, it’s mighty bad news for you, because if you don’t, you’re going to be plagued with flies.”
With no more talk than that Moses lifted his rod with his right hand and flies seemed to pour out of the sleeves of his garments. The hum from their wings filled the room. The number of them darkened the rooms and Pharaoh and priests fought to flee the place. But it was no better outside. The city of the Pharaohs was smothered with flies. Moses changed his rod to his left hand and walked on out of the palace. All around him and Aaron was a space free from flies. So they went on back to Goshen and the people heard about it and hoped.
Earlier, Moses had been shown to have an ability to master matter, especially animate beings such as insects and frogs, long before God spoke to him on Mount Sinai. Here, Moses isn’t as much acting as a conduit for God as he is using his own innate powers to perform “hoodoo” in a similar fashion (albeit on a much vaster scale) to how vodun was practiced in New Orleans or Haiti (both places Hurston had conducted anthropological fieldwork a few years prior to writing Moses, Man of the Mountain). Moses as a hoodoo-practicing vodun priest can jar readers whose expectations arise from their familiarity with the biblical account. Yet despite these occasional dissonances between reader expectation and narrative account, Hurston’s Moses (and the other characters, especially Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua) feel vibrant in places.
Yet despite Hurston’s attempt to faithfully reproduce the syncretic religious view of Moses, Moses, Man of the Mountain feels a bit flat and underdeveloped. Although she tries to replicate southern African-American views, there are times where Moses seems to lack that vitality and fire in his belly that is often presented in other African-American literature and religious sermons. There also seems to be a bit of hedging between presenting a full vodun-influenced account of Moses and keeping some of the more traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations of him. Hurston’s Moses straddles the line between a trickster magician and a powerful leader and at times his character feels diminished by her use of idiomatic expression to convey this interpretation of Moses and the Exodus. Despite this, however, Moses, Man of the Mountain is at times fascinating to read because of the sense that what is being read is a metaphor for a very complex set of religious and social beliefs that are alien to those of a different social group and generation. There is the sense that much lies under the surface, waiting to be discovered if only the reader can understand the embedded narrative code. That is what makes Moses, Man of the Mountain, despite its narrative and character flaws, a worthwhile read for those who want to see in novel form how religious beliefs and practices in certain African-American communities differed from surrounding communities.
January 23rd, 2012 § § permalink
In last week’s post, I analyzed some of the reasons why J.R.R. Tolkien’s recently-revealed nomination for the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature was shot down by committee members. This week, the focus shifts to British novelist E.M. Forster, who was most well-known for the following novels at the time of his nomination: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room With a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924). Whereas Tolkien was relatively little-known globally in 1961, Forster’s fame had passed its zenith almost four decades before. In reading four of these novels (excluding The Longest Journey), I found it difficult to disagree with the committee’s assessment of him as being “a shadow of his former self,” as these mostly Edwardian era stories almost certainly had to feel like living fossils during the most heated part of the Cold War and the decolonization movements of the 1940s-1960s.
Noting this does not diminish what Forster accomplished in these novels; it merely acknowledges that in judging his body of work in context of Nobel’s provision for literary awards for works of “an ideal direction,” Forster’s work in 1961 would feel out of touch with the then-current times. His treatment of relationships feels rather quaint and outmoded a century after most of his works were compiled and even fifty-one years ago, such sentiments had gone out of vogue. Yet when one examines the heart of his most famous works, it is easy to find much that is a pleasure to read, whether one reads for the sparkling prose or for the deft characterizations.
When it was written in 1905, Where Angels Fear to Tread likely provoked some strong reaction in England, as at its heart was a strong, independent woman, the widow Lilia, who during her travel to Italy falls in love with Gino, with whom she falls in love and marries against her former in-laws’ wishes. This short novel, barely 150 pages in print, is a masterful character piece, starring Lilia’s traveling companion, Caroline, and her in-law, Philip, who unsuccessfully tries to prevent Lilia’s marriage to Gino, before the main action of the novel’s second part occurs. Yet the prose feels odd here, particularly near the end of the novel, when this declaration by Caroline to Philip takes place:
“”You’ve upset me.” She stifled something that was perilously near hysterics. ” I thought I was past all this. You’re taking it wrongly. I’m in love with Gino – don’t pass it off – I mean it crudely – you know what I mean. So laugh at me.”
“Laugh at love?” asked Philip.
“Yes. Pull it to pieces. Tell me I’m a fool or worse – that he’s a cad. Say all you said when Lilia fell in love with im. That’s the help I want. I dare tell you this because I like you – and because you’re without passion; you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful. So I can trust you to cure me. Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny?” She tried to laugh herself, but became frightened and had to stop. “He’s not a gentleman, nor a Christian, nor good in any way. He’s never flattered me nor honoured me. But because he’s handsome, that’s been enough. The son of an Italian dentist, with a pretty face.” She repeated the phrase as if it was a charm against passion. “Oh, Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny!” Then, to his relief, she began to cry. “I love him, and I’m not ashamed of it. I love him, and I’m going to Sawston, and if I mayn’t speak about him to you sometimes, I shall die.”
In that terrible discovery Philip managed to think not of himself but of her. He did not lament. He did not even speak to her kindly, for he saw that she could not stand it. A flippant reply was what she asked and needed – something flippant and a little cynical. And indeed it was the only reply he could trust himself to make.
“Perhaps it is what the books call ‘a passing fancy’?”
When read in context of the novel, Forster captures almost perfectly the tensions and self-denials of these two and their friends and families. We sense the quivering, wavering resolution behind Caroline’s declaration of love and the situational irony of her address to Philip, who has begun to love her. The niceties of polite conversation are shown here to be deceptions that have to be stripped away before honest, frank emotions can be exchanged between the two. It is well-done – for a time that had already passed within twenty years of its initial publication.
A Room With a View revisits the Italian location and Forster’s examination of Edwardian English society and its social conventions. It builds upon Where Angels Fear to Tread‘s exploration of love amidst filial and class obligations and gender expectations. Below is a telling passage, where one of the major characters, Lucy, muses on “unladylike” things:
Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram. This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.
This passage goes right to the heart of the hypocrisies of Edwardian English social conventions (remnants of which persist even today). This easily could have been a passage from a suffragette pamphlet of the times. Yet despite the now-antiquated setting (hard to imagine groups of gallivanting sirs and ladies traipsing in groups to Italy for an “exotic” tour, lest one considers the recent season of Jersey Shore to be the 21st century equivalent), this is one of the few themes in Forster’s work, that of the oppressed/repressed needing to have their own voices considered on their own merits, that feels just as vital today as when it was published. Perhaps it is for scenes such as this and later on in A Passage to India that Forster was nominated in 1961, as there’s a strong social statement made fifty years prior that still needed to be heard over a half-century after this novel’s initial publication.
Howards End takes a much more direct approach to the issue of class conflict. Forster uses verbal irony in several places to skewer contemporary beliefs regarding the poor and the working class, such as the beginning paragraph to Chapter VI:
WE are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.
Through this ironic use of “WE,” we the readers now have to react to what is being said. Who speaks for “WE?” Surely not the gentlefolk who then, as today, so often ignore the teeming masses that support their consumptive lifestyles. Forster uses this to set up the main conflicts in the novel in a way that the reader acutely experiences the frustrations, repressions, and conflicts that beset English society during this gilded age before the outbreak of World War I. Although many of the conflicts are in the past today, several of the then-prevalent social prejudices still eek out an existence even today (which can be readily seen in some of the debates and commentaries by certain American and British politicians, among others of their ilk).
Forster’s most well-known novel, A Passage to India, also explores the dichotomies of social conflicts. Here, instead of the issue being between the upper and lower classes of English society, the main conflict is between the English administrators of India and the natives. After a misunderstanding occurs that leads to a prominent Indian Muslim, Dr. Aziz, being accused of “insulting a lady’s honor” (presumably, in less chaste terms a sexual assault was attempted), the story proceeds to explore the dynamics of British rule and how the subjugated Indians, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, are treated as children by their English overlords. Of the four novels that I read, A Passage to India resonated the most with me, for its keen treatment of racial prejudices and how it was the so-called “progressives” that tended to be the worst offenders.
As a novelist, Forster wrote superb novels where the characters were well-rounded and dynamic, with evocative prose. Yet at the time that he was being considered for the 1961 Nobel, his days as a novelist were well in the past. The issues that he explored so deftly had already been transformed in the intervening four decades. Bra burning, the Equal Rights Amendment in the US, and the Summer of Love were much closer to 1961 than were Forster’s novels and this likely prejudiced the committee’s viewpoint. If Forster had been selected in the 1920s or 1930s, his work likely would have been hailed as representing a sea-change in attitudes toward gender and class relations. But in 1961? The world had changed and a novel about British imperialist attitudes fourteen years after a now-divided India gained its independence would seem hopelessly out of date with the fast-changing times. In this context, it is not surprising that Forster was rejected for his age and his lack of recent output, but conversely, it could also be noted that he would have been a more than deserving winner if he had been selected two or three decades before.
January 20th, 2012 § § permalink
Despite the latter praise novels such as The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), it wasn’t until Sanctuary (1931) was published that William Faulkner began to receive the commercial attention that he desperately sought. Although much was made of Faulkner’s later claim that he wrote Sanctuary solely to achieve commercial attention, this novel contains several layers to it that make it as much of a sensational read in 2012 as it was upon its initial publication over eighty years before. What is noticeable, however, is that Sanctuary does not rely upon experimental narrative techniques in crafting a complex weave of human fears, doubts, violence, and hypocrisy that brings into focus the concept of what might constitute “sanctuary.”
Sanctuary opens with a Memphis-area lawyer, Horace Benbow, fleeing a troubled marriage and career to return to his native Jefferson, Mississippi (the fictional locale of most of Faulkner’s stories). He stops at a watering hole, where he is confronted by the ne’er-do-well, Popeye, who is protecting a house run by a local bootlegger, Lee Goodwin. As Popeye consults with a woman sheltered there, Ruby Lamar, several skeins in the overall narrative thread are woven together for the first time:
“He came here?”
“I found him at the spring.”
“Was he trying to find this house?”
“I dont know,” Popeye said. “I never thought to ask.” The woman was still looking at him. “I’ll send him on to Jefferson on the truck,” Popeye said. “He said he wants to go there.”
“Why tell me about it?” the woman said.
“You cook. He’ll want to eat.”
“Yes,” the woman said. She turned back to the stove. “I cook. I cook for crimps and spungs and feebs. Yes. I cook.”
In the door Popeye watched her, the cigarette curling across his face. His hands were in his pockets. “You can quit. I’ll take you back to Memphis Sunday. You can go to hustling again.” He watched her back. “You’re getting fat here. Laying off in the country. I wont tell them on Manuel street.”
The woman turned, the fork in her hand. “You bastard,” she said.
“Sure,” Popeye said. “I wont tell them that Ruby Lamar is down in the country, wearing a pair of Lee Goodwin’s throwed-away shoes, chopping her own firewood. No. I’ll tell them Lee Goodwin is big rich.”
Several key events are foreshadowed here. Here we are introduced to Ruby, who appears to have been a prostitute working in a Memphis criminal district. We see her staying at Lee Goodwin’s place as a sanctuary from the “hustling” that she previously had to do. Popeye apparently has connections to these same Memphis criminal elements, which is made even more explicit in the novel’s second half. Goodwin’s place is another place of sanctuary, this time one for the runners and bootleggers who are evading Prohibition laws. All this while Benbow, who comes to represent a sort of legality and morality in the midst of corruption, remains outside this room, shut off from his initial attempt to find his own personal sanctuary.
Faulkner quickly introduces the other key players in this human drama: Tommy, the near-idiotic worker at Goodwin’s place; Lee Goodwin himself, whose character is much more complex than what might be suspected from a bootlegger who employs some local toughs to protect his illegal business; Narcissa Benbow Sartoris; Horace’s widowed sister with whom he stays upon his arrival in Jefferson; Gowan Stevens, a vainglorious self-labeled “gentleman” whose belligerent drinking lands him and others in trouble; and Temple Drake, daughter of the local judge and an Ole Miss student whose story becomes a crucial part of the story.
Each major character has their own idealized “sanctuary” to which they retreat when conditions become too rough for them. Besides the already-mentioned ones, we have Narcissa retreating into a cocoon of social standing (in some regards, she is similar in attitude to Emily from “A Rose for Emily”); Gowan using his University of Virginia education as a crutch to excuse his rampant alcoholism and ultimate cowardice; and Temple, whose name hearkens to a concept of purity and chastity, both of which are belied by later events. She is sheltered, first by her father and then by her social standing, and it is the stripping away of her own sanctuary that makes Sanctuary such a fascinating and unsettling read.
Sanctuary received a lot of attention upon its release for its depiction of violence and rape. Faulkner does not skimp on showing how violence can result from individuals who either willingly choose to remove themselves from the dominant social structure or those who are forced out of that own sort of social sanctuary. Popeye menaces others throughout the novel (near the novel’s end, we learn why he was rejected by society at a young age). The quoted scene above hints at his connections to a criminal underworld vaster than just running moonshine during Prohibition. He threatens Goodwin and Ruby, he leers at many women, he seems to have some sort of authority over the operator of a Memphis brothel. We see two murders that he commits, each of which affect Temple. Popeye is not just lacking a sanctuary, he is the destroyer of the illusions that others have about their own safe places.
Temple is the antithesis, at least at first, of Popeye. She enjoys a good, sheltered life, yet she is constrained by this. Her reputation for “loose morals,” however, is a problematic theme in this novel. Although Faulkner never states directly (nor is it definitely implied) that Temple “deserved” what happened to her, there certainly are some interpretations of the novel that could support this assertion. Those interpretations would take the readiness in which she hooks up with first Gowen and then later with a small-time gangster nicknamed “Red” and the seeming willingness she has to have sex with Red. Yet I cannot help but think that Faulkner’s “fade to black” description of her rape was not intended to be a condemnation of Temple’s character as much as it appears to be a symbol of the ripping away of innocence and security in the harshest, most vivid way possible (the way in which she was raped, described only by a brief forensics admission in a late court scene). In this light, Temple’s later actions are not meant to trivialize the horrific scene, but perhaps are best examined as a plausible attempt of a violated person to recreate a sense of sanctuary by any means necessary, even if it means violating previously-held social conceptions of honor, justice, and honesty.
These two characters, Popeye and Temple, lie at the heart of Sanctuary. Popeye is a destructive, violent force that obliterates others’ previously held assumptions. His assault on Temple and the subsequent acts that result from that horrific act serve as concrete metaphors for the dangers that lurk outside of personal conceptions of sanctuaries. Temple’s violation and the changes it wrought in her life serve as another example of how sanctuary removal can affect people and how they interact with the world. At first, her ultimate actions in the novel seem to be almost inexplicable, as she condemns the mostly innocent through perjury, yet when viewed in light of the other characters (minus Benbow, who serves to underscore the futility of honor and justice), her actions make a strong statement about the self-deceptions that people will do in order to preserve some sense of security in the world.
It is a troubling theme, one that convinced several readers at the time that Faulkner reveled in the sordid and violent acts of humanity, but yet there is another layer to this. One could argue that in showing humanity at its worst that Faulkner was doing more than just making a point about the futility of the characters’ belief. Yes, terrible things have happened and our delusions have been forcibly removed, but what next? That is an issue that Faulkner explored in several subsequent novels and stories, including his 1932 novel, Light in August. Here in Sanctuary, we see the horrors of existence in its full non-glory and with its devastating conclusion, Faulkner makes readers reassess their convictions in a way that may horrify but never titillate readers. Humans are funny, fallible creatures and here, we see the worst, whereas elsewhere Faulkner covers the other aspects. Eighty-one years after its initial release, Sanctuary still shines a powerful light on our views of life and security, making us blink and reconsider. Its power cannot be understated and when read in light of his other works, its almost unrelenting darkness serves to highlight the other aspects of life that he explores elsewhere. It is an essential, albeit unnerving, part of his authorial output and is a novel that readers ought to read if they think they have Faulkner “figured out” after reading a novel or two or some of his short fiction.
January 18th, 2012 § § permalink
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.
Zora Neale Hurston’s second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is widely considered to be her masterpiece. Building upon her folkloric approach to storytelling found in Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and her field work/memoir of life in her adopted hometown of Eatonville, Florida, Mules and Men (1935), Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful commentary on the belief systems of Southern African-Americans in the early 20th century, as well as a pointed commentary on the endemic sexism during this time period. Their Eyes Were Watching God generated a lot of controversy upon its release, as activists such as Richard Wright felt that the work was not radical enough in its condemnation of racism, while others felt that Hurston’s treatment of sexism weakened the novel. Due in large part to these protests, Their Eyes Were Watching God soon slid into a quiet obscurity, until Alice Walker began advocating for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to rediscover one of the finest American social commentators of the early 20th century.
Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life of Janie Crawford from a callow teen to a wiser, world-experienced woman who has battled through adversity and has overcome the pervasive sexist attitudes of her native society. Hurston begins the novel with the passage quoted above. Notice how eloquently she differentiates between male and female perspectives: Men with their hopes and dreams, continually dashed; women having to make their way through a minefield of memory and regret in order to realize what dreams they may. She explores these contrasting approaches to life through Janie’s encounters with men, such as this little scene from early in the novel:
“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on? – Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? – Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? – What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? – Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? – Thought she was going to marry? – Where he left her? – What he done wid all her money? – Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t so young she ain’t even got no hairs – why she don’t stay in her class? –”
When she got to where they were she turned her face on the bander log and spoke. They scrambled a noisy “good evenin'” and left their mouths setting open and their ears full of hope. Her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to her gate. The porch couldn’t talk for looking.
The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.
Hurston utilizes flashbacks to tell Janie’s story. When the story opens, we see Janie after her transformation into an assured woman. We experience through speech and description the Eatonville townfolk alternating between staring goggle-eyed at her and resenting her for flaunting traditional social customs by having her hair long and loose while wearing overalls. Hurston’s use of dialect is spot-on, as the reader can almost envision these townfolk sitting around a general store, gossiping and staring incredulously at Janie. When she describes Janie, we sense not how Janie views herself, but how the men and women of Eatonville view her presence: the “firm buttocks” and “her pugnacious breasts” serve to accentuate the objectification of Janie’s body by the men and the sensual challenge (in their minds, at least) of seeing a more direct hint of her body. For the women, Janie poses another problem: she is challenging their own roles by not accepting a subservient one to the men. Instead of the male fascination and dreaming about her body, these women are honing their minds to remember how they might best cut her down to size and to reduce her outlandish presence in their community.
This is one of several indelible moments that Hurston expertly crafts here. But how did Janie get to that point? Early on, as she reflects on her life, we come to meet the domineering husbands that she had, who before their deaths expected her to be their servant and to cater to their needs. We experience through her retelling of her life being raised by her grandmother the difficulties that she endured as she sought a love of equals, while discovering that the man her grandmother had chosen for her, Logan, was more concerned about his control of his domains, including “his woman,” than he was about placating Janie:
“If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside. Mah fust wife never bothered me ’bout choppin’ no wood nohow. She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man. You done been spoilt rotten.”
As Janie grows estranged from Logan and flees to her second paramour/husband, Joe the Eatonville town mayor, not much changes but how Janie is objectified. Instead of being Logan’s manure hauler and log splitter, she is now Joe’s chattel, placed there on earth to do his bidding in his own time. Through interior monologue and a few dialogue-laden scenes, we seen Joe’s attempts to crush Janie into submission. It is one of the harshest and most vivid misogynistic scenes in that period of American literature and even three-quarters of a century later, it is a powerful commentary on the casual and purposeful cruelties that many women, African American and white alike, experienced during this time period. But despite all of Joe’s attempts to subjugate her, Janie manages to resist and as he aged and became infirm, the much younger Janie begins to fight back against his imperious commands more often. Hurston uses biblical analogy to underscore this point when she writes:
Then Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood. Janie had robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible. The thing that Saul’s daughter had done to David. But Janie had done worse, she had cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed, would keep on laughing. When he paraded his possessions hereafter, they would not consider the two together. They’d look with envy at the things and pity the man that owned them. When he sat in judgment it would be the same. Good-for-nothing’s like Dave and Lum and Jim wouldn’t change place with him. For what can excuse a man in the eyes of other men for lack of strength? Raggedy-behind squirts of sixteen and seventeen would be giving him their merciless pity out of their eyes while their mouths said something humble. There was nothing to do in life anymore. Ambition was useless. And the cruel deceit of Janie! Making that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time! Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same. Joe Starks didn’t know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling. So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store.
Later, after Joe has died and Janie marries her final husband, “Tea Cakes” the traveling bluesman, we see a more complex portrayal of sexism. This time, it’s not the callous expectation of a woman to be a hired hand or the active suppression of her independence, but through their conversations and ultimately their later actions, Janie and her third husband come to blows, with Janie firing a fatal shot as she was being attacked and bitten by “Tea Cakes.” This scene, which has echoes to the opening scenes of her earlier novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in how a husband brutally attacks his wife, is the climatic scene of the novel. Here we see the final metamorphosis of Janie’s evolution from a teen who did what her “nanny” told her to do through her sullen and then direct resistance of her husbands to the awful need to defend herself from attack. Although self-defense and battered woman syndrome were not accepted in most cases those days, Hurston bravely paints a heroic picture of a woman who has fought against others trying to define her and who ultimately prevails. We see also the triumph of an argument presented earlier in the novel about nature versus nurture, as Janie’s actions demonstrate clearly to the reader the falsity of those claims that women were by nature inferior to men and thus deserved to be subservient to them. As the story comes full circle and Janie returns to Eatonville, which she had left after Joe’s death, we see that she has learned what to remember and how to forget and that her dreams are under her control. It is also in these final scenes that the novel’s title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, becomes lucid for readers. Sometimes, the dead are witnesses for the life and through their mute testimony, all eyes come to see the mystery of God in our lives. Their Eyes Were Watching God lingers in memory, male and female alike, because the revelations and examinations of our beliefs are not restricted to one locale or ethnic group, but instead they act as witnesses to what we aim to become and what we are. It truly is a towering masterpiece in American literature, one whose appreciation will continue hopefully for generations to come.
January 16th, 2012 § § permalink
Back on January 5, The Guardian posted an article highlighting the previously-unreleased commentaries regarding works considered for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. Although it is fair to say that the article slants the coverage of the notes of one of that year’s judges, Anders Österling, especially in regards to the somewhat surprising inclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien on the list, this column received quite a bit of discussion in divers corners over the past week and a half. Some have questioned the validity of Österling’s comments on E.M. Forster and Robert Frost, which referred to their advanced age (both died within a decade of the 1961 prize being awarded to Ivo Andrić), while others have speculated that in the case of Tolkien somehow “genre bias” was involved.
Since the list of eight novelists that were mentioned in the article are fairly well-known (to the above mentioned four, Graham Greene, the eventual runner-up; Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonymn of Isaak Dinesan, finished third; and Italian writer Alberto Moravia) to many readers, over the next several weeks (mostly on Saturdays or Sundays), there will be columns devoted to discussing these seven writers and how their writings compare to previous Nobel winners and to the criteria set forth in Alfred Nobel’s will:
“The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”
Since the criteria for being selected to be a Nobel laureate in Literature are not similar to a “year’s best,” in that the committee is charged to consider the author’s full work and not just a singular work, not to mention the above-quoted part on “most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” the works considered generally possess a high degree of craftsmanship (in the three genres of poetry, drama, and prose) and have something to contribute to the global “conversation” regarding the human condition(s). When considered through this evaluative lens, several works that have enjoyed widespread popularity over the years are going to be dismissed due to some combination of their writing and/or the lack of “an ideal direction.”
This seems to be the case with J.R.R. Tolkien. Out of the seven mentioned for consideration, his is the most intriguing. If one dismisses the probable bias of his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis (who, after all, was privy to Tolkien’s development of the Middle-Earth mythos for most of the 1930s-1950s period) and accepts his work as a serious candidate for the award, then what should one make of his work in light of the criteria mentioned above? Does one agree with Österling’s assertion that Tolkien’s prose “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality?” Or were there other factors at play when his work was rejected in 1961?
In evaluating Tolkien’s candidacy, one has to strip away all memories and associations with his posthumous works and legacy. There is no “Tolkien as the founder of modern epic fantasy” to be considered here; after all, in 1961 he did not enjoy a huge international reputation, although a few translations of his work were beginning to be published then. Nor was he associated in public or academic opinion with a particular genre, since there were no marketing spheres then labeled “fantasy.” If anything, one will have to consider Professor Tolkien as the translator of some Midlands lays from a non-London Middle English dialect who created some quaint tales that were then compared to the works of the 19th century socialist William Morris and early 20th century academic/writer E.R. Eddison.
If evaluated in light of Morris’ lush The Well at the World’s End, which utilizes archaic speech to create an atmospheric effect of loss and desire, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would doubtless appear to be wooden and turgid in comparison. Consider the early parts of The Fellowship of the Ring, namely the part where Frodo discusses the Black Riders with the elf Gildor:
‘I am deeply grateful,’ said Frodo; ‘but I wish you would tell me plainly what the Black Riders are. If I take your advice I may not see Gandalf for a long while, and I ought to know what is the danger that pursues me.’
‘Is it not enough to know that they are servants of the Enemy?’ answered Gildor. ‘Flee them! Speak no words to them! They are deadly. Ask no more of me! But my heart forbodes that, ere all is ended, you, Frodo son of Drogo, will know more of these fell things than Gildor Inglorion. May Elbereth protect you!’
There is a narrative dissonance here, between the plain hobbit speech of Frodo (despite being educated and well-versed in at least the basics of the Elvish tongues) and the elevated diction of Gildor. Although Tolkien notes that this effect was intentional, what it also does in certain other occasions, namely in the fighting in the halls of Moria is to create dialogue that sounds odd, if not ridiculous, to the ears of those who are equally familiar with epic poetry of the classical and medieval eras as well as with more modern prose:
‘One for the Shire!’ cried Aragorn. ‘The hobbit’s bite is deep! You have a good blade, Frodo son of Drogo!’
The problem here is that Tolkien is trying to adapt the structure of an early medieval saga to the novel genre. Although there are cases in his writing (although very rare in his pre-1961 original fiction) where Tolkien manages to achieve a striking literary effect through the use of alliteration and judicious repetition of patronymic phrases, often, as in the case above, the desired effect is not achieved. Those familiar with the “source material” possibly could be left feeling as though Tolkien had struck a flat note, as the dialogue feels off and somewhat anachronistic, especially when the lower speech of the hobbits clash with those of the knights and elves. In addition, Tolkien is handicapped by his need to introduce elements of his invented setting into the narrative. Although certainly this is appealing to readers who are familiar with the existence of The Silmarillion, in 1961, the overall effect was, for several readers at least, the sense that the importance of the narrative was being continually interrupted by those other creations. As a member of the Inklings society, of which Tolkien was a member, was reported to say, “Oh God, not another fucking elf!”, so might several contemporary readers have reacted to another poem fragment about Eärendil or Elbereth with an eye roll or a despairing thought about another intrusion into the narrative. Today, such elements are (sometimes pejoratively) referred to as “infodumps”; for others then, they were considered to be asides that weakened the focus on the narrative.
Therefore, when strictly considered on the prose level, Tolkien’s writing plausibly can be seen as not being at the same level of the others considered in 1961. As will be seen later when I cover their works, there is not the same degree of focus on the narrative, on the characterizations, or on thematic issues, all of which are essential items usually considered by the Nobel committee. Tolkien in 1961 had not “founded” anything; he was a respected academic who contributed heavily to the understanding of the poems and songs of the Midlands during the Anglo-Saxon through the Plantagenet eras, but his fiction was more of a curiosity than a key contributor to global belles-lettres. Although Österling’s criticism in the abstract sounds rather harsh to those familiar with Tolkien’s writings in 2012, in 1961 it certainly is a justifiable commentary on his work in comparison to not just the others, but also in how well he was adapt to adapt the mechanics of saga storytelling to the novel mode. Although short shrift has been given here to comparing Tolkien’s writing to the provision spelled out in Nobel’s will regarding works of “an ideal direction,” it should suffice to say that a work that was considered to be an interesting yet flawed exploration of mapping out a fictional equivalent to a national English mythology was not going to be considered in the same light as those other works who spoke of more contemporary and less mythical social concerns. Tolkien’s work is undoubtedly influential nearly 40 years after his death, but it would be a disservice to what he did accomplish to claim that his work would fit in well with those who were awarded Nobel prizes in Literature because his prose is not as polished nor are the thematic issues of his pre-1961 works a natural fit with the prize’s legacy. If it had to be placed among the seven, it likely would rank at or very near the bottom due to the reasons mentioned above. This may be a harsh assessment, but in light of the others considered in that year, it is the fairest.
January 13th, 2012 § § permalink
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant – a combined gardener and cook – had seen in at least ten years. (p. 119)
Out of all of his fabulous novels and short stories, William Faulkner’s 1931 short story, “A Rose for Emily,” has long been a personal favorite. In only a few thousand words, Faulkner creates a multilayered tale that works as a personal tragedy, an allegory, and a pointed social commentary, among other things. It is a story that I’ve re-read on a few occasions since the time I was first introduced to it in a freshman English Composition class back in 1992 and each time, new elements come to the fore of my thoughts on “A Rose for Emily.”
Take for instance the opening paragraph. We see, through the perspective of the third-person narrator, the combination of duty and morbid curiosity of the townspeople of the fictional Jefferson, Mississippi (the final resting place of Addie Bunchen from As I Lay Dying, also published in 1930) regarding the death of that “fallen monument.” This description of Miss Emily evokes images of grandeur fated to decay. In the five sections of this tale, decay looms prominently:
“…only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps…” (p. 119)
“When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray.” (p. 120)
“And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering Negro man to wait on her.” (p. 128)
Yet there is more than just the tragic fall of Miss Emily into decayed disrepair. Faulkner’s mixture of the literary past and present accentuates a larger change that is taking place in Jefferson that has largely bypassed Miss Emily’s mostly-shuttered relic of a home. A new generation is emerging in the 1930s, one that has no first-hand recollection of the horrors of the Civil War and its traumatic aftermath. The complexities of a Colonel Sartoris, who is referenced in a single sentence as being a courtly gentleman who remits Miss Emily’s city taxes in perpetuity while, as Mayor, creating an anti-black ordinance that serves as a reminder of the Jim Crow era, and his era are slowly giving way to a different generational outlook. There are a few fleeting references to how that “monument,” Miss Emily, has had to battle city leaders who seek to revoke the Colonel’s roundabout way of “providing charity” to the nearly indigent scion of an old Southern family. This connects with other references to social mores and the ways that the neighborhood around Miss Emily’s home is changing. Decay is much more than a person or home mouldering into dust.
“A Rose for Emily” is littered with foreshadowings of the final event. From the purchase of arsenic, “for rats,” to the spreading of lime to the drastic changes in Miss Emily’s figure, nearly every paragraph contains portents for what follows after. The narrative suspense developed from each of these little clues actually improves upon a re-read, as much of the joy derived from the story comes from seeing how adroitly Faulkner weaves these references to Miss Emily’s past and present, overlain with commentary on the townspeople and their myriad responses to the events surrounding Miss Emily and her later seclusion, into a narrative tapestry that is a delight to read and re-read.
Furthermore, the two most powerful “voices” in this novel never “speak” from a point of view perspective. Miss Emily we come to know through her curt politeness to the city leaders, but beyond that and the recollections offered by the narrator, tinged with innuendo as those are, we never see her in action, yet by the story’s end, when the tragedy of her life is revealed, her life, or rather, her descent into animated decay, has come to dominate the story. Yet over this looms another, more hidden figure, that of her father. His control of Miss Emily is only hinted at in a couple of places, yet the insidiousness of it permeates the action of the story. Faulkner’s use of allusion in regard to Miss Emily’s father (and apparently, his own role as another symbol of the fading post-war generation) tinges “A Rose for Emily” with an allegorical quality (one that Faulkner once noted was the origin for the “rose” in the story’s title; even the most destitute deserve that “rose” of respect).
Each of the elements discussed above combine to create an absorbing read that rewards the reader who pauses and reflects upon each sentence, as there is so much occurring under the surface of the narrative. Miss Emily is a fascinating character and the background townspeople serve to underscore the divisions and social changes that are taking place around the core tragedy of this story. When compared to As I Lay Dying, “A Rose for Emily” is not as experimental, as we see no use of stream of consciousness or multiple point of view narrators, yet it complements well that novel’s exploration of duty in the face of near-farcical happenstance, not to mention that like Addie, Emily here is defined as much in how she dies as in how she lived. Before re-reading both stories, this connection was not readily apparent, but upon further consideration, it could be argued that what drives both of these 1930 Faulkner tales is a sense of absence. Addie is departing and yet in dying she relentless drives the family that she mostly resents toward a discovery of life that they might not otherwise have made. Emily has long departed life before she breathes her final breath, yet despite the absence of a direct point of view of hers, her unspoken “voice” dominates the story. Taken together, As I Lay Dying and “A Rose for Emily” complement each other and showcase Faulkner’s burgeoning talent to depict setting and its effects on character (and vice versa) in an honest and moving fashion.
January 11th, 2012 § § permalink
Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most remarkable writers of the 20th century. She met and mingled with various writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, yet her fictions, mostly set in the Deep South of Alabama and Florida, do not fit well with the themes and locales frequently associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was one of the earliest female cultural anthropologists, doing extensive work with the Boazes in the 1920s and 1930s, yet until recently her field anthropological work was mostly unknown to latter generations. She did some of the heavy lifting for Alan Lomax when he made his famous field recordings for the Library of America of African American singers in the South, yet her name is rarely attached to this paramount collection of traditional folk songs. Today, Hurston is primarily known for her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), yet when she died in poverty in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked, segregated grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Yet despite all this, Hurston’s work contains a vibrancy and verisimilitude that eloquently and powerfully captures the voices of a people whose vivid tales of love, life, betrayal, loss, fortitude, and redemption were so often ignored or dismissed by the surrounding white population.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) is at its heart a contemporary Biblical tale centered around an early 20th century African-American minister, John, his wife Lucy, and their struggles to maintain their family and faith as John battles his temptations to sleep with other women. Stories of temptation, particularly those in which the protagonist succumbs to desire and lust, are very powerful and evocative, in large part because they speak to our own trials and tribulations. What makes us give in to temptation, if anything can “make us?” Are we active participants in our own dissolution, passive instruments of destruction, or something more nuanced that occupies a position that is neither fully active or passive? Hurston, through John, explores these elements in a way that fuses early 20th century African American religious and folk beliefs.
John’s upbringing lies at the crux of this conundrum regarding human agency in the light of temptation. He is the product of a white landowner sleeping with a black tenant at a time in which such offspring were often viewed with suspicion by both racial groups. Very early on in the story, Hurston establishes not just this distrust, but also the beliefs that spring from it:
“Shet dat door, John!” Ned bellowed, “you ain’t got the sense you wuz borned wid.”
Amy looked where her big son was looking. “Who dat comin’ heah, John?” she asked.
“Some white folks passin’ by, mama. Ahm jes’ lookin’ tuh see whar dey gwine.”
“Come out dat do’way and shet it tight, fool! Stand dere gazin’ dem white folks right in de face!” Ned gritted at him. “Yo’ brazen ways wid dese white folks is gwinter git you lynched one uh dese days.”
“Aw ’tain’t,” Amy differed impatiently, “who can’t look at ole Beasley? He ain’t no quality nohow.”
“Shet dat door, John!” screamed Ned.
“Ah wuzn’t de last one inside,” John said, sullenly.
“Don’t you gimme no word for word,” Ned screamed at him. “You jes’ do lak Ah say do and keep yo’ mouf shet or Ah’ll take uh trace chain tuh yuh. Yo’ mammy mought think youse uh lump un gold ’cause you got uh li’l’ white folks color in yo’ face, but Ah’ll stomp yo’ guts out and dat quick! Shet dat door!” (p. 4)
Ned, the paramour of John’s mother, Amy, frequently treats John with disdain due to his bastard birth, biracial heritage, and the benefits of education that he receives due to his situation. Yet behind this disdain, in scenes such as this, there lurk hints of a fear similar to that expressed in this passage. Hurston has a keen ear for dialect and belief, and throughout Jonah’s Gourd Vine she explores the dynamics of post-liberation African American society and the effects that segregation, the divergent beliefs of the educated and illiterate, and the conflict between the dominant Protestant strands of Christianity and the vestiges of traditional West African beliefs have on African Americans. These conflicts become even more apparent when John marries Lucy and they move to an all-black town in central Florida (based on Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston’s family moved when she was young), where John becomes a minister who finds himself torn between the call of the Spirit and the temptations of the flesh. Spiritus fortis, corpus debile. It is here where Hurston’s novel firmly roots its allusions to the biblical tale of Jonah and the gourd vine.
Unlike most stories where the temptation is either overcome or the character is destroyed by it, Hurston explores a middle path in which a mostly good person tries (and often fails) to do what is right, what is spiritual and just, despite (or even in some cases because of) his flaws. We see John try to refuse the calling of the Lord (in his attempts to move away from the ministry), we see him brought back time and time again (first by Lucy, and then later by others), and we see him struggle to understand the mercies of God despite the sins that he has committed and the weaknesses (the philandering, the attempts to cozy up to certain parishioners) to which he has succumbed repeatedly. Hurston slowly reveals these elements through dialogue between the various characters. The cadences of the characters’ speech serves to reinforce the internal conflicts that lie at the heart of Jonah’s Gourd Vine, such as the one on class/race consciousness expressed by a minister and some parishioners:
“And Ah say unto you, de Negro has got plenty tuh feel proud over. Ez fur back ez man kin go in his-to-ree, de black man wuz always in de lead. When Caesar stood on de Roman forum, uccordin’ tuh de best authority, uh black man stood beside him. Y’all say ‘Amen.’ Don’t let uh man preach hisself tuh death and y’all set dere lak un bump on uh log and won’t he’p ‘im out. Say ‘Amen’!!
“And fiftly, Je-sus, Christ, wuz uh colored man hisself and Ah kin prove it! When he lived it wuz hot lak summer time, all de time, wid de sun beamin’ down and scorchin’ hot – how could he be uh white man in all dat hot sun? Say ‘Amen’! Say it lak you mean it, and if yuh do mean it, tell me so! Don’t set dere and say nothin’!”
At the close of the service, many came forward and shook Cozy’s hand and Harris glowed with triumph. He was dry and thirsty for praise in connection with his find so he tackled Sisters Watson and Boger on the way home.
“How y’all lak de sermon tuhnight?”
“Sermon?” Sister Boger made an indecent sound with her lips, “dat wan’t no sermon. Dat wuz uh lecture.”
“Dat’s all whut it wuz,” Sister Watson agreed and switched on off.
Harris knew that he must find some other weapon to move the man who had taken his best side-girl from him. (p. 133-134)
This exchange is rooted in the attempts of the Deacon, Harris, to remove John from his role as minister. The planned replacement preaches a Gospel that today would be called Afro-centric: a black Christ, with Africans being much more influential in history than whites would have them believe. It is a tempting doctrine for the downtrodden and although this element is ancillary to the main conflict of John and his temptations, it is a strong secondary thematic thread that runs through Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Hurston certainly aimed at replicating the issues that interested Southern rural blacks and although at first glance this might not seem to be vital to the primary story, ultimately her attention to setting and local speech serves to supplement John’s morality tale, making it broader and more meaningful when placed in context of the times and locale.
There are few weaknesses in the novel’s structure. At times, Hurston appears to be too self-conscious of how her characters’ speech might not be understood well by those who did not live in the region, as she occasionally interrupted the narrative flow of the dialogue to have a character think or explain fully in more formal speech the colloquialisms that make this tale a fascinating read. Strong as Lucy is in the first half of the novel, her death feels a bit too contrived, especially when considered in light of John’s latter wives and paramours. Although she appears to be the metaphorical gourd vine that withers over the head of John’s Jonah-like character, the importance of this seems stinted based on developments later in the novel. Yet these weaknesses, not surprising in a first novel, hint at the prodigious talent Hurston had as a writer and as a recorder of folklore, as Jonah’s Gourd Vine provides a narrative template for Hurston’s most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of the masterpieces of 20th century American literature.
January 6th, 2012 § § permalink
Jewel stops at the spring and takes the gourd from the willow branch and drinks. I pass him and mount the path, beginning to hear Cash’s saw.
When I reach the top he has quit sawing. Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together. Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade: a good carpenter, Cash is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better, a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort. I go on to the house, followed by the
Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.
of the adze. (Darl, p. 4)
It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she’s got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It’s like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung. (Jewel, p. 11)
William Faulkner polarizes many readers these days. There are those who hear how brilliant his works are, yet are baffled by the experimental prose in several of his novels, notably his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, which I plan on covering late this year. Or maybe their first exposure is through his short fiction, such as “A Rose for Emily” (1930) or “Barn Burning” (1939) in a high school or university American literature anthology and they struggle to understand the techniques and motifs Faulkner employs, needing guidance from instructors who often use a checklist to denote what Faulkner is doing here or exploring there. I once was that 18 year-old university freshman who had to endure the instructor telling us what Faulkner was doing rather than being able to decide for myself what it was about his fiction that might appeal to me. I chose to devote the Fridays of 2012 to discussing Faulkner’s fiction, both novels and short stories alike, because despite being considered one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, relatively little is said about him in a non-academic setting. As I Lay Dying (1930) was chosen to lead off this commentary series because its structure, characters, and themes provide an excellent point of entry for those readers who have either never read Faulkner before or they found other works, possibly the ones listed above, to be incomprehensible or not what they expected.
As I Lay Dying was one of the first novels to utilize heavily a multiple point of view, stream of consciousness narrative approach. For readers accustomed to a primary narrative voice, this switching back and forth between 15 different narrators over 59 short chapters was a novelty unlike most anything they had read. This continual switching of narrators, however, is essential to making As I Lay Dying work as a narrative.
The story revolves around the death of Addie Bundren, the matriarch of a Mississippi farming family in the early 20th century who struggles to make a hardscrabble life. Addie is dying of a long-term ailment and she makes her family of four sons and one daughter and her husband to promise to bury her in the town of Jefferson, a few days’ horse travel away from their farm. Although this request, mysterious as it is to characters and readers alike at first (we soon learn the reasons behind this dying wish), is on the surface a straightforward plot (get Addie where she wants to rest for eternity), Faulkner’s use of multiple points of view, replete with their own passing thoughts and conjunctures, turns this novel into a tragi-comedy that reveals much about ourselves.
In the passages quoted above, we experience two of the Bundren children’s (the second son Darl and the third son Jewel) thoughts on what the third son, Cash, the eldest, is doing as he joins and sands the boards that will constitute their mother’s coffin. Darl’s slightly detached narrative is the one that is repeated most, as he is the one who is simultaneously closer to the other characters and most distant from their mother. His is the voice that grounds the narrative in the difficult, trying times where despite the toils and pains of subsistence farming, families there tried to honor the wishes of the deceased. We see through him the narrative equivalent of a cinematic pan-out, with his brothers’, sister’s, and father’s actions placed in a larger perspective.
Despite Darl receiving the most point of view chapters, the key passages in As I Lay Dying turn around the “close ups” of the other characters. As Addie is dying, we see the youngest son, Vardaman, a mere lad of around seven or eight, thinking of the fresh-caught fish that had just been gutted and skinned. His reaction to his mother’s death is the short but resonating observation, “My mother is a fish.” This observation, when combined with Darl’s earlier observation of Cash’s dedication to building the best coffin for their mother and Jewel’s irritation that Cash is doing so where Addie can hear (and if she is able to move, see) the coffin making, creates a memorable composite experience.
Faulkner easily could have settled for just making a strong statement on familial bonds, but in the second half of the novel, as the family is moving Addie’s body to Jefferson, we encounter more. Peering into thoughts of Addie’s husband, Anse, and their daughter Dewey Dell, we see ancillary concerns that help recast the events transpiring into something more universal than just a single family’s honoring of the dead’s request. It is here where the stream of consciousness, with Anse thinking of his desire to pick up some false teeth and Dewey Dell’s fretting about the pregnancy that she has not revealed to the other characters, that we see the petty concerns and desires of humans even when tragedy is unfolding around them. It would have been easy to condemn these characters (or the sons for their conflicted attitudes toward bearing their mother for days toward her grave site) for being self-centered, but Faulkner instead presents these as common, perhaps typical responses to such events. In doing so, the narrative opens up and as we experience a few key point of view chapters near the end of the novel, we begin to see that in letting us believe that one sort of tale was unfolding, Faulkner actually is telling a second composite narrative behind the first.
As I Lay Dying works because the characters construct a narrative that is deceptive in its simplicity. We are not “told” about the characters’ qualities, but instead through the views of others and then their own self-images, we begin to get a composite portrait of each character, including Addie, who is the heart of this tale. As I Lay Dying reveals a host of truths to readers, some of them comic in the classical sense of commedia, others more tragic, but what Faulkner accomplishes here is creating an epic tale in the space of barely 170 pages through a masterful manipulation of character perspective. Here he has refined the stream of consciousness approach that he utilized in his previous novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), and he makes it more “personal” and yet more universal through the seemingly simple decision to let the characters speak for themselves and through them allowing readers to take from the narrative what they may. The result of this is a brilliantly-constructed story where each character point of view joins tautly with one another to create a complex, composite narrative whose appeal ranges far beyond the early 20th century setting to move readers over eighty years later.