James Baldwin, “Going the Meet the Man” (1965)

The Library of America volume of James’ Baldwin’s fiction ends with his 1965 short story collection Going to Meet the Man.  A common theme in Baldwin’s work is the daily-lived experience of racism in 20th century America that goes beyond the legal discrimination of Jim Crow.  It is these experiences that were so central to the lives of Northern blacks like Baldwin, whose families escaped the more formal discrimination of the South. I hesitate to say it was worse as in Baldwin’s mind the urban racism he wanted to describe was no less debilitation, brutal, or (as in the case of police repression) institutionalized.

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All eight stories are fascinating and provide insights into American racism from different ages and points of view.  I was reminded of The Dubliners in the way Baldwin progressively orders these stories from young to old – starting with vibrancy, curiosity, and potential and ending with impotence.  Not all of his characters are black.  Notably, the lead figure in “Going to Meet the Man” is a white sheriff who is incapable of having sex with his wife without remembering an act of racial violence he witnessed.  In general, Baldwin is reminding us of how important society is in defining our individual potential – more of then not setting limits for us.  The trouble is that autonomy and escape from social institutions – even in urban areas (the place where such escape should be possible) – is simply not possible when your identity is imposed on you from the outside.

“The Rockpile” revisits the family of Go Tell It on the Mountain.  Here it is the father, Gabriel, who defines his son as an outsider.  When his natural son, Roy, in injured when fighting with other boys on a local rockpile, the stepson, John must carry the blame.  The central institution in “The Rockpile” is the family and to a lesser degree religion, since John’s mother so often resorts to religion to justify her husband’s actions or demand John obey his stepfather or suffer his ordeals (like a good Christian).

“The Outing” gives us the same character and setting.  This time they are engaged in a Christian outing on a boat.  It strikes us as a rather nice setting and it is nice to observe some of the more playful freedom of the boys, who are mostly interested in the outing as a chance to spend time with some of the neighborhood girls.  Religion, of course, saturates the air and we see the parents working hard to keep their children focused on the religious purpose of the outing.  This can work as a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire polemic against social institutions, that they try to confine our individual free expression.  The expectation of being saved is placed on the boys at the end.  The cost of the gathering of the community is their future commitment to its values.

“The Man Child” is about the violent brought out by class resentment.  We are presented with two friends, Jamie and Eric’s father.  Jamie is a drunk, unmarried (he “lost” his wife), and an economic failure.  Eric’s father has achieved everything his friend lacks, including having a son, Eric.  While the two men stated at the same point but diverged greatly.  In resentment, desperation, or loneliness Jamie kills Eric.  While the previous two tales suggest the oppressive power of social institutions like family and tradition, “The Man Child” reminds us how devastating it can be to not have those things.

“Previous Conditions” is a more straightforward account of how race functions in America.  The narrator is a poor actor.  He sums up his dilemma: “I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.” (816)  The story explores a series of slights he faces, including being kicked out of his apartment (he sublet from a white friend) because he was black.   He was taught as a child not to accept being called “nigger” but in his adulthood it has become part of the transcript of his life.  Despite his isolation the story ends with a simple act of kindness (innocently purchasing a round of beers for some women sitting next to him).  We also get a window into the mistrust and indifference of the urban setting.  “Anonymous, islanded people surrounded  me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes.  I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.)” (828)

“Sonny’s Blues” is a very powerful tale of a man who observes the fall of his younger brother into drugs after his decision to become a jazz musician.  After deciding to help his brother due to the death of his 2-year-old daughter we gain access to the narrator’s memories, particularly how he was charged with caring for his younger brother after the death of their father.  Sonny, the younger brother, is through all of this a more infantile character, relying on the care of others.  The narrator was scornful of Sonny’s choice to become a musician, even trying to believe that “musician” meant classical pianist.  When seeing the cleaned up Sonny perform at a bar, he learns how little he understood about Sonny’s powerful art, his renown, his talent, and how libertatory it was for him (even if that liberation was checked by drug use).  “It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament.  I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.  Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.  Yet, there was no battle in his face now.  I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.  He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy.” (863)  Music was a way to escape suffering and the burden of expectations (in this case also familial).

“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” takes us back to the expat community in Paris (see Giovanni’s Room and Another Country for more examples of Baldwin’s interest in Americans in Paris as a setting for his work.  Its central theme is the relative freedom from discrimination that African-Americans felt when they moved to Europe.  This is an old theme.  Even Frederick Douglass wrote on this in reference to his travels in England.  The jazz musician Sindey Bichet moved to Paris to escape racism as well (I recall this in my mind, but do not quote me).  Let’s listen to a bit.

Anyway, Baldwin has some beautiful and lively descriptions of Paris here.  “So here are American boys, anything but beardless, scratching around for Hemingway; American girls, titillating themselves with Frenchmen and existentialism, while waiting for the American boys to shave off their beards; French painters, busily pursuing the revolution which ended thirty years ago; and the young, bored, perverted, American arrivistes who are buying their way into the art world via flattery and liquor, and the production of canvases as arid as their greedy little faces.  Here are boys, of all nations, one step above the pimp.”  (892)

“Come Out the Wilderness” explores an interracial couple.  Ruth is a black woman working in an office and Paul is a white man and painter.  Ruth feels anxious about their relationship, her memories of her ex-boyfriend and Paul’s flakiness about the relationship.  She is convinced of the worse about him.  “He wanted to go.  He was not going to another woman.  He simply wanted to go.”  (909) The core of the story is her musings about her relationships, which tended to be defined by power, ownership, obligation, and service — in other words slavery.  Above and beyond the obvious issue of the legacy of slavery among black women and reality of masters raping enslaved women, should this be a tool to critique relationships more broadly.  Indeed, Ruth’s musings on slavery came when she thinks about her black ex-boyfriend not her current one who is just aloof.  This was in some ways a critique of the most radical voices in the sexual revolution – that relationships tend to be colonial and should be rethought from the ground up.

“Going to Meet the Man” is the last tale in this collection and is set entirely in a bedroom.  The plot consists of a impotent man finally achieving sexual arousal.  What gives this impotent white sheriff an erection is his recollections of the brutal lynching of a black man, which he saw as a boy under the direction of his father who insisted he witness the torture and death of another human being.  The last scene is no less horrifying.  His arousal, awakened by these memories, is tainted with racially-motivated violence.  (I will let you read it yourself.)  Baldwin’s generation not only experienced incredible racially-motivated violence during the context of the Civil Rights Movement and struggles against police violence, but older people had lasting memories of the early 20th century, when violence became one of the key tools to enforce Jim Crow.  Although this is a horrifying window in the mind of a white racist, we take away from Going to Meet the Man the lesson that the Jim Crow-era of racism was something that was lived from  birth until old age, in every aspect of life from the bedroom to the playground to the house of worship to the pub.

James Baldwin, “Another Country” (1963): Literature from the Margins

During my time as a historian (whether that is entirely over is yet to be seen) I struggled to write history “from below.”  In practice, I tended to write it from the margins as much as I could.  I was only of dubious success.  One reason I am so attracted by American writers of literature is that it is through literature that the history of people on the margins of society can be fully articulated and realized.  It is perhaps for this reason that some of the best historical scholarship on marginal people tend to be cultural histories in one way or another (often it is confessed as such in the title).  James Baldwin wrote Another Country at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, when he had already achieved notoriety as an essayist studying the black experience in America.  I will look at these essays next week, but it is enough to say for now that his essays are interested in the daily lived experience of being black under Jim Crow or while experiencing racial discrimination, police brutality, or condescension in cities.  Whether institutional or not, these were real experiences.  Baldwin wanted to remind his white readers (I suspect his black readers did not need reminding) that these experiences mattered when added up and quilted together into the tapestry of an individual’s life.  However, Another Country is far too rich to be summarily defined as the literary expression of these arguments.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

He starts with quoting Henry James making an argument for history from the margins.  “They strike one, above all, as giving no account of themselves in any terms already consecrated by human use; to this inarticulate state they probably form, collectively, the most unprecedented of monuments; abysmal the mystery of what they think, what they feel, what they want, what they suppose themselves to be saying.” (363)  Book One of Another Country documents the life and death of Rufus Scott, a bisexual jazz musician in Harlem.  Baldwin — through his narrator — makes clear that Rufus lives under the constant reminder of racism and poverty.  We meet him hungry and trying to sleep at a movie theater.  On the first page he despairs that “you took the best, so why not take the rest” and flees from the hostile gave (imagined or not we do not know) of a passing policeman.  Baldwin certainly wants to make the point that although the Northern cities lacked the formalized racial discrimination of Jim Crow laws, the city itself was a burden for many residents.  “The weight of the city was murderous–one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell.” (368)  These are the thoughts that precede his suicide, but thankfully we are quickly sent to a seemingly happier time.  It is the night that Rufus first has sex with Leona, a white woman from the South escaping her failed marriage.  Rufus later develops a relationship with Leona but at this time Rufus’ motives are more vicious.  In contrast to the powerlessness of the opening passages, Rufus here is at the top of his game, musically and sexually.  As his relationship develops with Leona we are again exposed to the perpetual invasion of race in Rufus’ life.  He worries constantly how other will look at him on the street (this is in contrast to the confidence with which he brought her to the party where they first had sex).  Leona once calls him “boy” with no racial assumptions, but this offends him greatly.   Ultimately, as a result of these feelings of inadequacy, his frustration, and racial/sexual self-hatred Rufus begins abusing Leona savagely.  Rufus projected all of this bile onto Leona.  As she explained: “He had a fight last week with some guy in the subway, some real, ignorant, unhappy man just didn’t like the idea of our being together, you know? and, well, you know, he blamed that fight on me.  He said I was encouraging the man. Why, Viv, I didn’t even see the man until he opened his mouth.  But, Rufus, he’s all the time looking for it, he sees it where it ain’t, he don’t see nothing else no more.”  (417)  We have good reason here to mistrust much of Rufus’s interpretation of the rest of the world, but we know better than deny the daily insults he did face as a poor black man in New York that over the years formed his identity and gave him a frame of reference to interpret the world.

Well, Rufus quickly declines.  He becomes a prostitute, homeless, and sleeping in restaurants and move theaters.  His friends — particularly the writer Vivaldo — try to help him but with little success.  He disappears and a few days later his body turns up.

This is the type of story that history cannot tell well.  With the exception of the music Rufus played, nothing of his feelings and experiences would be recorded.  Pretending Rufus was real (which of course, he is, after a fashion), we can imagine a diligent scholar would learn about his relationship with Leona via the asylum records from when he sent her South.  His suicide would also be in the police records.  What is not there is his daily humiliations, his street brawls (and imagined or real slights that began them), and the feel of the city for someone in Rufus’ position.  Most important, is the difficult to document and prove the non-institutional experience of repression.

 

James Baldwin, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956): Destructive Love

Considering that Giovanni, the Italian bartender who begins a relationship with the narrator, an American expat in Paris, is executed for the murder of the owner of a gay bar at the end of the novel Giovanni’s Room, we might assume that he is the destructive one.  Indeed, it is Giovanni that has the emotional outbreaks and displays his feelings for all to see.  Reading this novel, I could not help but feel that the true destructive force was David – the expat – who was capable of keeping his emotions quite tied up.  David is the narrator of the novel, but there is no reason to trust that his confession is fully honest.  He tries – and is mostly successful – in keeping his emotions tied down.  But in doing so he destroyed a number of people’s lives, contributing to the deaths of two, and ruining his own relationships.  On this theme, there is really not special about the theme of homosexuality.  David could as easily have been a conflicted heterosexual, leading to the same destruction, even though he would not have been conflicted for the same reasons.   I do not want to downplay how traumatic David’s homosexuality may have been for him.  Much of the novel involves his struggle with it, his lies to his family, his effort to sustain a heterosexual relationship with the charming Hella, his guilt over his feelings for Giovanni, and the relative sexual freedom he enjoyed as an expat.  These would all be framed different had David not been imagined as a homosexual.  That said, no shortage of heterosexuals have experiences pressures to marry within their class, to respect long dead marital vows, or to protect their relationship with their children.  Romantic expectations affect us all.  Their tyrannical power is simply more clearly seen in works covering the most oppressed sexual minorities.

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Baldwin’s novel is broken up into two parts.  The first sets up David’s relationship with Giovanni, which grew out of the relative boredom David felt as Hella traveled in Spain.  Through his homosexual friend Jacques, David is introduced to Giovanni and the gay bar that would be so important in the plot.  Jacques invited David to recklessness with a very convincing monologues that can be applied to numerous situations.  All that is required for a full realization of life’s potential is the absence of a concern about the future.  Liberty requires a degree of recklessness.  “Love him, love him and let him love you.  Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?   And how long, at the best, can it last?  since you are both men and still have everywhere to go?  Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark.  And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his.  But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.  You play it safe long enough and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and and forever and forever–like me.” (267)  If is convincing enough that David is chooses to begin a relationship with Giovanni.

The second part of the novel focuses on the destructive nature of David’s decisions.  One could almost say that the root of his problems was that he was not projectural or destructive enough.  He took Jacques’ advice seriously in the short-term but did not carry it out.  (Can any of us?)  His family expectations and his relationship with Hella convince him to move out of Giovanni’s room.  Fearing the future, David picks up a homely woman, only to leave her.  It seems he wanted to prove that he could play heterosexual prior to Hella’s return.  Almost simultaneously Giovanni is fired from his job and  ends up scraping by on the charity of his friends.  David greeted the returning Hella with a marriage proposal (which also works as a cover to get some money from his father).  Giovanni is distraught by David moving out and by his lack of work or money.  Giovanni brutally kills the bar owner, Guillaume.  The events leading up to the murder were his confession to Giovanni that he was essentially used up (“Giovanni, like a falling move star, has lost his drawing power.”)  A bar like his needed an unknown, mystery man.  Giovanni is put on trial and the newspapers reveal all the notiorious details of his life in Paris.  He is executed at the same time that the narrator tells his story.  The final loose end is the collapse of Hella and David’s relationship, which was destroyed by the exposure of his homosexuality.  She discovered him with a sailor.  In the second half, David’s most destructive act was his attempt to reinvest in his relationship with Hella, considering he had the chance to escape.  Who knows if there was any future for Giovanni and David.  It is also wrong to assume that there was nothing meaningful in his plans with Hella.  It was David’s attempt to have it all that was so destructive.  Did he have any alternatives?  He could have listened to Jacques’ advice and stopped playing it safe, stopped despising his flesh and desires.  Yes, it would have required a painful and honest moment with Hella and himself.  It might have avoided the broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken souls that we are left with at the end of Giovanni’s Room.

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A final biographical note on Baldwin in Europe is in order.  Baldwin lived in France between 1950 and 1954.  This novel was published two years later.  Not as dramatic as the events of Giovanni’s Room happened to Baldwin.  The biographical sketch at the end of the “Library of America” volume suggests he spent most of his time writing.  He likely knew about expats scraping by and can speak from personal experience and observation about the comparative freedoms expats enjoy.  These are themes in the novel.  While it is true that expats (often Zygmunt Bauman’s tourists) have liberties that people closer to home lack, we should not overstate the significance of this.  At best, it can be a lifestyle approach to freedom.  Not all of us are capable of moving abroad and most that do move abroad do so as economic migrants and often find their life in a new land to be one of drudgery, labor, and exploitation.  David (like Baldwin) came to France with a bank account, connections, and a U.S. Passport.

Enjoy a James Baldwin interview, recorded in 1963, mostly on race issues.

 

James Baldwin, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953): Religion and Freedom

Go Tell It on the Mountain parallels nicely with one of the major themes I teased out of Eudora Welty’s work, namely the relationship between individual freedom and our social institutions.  While Welty was primarily concerned with the family, family traditions, and nostalgia as a barrier to freedom, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, looks at African-American Christianity in much the same way.  While providing a source of identity, community, and values it creates an environment that is individually the cause of much torment, anxiety, and confinement.  At more than one moment, the protagonist’s father Gabriel threatens to “beat sin out of him.” (190)  Religion becomes a cover for his child abuse, for long-term resentment toward his son (who is not his biologically), and control over his son’s future career plans.  Gabriel is himself shaped and conflicted by his religious values, fathering a bastard child.  (We wonder at a few points if his religious obsession with the sin of sex makes that diversion from God’s path nearly inevitable.)  It is not, however, an entirely insidious part of the character’s lives.  Except for a few characters in open revolt against religion, we cannot imagine them outside of the guidance of the church, but the psychological (and physical) abuse and the long train of bad decisions makes us wonder if they would not be better off in revolt against these traditions.  Like America, these characters stand on the edge of freedom but choose to stand safely on the side of repression.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin's novels and some of his short stories.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin’s novels and some of his short stories.

John, the protagonist, has many parallels with James Baldwin’s own life.  Both grew up in New York, raised by men who were not their biological fathers.  Their stepfathers are preachers and both are expected to enter the church.  John and James also both grew up with a handful of half-brothers and half-sisters.  If Go Tell It on the Mountain can be trusted as autobiography, then these siblings provided potential alternatives from the expected life in the church.  Baldwin took advantage of these and evaded the religious life through writing, which he started doing at a very young age.  His biographical chronology reveals Baldwin to be quite precocious.  He started writing eleven or twelve, began sketching Go Tell It on the Mountain before the age of twenty.  He met Richard Wright when he was 20, gaining his encouragement (and connections), which helps his continued writing.  He also realized his homosexuality around this time.  Go Tell It on the Mountain was published before he was 30 years old.  This places his writing career at a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, but as a Northern writer he would have a different relationship to the questions the Civil Rights movement thrust on the nation.  His questions are urban, international, and economic.  And while he did participate in some of the actions of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, he would have a closer relationship with the more urban “Black Power” perspective, meeting Huey Newton and working on a film adaptation of Malcolm X’s autobiography.

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Go Tell It on the Mountain is divided into three parts, but it really comes together as five chapters.  The first part, “The Seventh Day,” sets up the spiritual life of fourteen-year-old John.  We also learn immediately of the alternative, represented by Roy – his half-brother.  The novel opens with sexual curiosity.  John is curious about the sexuality in the street life of Harlem, Roy’s experiments, and his parent’s sex life.  John’s physical attraction to Elisha (who is already “saved”) perhaps parallels Baldwins own sexuality.  John lives in fear and awe of his stepfather.  His mother constantly reinforces the idea that his stepfather is a holy man.  He is also plagued with the idea that he is surrounded in sin.  In a memorial passage, we are introduced to a woman in a film John watches.  Rather than enjoying the film, John dwells on the fate of this woman’s soul and the fate of women like her.  The film is also a spiritual test for John. Would he accept or reject the sinful world or embrace God.  “He could not claim, as African savages might be able to claim, that no one had brought him the gospel.  His father and mother and all the saints had taught him from his earliest childhood what was the will of God.  Either he arose from the theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment.” (38)  It is also in this first section of the novel that Roy is stabbed by some whites, again suggesting a powerful alternative for John, but it is also interpreted as a threat to his soul.  Unfortunately, most of us cannot see alternatives for what they are.

The second part is broken up into three chapters and open us up to the perspective of three of the most important people in John’s life: his aunt Florence, his stepfather Gabriel, and his mother Elizabeth.  It is presented as “the prayers of the saints,” for in John’s mind all three are saintly figures.  As we learn the details of these people’s lives we know that the narrative they presented to John was incomplete, convincing us that the religious life was not simply a free choice John made (which is how John often sees it, as when watching the sinful film) but chains, constructed through lies and half-truths.  The most dramatic of these lies is Gabriel’s illegitimate child.  Gabriel buys off the woman, Esther, using money stolen from his second wife, Elizabeth.  When the affair and the illegitimacy is exposed, Gabriel shows little remorse or concern.  Gabriel is able to harness all sorts of religious explanations for his actions, most notably the assumption that sin is the domain of the daughters of Eve.  Esther, a drinker and more attractive than his wife, brings him to sin.  Gabriel is able to twist his ending of the affair as a victory for the Lord.

Before looking at the final chapter of the novel, we cannot help but observe that like Gabriel and Elizabeth, Elisha wants John to find God and follow a religious path.  He is able to present these arguments to him without the near tyrannical authority of a step father (or a vengeful Lord seen through the eyes of a vengeful stepfather).  Rather than “beat the sin” out of John, Elisha presents a kinder, more forgiving Jesus.  “But when the Lord saves you He burns out all that old Adam, He gives you a new mind a new heart, and then you don’t find no pleasure in the world, you get all your joy in walking and talking with Jesus every day.” (52)  None of the “three saints” find much joy in the religious life.  What they find are tests, dramatic explosions of emotion, woe and pain.

The final section, “The Threshing-Floor” starts in a strange place.  John is engaged in alternatively a struggle with God and a struggle with his stepfather.  This intense experience turns out to be John’s conversion experience (afterward he is “saved”).  It is Elisha he sees when he comes out of this quasi-hallucinogenic experience.  Later in the evening, John is reassured by Elisha that he is saved, but his joy at this fact is not shared by his father, who remains resentful of his stepson.  This is a victory of sorts.  He in a sense is able to choose a variant of Christianity that is based more on love than on fear.  Does this place him as a spiritual equal as his father?  Perhaps even more than that.  It is doubtful that is transforms the power dynamic in that will likely leave John under the power of the physically (and as it turns out sexually) more daunting Gabriel.

What is key is that John feels liberated.  “He was free — whom the Son sets free is free indeed — he had only to stand fast in his liberty.  He was in battle no longer, this unfolding Lord’s day, with this avenue, these houses, the sleeping, staring, shouting people, but had entered into battle with Jacob’s angel, with the princes and the powers of the air.” (210)  In contrast to his perspective earlier in the novel where the religious path is a constant losing struggle.  At one point Gabriel condemns a parishioner for not attending church enough.  Gabriel was in perpetual conflict with his desires.

As an autobiography we can read this libertarian tension as continuing.  Baldwin would himself move from a religious career becoming a novelist, essayist, and activist.  I suspect John’s future is just as open, but it required first a liberation from the traditions and beliefs of the family.  In this we can be happily optimistic in contrast to Welty’s claustrophobic novels.  The family may be chains but they are not unbreakable.  John may benefit from the urban environment in ways Welty’s rural characters could not, but the important point is that John is able to shove off the monkey of family expectations (and physical or emotional tyranny) from his back.

 

Eudora Welty, “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1972)

In Eudora Welty’s final novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, she remains in the realm of memory and the legacy of family relations, the focus of most of her novels.  Rather than the sprawling, institutionalized families of Delta Wedding and Losing Battles, this novel is written on a much smaller canvas.  Welty is interested primarily in how on woman, Laura McKleva Hand comes to terms with her father’s death, his remarriage to a sexually aggressive (and to Laura threatening) woman Fay, and her past.  Again, like the other two major family epics Welty wrote, this one is uses a family event as its setting.  Here it is a funeral that allows the major character to revisit her family history and memory.  We again find a central tension between the family (represented by Laura) and an outsider (here represented by Fay).  It is more complicated in this novel than in Losing Battles, where the outsider, Judge Moody, was clearly outside of the group.  In The Optimist’s Daughter, Fay was brought in by the family patriarch.  While Laura and many other attending the funeral assume Fay is an outsider and treat her as a golddigger, we learn that their terse rejection of Fay is based much on class prejudice and probably the sexual threat Fay poses.

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Part one of this short novel covers Laura’s return to the South from Chicago to aid her father through a relatively minor eye surgery.  There she meets her younger step-mother Laura, who she immediately dislikes in large part for her seeming disinterest in her father’s well-being, which only reinforces the narrative Laura constructs of Fay as a gold-digger.  Laura cares for her father during his recovery but he dies.  Part two covers the family reunion brought on by the funeral.  The central part of the novel, stretching into part three covers Laura’s deep nostalgia for the past.  Here we are in familiar territory, again navigating the suffocating past.  For Laura it is a bit more innocuous and distant than it was for characters in Welty’s other novels.  Laura can always return to Chicago.  She can appreciate her past but always return to Chicago without the visceral tyranny that family history can so often bring to our lives in the form of memories, personal obligations, family expectations and traditions.  Laura has escaped and this makes her harsh rejection of Fay rather disingenuous.  The family mocks her and even assumes that her rapid return to her hometown in Texas involved among other things sex with other men (disgracing the memory of Judge McKleva).  Fay, who actually lived in the home, navigated the relationships, and was the Judge’s companion since their marriage, might have a stronger claim to membership than the more distant Laura.  Laura can take in nostalgia like a tourist, without many of the psychological burdens.  Laura will return to Chicago more conscious of who she is, with a deeper appreciate of her family, but she seems to have lost her claim as a member of the family.

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Laura even works to help destroy some of the memories of her father.  She burns some of his letters, but in the next page scolds Fay for damaging her mother’s breadboard.  Fay’s response is properly liquid, “Who wants an everlasting breadboard?” (987)  When Laura repeats and expands her attack to include the entire house that she “desecrated,” Fay correctly points out that Laura has no claim to the house and its memories.  Gold-digger or not, Fay had made that house her own.  Laura, however, is unwilling to accept her position as a tourist.

In her final thoughts, Laura essentially comes to agree with Fay and correct her nostalgia to be in line with her actions.  She is, after all, having this debate about who owns the rights to the house at the same time that she is returning to her home.  “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” (992)

Perhaps it is here that we can find a proper solution to the oppression that family, tradition, and nostalgia impose on us.  Any claim that memory and the past has to control us is ultimately a lie.  Any such control is self-imposed.  Memory is there to serve us, not to dominate our actions and emotions.  The lesson I am going to take from reading Welty’s novel is not that far from my conclusions to The Robber Bridegroom.  That novels’ power rested in its flexible use of folklore and tradition.  By remaking a Grimm tale into a frontier American setting, Welty undermined the ability of folklore to control our interpretations of the past.  Our families and our own minds constantly craft new folklores all the time.  The mistake we make is in assuming that a permanence and transcendent power to those tales.

 

 

Eudora Welty, “Losing Battles” (1970)

Losing Battles works as a mirror image of Delta Wedding in some fascinating ways.  Eudora Welty is still working within the tradition of Southern literature’s family drama.  In both novels, a private family gathering becomes a introduce the complex relations within a community of related people as well as their family culture, traditions, values, and idiosyncratic tendencies.  The family here, the Beecham and Renfro clans, is economically marginalized in contrast the Delta Wedding‘s Fairchilds, who were members of the Southern aristocracy.  Welty shows that it does not matter what side of the class line you sit on.  Family can always be an oppressive force in your life, stamping out individualism.  In both tales, the inward perspective of the family has a purpose to protect the family.  Being at the top of the social hierarchy, the family in Delta Wedding‘s obsession with purity and maintaining the integrity of the unit seems odd.  The Beecham’s, a family under real threat, carefully protects itself, creating a political narrative of their victimization.  They go so far as to defend incest within the family from the attack of powerful outsiders.  On the surface, the Beecham’s are more sympathetic than the Fairchilds, but nevertheless, we are reminded by Welty that family is the source of our identity and one of the hardest shackles to free ourselves from in our search for freedom.

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The situation is a family reunion concocted to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family matriarch Elvira Jordan Vaughn.  Almost immediately we know we are in the realm of poor whites.  We hear about the installation of new tin roofs, we see girls wearing homemade clothing that is passed down from older sister to younger sister (identified by the fading colors), and women working at home maintenance.  In Delta Wedding all the real work was done by the background characters identified only as “the Negroes.”  It is a more delightful and alive setting.   “Now there was family everywhere, front gallery and back, tracking in and out of the company room, filling the bedrooms and kitchen, breasting the passage.  The passageway itself was creaking; sometimes it swayed under the step and sometimes it seemed to trembled of itself, as the suspension bridge over the river at Banner had the reputation of doing.  With chairs, beds, windowsills, steps, boxes, kegs, and buckets all taken up and little room left on the floor, they overflowed into the yard, and the men squatted down in the shade.  Over in the pasture a baseball game had started up.  The girls had the swing.” (444)

The central couple in this tale is Jack Renfro, Gloria Renfro, and their 2 year old daughter Lady May.  Jack is scheduled to get out of jail the day after the birthday party, an unacceptable proposition, so he flees his confinement and returns home a day early, again breaking the law.  Jack feels he was unjustly punished by the Judge Oscar Moody.  Gloria turns out to be Jack’s cousin.  Their daughter, who Jack had not seen until this day, shows none of the signs of genetic defects that encouraged the state to ban such marriages.  The clan is much bigger, with many stories to tell, but the Renfro couple provides enough for us to see that this is a family that is in opposition to the law.  They have their own way of working in the world.  In a sense, they function like the intentional communities that were so popular in U.S. history (something I have not yet had much reason to write about).  The worrying thing is that although transgressive in respect to the external legal authorities, such organizations tend to be internally quite oppressive.

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Jack returns in triumph in time for the reunion and tells a story of how he helped a man free his car from a ditch.  Jack learns that this man was Judge Oscar Moody.  Jack returns to the road to undo this act or take back the good act.  The plan goes awry and with some comic splendor, Welty describes how Moody’s car ends up stuck on a roadside sign.  They are unable to get the car down of receive any help.  Jack eventually invites the Judge over to the home.  This sets up the main tension in the novel, which is the encounter between the legal realm of the state government and the moral economic realm of the Beecham/Renfro clan.  While the rest of the family is not happy about the invitation, they can use Judge Moody and his wife’s arrival to complain about how their family has been mistreated by the powers that be.

As we learn in Lexie Renfro’s story about Julia Mortimer, the clan can be very oppressive to individual expression and even cruel when faced with the suffering of an outsiders.  It is in this sense that they are not so unlike the Farchilds, aloof to anyone outside of their community.  Lexie was taking care of Julia in her final days but abandoned her to attend the reunion (Julia’s funeral is the event that brought the judge to the town).  Before this, Lexie physically and psychological abused her patient.   More troubling is the acceptance and even tacit approval given by everyone else for Lexie’s abusive actions.

In the final sections of the novel we hear more stories from different members of the family, but we also see the voice of the state (Judge Moody) express himself.  While embracing the strict objectivity and legalism we would expect from a servant of the court, we also learn that his position allows him to empathize with outsiders to the clan (such as the scorned and abused Julia Mortimer).  While the family insists that Jack was wrongfully convinced and that they had the correct narrative of the trial, we have real reason to doubt their objectivity.  Their approach is subjective, as we suspect are the internal logic, history, and policies of all large families.  The Judge, in a sense, is less a voice of the state than a possible perspective on a universal morality.  In the last section of the long novel, when asked about her religion, Judge Moody’s wife says: “I’m neither one [Methodist or Baptist], and gladder of it every minute.” (847)

I am not sure this is an easily resolved tension.  I do think it is likely that without some form of legal apparatus, we are likely to descend into clannish or tribal mentalities.  This is not a defense of the state, as much as it is a criticism of whatever it is that leads us to create oppressive or Byzantine systems at the local level.  I, for one, find the logic at work in families like the Beechams, Renfros and Fairchilds horrifying.

Eudora Welty, “The Ponder Heart” (1954)

While Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding was set in a rather odd subculture of an elite Southern family, the Fairchilds, and seemed to function by its own absurd and sociopathic rules, the much shorter The Ponder Heart actually exists within social institutions.  The Ponders are no less wealthy than the Fairchilds, but the story exists on a larger canvas despite its smaller size.  The plot covers Daniel Ponder’s attempt to give away all of the family’s wealth and the resistance to these acts by the Ponder’s family.  In order to struggle against Daniel Ponder’s spendthrift ways, the Ponder’s rely on social institutions, most notably the asylum, marriage and the courts.  We can thus read this novel in a pretty straightforward fashion as a discourse on the use of these social institutions by those of power to maintain their wealth.  The novel is a brief comedic sketch of the various failures of these efforts, but the reality of elite use and misuse of such institutions is not at all funny.

 

The narrator is Edna Earle Ponder, who is one of the people trying to restrain Daniel’s good heart so it is not clear what motivated Daniel’s generosity.  From the perspective of the narrator, Daniel is a simpleton, insane, or simply incapable of restraint.  He is however, presented as a good person.  “Still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world.  He has the nicest, politest manners — he’s good as gold.” (341)  Essentially, she sees him as a child. Only a child would make such foolish choices with the family fortune.  Daniel seems to have progressed in the opposite direction from a corporate kleptomaniac.  While the contemporary thief may start small (thieving wages from employees, sneaking money from the tip jar) before moving onto the bolder plans that involve hostile takeovers and government bailouts, Daniel started by giving away small things.  What worried his family was that he started to become interested in giving away big things, “property.”  “Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might go the Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out rom under Uncle Daniel’s feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn’t there to stop him.” (343)  It is likely that his desire to give away his wealth was a product of his intense sociability.  This is Edna’s first observation about her uncle Daniel.

Daniel is, however, wealthy.  He can give away money without concerns for the consequences because he has plenty more to surrender to friends and acquaintances.  Charity, generosity, and the social power they provide for philanthropists are themselves products of income inequality.

When private means of securing wealth fail, the Ponders turned to the typical institutions of control for help.  The successive failure of these efforts is the comic material at the heart of the novel.  The asylum picks up the wrong Ponder.  The attempt to marry Daniel Ponder to a widow (who will presumably help keep an eye on the family’s wealth) fails because Daniel instead marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, “a little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.”  (352)  By putting Daniel on an allowance, the banks are able to prevent him from exercising too much generosity.  Still, this marriage finally kills off Sam Ponder (Grandpa).  The final attempt to confine Daniel’s generosity comes after the unexpected death of Bonnie Dee.  The trial ends with an acquittal and Daniel gives away all the money.

Welty clearly sees these social restraints as ineffectual as they are systematically defeated – not trough Daniel’s skill as it seems to be witless – by their own incompetence.  Daniel bumbles his way to victory because of the more epic failures of those around him.  While this is a bit too optimistic in my view.  Courts, asylums, banks, marriage and other human institutions have done a very good job of sustaining an inequality in wealth and preventing just the very thing that Welty imagines (a wealthy person of conscious and generosity).