Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

He knew how to value the thoughts of other people, but he could not part with the privilege of observing and thinking for himself. He wanted business which would suffer at least nine tenths of his attention to go free. If it afforded agreeable employment that that part of his attention which it applied to its own use, so much the better; but if it did not, he should not repine. He should be content with a life whose pleasures were to its pains as nine are to one. He had tried the trade of a copyist, and in circumstances more favourable than it was likely he should ever again have opportunity of trying it, and he had found that it did not fulfil the requisite conditions. Whereas the trade of plowman was friendly to health, liberty, and pleasure. (238)

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I have just noticed, looking at the dates of Charles Brockden Brown’s major works, that he published his three most well-known works—the three collected in the Library of America anthology—within two years. One of these, Arthur Mervyn, is a complex and elaborate tale that alone would have made Brown part of the American canon of literature. It comes quite close to make Brown the American William Godwin. Like Wieland, Arthur Mervyn takes on the “contrast” (to borrow from Royall Tyler’s play exposing the division between European/urban society and America/rural, republican, virtuous. In Wieland the ominous urban civilization is imported from Europe through characters. In Arthur Mervyn the city is looked at as a dark corner of American civilization. It is almost as if the cancer hinted at in the earlier work had taken root in America.

What struck me most of all when reading the first half of Arthur Mervyn was how psychological traumatic the protagonist’s wanderings between these two worlds was. He was really thrust into a world where there was no solid foundation to his life. His searching for work brought him into a position where he was completely alienated from what he was doing—forging documents as it turns out. Much of the anxiety and dark suggestion of the story is rooted in the bizarre relationship between the boss and the employee, starting from the arbitrary way he was hired to the ambiguous nature of the wealth he is producing. To be specific, one common theme in the story is rooted in the profession of forgery and counterfeiting money, which both appears to have real wealth, but certainly does not. So, what we have in this novel is a curious exploration of the nature of urban capitalism to disturb our comfortable categories. In the background of all of this is an ominous yellow fever epidemic that hits everyone regardless of class and status, yet another ambiguity of urban civilization. Long before Philip K. Dick mastered this theme, Brown laid it out with amazing clarity.

The novel tracks the adventures of Arthur Mervyn as he arrives destitute in the city. He begs for some money only to be hired by a strange man with an unclear profession. At first, Mervyn is not even clear on what he is to do. He knows only that he has a job. (How common is this feeling in late industrial society?) He discovers that the man—Welbeck—is a quite odious character all around. He makes his living by counterfeiting and forging documents. Welbeck apparently dies in a boating accident and Mervyn eventually gets sick with yellow fever when trying to transport Wallace, a man who robbed him earlier in the novel, to a farm for recuperation. Wallace tries to apologize for his earlier wrongs against Mervyn. The protagonist returns to Welbeck’s mansion. He begins to consider what to do with the money he got from Welbeck, who he thinks is dead. He decides whether to put it to public use or give it to Clemenza—a woman Welbeck claimed was his daughter, but whom Welbeck seduced and impregnated. Welbeck appears, apparently having faked his own death. When confronted on the money, Welbeck claims they are forged, so Mervyn burns them. This horrifies Welbeck, who confesses that they were real. He only claimed they were forged to get Mervyn to hand them over. All of this story is told in flashback to a Dr. Stevens, who had saved his life after Welbeck in anger turned out on the streets to die on the streets.

There is a hint in the first part of the novel of solutions to these disruptions. One that Arthur Meryvn is constantly struggling for is a return to the more stable life of the countryside. A braver response comes to him in the context of the yellow fever epidemic.

It is vain to hope to escape the malady by which my mother and my brothers have died. We are a race, whose existence some inherent property has limited to the short space of twenty years. We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to perish by consumption. Why then should I scruple to lay fown my life in the cause of virtue and humanity? It is better to die, in consciousness of having offered an heroic sacrifice; to die by a speedy stroke, than by the perverseness of nature, in ignominious inactivity, and lingering agonics. (351)

It seems to me that this is a suggestion that we should work in the terrible world we live in, and not incessantly seek escape to some idyllic paradise that may in actuality be a figment of our imagination. The disease of yellow fever, like the urban capitalist civilization, will spread regardless of our will. As it was for Caleb Williams (William Godwin), escape is not an option. Goodwill and solidarity, however, do offer a form of solidity in a liquid world.

Next time I will look at the rest of the novel.

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Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)

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Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)

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Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

Tennessee Williams: “Summer and Smoke” (1948)

You talk as if my body had ceased to exist for you, John, in spite of the fact that you’ve just counted my pulse. Yes, that’s it! You tried to avoid it, but you’ve told me plainly. The tables have turned, yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance! You’ve come around to my old way of thinking and I to yours like two people exchanging a call on each other at the same time, and each one finding the other one gone out, the door locked against him and no one to answer the bell! (Alma, 638)

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Summer and Smoke opened in 1948 a year after the author, Tennessee Williams, put out his Pulitzer winning play A Streetcar Named Desire. The play, can be easily overshadowed by its greater sibling, but it remains an interesting effort looking at the difficult of two people incapable of finding love for each other because of the liquid nature of their worldviews. Although a bit troubling, Summer and Smoke is dramatically more liberating than some of Williams’ other plays. The Glass Menagerie suggests how people are unable to escape their condition or their ways of thinking, They are stuck in the past. A Street Car Names Desire suggests the possibility of change but paints a horrific picture of mental decline. Summer and Smoke suggest more benign chances. Alma becomes less coy about her love for John overtime. John starts out the story a bit earthier and open about his desires for Alma, but eventually settles down and become a good boy. So, they fly past each other. I do not want to so easily forgive the social forces at work. Alma begins the play a product of an overly romanticized view of the world, clearly a product of her upbringing and culture. John abandons his sensual origins in the pursuit of a career and a family. Alma outgrew her socialization while John becomes socialized. Alma ends up going her own way by seducing (or accepting the suggestions) of a young man, reversing the situation of the early part of the play.

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I suspect many wonderful moments are lost because people pass each other at different places in their life. I am also certain this would be less common and less tragic in a truly free society where people were allowed to be honest and open about their desires, needs, and points of view. Williams knows quite well that culture is horribly oppressive, most importantly to our psychology. Repression of desire (when mostly harmless at least) is one of the greatest possible crimes a culture can impose on individuals.

At the beginning, Alma suggests she is shocked by John’s sexual advances. He is to be a doctor and therefore should be above such lurid interests.

I’m afraid that you I move in different circles. If I wished to be as outspoken as you are, which is sometimes just an excuse for being rude—I might say that I’ve yet to see you in the company of a —well, —reputable young woman. You’ve heard unfavorable talk about me in your circle of acquaintances and I’ve heard equally unpleasant things about you in mine. And the pity of it is that you are preparing to be a doctor. You’re intending to practice your father’s profession here in Glorious Hill. . . But you have a gift for scientific research! You have a chance to serve humanity. (587)

Notice the moralism and class assumptions that invade that statement. It was probably lectures like this, given by many people through his life that convinced him to reform himself and settle down. Alma may, in the end, have regretted giving that lecture to him.

All in all, a play that should not be ignored for those interested in the relationship between sexual freedom and culture.

 

 

Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944)

I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent—why then, you’ll be free to go wherever you please, on land, on sea, whichever way the wind blows you! But until that time you’ve got to look out for your sister. I don’t say me because I’m old and don’t matter! I say for your sister because she’s young and dependent. (422)

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This is part of a short speech by Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I put it on there as an example of how the language of freedom is so easily a part of the lexicon of American literature. One could hardly say that the characters in the 1945 play are free. With the exception of the “gentleman caller,” Jim, none of the characters are able to break themselves free of their chains. Yet freedom remains the goal. This is part of the argument of this blog. The discourse on freedom is deep in the American mind, as evidenced by its literary heritage, despite—or perhaps because of—the authoritarian institutions, capitalism, family, and all the other shackles.

Williams produced a handful of plays during the war. I am skipping over, for now, the one-act plays collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (published in 1946) to look at the great run of plays he produced in the decade between The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This was period saw Williams rise in the theatrical world and the awarding of two Pulitzer Prizes (not that we should judge the works based on such standards).

I have never seen A Glass Menagerie, or any other Tennessee Williams plays, performed live. I suspect that it would be a very claustrophobic experience. Williams took great pains in the stage directions to create the setting for his “memory play.” There are only four characters. The setting is an apartment near an alley in St. Louis. Escaping even for a minute is presented as a victory. Amanda Wingfield is the mother and she lives entirely in the past, often repeating banal lessons about the way life if to her near captive children. At every moment she reinforces the idea that her children are incapable of moving beyond the home, despite demanding that of them. Laura, her daughter, is the owner of the titular glass menagerie, which occupies much of her time. She has a leg brace and this had led to her mother being overly protective of her. By the time of the play, Laura lacks any self-confidence and is completely dependent on her mother and brother. Williams writes about her that “Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” (394) Tom, the son, has a meaningless job but has greater ambitions. The needs of his mother and sister keep him at the apartment. He is the one most directly enslaved by the situation and the one most capable of rebellion. The final character is a breath of fresh air. Tom brings in Jim as a “gentleman caller” for his sister, although there is little hope that it will go anywhere. Jim is not a brilliant man but he is quickly able to diagnosis the situation in the apartment and knows enough to stay away.

The structure of play is suggested on the first page. “Part I. Preparation for a Gentleman Caller. Part II. The Gentleman calls.” This is more or less the end of Amanda’s dreams for her daughter. In Amanda’s mind, the only hope for her daughter is if some man saves her by marrying her. Amanda seems to live in a deluded past that recalls an endless train of suitors for her own hand. This reaches the level of a tall tale when we learn about one day with seventeen suitors. Tom wants to get out desperately. He often goes to movies just to escape the apartment and his queer mother and banal sister. Amanda assumes he is engages in all sorts of other activities, but Tom denies this. Eventually, he brings in Jim who politely gets to know Laura and leaves. It was not a serious date for Jim, although Amanda and Laura envisioned it as a central event in their life. All in all, it is quite horrible to watch unfold.

The date was more like a brief therapy session where Jim desperately encourages Laura to go out into the world and make something of herself on her own terms. “Why, man alive, Laura! Just look about you a little. What do you see? A world full of common people! All of ‘em born and all of ‘em going to die! Which of them has one-tenth of yoru good points! Or mine! Or anyone else’s, as far as that goes—Gosh! Everyone excels in some one thing. Some in many! All you’ve got to do is discover in what.” (454) There is a bit pomposity in this lecture (he looks in the mirror when he comments how some people excel in many things), but it is a lesson that a woman like Laura, who has been told all of her life that she is inadequate and needs the support of a man, needs desperately.

Tom is probably the only character who can escape. He has a job and some dreams of his own. He spends most of the play with one foot outside the door anyway. There seems to be to be little hope for Amanda or Laura. Amanda is too married to the past. She must live in the delusional house she created. Laura long lost any chance for emotional autonomy. The lesson of this play for our thinking about freedom is the devastating impact family can have. Oppression is much more likely to be something intimate. People like Bill Gates and Terry Guo may be worth billions and run little empires, but it is our immediate boss, the tedious middle manager who oppresses us day to day. To talk about the patriarchal marriage system seems besides the point in a play like The Glass Menagerie. The damage done to Laura was done by the ones closet to her. As long as living in freedom requires a free mind, the problem of the oppression of familial expectations will need to be addressed. I have no doubt that there are countless Lauras out there (and no small number of Toms). The people who create the chains around these victims need to be accountable.

Watch it for yourself.

Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Surely the fates are forever kind, through Nature’s laws are more immutable than any despot’s, yet to man’s daily life they rarely seem rigid, but permit him to relax with license in summer weather. He is not harshly reminded of the things he may not do. She is very kind and liberal to all men of vicious habits, and certainly does not deny them quarter; they do not die without priest. Still they maintain life along the way, keeping this side the Styx, still hearty, still resolute, “never better in their lives”; and again, after a dozen years have elapsed, they start up from behind a hedge, asking for work and wages for able-bodied men. (30)

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Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is hard to summarize or even isolate thematically. Like the subtly changing landscapes along the Massachusetts waterways that Thoreau describes, his philosophical ponderings venture from the personal to the national to the universal. Many readers will tease out something for themselves, likely disregarding the rest. If, on the surface, A Week is a naturalists account of the plant and animal life and scenery of the river, it is also a documentary of his thoughts and values. Now we are free to take in some of the scenery and completely ignore others—Thoreau is not an authoritarian telling us to “Look at that tree!” In the same way we are free to completely ignore some of his philosophy. It does not seem to me to be a system that requires unification and strict method for the observer. Nature has certain rules and principles governing how things work. Thoreau’s philosophy has that as well. In neither case, are we required to know what those rules are to appreciate the beauty before us. A Week is an ideal book to read on a day when you promise yourself to do nothing. Maybe it needs to be read in that way. I had trouble getting into it before because I was thinking about what to say about it. I came back to it a bit hung over, bored and uninspired and its treasures opened up before me.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau’s first book. It was written alongside Walden while he was living at Walden Pond. It was published in 1849, almost a decade after the trip that it supposedly documents. It was a disappointment. Emerson did not promote the book to Thoreau’s disappointment. Of the original 1,000 books, Thoreau took back 706 of them. So, it is fair to say that Thoreau was largely neglected at this time. A few years later, Walden will be much more successful. Of course, Thoreau is not making a living from his writing and works various jobs throughout his life such as teaching, surveying, and a bit of lecturing.

A Week is broken up into seven chapters, each corresponding to a date. While I cannot even attempt to approach a summary of the work, I can highlight some anarchist themes. Thoreau is commonly identified as an anarchist and is certainly one of the most important figures in the American libertarian traditions. Months ago I looked at his essays and found not only themes of anti-slavery and individualism, but also strong currents of anti-capitalism and even work resistance. The theme of work resistance surprised me because I rarely saw that outside of a fully industrial, post-scarcity economy. Thoreau was not like Kropotkin, he was suspicious of industrialization and technology. His argument against industrial regimen of work was rooted in his effort to preserve individualism in the face of a homogenizing society. Anyway, let’s see what A Week contributes to my growing literary arsenal of anarchism.

At times Thoreau seems to hack the promethean spirit of early America, a belief in progress and the potential of the human mind to accomplish great deeds, while also sabotaging some of the clearest images of that progress. He questions the application of that promethean spirit.

Instead of the Scythian vastness of the Billerica night, and its wild musical sounds, we were kept awake by the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with every increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night. [Notice that the exploitation of labor and the violation of nature are two sides of the same process for Thoreau.] One sailor was visited in his dreams this night by the Evil Destinies, and all those powers that are hostile to human life, which constrain and oppress the minds of men, and make their path seem difficult and narrow, and beset with dangers, so that the most innocent and worthy enterprises appear insolent and a tempting of fate, and the gods go not with us. But the other happily passed a serene and even ambrosial or immortal night, and his sleep was dreamless, or only the atmosphere of pleasant dreams remained, a happy natural sleep until the morning; and his cheerful spirit soothed and reassured his brother, for whenever they meet, the Good Genius is sure to prevail. (94)

In this second part, Thoreau details the two sides of this coin, labeling them the Evil Destinies and the Good Genius. It is the tension between these two sides of the American spirit that come as close as anything can to being a theme of the book.

As in the opening quote, Thoreau consistently uses the language of freedom and oppression. I included that one because it suggest the logic of the liberal state in a certain way. Like nature, the liberal state gives the illusion of autonomy and freedom. And in the same way that the industrial frontier is just 12 years away from shattering the myth that nature’s laws can be overcome, so is the jackbooted nature of the state always just one crisis from being exposed. Thoreau is perhaps most interested in the tension between freedom nature provides and the unavoidable laws of nature and the pull of society. “Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man,—all whose bones can be bent! Whose heavenborn virtues are but good manners!” (45–46)

Thoreau’s critique of religion is libertarian to the core. A major theme of “Sunday,” the second day of the “week,” is that religions are products of their societies and reinforce the needs and assumptions of that civilization. A hierarchical society, while have a hierarchical god. A terrified society will have gods that terrify them. Thoreau seems to take from this two conclusions. The first is that people should not take the Bible very seriously, pointing out that it does not have much to teach that is valuable or unknown and that it is also bad poetry. “Examine your authority. Even Christ, we fear, had his scheme, his conformity to tradition, which slightly vitiates his teaching. He had not swallowed all formulas. He preached some mere doctrines.” (57) The second conclusion extends from this and suggests that we should create religious traditions that work for ourselves. Is he predicting William James? He talks about a wood-chopper who may find little of practical value in the New Testament. His goodness and conscience is not derived from faith and certainly not organized religion (which is often mocks in the book). “Monday” continues some of the religious perspectives of “Sunday,” where Thoreau takes a special look at the value and limitations of Hinduism and the ancient Greeks. Through this discussion these is the general suggestion that all the different philosophies and religions are windows to the same truth.

Thoreau is constantly worried that the universal truths of nature and humanity (including all that ancient “wisdom” that he gobbles up with only nominal reflection) is doomed to be swept aside and forgotten by the mad rush to industrialization. Even local history, often the topic of A Week, is in danger of being lost. Here is his ideal:

Let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological periods which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human affairs. If we rise above this wisdom for a day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which it has been supplied with the simplest necessaries, with corn, and wine, and honey, and oil, and fire, and articulate speech, and agricultural and other arts, reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor. (127)

Thoreau seems to realize that the world around him is a graveyard of ideas, past ways of living, bits of nature, people, and even entire towns. He is uncomfortable in such a place. At one point he said that has no friends in the graveyard. This again is the two sided coin. The same promethean spirit that Thoreau wants to embrace is responsible for digging a lot of graves.

James T. Farrell, “Judgment Day” (1935): How to Sleep Through a Revolutionary Moment

Grim-faced men in working clothes and overalls with an interspersing of women in their ranks marched slowly along a high fence surrounding a factory in a mid-western town, watched by special deputies who stood at regularly-spaced intervals with clubs and truncheons ready. Above the geometrically patterned factory windows, two chimney’s smoked. (594)

He paused at South Shore Drive and looked across at the arched entrance-way to the club grounds, wondering again what should he do now. Carroll Dowson had just joined South Shore Country Club, he remembered, and was getting up in the world. Well, the day would come when Studs Lonigan could join a swell club like that if he wanted to. (739–740)

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The final volume of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, Judgment Day, reads like a guidebook on how to squander a revolutionary movement. In the first two volumes of the series we see Studs Lonigan squander his intelligence and potential in a half-hearted resistance against the institutions that dominate his life. His rebellion is only passive and usually unacknowledged. Studs rejects the “American” values of hard work. He rejects Catholic sexuality and religious practices. He even rejects his community, disregarding friends and family for short-term psychological advantage. Yet, into his late 20s and early 30s, Studs is still capable of resting his identity on these very structures. This is him in response to yet another leftist trying to awaken his political imagination.

Studs laughed at the crazy bastard. A Bolshevik. He supposed the guy was a nigger lover, too. Well, let the Bolshevik get tough. They’d be taken care of, just the same as the shines were during the race riots of ’19. (709)

This is meant to be embarrassing to read, especially after we have been following Studs with no amount of concerned interest for seven hundred pages. He treats the post-World War I Chicago race riots in the same what he treated his childhood brawl with a classmate. He turns what was a vulgar and ugly affair, with no redeeming features, into a celebration that long out lives the event. When looking at the previous volume in the series, I tried to approach the dilemma of Studs’ resistance to institutional confinement along with his embrace of those very structures as his personal identity. Two things make all of this harder to watch. First, Studs is getting old quickly. A life of drinking, smoking, and chasing women has left him worn beyond his years. He is around 30 now and has nothing to show for his life. Second, Studs has been placed in a moment of historical transformation. The novel is set in 1932, during the election campaign that would bring Franklin Delano Roosevelt to office. Studs is surrounded by revolutionaries and revolutionary activity. More so than in the other words in the series, Farrell populates this book with news, trying to hit home that Studs is sleeping through a storm.

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It is time to examine Farrell’s politics. He was from a union family; his father was a teamster in Chicago.  His writing career began in journalism, writing columns and book reviews for newspapers. In his mid-20s, while writing Young Lonigan he advocated racial integration at the University of Chicago dramatic association. After the Great Depression began, Farrell was writing articles for New Masses. His career is largely literary but he engages in political actions such as May Day marches and picketing publishers that fired leftists. By the time he was finishing the Studs Lonigan triology in 1935, Farrell was fully part of the leftist opposition in the United States. He became a follower of Leon Trotsky and was greatly affected by his murder, having earlier travelled to Mexico to support Trotsky in his legal difficulties there in 1937. During the Cold War, Farrell continued his vocal defenses of leftist writers and thinkers and also worked to support the growing United Auto Workers. In many ways, Farrell’s biography reads like a model example of Great Depression era American radicals. Knowing this makes it easier to read Studs Lonigan as a leftist critique of American working class provinciality and false consciousness.

Back to the tale. In Judgment Day, Farrell places Studs Lonigan in a revolutionary situation. Lonigan does everything he can to avoid facing the historical moment he was in. Instead he continued to shuffle through his life, which is becoming increasingly pathetic to watch. Some of his friends are in jail or dead, but this is not as tragic as Lonigan’s own living death. It also suggests the costs of his earlier recklessness. While we do not want to condemn every (or even most) efforts at pleasure seeking, Lonigan refused to ever examine critically the world he lived in, despite being given insight from many of the people in his life. The costs of this is he is impotent to do anything but accept the guidance of others.

Some of what Lonigan does in the first part of this novel include attend funerals and talk about the good old days. He had a steady girlfriend, Catherine, but he is rather indifferent to her. Lonigan realizes that she is a good hearted woman and would make a good wife, but he cannot help but think he is settling for less than he deserves because of her mediocre looks and figure. He cheats on her, they fight constantly, and the relationship goes nowhere despite a marriage proposal early in the story. He is constantly losing money in the stock market because he invests what little money he has on promises made by opportunities who (like President Hoover) promised the recovery was right around the corner. More than a game, it is one more burden on his already immobile existence. It is also evidence that Lonigan has no capacity to examine the world critically. He joins a secret Catholic brotherhood called the Order of Christopher. Of course, he fails to follow through on what membership in this group might provide to the now-middle-aged man.

Catherine properly diagnoses Studs’ problem during one of their fights. “Only you’re walking along here, so self-satisfied acting as if you were so pleased, with a head like a big balloon full of false pride, acting as if you thought yourself . . . indispensable.” (726) His response to this apt critique is the only strategy he has learned in almost 20 years on the streets. He tries to smash Catherine’s self-confidence. At the mid-point of Judgment Day Lonigan pays to sleep with a married woman who has lost her money gambling and feared to return to her husband empty handed. Yet, despite his betrayal, ridicule, and abuse of Catherine he is confident that a pleasant note preparing their reconciliation is waiting for him.

The second half of the novel really focuses on Studs rapid decline. After the argument with Catherine, he attempts to sleep with the gambler again but is humiliated and thrown out of her house. Studs, who rests much of his masculinity of a perception of his sexual prowess, is told “you don’t even know how to jazz.” (771) Failed, he returns to Catherine. After reuniting Studs rather violently has sex with her. As he apparently raped her and took her virginity, he feels instantly guilty about it and shows some humility before his friends refusing to gossip about it. Throughout their subsequent sexual relationship, Catherine insists on marrying soon. Studs knows that times are bad and he lost most of his savings in playing the stock market so I attempts to evade the commitment. The announcement that Catherine is pregnant forces his hand, but neither family understand why they must hurry to marry given the Depression. He looks for jobs and catches pneumonia and dies.

The political assertiveness of the first half of the novel falls away, for good reasons. Studs’ times for dreaming and making a name for himself ended with Catherine’s pregnancy. At that point, even if he had a political awakening (which he did not), he was forced to focus solely on the family. Responsibility got forced upon him is one way of saying it. Another way to say it is that Studs was forced into action. But is this not exactly the place the nation was at in the early 1930s? When writing this blog, I have rarely looked at what literary critics have been saying about these works, but I cannot help but see the Studs Lonigan trilogy as more than a description of working class life. Studs is a metaphor for America in the 1920s and 1930s. The Depression, like Catherine’s pregnancy, forced the nation into bold action. In 1935, Farrell has no way of knowing if the half measures of the New Deal would be enough. I suspect he would have found them limiting, which is why Lonigan has to die at the end.

In the second to last chapter, we see Studs’ father walking the street, bumping into a “Red parade.” Old man Lonigan has become increasingly fascist during the Depression, even suggesting the need for a Mussolini to help correct America’s economy with an emergency dictatorship. We are reminded at the end, through this parade, that many in the United States were not sleeping through the revolutionary moment. It also paints a sharp contrast to the street as it has been presented in the previous 900 pages. Instead of a place of rootless wandering, racial violence, and sexism, it becomes the space of re-creation and re-imagining. This takes place while Studs is dying (his father wonders if he is already dead).

Strange music filling the street, the shouts and cries of an approaching throng headed by an overcalled white man and a Negro carrying an American and a red flag, policeman stretched along the cubs in both directions, shabby people behind the line of bluecoats, a crowd constantly augmenting in front of the corner speakeasy saloon, children scampering and dodging through the group; all this befogged and confused Lonigan, and he puzzled with himself trying to figure what it was. . . The noise and music swelled in volume, and he told himself, as if in an argument with someone else, that with things as bad, why couldn’t the Reds let well enough alone. (934–935)

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Union Square Rally, 1930s

The scene goes on for quite some time, juxtaposing the lively parade scenes with the failure of Old Man Lonigan to understand that the people he condemned throughout his life were doing the promethean imagining that he and his son could not.

What shocks him above all is their capacity for political pleasure (something he never had through a lifetime of support for the Democratic Party).

He seemed happy. That frail little woman in blue. They were happy. And they didn’t look like dangerous agitators, that is, except the eight-balls. All black boys were dangerous, and they couldn’t be trusted farther than their noses. But the white ones, they looked like men and women, with faces the same as other men and women. He could see that most of them were poor, and many of them, like that fellow in gray dragging his feet, were tired. He wondered how they could be Reds and anarchists, so dangerous and so perverted that they even made little children into atheists. He shook his head in bewilderment, and repeated to himself that these people were happy. (940)

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Old Man Lonigan navigates the protests and starts drinking at a bar, spending the last moments of his son’s life angry and drunk.

 

 

James T. Farrell, “Young Lonigan” (1932)

It was just a well, because he wanted to slip around to the can and have a smoke before he joined the folks out in front to be told he looked so swell and all that boushwah. Inside the damp boys’ lavatory on the Indiana Avenue side of the building, he leaned against a sink and puffed away, absorbed in the ascending strands of smoke. He wondered if it was really a sin to smoke, and told himself that was all bunk. (35–36)

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It is time to take on Studs Lonigan. Studs Lonigan, one of the important figures in Great Depression-era literature, was the creation of 28-year-old James T. Farrell. Farrell was from a working class Irish immigrant family in Chicago. He has this in common with his most well-known literary creation. I cannot say for sure how much of what happened in these novels is autobiographical, but it seems likely that much of it was drawn from life. Studs was born around the same time Farrell was. They both attended Catholic grade school and liked to play baseball. While Farrell lives a long life as a productive writer, Studs dies young and worn out from a squandered life. As with Frank Norris, we are not given a simple morality tale. Like Norris’ Vandover, Studs is a product of his culture and environment. We can blame both for individual bad choices, but we would be misreading these texts to avoid appreciating the role of fate. Farrell clearly appreciated Norris, who is quoted at the beginning of the first novel about Studs Young Lonigan. (“A literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all and will perish.”) Perhaps Studs Lonigan reflects this vulgarization of naturalism.

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Studs Lonigan’s life is told over the course of three novels, written between 1929 and 1934, and published between 1932 and 1935. They probably should be read together. Farrell has already seen the novels published as a single trilogy in 1935. I can imagine Studs becoming a kind of nostalgic working class figure for the Great Depression generation, even as it works as a warning against self-aggrandizement and reckless squandering of potential. I would want to read both at the same time. Studs’ more attractive and heroic moments (even if they are few) suggest the idealization of the working class experience, so common in New Deal-era literature. The metanarrative, of improper self-confidence and wasted potential is actually the story of the entire nation.

The story of Young Lonigan covers around one year in the life of Studs Lonigan. It begins with his imminent graduation, at the age of fourteen, from a Catholic grade school in Chicago. He begins to plan to attend high school but has no clear idea of what he wants to do. (Of course, his mother wants him to prepare for the priesthood.) Instead of going back to school, he just sort of drifts into a new group of friends who spend much of their time just hanging out, smoking, drinking, and fooling around with girls. This boredom leads to episodes of ethnic and racial violence and antagonism. The climax of the novel involves Studs’ participation in anti-Semitic intimidation. By the end of the novel, Studs has moved to the wrong side of the tracks.

Young Lonigan is also a story of generational conflict, education, and the struggle between the individual and the institution. Since these themes are all combined, I want to discuss it as a single unit and suggest it as a way to approach the text from a libertarian perspective. To start with, Studs’ parents have hopes for him, but are aware that their own life does not present much of a good model for them. For this reason, they entrust the local Catholic schools to set Studs on the right path. Education is clearly presented here a moral corrective much more than as a cultivator of autonomy and critical thinking. “Old Man Lonigan” himself was familiar with the streets but in his older age sees it as a warning and the reason for educating Studs through the church.

And the old gang. They were scattered now, to the very ends of the earth. Many of them were dead, like poor Paddy McCoy, Lord have mercy on his soul, whose ashes rested in a drunkard’s grave at Potter’s Field. Well, they were a find gang, and many’s the good man they drank under the table, but . . . well, most of then didn’t turn out so well. (16)

We quickly learn what a waste the investment in education was, if the goal was to set Studs to the correct moral path. One suspects that the teachers know this was well as anyone, which is why the priest devotes his graduation speech to a final plea to the students to evade Satan’s clutches. (If Catholic education worked as a moral correction, we suspect this would not be necessary.) If anything, the children learned to have only contempt for their teachers. Much of their education seems to involve learning how to evade the regulations of the school. Smoking seems to become one way that these young men express their independence from the lessons they were taught in school.

Just another cover

Just another cover

Another tension between the individual and the institution is seen in how central the community is to the thought of Studs’ parents. They are clearly very concerned with how the neighbors look on their son, his actions, and what he becomes. At a more vulgar level, they seemed to care that neighbors might think they were cheap if they did not send Studs’ to high school. Education for the Lonigan’s is almost completely detached from utility and is mostly about image.

We should not be surprised that Studs choses the streets over the schoolhouse. This is, in fact, the more practical and natural path. Indeed, this may be a general problem in mass education. It has never been explained to me why everyone is better off going to school. It seems each career and each regional context would have its own educational needs. For some, the street provides a more useful education than does the schoolroom. Studs’ choice to abandon his education for a rather unfortunate circle of friends is not strictly speaking irrational. It was rather the practical choice, given his choices as a working class, second-generation immigrant, youth. Yet, while it may have been the moral practical and natural of the two choices, we need to ask why Studs was given only two choices. I am not calling for massive dropouts of students, but questioning why the choice we give many working class urban youth is between the street and boring, irrelevant classrooms.

We learn just how tragic this limited choice was by the end of the novel. Studs’ education does not really end when he commits to the street. One thing he learns is racism, which he takes up by the end of the novel. We are not sure how much he really likes picking on local black and Jewish youth. He is likely parroting what his peers do and say. But how is that different from the classroom?