Tennessee Williams: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955)

Life is important. There’s nothing else to hold onto. A man that drinks is throwing his life away. Don’t do it, hold onto your life. There’s nothing else to hold onto. (Big Daddy, 927)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was first performed in 1955. It was written by Tennessee Williams and direct by Elia Kazan (who previously directed the Broadway version of A Streetcar Named Desire). The entire play takes place over the course of a single evening in the wealthy plantation household. The news has just arrived that the patriarch of the family. Big Daddy, will soon die of cancer. The imminence of this unavoidable date is made clear in the third act. There are two major related tensions throughout the play. The first about when the break the news to Big Daddy and Big Mama and how to talk to them about the inheritance, which Big Daddy has postponed dealing with by not writing a will. The second tension is about the younger son Brick, who has started drinking after the death of his close friend Skipper. As we learn later in the play, not long before he died, Skipper confessed homosexual desires toward Brick. Brick becomes disgusted with the “mendacity” of life, his family, and himself. He starts drinking, refuses to have sex with his wife Margaret (who apparel he was always a bit sexually aloof toward). This sparks rumors in the household that Brick shared Skipper’s homosexuality. Margaret’s inability to convince of a child connects these two tensions. Brick’s brother and sister-in-law have many children and use that to bolster their claim to the inheritance, although Big Daddy and Big Mama clearly favor Brick. I am sure the plot is mostly well-known, so I will get right into it.

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Williams was fascinated and horrified by the emotional burden placed on people by their family. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the clearest examples of family suppressing honesty and openness about desire that I can think of in literature. Saying that is immediately undermined by the fact that there is a whole lot of confessional in the three hours that follow the play’s story. Margaret confesses sleeping with Skipper again. While it turns out that was Skipper’s attempt to know the truth about his sexuality, Margaret saw it as a more spiritual effort to be closer to Brick. She also confesses to her sexual needs. Brick’s elder brother, Gooper, more or less confesses to his clear desire to inherit the plantation despite the lack of sentiment between him and the family. The doctors and the family confess to Big Mama and Big Daddy about the cancer diagnosis. Brick confesses to Big Daddy about why he drinks and the details of his love for Skipper. Big Daddy confesses to everyone his contempt for his wife. Big Daddy confesses in private to Brick about his own sexual desires and his regret for not experiencing more women when he could. With all this confessing you would think they were the most open family in the United States. Yet, this explosive night comes at the end of years of lies, subterfuge, and false faces. As Brick explains, he drinks because of disgust over “mendacity.”

I would like to take a close look at Big Daddy. His confession is not a death bed confession. He comes back from the doctor rejuvenated. Sick for quite a while, he was certain he was to die. The family and the doctors tell him that he will live and that he has only a “spastic colon.” This is presumably to protect Big Daddy on his birthday party, but we suspect the real reason for the subterfuge is to give Mae (Brick’s sister-in-law) and Gooper time to prepare their scheme to secure the plantation. No, Big Daddy’s confession is a confession of someone reborn into the world. He feels momentarily reborn. He wants to use this fresh start to knock Brick out of his premature death through the same kind of embrace of radical honesty. I am convinced that Big Daddy wanted to knock Brick correct so that they could go off together on some sort of adventure.

The core of Big Daddy’s confession is that he has been sexually repressed by his obligation to his family, the plantation, and to his wife. Big Mama is surprised at the contempt Big Daddy levels are her. I did not read this as the lies of a long-suffering wife. It sounded to me that she was authentically shocked. Big Daddy is bringing something new to the table and we need to read it as a blueprint for the future, a future he believes will go on for a number of years.

Ignorance—of morality—is a comfort. A man don’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing which is the way that anything living should go, go without knowing, without any knowledge of it, and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it. [. . .] Yes, boy. I’ll tell you something that you might not guess. I still have desire for woman and this is my sixty-fifth birthday. [. . .] It is, remarkable and admirable both. I realize now that I never had me enough. I let many chances slip by because of scruples about it, scruples, convention—crap . . . . All that stuff is bull, bull, bull!—It took the shadow of death to make me see it. Now that shadow’s lifted, I’m doing to cut loose and have, what is it they call it, have me a—ball! (932–933)

A few minutes later, he takes on a less lurid and more philosophical tone, highlighting the absolute confinement that the plantation and his family has burdened him with. When he discusses cancer it is in the terms of imprisonment.

The human machine is not no different from the animal machine or the fish machine or the bird machine or the reptile machine or the insect machine! It’s just a whole God damn lot more complicated and consequently more trouble to keep together. Yep. I thought I had it. The earth shook under my foot, the sky come down like the black lid of a kettle and I couldn’t breathe!—Today!!—that lid was lifted, I drew my first free breath in —how many years? (937–938)

I cannot help to read that as a long-term perspective on his marriage. I do not want to give too much sympathy to Big Daddy. He is, after all, a quite brutal planter. He made his fortune starting as an overseers (and we know how those tended to be during the height of Jim Crow). If the plantation household was a den of mendacity, it was that way due to the design of Big Daddy. His brutality to his wife and elder son is hard to read at times. Yet, for one evening he was also to taste the freedom from the moral burden of the family. This is a harness around people of all classes and of all ages. It is also comforting to know that he is not alone. Many other characters taste a bit of freedom from that “disgust” that Brick is most honest about.

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James T. Farrell, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Studs’ Potential Chains

With their economic rise, the Negroes sought more satisfactory housing conditions. Besides, the black boys were happiest when engaged in the horizontals. That meant an increasing birth-rate amongst them, and another factor necessitating improved and more extensive domiciles. All these factors produced a pressure stronger than individual wills, and resulted in a minor racial migration of Negroes into the white residential districts of the south side. Blather couldn’t halt the process. Neither could violence and race riots. It was an inevitable outgrowth of social and economic forces. (457)

I open with this quote because, although it is told from the point of view of James. T. Farrell’s racist characters, it suggests the author’s politics. As much as the working class characters that populate his novels seem to deserve their fate, they were chained to specific institutional and economic realities. The escape route, tended to lead to disasters, but for some that may have been preferable to accepting the confines of these institutions.

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In my last post, I looked at some of the strategies of working class empowerment employed by Studs Lonigan and his friends in the James T. Farrell’s The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Lonigan’s commitment to whiteness and masculinity (as well as American jingoism) made it difficult for Lonigan to diagnosis the reasons for his personal immobility. We can add to this a whole host of personal failing. Even thought Studs was oblivious to the chains that bound him, the readers are not. The problem seems to be rooted in the culture of his upbringing and the options the working class communities of Chicago offered young men like Studs. He was given only three real options for community, social position, and respect outside of the streets and the pool-houses: the dialectic moralism of the Church, the banality of work, and family. I will call these “potential chains” because none of them trap Studs, but they remain ominous threats and the only sources for personal uplift offered by his community. It is easy to say that Studs should have suffered and accepted these options given to him, but this is hardly satisfying if we are after a truly free society.

We see many of the efforts of the Catholic church to hold onto Chicago’s young Catholics. Their efforts are not entirely without merit. Attempts to form clubs and hold dancers are authentic efforts to create community. The YMCA at one point attracts the men for health reasons, suggesting the Protestants were engaged in some of the same efforts. The problem was that it could not hold the men due to the strong moralism that all these actions involved. In a sense, it was a return to grade school for young men like Studs with the messages about the threat of hell, the need to live a godly life, and the generally authoritarian messages. Here is a sample of the rhetoric that I am sure rarely works on young men in their 20s.

For, my friends, your minds and your bodies are vessels of the Lord, given unto your keeping. They must not be abused. They are not tools for the indiscriminate enjoyment of what the world calls pleasure. There is one commandment which, above all, you must not violate. God says, clearly and without equivocation: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery!’ If you do, the torments of Hell await you for all eternity! (494–495)

Studs does not turn from the church at all. Instead he bears it with indifference while asserting his identity in public. Studs’ pursuit of personal freedom was real but misdirected. The promise of a banal life of guilt being offered by the Church was certainly not for him. Studs is provided an alternative. During a conversation with “an atheist,” who introduces Studs and some of his friends to the problem of evil, Studs is at least given the tools to think more critically about the church. This may have set him on a more liberatory path. Instead he remains committed to his Catholicism even though it seems to run contrary to his values. Studs and his friends rejecting out of hand the ideas of others by labelling them “atheists” or “reds” is a common motif in the book and serve as a reminder that a more creative person could have escaped some of these chain (at least at the level of perspective).

Alongside the institution of the church is the promise of work. Studs and his friends are often casually employed. It is not so much that work was hard to get. When the men needed work or set their task to finding work they tended to get it. But no one seems to particularly enjoy the choices they were given, so they mostly fall into and out of employment. It seem to me that voluntary precarious employment is a form of resistance to the work ethic and the type of life work offers. It is not the most radical or liberating of choices (especially when the burden of support falls on someone else), but it is a clear rejection of the work regimen. The Greek socialist, Christy, is the model for a more radical escape from work. Unfortunately, his approach is not so different from the priest. Christy takes to lecturing Studs and his pals about Debs, the war, and capitalism while taking singular pleasure in mocking Catholicism for hypocrisy. Clearly Christy does not know the first thing about organizing working people. His language is good for organizing the converted, but fails to convince others, especially those who evade work anyways.

Bolshevism is going to be justice for the workingman. He will no longer be a slave, work ten, twelve hours a day and have his children starved and underfed. He will have opportunities. Bolshevism will not allow greed, not allow capitalists to steal all the money to crush people, kill them in wars, to waste their toil on jewelry for silly women and silly wives. Russia is trying to make a decent world. America is trying to make a world for greed, capitalists, crooks, gangsters, criminals, and kill the working-man, make him a slave. (476)

Work, for these men, is still a burden they can avoid using it when the need to. Much like the church, it is an institution that has failed to trap them.

The final ominous threat to Studs is family. As this novel makes clear, it is quite unfortunate how young people escape one family only to be inevitably drawn into a new one. Some of his pals marry (which brings up the need for a steady job) and Studs begins to get a bit serious about courting a women he fell in love with as a child, Lucy. This is a disaster when he nearly rapes her after a rather awkward date, where he spends more time showing his contempt for other men than his affection for Lucy. Studs Lonigan’s own incompetence forestalls the shackles of marriage and we suspect that is what he wanted anyway.

So when the novel ends, we learn that however legitimate his evasion of the church, work, and family may have been, Studs is running out of time to chart an independent path for himself. This was not possible for him, because in the end, Studs was a conformist. Smart enough to reject some of the values and expectations of his parents, but not smart enough to think for himself. He had enough inspiration from contrarians, but he could never turn that into something authentic and original and adapted to his own needs and temperament.

James T. Farrell, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Patriotism, Racism, and Patriarchy–Failure of Working Class Empowerment

Sisters, sanctimonious hypocrites. They pray and pray and pray. Fear! Crazy! What can they teach boys? To pray and become sanctimonious hypocrites too. Silly boys, they grow up, their fathers want to make money, their mothers are silly women and pray like sanctimonious sisters, hypocrites. The boys run the streets, and grow up in pool-rooms, drink and become hooligans. They don’t know any better. Silly boys, and they kill themselves with disease from whores and this gin they drink. (Christy, pp. 476–477)

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The second volume of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, covers around 12 years in the life of the Studs, a second-generation Irish working class man living in Chicago. At the close of Young Lonigan, Studs was still a boy, just having graduated from Catholic grade school. While clever enough and capable of moments of self-discipline and focus, was easily seduced by the streets. Like many others, he savored the company of others and yearned for their recognition. As I discussed in my review of the short first book in the series, Lonigan was engaged in a substantial battle between the institutions that were imposed on him (education, family, and the Church), but rather than creating something for himself, he turned to other institutions such as the pool hall and the gang of street toughs. By the end of that first novel, Lonigan was spending his time tormenting blacks and Jews, drinking, and pursuing women. Lonigan is basically in the same place when the second volume opens a few short months later at the start of American involvement in the First World War. This is a rich novel and I will deal with is thematically, rather than chronically, over these two posts. I first want to take a look at the areas where Studs felt he was most impressive, showing these to be ultimately vapid efforts to lift himself up at the expense of others. This is seen in his Jingoistic Americanism, his participation in racial violence, and his treatment of women. In the next post, I will look at another more overly politicized aspects of Farrell’s story, the structural limitations on Studs’ life. Part of his problem lay in the fact that he was given only a few ways to enter society respectfully. Finding those inadequate, he turned to vernacular organizations (and he tried more than one). So there was a sort of institutional breakdown as well.

Farrell politics seem to begin to come out in this second novel of the trilogy. If they were suppressed in the first, I think this was due to the fact that his subject (the fifteen-year-old Studs) would have not come across much beyond his father’s over commitment to the Democratic Party. Farrell seems to believe that the immigrant working class was afflicted with a horrible case of false consciousness. We see it repeatedly in Lonigan’s language. First he openly supports the First World War. His reasons for support range from a celebration of his masculinity and fighting potential to the necessity of fighting for America. Their efforts to serve are frustrated because they are too young, but they participate in the war effort in moral terms from the home front. Mostly this involves arrogant big talk with little action. Significantly, when Lonigan feels threatened by other men, he often accuses them of being fakers, something he clearly is. So, Americanization was one distraction from class unity. Second, Lonigan is deeply committed to the everyday racism of white America. As with his big talk about the war, picking on blacks and Jews becomes a way for Lonigan to give himself some social status despite doing almost nothing to earn it. I guess in a general third way, Lonigan uses women as a way to assert some status for himself. His clumsy effort to seduce a woman that he seems to actually love, Lucy, suggests that in the end he sees women as not much more than conquests or ways to raise his status among his friends. There is an awful lot of conversation among the young men in Lonigan’s circle about the women they slept with. All three of these distractions feed into Lonigan’s false consciousness. This is at the root, according to Farrell, of the difficulty facing the American working class at the beginning of the century.

There is one character who seems to reflect Farrell’s perspective that the working class should unite under socialism, Christy. He is more than a springboard for Farrell, he reflects a path that Lonigan could have taken. Like Lonigan Christy is from immigrant blood, but since he is Greek his ideas are instantly ignored by Lonigan and his crew. After Christy gives them a good speech on the need to break free from Catholic values and embrace working class politics, guided by the Russian Revolution, they first cast off Christy’s dubious Americanism, his religion, and his masculinity. These are all the things that Lonigan is clinging too as the foundation of his value in the world that he did not create, is not shaping, and is being neglected by. In his mind, Lonigan compares Christy to the “real man” Uncle Sam. They then all talk about the fight Lonigan had as a child when he overtook Weary Reilley. This was a major moment in Young Lonigan, but that it remains significant to anyone by the time the participants and observers reached their late twenties is almost absurd, if we did not also know about people holding onto memories of their high school football careers with similar reverence.

The end of the novel highlights the failure of all three of Lonigan’s attempts to find meaning in the world. Their efforts at sexual exploits has shifted from childhood playfulness to vulgar ugliness. Lonigan alienates the women he loves by nearly raping her. Others come down with venereal diseases. Their praise for the 1919 Chicago race riots become like the victory over Weary Reilley, something raised to almost mythical proportions, when in reality it was a squalid and nasty affair. The final scene turns the tables around completely. Lonigan has been beaten by Weary over ten years after their first fight. Lonigan is left drunk, fat, and helpless on the street. In his helplessness, his body is looted by a passing black man.

The dirty gray dawn of the New Year came slowly. It was snowing. There was a drunken figure, huddled by the curb near the fireplug at Fifty-eight and Prairie. A passing Negro reveler studied it. He saw that the fellow wasn’t dead. He rolled it over, and saw it was a young man with a broad face, the eyes puffed black, the nose swollen and bent. He saw that the suit and the coat were bloodied, dirty, odorous with vomit. . . . He searched the unconscious drunk and pocketed eight dollars. He walked on. . . . It was Studs Lonigan, who had once, as a boy, stood before Charley Bathcellar’s poolroom thinking that some day, he would grow up to be strong, and tough, and the real stuff. (543–544)

It seems to me, by focusing on the decline in Lonigan’s physical prowess, his passivity while being robbed by a black man, and his isolation brought on in part by his misogynist attitude toward women, Farrell is highlighting the failure of patriotism, racism, and patriarchy as a tool of working class empowerment.

Frank Norris: “McTeague” (1899): Part Two

The second half of Frank Norris’ McTeague examines the rapid decline of the McTeague and Trina as a result of their increased obsession over five thousand dollars of lottery winnings. Trina, a miser, wants to hold onto that as an untouchable nest egg, while working hard to add to it. McTeague, desiring to enjoy a slightly better life hopes to use the money. Things change for the worse when Trina’s jealous cousin reports to the state of California that McTeague is practicing dentistry without a diploma. Eventually, he has to shut down his business. Trina’s unwillingness to touch the $5,000 leads to worsening conditions. They move into a series of more humble dwellings. McTeague begins abusing his wife, taking on the strange habit of violently biting her. He starts to drink and becomes less and less a part of Trina’s life. Trina, meanwhile, loses her fingers due to some type of chemical poisoning brought by her overwork on small Noah’s ark figurines, which forms her major income. She has to take a job as a dishwasher. She takes her $5,000 and converts it into gold and to actualize her fantastical wealth. McTeague returns to steal the money, killing her in the process. He escapes to desert and runs into Marcus and the two die in Death Valley, fighting over the money to their last breathes. It is all rather horrifying to watch and makes for a great novel. I have nothing to add to my initial analysis, except to say that I find it holds through the end of the novel. The fetishization of gold was actually institutionalized in American monetary policy and had real consequences in how people interacted with each other. While the $5,000 was a fair amount of money in those days, it was, not really that much. All the characters seem to make it something more than what it was (a way to make life just a little bit easier). In this sense, all of these characters are mentally ill in their relationship with money.

This decline is often heart wrenching to read. I argued last time that McTeague’s love for Trina was a fetish in its own way, but the evolution of his hatred for her is very real.

His rage loomed big within him. His hatred of Trina came back upon him like a returning surge. He saw her small, prim mouth, her narrow blue eyes, her black mane of hair, and uptilted chin, and hated her the more because of them. [Notice he still sees her like a doll.] Aha, he’d show her; he’d make her dane. He’d get that seven dollars from her, or he’d know the reason why. He went through his work that day, heaving and hauling at the ponderous pianos, handling them with the east of a lifting crane, impatient for the coming of evening, when he could be left to his own devices. (521)

His strange abuse of Trina even suggests his perception of Trina as little more than an ornament, becoming something he chews on when frustrated.

What thing I would like to dwell on is the unfortunate consequences of professionalization. Norris lives through a time when the line between professional and artisan was still not clear. The movement away from folk practitioners was clear by 1900. Midwives, as historians have well documented, were almost entirely eliminated by male physicians. McTeague was not a great dentist perhaps, but he was competent, having learned under an apprenticeship. Lacking book knowledge, he was nonetheless capable of doing his job. It is not clear that a diploma would have made him a better dentist. When the letters begin coming from the government, both McTeague and Trina are baffled that it is that big of a deal. (Norris continued to refer to McTeague as “the dentist” even after he was kicked out of the professional, suggesting he shared that point of view.) As McTeague puts it: “I ain’t going to quit for just a piece of paper.” (449)

It is quite clear to me that professionalization had played a role in class war in the last century and a half, consciously relocating economic and social power from one group of people to another. Whatever protections professionalization may have provided to the public (and that is almost always the justification) could be achieved in other ways. Professionalization also works to inflate the cost of certain services beyond reason (hundreds of dollars for a doctor’s visit antibiotic prescription for instance). Now I am not sure it is possible to go back to the wild west days when there was no official registration for professionals, but it is critical to move away from the fetish for the diploma and revive a respect for craft and good training.

Still from the film version "Greed"

Still from the film version “Greed”

So I will leave with that question. What will be the fate of the professions in anarcho-communism? They seem to be a product of industrial capitalism and have clearly been a tool of class warfare by the elite and the educated. There are many reservoirs of knowledge and talent that are not backed up by a degree. We actually see this every day, as artisans and skilled workers reveal practical understanding of complex systems that may be unknown to theoretical experts. Personally, I still cringe when people defend their position based on their academic credentials. (It seems to me to be a very arrogant appeal to authority.) Anyway, could McTeague be a dentist after the revolution?

Watch the movie version here.

Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part Two

All this he had felt before; it was his old enemy, but now with this second attack began a new and even stranger sensation. In his distorted wits he fancied that he was in some manner changing, that he was becoming another man; worse than that, it seems to him that he was no longer human, that he was sinking, all in a moment, to the level of some dreadful beast. (203–204)

In the second half of Frank Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute we painfully observe the steady decline of our hero until he is transformed into a proletariat. While we are led to feel sorrow for Vandover’s decline, it is important to remember that few of his contemporaries got to enjoy a young adulthood of comparable ease and pleasure. Thanks to the heavily mortgaged schemes of his father, Vandover lived a life of ease, pursuing his art, his education, and nurturing the “brute” through a life committed to cheap amusements. He never really needed to learn a craft that may have saved him (such as artisanal painting). As I argued in my last post, Vandover is not fully to blame for this. He was a product of his environment and we find it hard to blame him for seeking out comradeship and community in a world growing progressively more competitive and anti-humanist (social Darwinism is a hidden sub-text of the novel and in a strange way Vandover is the enemy of social Darwinism through his emotional generosity). To read Vandover as a hero does not take accepting much more than this, and acknowledging that his decline was really for all the right purposes, although made inevitable by his naivety.

The chain of events of Vandover’s decline began with the suicide of his girlfriend Ida, who he seduced and impregnated. This was devastating but not itself enough to lead to the triumph of “the brute.” Vandover follows this news with an overseas ocean voyage. The ship sank and Vandover was able to express self-sacrifice and solidarity. In fact, as I am suggesting, this was where his personal strengths lay. After returning home, his father died. He lost someone who was very important to him, more than he was willing to confess. This was also the start of his financial troubles. He learned from the lawyers that his father was not as well-financed as he thought. Having a career as a lawyer allowed him to life a comfortable life on top of his investments. Vandover is told that living just on those investments would require a drastic downgrading of his expectations. The properties were all heavily mortgaged. Still, with the rents and a significant bond, Vandover could enjoy a regular income. This, for a while, sustains his life and his art.

The next catastrophe came when Vandover was sued by Ida’s family for causing her suicide. This provided an opportunity for his lawyer friend, Geary, to take advantage of him. Vandover did not fully realize that he was being conned by both Ida’s family and the lawyer. He was simply too willing to believe the best in people. Geary knows the family will get little in court, but he figures a settlement may allow him to purchase Vandover’s properties cheaply. He talks Vandover into a scheme. Settle the lawsuit and raise the money by selling a large portion of his rentals to Geary (who has plans of his own to upgrade them). Vandover, personally devastated by the lawsuit, agrees just to make his troubles go away. This forces Vandover to painting as an artisan at a paint shop, something he dreads but it does allow him to make enough to survive.

It is all a steady decline from this point. Vandover begins gambling and loses the rest of his property and bonds (either by giving them away or losing them at games of chance). He loses his job at the print shop and by the final chapters he is homeless and penniless. He takes a job for Geary cleaning the properties that he once owned.

One easy reading of this is as a morality tale, in which Vandover finally is forced to pay for his life of cheap pleasures, waste, and sloth. I find this too simplistic, and ignores how sympathetic a character Vandover is. Rather than working as a warning, we are made to feel that given similar circumstances we would be as susceptible to “the brute” as Vandover was. Indeed, it is hard to identify what he really did wrong. His decline was carefully orchestrated by others, or emerged logically from his environment.

Another reading is that Vandover is living the process of proletarianization that accompanies maturing capitalism everywhere. He began the novel as a clear member of the bourgeoisie, but through a steady process of manipulation by people of greater legal talents, his wealth is usurped. Contributing to this reading is that Vandover does not simply become a drunken vagrant. Norris carefully moved Vandover step by step into the working class.

I guess you can’t give me any work that would be too dirty for me! I want to be honest, Mister Geary. I want to be honest; I’m down and I don’t mean not offense. Charlie, you and I were old chums once at Harvard. My God! To think I was a Harvard man once! Oh, I’m a goner now and I ain’t got a friend. When I was in the paint-shop they paid me well. I’ve been in a paint-shop lately painting the little pictures on the safes, little landscapes, you know, and lakes with mountains around them. I pulled down my twenty dollars and findings! (245—246)

Notice with me that Vandover is as horrified by his loss of companionship and the loss of his art as he is of the loss of his invested wealth.

Next, I will look at McTeague, which is in some ways the inverse story, where a working class person comes across wealth, leading to very different character arcs. Importantly these two novels were written simultaneously in 1894 and 1895.

Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part One

This blog has been quiet for a week or so. The reason for this is that I was stricken with a fairly nasty sore throat early last week. Following that was the “Sunflower” student protests in Taiwan, which occupied my attention. Finally, I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s books, starting with A Week and found that I needed more time to fully understand and appreciate it. So after a reboot, I picked up my Library of America volume of Frank Norris’ novels, which I love. This was not an unfortunate refocusing. I have long wanted to do a series on industrializing America, covering the period from 1880 until the Great Depression. This period contains some of my favorite American writings, including the great (and in my opinion underappreciated) Frank Norris.

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Frank Norris

Frank Norris died tragically young at 32. Despite his youth he left a fairly impressive body of work of four novels, the last of which was published in 1914 (over a decade after his death), although was written while he was at Harvard. I will start with this novel, Vandover and the Brute, since it appears first in the volume and was the first novel he completed. Published during his life were three other novels: McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit. These last two made up the first two novels in an incomplete trilogy surrounding the production, sale, and consumption.  The Library of America chose not to include The Pit, so we are left with just these three novels and some of his shorter non-fiction work. We will have to manage.

Vandover and the Brute is a quite rich and entertaining novel about an artist who graduates from Harvard but through bad habits and ill-luck is driven into poverty. On the surface, it is a reverse Horatio Alger story and reads as a morality tale. Certainly Vandover shares some of the blame for his decline, but I would like to suggest that he is not entirely at fault. He wrestled with demons, but Norris is not so simple of a writer to blame the “beast” alone for Vandover’s fall. He was also destroyed by the society around him, its expectations and its pressures. Norris wants us to sympathize with Vandover, which makes it difficult for us to take him as a lesson in what not to be. In this post and the next, I would like to argue that Vandover’s “beast” is as much an invention of Vandover’s society as it is a real thing. It becomes, for outsiders and often for Vandover, the scapegoat for his failure. Unwilling to accept the social causes of his poverty, he looks inward and blames his beast. The reality is, even had Vandover totally suppressed these negative characteristics, he would have been defeated.

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Some of the context of Vandover’s decline was inherited. He was raised with the false sense of wealth. Vandover’s father was a lawyer who was able to use to the system to create the false facade of wealth, an all too common strategy in Gilded Age America. He took two mortgages on various properties. The first to purchase the property, the second to buy another property. Thus he created a chain of rental units, heavily mortgaged. As long as the interests payments were less than the rents, he was able to provide for himself a nice monthly income. Making little effort to pay off the loans, he ensured that this wealth would always be fragile. In fact, it was really a near criminal act. It did allow Vandover to grow up in relative luxury and allowed him to pursue his art.

Vandover was a talented artist and could have started his career right away, but he want to Harvard as expected by his father and colleagues. He also sustained an appreciation for vulgar passions, but again this was largely a product of his peer group. It is not clear he got much pleasure from smoking, drinking and playing around with girls. His more authentic pleasures came from his work as an artist and his never-ending work on his masterpiece, a portrait of a wounded soldier fighting a final losing battle with a lion. He approached the vulgar side of life with almost intellectual curiosity.

When he returned from Harvard, Vandover fails to take responsibility for his life by getting a job as an artisan painter. His sense of entitlement and the very real support from his father lead him to pursue his masterpiece, even though it means he never is able to create for himself an independent foundation of his life, like many of his friends do. This keeps him in a more juvenile life, where the “brute” is more alive.

Gradually Vandover allowed his ideas and tastes to be molded by this new order of things. He assumed the manners of these young men in the city, very curious to see for himself the other lower side of their life that began after midnight in the private rooms of fast cafes and that was continued in the heavy musk-laden air or certain parlours amid the rustle of heavy silks. Slowly the fascination of this thing grew in him until it mounted to a veritable passion. His strong artist’s imagination began to be filled with a world of charming sensuous pictures. (21)

Vandover has a strong desire to be part of society, unfortunately, he lives in a world in which community is being rapidly degraded by industrialization. What is left is the stuffy, banal middle class culture that is expected of him but does not very much interest him, and the culture of the cafes and other public amusement, full of cheap liquor and cheap sex. He floats between the two with relative ease. His disaster comes when he seduces a well-off girl, Ida, at one of these low-brow parlors. When she becomes pregnant, she kills herself and Vandover is subtly accused of seducing Ida in her death notice. He is unable to handle the moral burden of his guilt. Never before has the life of the “brute” faced such consequences. His response to this is actually quite fruitful for him and allows him to spend part of his life more authentically, but it requires leaving home and taking a long trip on a passenger ship.

I will end for now at this point with the conclusion that Vandover’s pliable nature helped nurture the “brute.” It must be added, however, that Vandover is not so unlike many of us, eager for community. The early industrial city was destroying the communities that Vandover’s father grew up in. Some certainly thrive in the social Darwinian world that industrialism produced. We will see in the second half how one of Vandover’s friends is able to successful take advantage of this situation. I suspect that most of us are closer to Vandover, and face with terror the unrelenting loneliness of the world we live in. Cheap amusements fill in that hole in our lives.

Mark Twain: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885): Disgusting Adults and a Festivus Grievance

“Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was alive, and it didn’t seem right that there warn’t nobody to make some about her, now she was gone; so I tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but I couldn’t seem to make it go, somehow.” (727)

This comes from Huckleberry Finn’s thoughts after reading the poetry of Emmeline Grangerford, who died as a child. What we know about Grangerford adults—slaveholdes, murders, petty, jealous—we are somehow glad she did not grow up. Her poem, which Huck read, was about a boy who drown. Her poems were acts of selflessness, tributes. Why is it that solidarity and selflessness seems to come only from the children that Huck Finn encountered on his adventure?

Every time I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (this is maybe the four time and the second time this year), I am struck first and foremost by how utterly disgusting most of the white adults in the story are. As for blacks, we really only meet Jim and the slaves who give refuge to Jim, while Huck is taken in by the Grangerfords. If we want to be hard on Twain, we can accuse him of infantilizing Jim by not giving him the same vile characteristics as the other adults in the book. We have two plot lines in the novel. The first deals with Huck achieving his moral autonomy when committing to freeing Jim and learning to see him as more than a plaything. The second is the series of odd adults that Huck encounters, all with their own brand of odious personal defects, some of them personal, but a great many systemic and products of the civilization they lived in.

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The first adult we meet is the Widow Douglas who quite selfishly took on the job of “sivilizing” Huck. If we trust Huck’s narration (and why wouldn’t we as hopefully good and moral people), the Widow Douglas sees like the state. She does not abuse Huck physically, but she does work hard to crush his freedom and creativity while regimenting his life. Her job is to prepare Huck for work, a criminal act of murder if there ever was one. Remember that Huck preferred living with his physically abusive father who periodically locked him in a room. (“it warn’t long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it, all but the cowhide part. It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study.” 647–648). When pap takes Huck back to his cabin, the Widow Douglas uses the power of the state to steal him back. Huck’s wishes are not consulted by either adult. Douglas’ sister, Miss Watson is Jim’s owner. We have no reason not to believe that Douglas does not sustain the paternalistic ideas toward blacks and children that ran through slave society. (See my second post on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for more on Huck’s attitude toward life with the Widow Douglas.)

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Of course, even if Huck marginally preferred the physical brutality of pap to the moral and mental abuse of the Widow Douglas, pap is utterly disgusting. He is after the money Huck earned in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, steals the little that Huck has on hand to drink, beats Huck, and locks him in a room while he is gone. He is also thoroughly racist and resents any blacks with even a smidgen of education or status. In a two-page rant he dwells on a free black who could vote.

Let me add a Festivus grievance at this point. The Wikipedia entry for Huckleberry Finn (the character, not the novel) has a significant section on the impact of pap’s alcoholism on Huck. It is well sourced. I guess someone was going to write a silly psychological profile of Huck Finn especially, but I was surprised to find one that utterly missed the point that Huck is the freest and most moral character in the novel. Instead, these scholars have focused on how Huck was mentally, intellectually, and morally damaged by being raised by pap. I do not want to defend abusive drunk parents, but instead point out the stunning resilience of children in the face of the violence of the adult world. Below is the really stupid part, which suggests that some of Huck’s best qualities are a result of the violence he experienced at home.

“Huck is regarded as “vulgar” and “lawless” by Mark Twain. These characterizations of Huck coupled with his constant lying and his absurd schemes, such as faking his own death, are examples of Huck’s externalizing behavior. Pap’s alcoholism coupled with the absence of Huck’s mother ultimately attributes to Huck’s extreme externalizing behavior. Huck‘s experience of a lack of warmth and sensitivity from his mother was only exaggerated by her complete absence due to her death. Huck’s situation is more severe than many other COAs because he was entirely deprived of warmth and sensitivity from his mother Huck’s lying, stealing, and absolute disregard for the rules are also clear examples of his externalizing behavior. Huck ultimately fakes his own death and runs away from his village to escape his father as a result of how poor of a role model he sees his father to be.”

So as part of my Festivus airing of grievances I call for an end of psychological profiles of fictional characters using assumptions derived from our contemporary therapeutic culture. (This is the second time I posted this bit from Against the Logic of Submission, but people keep going to therapy.)

Huck fakes his own death to escape his bind. Either he must stay with his father or return to the Widow Douglas. This begins his rafting adventures on the Mississippi. He hides out on an island and meets up with Jim, who ran away from Miss Watson because of suggestions that she will sell Jim south. (Another odious adult for you.)

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Along the way they encounter a series of groups, the first three of which are a gang of robber and murders stealing from a steamboat that ran aground, the feuding and violent Sheperdsons and Grangerfords, and the duo of confidence men the Duke and the King. Since Huck and Jim will spend most of the time with the Duke and the King, we can close with a study of their character. They are rather ridiculous, but no less so than the people they are able to con. We read with disbelief that their able to sustain their schemes as long as they do. Their first trick that we experience involves convincing Jim and Huck that they are heir to the Duke of Bridgewater and Louis XVII. I found this interesting because we have two con artists who take advantage of the democratic capitalism of the antebellum period, but also sustain a façade of inherited privilege. In any case, Huck sees through them right away, but does not mind playing along. They put on shows of bad Shakespeare and later a vulgar show called “The Royal Nonesuch.”

The Duke and the King practicing

The Duke and the King practicing

In their own words, they choose whatever will make them money. “Jour printer, by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theatre-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn at mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing-geography school for a change; sling a lecture, sometimes—oh, I do lots of things.” (744) Their first scam to make money after being with Huck and Jim is to put on a revival, ending with donations for a missionary venture to Asia. In a way, there is some play involved in the Duke and the King’s efforts (I think the professionalization of careers limits us too much), but in the end they are looking to take advantage of everyone they can. At one point they even sell Jim. While on the surface they appear as interesting playmates, they also turn out to be characteristic of the worst aspects of antebellum American civilization.

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck