A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science (1956). Part One: A Democracy in the Ring

A. J. Liebling was one of the most significant American journalists from the middle of the twentieth century. He was born and raised in New York City in an Jewish-Austrian immigrant family.  From the time of his youth, he traveled heavily visiting Europe twice before he was ten. He started writing journalism for his school newspaper in his teenage years as he followed World War I. His early adulthood showed many signs of a strong contrarian and democratic spirit that would inform much of his journalism. Most notably he was kicked out of Dartmouth College for not attending required church services and fired from The New York Times for faking names in stories.  He would eventually settler at The New Yorker, but only after his vibrant 20s, where he moved around between New York and France, taking and quitting jobs, and writing freelance. At The New Yorker, he would produce his most significant war writings as a foreign correspondent, following the Allied War effort.  The works collected in the Library of American volumes on Liebling are in two groups. The first (which I will examine later) are his World War II works.  The volume open in front of me, looked at his varied works written in the last twenty years of his life, covering topics as diverse as boxing, Southern politics, and journalism (amazingly he predicted the one-newspaper down and the current decline in the role of newspapers due to centralized media ownership).

A. J. Liebling Sitting at Desk

The Sweet Science is about boxing and collects many interesting pieces about the rise and fall of different champions such as Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. More than sports journalism, however, The Sweet Science tells us one story about American society, culture, values, and character in the middle of the last century.  When Liebling started watching following boxing, the United States was entering a period where we can really start to talk about a national culture, thanks to national sports leagues, the movie industry, radio, and the “Americanization” of immigrant communities. Many of these trends are evident in Liebling’s own life.  He not only participated in the creation of mass culture, but he also became a firm supported of the United States during the first and second world wars. Boxing was part of this mass culture that brought in people from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, and races into one building to observe and in many ways participate in the fights. Liebling also lived through what Michael Denning called the “proletarianization” of American culture during the Great Depression.  It was during this epoch that working-class values infected American culture at many levels.

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Liebling takes considerable time thinking about his predecessor, the compiler of Boxiana, Pierce Egan, who documented the boxing world of the early nineteenth century.  Through this, Liebling is able to show an interconnected world that existed at the margins of legitimate culture but provided a historical continuity to the very beginnings of the republic. It is boxing, not baseball, that is the American pastimes.

One striking aspect of Liebling’s account of boxing is his description of its participatory elements. In fact, his book begins with an analysis of why it is better to see a fight in person.  His main reason is that you can participate through shouted advice.  Its democratic character  is suggested in the following quote. “Addressing yourself to the fighter when you want somebody else to hear you is a parliamentary device, like ‘Mr. Chairman . . . ‘ Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man how to think on his seat.” (16)  Not only was it participatory, but it was diverse as well.  Liebling’s ability to converse about boxing with a driver is suggestive of its important place in the development of a mass participatory culture. The requirement that mass culture be participatory is something that Liebling takes for granted.  He correctly predicts that television would sap this potential. Now, people see fights–if at all–at home, losing that democratic forum. “Television, if unchecked, may carry us back to a pre-tribal state of social development, when the family was the largest conversational unit.” (17)  He later compares television fights to the Irish potato: cheap and quickly adopted at the expense of a more nourishing diet.

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Boxing is also a working-class sport in every way.  Its heroes were commonly from the streets, its greatest fans were from the same streets. The shouting from the audience revealed that the crowd saw themselves as coming from the same world as the fighters. Early in the account he describes the origins of several champions, all of whom invariable come from working class towns. The second World War undermined the craft by sending those working class boys to war rather than the unemployment lines and then the gyms.

There is also a brutal equality to the ring, that seems to reflect the cutthroat nature of American capitalism. “The division of boxers into weight classes is based on the premise that if two men are equally talented practitioners of the Sweet Science, then the heavier man has a decided advantage. This is true, of course, only if both men are trained down hard, since a pound of beer is of no use in a boxing match. If the difference amounts to no more than a couple of pounds, it can be offset by a number of other factors, including luck.” (51) This actually reads to me like a fairly realistic depiction of democratic capitalism. In both capitalism and boxing there is a gap between the ideal and the reality, but at least in boxing the working class kid could, through training and motivation, having a good chance of being “trained down hard.” Capitalism is so thoroughly unfair that no amount of training (college, perhaps) can give us a fighting chance.  Perhaps this is part of the attraction of boxing.

Listen with me, as Liebling describes the nature of the boxing crowd. “It was a might crowd–paid admissions 47,585, and, counting deadheads like me, a total attendance of more than fifty thousand.  There were fifteen hundred occupants of working-press seats alone, including a major general in uniform and Joe Louis. As is usual at big outdoor fights nowadays, platoons of young hooligans from the bleachers stormed down on the field in successive waves, to take over better seats than they had paid for. Legitimate ticket-holders who arrived late managed as best they could. In some cases, with the aid of ushers and special cops, they expropriated the squatters.” (93)  Ah, a class war for seats.  How wonderful.

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H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” (Conclusions)

I have just finished up with the Library of America collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. While I have read some of his stories previously, I never read through his major stories systematically before.  Five stories wrapped up the volume. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about a young student who visits the Massachusetts town of Innsmouth to discover a cult worshiping Dagon, and worse a population of half-fish people. In the end he decides to embrace his family legacy and embrace a transformation into one of those creatures. “The Dreams of the Witch House” connects the Cthulhu mythos to new developments in uncertainty in math and science at the turn of the last century. In this story, a math student investigates the Arkham “Witch House” and learns of its role as a portal. It is particularly interesting for its use of mathematics as a device of horror and the unknown. The student ends up a sacrifice victim of yet another cult to the Elder gods.  “The Thing on the Doorstep” tells the story of the killing of an aparently insane man, who was able to reside in other people’s bodies and even corpses. “The Shadow Out of Time” is about the “Great Race” of aliens who visit Earth through body possessions. Finally, “The Haunter of the Dark” is notable as the only story in the collection with Nyarlathotep as an antagonist.

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I avoided reading Lovecraft in my youth, despite an almost total mastery of his works by a fair number of my close friends. I knew the name early enough and he may even be the first American writer I knew by name (saving for children’s writers, of course). Of course, I knew of his works my osmosis and by the massive cultural influence he had. Lovecraft’s works have inspired writings that far surpass in quantity his original works. (Can anyone show me an anthology of stories inspired by the works of Herman Melville?) He has also inspired board games, role playing games, music, a “NecronomiCon,” and more B-films than most of us would want to watch. As I was considering before, there is something odd about this popularity considering the values of the American people, focusing on progress, freedom, personal autonomy, equality (and let’s not forget Christianity). If we look at some of the major components of Lovecraft’s writings we can see that they seem to run at odds with these values. In other words, Lovecraft is perhaps not what Tocqueville would have predicted to be one of the most important cultural artifacts of a democracy.

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1. Cargo Cult religions pop up all over the world based on the worship of indifferent, powerful, aliens.
2. Science fails to explain the world.
3. Fear is the primary emotion of humanity.
4. Knowledge should be feared and the curious are punished.
5. The senses are incapable of describing most of the universe.

So what can we make of this?

I am wondering now if Lovecraft’s popularity and cultural influence is akin to the rise of religious fundamentalism or new religious movements in this country. (I cannot speak to Lovecraft’s popularity outside of the English-speaking world. He is certainly mostly unknown in Taiwan.) Perhaps we can return to Lovecraft’s conservatism for an answer to this. The core of his conservatism seems to be directed at the consequences of industrialization: the city, immigration, manufacturing.  In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” a small town is literally left behind by the rest of the world.  What was once a vibrant merchant town because a marginalized fishing town, just barely scraping by.  That trope shows up in other stories as well, showing the entire communities left behind by progress and modernity.  Innsmouth was actually once quite a cosmopolitan place, with many Pacific Islanders living there as a byproduct of New England’s place in Pacific trade. When being left behind, what did Innsmouth turn to but the “Esoteric Order o’ Dagon.” Is this not a reading of late capitalist America.  Never fully industrialized (it is far too big for that), with huge sections of the country filled with truck stop towns, old mining villages, and rust belt cities, America has been hit hard by global capitalism’s tendency to bypass the areas that are not of immediate value. Facing the uncertainty of liquid modernity, people turned to fatalism of the unknown (comforting themselves that it is unknowable), new religions or revived old faiths.  In this sense, maybe we can identify and describe the malevolent external horrors that so terrified Lovecraft and his characters.  Perhaps it is in an embrace of the religious realm that many of us were capable of understanding a world that really is indifferent to us.

I still think that unknowability is politically vapid and works to confine us and makes excuses for inaction, I do think its popularity is at least explicable.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness”: The Case for Unlocking the Necronomicon

Continuing my study of the collected stories of H. P. Lovecraft, I read two long stories, both produced around 1930: “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” In that last two posts, I critiqued Lovecraft from the Promethean perspective of the Enlightenment.  It seems to me that Lovecraft’s suspicions about science, his tendency to punish people for opening forbidden books or exploring forbidden knowledge, and the often-used plot device where a character recommends that everything is done to avoid revising a strange phenomenon (rather than exploring it in more detail) all are informed by his deep political conservatism, his xenophobia, and his fear of modernity. What I have not confessed is that I very much enjoyed reading his stories, even as I find their moral or political perspective troubling.  I certainly do not think all work needs to necessarily assume a projectoral life. But at the same time, I think Lovecraft’s writings come from an all too common and very unfortunate perspective on the world, based on fear (the most primal emotion according to Lovecraft) and cowardice.  Most of his stories are based on investigation of an unknown phenomenon, but almost always end with an attempt to seal the truth because the truth simply cannot be understood by human senses or experiences (describable). Like the Necronomicon, locked behind the desk at the Miskatonic University Library, the indifferent alien forces that surround us are best unknown. In short, my perspective was that the “Unknowable Horror” is a very weak and passive position to take through life and generally not suitable to free and creative people.  However, I am not realizing that this not an entirely fair way to read Lovecraft. We should start, not from a commitment to the Enlightenment project, but instead by starting with the reality of the unknowable.

Lovecraft is embracing a not uncommon modernist critique of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, progress, and equality. Any rightwing politics he embraced derived from this, but it is not a unique perspective. This skepticism of the Enlightenment is deep in the DNA of modernist thought, science, literature, and art.  We can assume the worst and imagine that the senses fail us, that human progress is not possible or at least not very likely, that science can never explain the world enough to provide any security, and that the many enemies we face in life are ultimately unknowable. We can also just assume, with Lovecraft, that there are forces out there that look upon us with the indifference that we look at ants.  This does not actually take long to justify. A lab rat in a maze, certainly cannot conceive of the reasons he is being tormented, or even the ultimate purpose of the insane experiments we inflict on him.  And it takes a profound human arrogance to assume that we share any emotions, perspectives, or understanding with the rat.  This is not a random example because the plot of At the Mountains of Madness is based on aliens living in Antarctica, experimenting on the human explorers who discover their presence. If we can accept that the rat faced unknowable things, it is also arrogant to assume we would never face it ourselves.  So my question is: assuming that human reason has limits, what is the proper path of life?

Another way of stating this would be to ponder if the existence of the unknowable would suggest an abandonment of our inquisition of the world. Should we be like the narrator of At the Mountains of Madness and vow never to approach that unknowable again, better to lock it up with the Necronomicon?  I could point out that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories have at their center an investigator (often as narrator). In “The Whisperer in the Darkness” it is an investigator searching out the reality behind rumors of inhuman and unknown creatures in Vermont. In At the Mountains of Madness, the investigators are a team studying fossils in the Antarctic. Even if our conclusion of the tales we read is that the people would be better off not investigating the horrors, Lovecraft still cannot help but celebrate the investigator. They also always tend to move themsleves closer and closer to the horror before deciding that caution is essential.  Their curiosity about the unknown (reflected of course in Lovecraft himself in creating his myths) is quite admirable and perhaps a lesson about our proper orientation to any limitations we face as somewhat evolved apes.  Is Lovecraft telling us to push to the very limit of understanding?

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Our real danger is not our tendency to reach this limit of knowledge. Instead, we are mostly threatened by the cowardice or laziness coming in too soon.  Too often we accept the reality of unknowable or indescribable threats, evils, or dangers (think “terrorism” or “capitalism” or “the government”) and often fail to even pursue an analysis.  Like Lovecraft’s characters, perhaps we should err on the side of knowability and touch that limit even at the risk of facing the “unknowable horrors.”  And like Wilbur Whately did when he demanded that Miskatonic University allow him to read the Necronomicon, we should demand that at the very least our rulers open their books to our gaze.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” Part 2: The Burden of the Past

In my last post on H.P. Lovecraft, I was beginning an exploration of the nature of Lovecraft’s conservatism, which seems to be based on a fundamental mistrust of the Enlightenment project, particularly its Promethean potentialities. Fear of knowledge, the failure of science, the limitations of the senses and the total inability of humans to explain, describe, or conceive of anything outside of our own local environment is the heart of Lovecraft’s xenophobia. Not only does Lovecraft seem to be wrong about this. Scientists have done a wonderful job describing reality even at the hitherto inconceivable quantum level. Anthropologists work hard understanding different cultures. Everyday historians expand our knowledge of the past. And every child or every revolutionary worth listening to has dreamed up completely different potential futures. Lovecraft’s approach is not only empirically wrong, but it is also cowardly–suggesting an approach to the world as fearful as his trapped and paralyzed characters.

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For today, I read three stories (“Pickman’s Model,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror”) and the novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. We see much more of this theme of the failure of science throughout these four works.  In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the failure is in the ability of psychology to explain a mental illness.  In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteorite, which brought an alien force to a Massachusetts farm is studied by scientists in a lab.  Of course, scientific methodologies fail utterly. “It had acted quite unbelievably in that well-ordered laboratory; doing nothing at all and shewing no occuluded gases when heated on charcoal, being wholly negative in the borax bead, and soon proving itself absolutely non-volatile at any producible temperature, including that of the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe.” (344) It is made of an unknown substance. Scientists think it might be a new element, but in defiance of their experiments, the meteorite dissolves into the air.  Even the colors associated with the meteorite are outside of the normal visible range. As always, it is in ancient books by mad Arabs, like the Necronomicon that have true explanatory power.

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I am not suggesting that there are no legitimate critiques of technology and science–or even the Enlightenment project as a whole. On this point, I am probably closest to Murray Bookchin or Kropotkin in desired a human-scaled technology that is serving human interests and at the same time functioning at the human level (avoiding Mumford’s “The Machine”).  Lovecraft is going far from a challenge to misuses of science and technology.  He wants to say that science is incapable of even understanding the totality of the world. A comparison with Philip K. Dick may be apt. Both Lovecraft and Dick were skeptical about technology and both considered the threat of malevolent external forces. While Dick’s threats were clear and explicable (a powerful state, a technological regime, a sociopathtic android, a corporation), Lovecraft’s are unknowable. While Dick’s fears of technological systems led him to argue for human-scaled production and the dignity of work, Lovecraft rejects all knowledge, being skeptical that any craft can aid humans.  Perhaps we can see Dick as gnostic and Lovecraft as agnostic.  While Dick’s approach to the unknown seems to require us to understand and expose it, Lovecraft keeps us huddling in fear. Like the town in “The Colour Out of Space” that ignores the cursed field, we are best off not even trying to explain the horrors of our world.

Another dimension to Lovecraft’s conservatism is the heavy role of the past in shaping our lives.  The artist Pickman, in “Pickman’s Model” has no choice but to paint images of the horrors he sees in his studio. It is not clear why he could not just walk away from the madness-inducing horrors. Other, however, are burdened by family and the past.  Often families have deep connections to the cults that worship the alien gods that make up Lovecraft’s mythos.  A child born into such a family has no more chance of escaping this family history than he does his DNA. Regional and local histories play a similar role.  Now, Lovecraft must have known that this is nonsense. People leave their home towns, their family burdens, and the religion of their parents all of the time. Lovecraft even spent much of the mid-20s (the time these four stories were written) in New York City, living for the first time away from his home region.

This type of generational tyranny is one of the major themes of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Dunwich Horror,” but it come up in Pickman’s explanation of his art. “You call the Salem witchcraft a delusion, but I’ll wage my four-times-great-grandmother could have told you things. They hanged her on Gallows Hill, with Cotton Mather looking sanctimoniously on.” (200) A page later he explains in pejorative terms how new immigrants cannot understand such things. Only those natives who have the deep roots to the past carry that burden and impotence over their future.  In “The Dunwich Horror” Wilbur Whateley is actually the son of a demon (which explained his precocious development).  Joseph Curwen, from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, traced his lineage back to the Salem of the witch trials as well, which had no small role in his sacrifices and intellectual curiosities.

As with technology, I do not want to throw history or family out entirely. Free people can certainty find happiness and meaning through participation in their family. Raising children (as Lynd Ward might have said) is a Promethean act.  However, what Lovecraft’s mythos (or the little I have read of it so far) gives us families and regional histories that exist only as inescapable chains.  If someone in the 20th century cannot escape the legacy of the Salem witch trials, it is hard to see how they can live a free life.  Of course, if we lived in a world that follows Lovecraft’s rules we would have little need for such liberty.

What does the contemporary popularity of Lovecraft’s vision tell us about the rampant fatalism of late capitalist culture? Is it working as part of “capitalist realism,” convincing us that there is no alternative to our bleak and insignificant lives?

H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

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The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.

 

Wallace Thurman, “The Blacker the Berry” (1929)

The title of Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life comes from an African-American folk saying (“the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”). By this time, the question of passing had been heavily debated. In the same year as The Blacker the Berry, Nella Larsen published Passing. Thurman’s approach was quite different and may suggest a movement toward a more self-confident black nationalism (or at least what we could call “black pride”). This theme was hinted at in Plum Bun, when the main character Angela learned that passing was not really necessary in places of strong black institutions (like Harlem). The Blacker the Berry takes a very dark skinned woman, named Emma Lou, from a predominately white part of the country (“a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one”) — someone for whom passing was never an option — and shows how she developed an acceptance of her skin color and her community. Like other characters in these Harlem Renaissance novels, Emma Lou was fleeing something. Some fled by leaving the country, others fled the South, still others fled their lives as blacks through passing. Emma Lou–poor, dark skinned, and not very self-assured–flees without any of the advantages some of her counterparts had.

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Wallace Thurman died at the age of 32 of tuberculosis and only produced three novels and a handful of other works, of which the most significance was his play Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem. Before writing stories he worked a journalist, starting his own failed journal and editing for The Messenger and Fire!!  Other parts of his life were somewhat sketchy and suggest an interesting–if short–life.  His grandmother ran a bootlegging tavern in Utah, where he was born. His mother went through six husbands. Thurman himself married Louise Thompson (later Patterson) for only a few weeks. She later suggested that Thurman was a homosexual.  He bounced around from job to job, from project to project, but lived in Harlem during the peak of the literary activity of the Harlem Renaissance from 1925 until his death in 1934.  The novel is slightly autobiographical in that both Thurman and Emma Lou were raised in Utah, studied at UCLA and settled in Harlem.

Wallace Thurman

Wallace Thurman

The libertarian lessons of The Blacker the Berry seem to me to come down to two questions. One regards the proper role of migration and mobility. The second is about overcoming the bounds that race and color imposed on blacks themselves. Indeed, we see throughout the tale that some of the most debilitating color consciousness came from other blacks in Emma Lou’s life (family, friends in college, employment agencies, etc.)

In The Blacker the Berry, mobility at first glance seems potentially liberating. Emma Lou encountered many unfortunate environments that restricted her development. She also always left with a finality and decisiveness that suggested a certain amount of bravery. “Emma Lou yet felt that she must manage in some way to escape both home and school. That she must find happiness somewhere else. The idea her Uncle Joe had given her about the provinciality of people in small towns re-entered her mind. After all Los Angeles, too, was a small town mentally, people by mentally small southern Negroes. It was no better than Boise. She was not determined to go East where life was more cosmopolitan and people were more civilized.” (728) Emma Lou constantly rejects the advice of her family to return home, against suggesting autonomy.  Yet, we also know that her movement is always a flight from the discomfort the experiences due to her skin color.  She feared being unable to marry, feared getting a job, or imagined  a place “where money was more plentiful and more easily saved.” (728) As liberating as mobility can be, we should be wary of this very unPromethean flight without purpose because it suggests a unwillingness to fight where you are.

Of course, the dominant theme is “intra-racial color prejudice.”  In fact, this was clearly one of the most important concerns of black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. From her youth, Emma Lou was reminded by everyone, including her closest relatives, that she was a problem child simply for having been born dark skinned. There was plenty of fault to go around, they did not quite blame Emma. If only her mother had married a “yellow” man?  “Everything possible had been done to alleviate the unhappy condition, every suggested agent had been employed, but her skin, despite bleachings, scourgings, and powderings, had remained black–fast black–as nature had planned and effected.” (693) Mind you, this is the first page of the novel.  And I do not have space in this blog to list the examples of this type of “intra-racial color prejudice.”  Trust me, through, it accompanies almost every page of this short novel. She experienced it in college, when she was avoided by other black students. Her only friend was another dark-skinned woman who perhaps did a better job of playing the role that nature and American racism assigned to her.

Harlem was objectively better for Emma Lou. At least here, color prejudice was discussed and admitted by the people she encountered.  She also finds a broader circle of allies and companions and lovers. Many people in Harlem, black and white, encourage her to make the most of her life. Even a boss at an employment agency, sending people out to mind-numbing secretarial jobs saw promise in her and urges her to become a teacher after finishing school in New York. And while she did not take that advice, she found economic independence not long after her arrival in Harlem.  The albatross over her psychology, however, remained her skin color.

Her final choice is to fight where she stands. “She was tired of running up blind alleys all of which seemed to converge  and lead her ultimately to the same blank wall.  Her motto from now on would be ‘find–not seek.’ All things were at one’s finger-tips. Life was most kind to those who were judicious in the selections, and she, weakling that she now realized she was, had not been a connoisseur.”  (829) This choice of her does not eliminate the need for institutional or social transformation, but its optimism suggests that her decision to settle in Harlem would not be due to paralysis.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, “Plum Bun” (1929)

Earlier, I considered Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, which posited the dilemma between mobility and tradition. The hero of that story was able to escape from confinement and drudgery through most of her early life, but her commitment to the color line, her embrace of a black identity and her ultimate inability to cross that line led to a miserable later life. In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, we see another perspective on the color line. In Plum Bun, Angela Murray, is able to pass as a white (unlike her darker-skinned sister). She takes advantage of this ability, dating white men and pursuing an artistic career, but us ultimately confined by other forces: capitalism, gender, and ultimately race (which Angela can never fully escape).

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Fauset also lived near the color line herself, having been rejected from Bryn Mawr because she was black but only after attending a white school.  She was classically educated  and earned a degree at Cornell.  Despite working for one summer at Fisk, she struggled to find steady work until she starting working as literary editor for The Crisis.  Before getting involved in the literary politics of the Harlem Renaissance (helping some of the major figures of that movement get published), she had worked in both white and black institutions. He was also raised in a large, poor family.  She also had to work at low paid jobs for much of her life, finally accepting a position at De Witt Clinton high school in New York City. Despite the fame she enjoyed in the 1930s, the crude capitalist exchange of bare survival for a life-time of labor evaporated her literary career.

The color line is a theme that these Harlem Renaissance novels I have been reading come back to again and again. One of the later novels of this period, Black No More, goes as far as to create a science-fiction setting where the color line can be completely abolished with a simple medical treatment. This is just a simple reminder that while the image of the Harlem Renaissance is often centered on the lively cultural environment and the debates over the proper use of that culture, almost all of the works were deeply political in their effort to circumvent and undermine the color line.

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I was reminded of Lu Xun’s essay “What Happens When Nora Leaves Home?,” when reading this. Passing is straight forward enough (I hesitate to say easy) for those with the right complexion, but color is not the only barrier to human equality. In this way, the novel asks the question: What happens when Angela leaves home to pass as white? As it turns out, simply passing is not that simple because exposure is always near. This was a truth first described by Charles Chesnutt in the early 20th century with his work on passing. But as a poor woman, Angela faced all sorts of other challenges, which leads to her ultimate decision to stay at the edge of the color line, reflected in her romance with biracial man.

The novel opens with great optimism about the potential freedom that comes from passing. Angela’s point of view seems to be that passing in itself is liberatory, but also foreshadow her difficulties. “Freedom! That was the note which Angela heard oftenest in the melody of living which was to be hers. With a wildness that fell just short of unreasonableness she hated restraint. Her father’s earlier days as coachman in a private family, he later successful, independent years as boss carpenter, her mother’s youth spent as a maid to a famous actress, all this was to Angela a manifestation of the sort of thing which happens to those enchained in might be by duty, by poverty, by weakness or by colour.” (438) Angela’s mother was also able to pass and it was from her that she learned that it could be a rather joyful game to play. It also had market potential. Angela used her ability to pass to seek out financial security. In one sense she is as free as the main character in Quicksand but is restrained by conditions and realities, not the internal acceptance of the ideology of race.

Angela’s search for personal autonomy, made possible by her ability to pass ran into the growing emphasis on racial pride, after she settled in Harlem. “It represented, the last word in racial pride, integrity, and even self-sacrifice. Here were people of a very high intellectual type, exponents of the realest and most essential refinement living cheek by jowl with coarse or ill-bred or even criminal, certainly indifferent, members of their race.” (650) But it also meant that she could enjoy the realities social freedom she was searching for.  White supremacy seemed unable to affect the vibrancy of Harlem.  It was in its own way an enclave that was recasting the color line. In her description of Harlem, we find a hidden discourse of black nationalism.