Tennessee Williams, “Spring Storm” (1937)

One of my goals for this year in my blog is to expand types of writing. Up to now, I have focused on non-fiction writing, novels, and short stories. I think my coverage has been diverse, there are two areas of writing that I have neglected: poetry and the stage. To begin correcting this, I will take the next two weeks or so reading the collected plays of Tennessee Williams, collected in two volumes. An immediate problem that comes up is that my normal strategy of gobbling around 150 pages a day will not work if I want to give each work the attention it deserves. These two volumes collected over 20 of Williams’ plays. If I take it a work at a time, I will risk writing a longer series than even my lengthy looks at Philip K. Dick and Mark Twain. For now, I plan to post everyday one or two plays to keep pace.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm for a playwright course at the University of Iowa. He had previously seen a handful of his works staged by amateur and student groups. Spring Storms was a failure in his course and the St. Louis theater troupe, “the Mummers,” refused to perform it despite putting on some of his other works. He was twenty-six when this was written and he has spent most of his adult life facing the Great Depression. Spending most of that time writing, he attended journalism school and performed various jobs, including working at a branch of the International Shoe Company, which his father manages. His career had a slow start and he attended various colleges. Spring Storm was never performed during Williams’ lifetime.

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The social context of Spring Storms is an old Southern aristocratic family—the Critchfields—in a decline accelerated by the Great Depression. As the older generation of the family sees it, their last asset is their daughter Heavenly. By marrying the son of a well-off family, Arthur Shannon, the family’s financial future can be improved. As with much Great Depression literature, class exists at the center of this play. It runs through all relationships between the characters and drives the major action. None of the younger generation are particularly interested in the class divide, however. Whether this is due to their youthful naivety or a more progressive attitude toward class due to the Depression is open to interpretation. In the background of the Critchfield family is the historical legacy of Colonel Wayne, a Confederate officer who fought at Gettysburg. His portrait hands in the background and is commonly discussed. Heavenly even has conversations with him.

Young Tennessee Williams

Young Tennessee Williams

Four young men and women form the center of the story. Heavenly Critchfield has recently begun a sexual relationship with Richard (Dick) Miles. She suggest to her parents that she is pregnant by him, but this could be a means to avoid marriage to Arthur. Dick is presented as a working class dreamer. Arthur is well-off and has spent some time in Europe, where he sowed his wild oats and enjoyed various privileges that money provides. He is having a relationship with Hertha. Williams describes her as follows. “Hertha is thin and dark, about twenty-eight. Without money or social position, she has to depend upon a feverish animation and cleverness to make her place among people. She has an original mind with a distinct gift for creative work. She is probably the most sensitive and intelligent person in Port Tyler, Mississippi.” (13–14) Unlike Dick, Hertha is smart enough to engage with the world on its own terms. Dick, from a similar class background is more reckless. The initial pairings break class assumptions about who should be with who, but the young people’s indifference to class runs deeper. Arthur holds a grudge against Dick and Heavenly for the insults they lodged at him in school. His money did not translate into class privilege in the context of the playground.

Pushed by her family, Heavenly begins a courtship with Arthur, but she is quite cold and coy with him. She is much more interested in Dick but knows he is unstable. Arthur is filled with jealousy and resentment toward Heavenely and Dick. In a type of misdirected vengeance he focuses on seducing Hertha. His monologue, directed toward Hertha in an attempt to seduce her, is central to the play.

Yes. I told her that I was in love with her, and she said that I should go out and get drunk because that was the only thing that would do me any good. So I got drunk. It’s the first time I ever got drunk in my life and it was swell. Till I started thinking of her making love to Dick Miles. . . . I can forget all that with you, can’t I? You’re a girl, too. You could make love as well as she could. But not with Dick Miles. With me. What are you backing away for? Are you scared? That’s flattering. Nobody’s ever been scared of me before. I was like you, Hertha. I hid behind books all the time because they used to call me sissy when I was a kid in school. I never got over that. Not till tonight when I got drunk. God! I never knew it could be so good to get drunk and feel like a man inside. Literature and the arts. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Concerts, matinees, recitals—what’s all that? If I told you you’d blush. You don’t like that kind of language. Sure, I sat through all that stuff and thought it was great. Got much stuff publishes in those little magazines with the big cultural movements. Art for art’s sake. Give America back to the Indians. I thought I was being highbrow. Intellectual. The hell with that stuff. Dick Mile’s go the right idea. He was one that she gave herself to, not me, not me. The one that got drunk and had himself a good time, he was the one that got Heavenly, and me with my intellectual pretensions, my fancy education, and my father’s money—what did I get? Pushed in the face! (76–77)

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In this monologue, we see Arthur’s class resentment come forth. Whatever freedom his wealth gave him—evidenced by some trysts in Europe and his social clout in the town—he still experiences frustration over the experiences and social circle that his wealth excludes him from. Williams may be feeding into the cultural movements of the Great Depression that focused on the exclusionary nature of class and the divide across America people “the people” and the elite.

Arthur’s sexual aggression toward Hertha leads to her suicide, which his interprets as a murder that he is responsible for. (The stage notes were a bit opaque for me about how she died, whether it was murder or suicide.) Dick, ever a dreamer, quits his work as a local courier and flees both the town and Heavenly. All the characters are thus left alone, their different class backgrounds and perspectives on life making them incompatibles.

Ah, there is much more that could be touched on, most significantly the division between the ages groups and the values changing from nineteenth century to twentieth century America.

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

The major theme of Frank Norris’ breakout novel McTeague is clearly fetishization. Primarily, it is the fetish for money and gold, which is given superhuman characteristics by almost all of the characters. At the same time we notice the fetish for people, particularly the dentist McTeague’s infatuation with his patient Trina. Other items are given a similar treatment, such as the diploma (which in the age of professionalization is lifted above talent, training, and experience) and the sign that McTeague desires to have in from of his “Dental Parlors.” All of the tragedy of the novel comes from giving these things almost divine significance. While we can label how Trina and McTeague come into money as greed, it is much beyond that. Money (and other things) really become idols.

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As the novel opens, we meet McTeague, a rather dull dentist. He entered the craft by working with an artisan dentist before professionalization became that important (this becomes crucial later on in the story). He runs a small dentist office and makes enough to support his life. McTeague, despite calling himself “doctor,” is really of the working class. He practices his craft like a craftsman. The books on his shelves are really for show. His best friend is named Marcus and they share beers every week. Marcus is the limit of McTeague’s social circle. Things change when Marcus brings his cousin Trina (who he is courting) to have a couple teeth fixed. McTeague, enamored with the elegant beauty of Trina, makes a bold decision to fix her mouth rather than simply pull two teeth. It leads to a series of visits. Eventaully, McTeague falls in love with Trina and begins courting her. Marcus agrees to step aside for his friend. Eventually, McTeague and Trina agree to marry. Before the marriage, Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery. (I put this into a historical currency converter—using 1890—and found a purchasing power of $120,000 in current U.S. dollars.) This is a nice nest egg, but not really what one could retire on. In those days of high interest rates, it did mean the couple could save the money and enjoy a steady and modest income from the interest. Marcus, of course, regrets immediately his choice not to pursue Trina himself.

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The money becomes the main frustration in their marriage. Trina refuses to spend any of the original $5,000, even to furnish an apartment. She is meanwhile working on making small animals for Noah’s Ark displays and is carefully saving in unknown amount of money (she always claims poverty but it is at least a few hundred dollars more squirreled away). McTeague this remains the sole breadwinner. Their income supplemented by interest from the $5,000. Spending any money becomes a battle in the household. Furthermore, Marcus is constantly resentful of what he sees as the loss of $5,000 that he could have won through courting Trina himself.

Here is a sample of Trina’s rhetoric, after McTeague made a payment on a new apartment in hopes of moving and upgrading their life.

You’ve got to pay the first month’s rent, anyhow—to forfeit it. Oh, you are so stupid! There’s thirty-five dollars just thrown away. I shan’t go into that house; we won’t move a foot out of here. I’ve changed my mind about it, and there’s water in the basement besides. Thirty-five dollars just thrown out the window. Oh , you are the thick-wittedest man that I ever knew. Do you think we’re millionaires? Oh, to think of losing thirty-five dollars like that.” (407)

At the mid-point in the novel, McTeague and Marcus’ friendship is shattered by jealousy over the money, reflected in a picnic wrestling match turned violent.

The money, the $5,000, is basically imaginary in that it is not being used. McTeague does not understand why it is not being used to make their life easier or more comfortable. For Trina, preserving that money is paramount. At one point, when she breaks down and loans McTeague some money she does it with silver (not gold) coins from what she was saving. The nest-egg cannot be touched. From Norris’ perspective, this is clearly an irrational activity. It parallels a second, similar story. McTeague’s neighbor Maria Macapa tells stories about how she was rich in her youth, suggesting that she still has some golden plates. Another neighbor, Zerkow, always wants to hear the stories about the gold dishes and has a similar longing for them as Marcus has for Trina’s $5,000. In practice, however, the gold plates and the $5,000 are equally as real. Both exists as imaginary depositories of wealth and have immense psychological power over those who imagine it.

McTeague is not blameless, although it is easy to see Trina as the worst miser. McTeague has his own fetishes, particularly for Trina herself, who he treats like a pretty doll. “He saw her as he had seen her the day that Marcus had introduced them: saw her pale, round face; her narrow, half-open eyes, blue like the eyes of a baby; her tiny, pale ears, suggestive of anaemia; the freckles across the bridge of her nose; her pale lips; the tiara of royal black hair; and, above all, the delicious poise of the head, tipped back as through by the weight of all that hair—the poise that thrust out her chin a little, with the movement that was so confiding, so innocent, so nearly infantile. (318)

From the film version called "Greed."

From the film version called “Greed.”

Another important element of the story is the alienation between McTeague and Trina. McTeague seems happy (when not fighting about money) to have his doll. We get a closer glimpse at Trina’s feelings of horror about committing her life to who she learns is a stranger. McTeague, for his part, never made an effort to understand Trina. We as readers do not learn she is a miser until well into the story. “She could not love him. It has all been a dreadful mistake, and now it was irrevocable; she was bound to this man for life. If it was as bad as this now, only three weeks after her marriage, how would it be in the years to come? Year after year, month after month, hour after hour, she was to see this same face, with its salient jaw, was to feel the touch of this enormous red hand, was to hear the heavy, elephantine tread of those huge feet.” (393–394) Of course, we should question as social system that gives women few options accept marriage. Here is the foundation of the critique of modern marriage. If we cannot really know each other due to the liquid status of the world, how can we pretend to understand a spouse? Trina makes due by creating yet another fetish. She constantly demands that McTeague express his undying love for her. His “love” so expressed becomes like the money in the bank. It is something she can rely on but is immaterial.

 

Harriet Jacobs: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” (1861)

Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope around a man’s body, and suspend him form the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience to the eight commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were allowable, provide the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicious. . . . If a slave stole from him even a pound of meat or a peck of corn, if detection followed, he was put in chains and imprisoned, and so kept till his form was attenuated by hunger and sickness. (791–792)

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The genre of the American slave narrative reached its apogee with Harriet Jacob’s Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, published when the Civil War had just begun but was still—for President Abraham Lincoln and most of the North—about the preservation of the Union. The Confederate leaders, in contrast, knew very well that the war was about slavery, the central institution of the South. Perhaps no document shows how integral slavery was to the psychological and intimate foundation of the South than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

The narrative was put out by Lydia Maria Child, but it was actually Jacobs’ insistence that made the book possible. She has been writing it for almost a decade, around the time that friends of her purchased her freedom (apparently without Jacobs’ consent). She was a fugitive slave since 1835, spending seven years hiding in a crawlspace not far from her owners before she was able to escape. Some more facts of her life are revealing. Jacobs was born and lived in bondage in North Carolina. She was sent to the household of James Norcom when she was twelve years old after her owner died. She had two children (one when she was 16 the other when she was 20) with a local white lawyer. During her teenage years she was sexually harassed and intimidated by James Norcom while at the same time fending off intense feelings of hostility and resentment from James’ wife. She was around 22 when she went into hiding. Her immediate goal was to get Norcom to sell her children to their biological father. This worked. For much of her early life she lived with her brother, who also escaped from slavery. After arriving in New York she worked next to (I do not know if she worked with) Frederick Douglass, sharing the same building with him. She ran an anti-slavery bookstore and he ran the newspaper the North Star, in Rochester. Most of her income came from sewing at this time. Jacobs’ did some important work during Reconstruction around Washington D.C. She died at the turn of the twentieth century. As far as I know Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was her only published work, and this was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

 

The entire narrative is written with changed names, the most interesting of which was the use of “Dr. Flint” for Dr. James Norcom, suggesting her perspective on his character.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is rich in details about the lives of slaves in the South. Her descriptions of violence, religious life, celebrations (such as a charming look at the slave’s Christmas), the political influence of slave holders at the local level, the surveillance systems build up by slave holders after Nat Turner’s revolt, and most importantly the gender politics at the root of slavery are all expressed with the necessary moral clarity. While I do think that Jacobs is most important for her complex look at the experience of enslaved women and the domestic and sexual politics that the system seemed to make inevitable, readers should not miss some of the other themes she carefully documents. The response to Nat Turner’s revolt by the planation South is required reading for anti-authoritarians because it shows a surveillance state being created almost overnight.

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Jacobs’ narrative is also the most clear in this set about the experience of enslaved children. The vast majority of her time as a slave was during her childhood. Of course, like all slaves, she grew up fast, but she was still amazingly young when she escaped. So she had some very sharp memories of childhood in slavery. In this she may be like the Great Depression-era slave narratives collected by Works Progress Administration writers. Most of those oral histories are from people who were still quite young when slavery in the United States ended. I rather enjoyed this passage:

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life has been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning. How have those years dealt with slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (775–776)

While slave narratives are full of these contradictions, this passage reminds us that the color line had to be learned and taught. (Readers will know that this blog is a big fan of children for their libertarian spirits, belief in justice and solidarity, and their Promethean spirit.)

In lieu of a full analysis, I will point out that chapters 12 and 13 are the most relevant for an analysis of power in the South, dealing first with the changes to the militia and the security systems on plantations after news of Nat Turner’s revolt horrified the Southern ruling class. These chapters also describe the use of Christianity as a defense against slave insurrection. In both cases, however, Jacobs documents the possibility of resistance, either through taking advantage of expectations or—as in the case of the church—forming competing vernacular religious traditions.

As for the sexual politics of slavery, no one (as far as I know) is clearer than Jacobs. I suppose any patriarchal slave society (Are there any other kind?) would face these tensions. The nature of the color line made sexual transgressions by masters more conspicuous I suppose. Wives of planters had to live with their husband’s illegitimate children nearby and clearly noticeable. Jacobs was stuck between Norcom’s violent harassment and constant threats and her mistress’s jealousy. In turn Jacobs was able to use her sexuality to resistant and ensure freer future for her children. Her relationship with a well-off white man was likely well-thought out (perhaps not unlike Sally Hemmings).

Jacobs tries to get her readers to emphasize with long-suffering white wives. Much of the power of her propaganda comes from her skill at shattering the myth of the family.

I am telling you the plain truth. Yet when victims make their escape from this wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den, “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders. The poor girls have romantic notions of a sunny clime, and of the flowering vines that all the year round shade a happy home. To what disappointments are they destined! The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. (781)

Henry Bibb: “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb” (1849)

A slave marrying to law, is a thing unknown in the history of American Slavery. And be it known to the disgrace of our country that every slaveholder, who is the keeper of a number of slaves of both sexes, is also the keeper of a house of houses of ill-fame. Licentious white men, can and do, enter at night or day the lodging places of slaves; break up the bonds of affection in families; destroy all their domestic and social union for life; and the laws of the country afford them no protection. (455)

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Henry Bibb lived a tragically short life, filled with personal frustrations and failures. He escaped slavery twice. After the first escape he was recaptured and sold back into slavery. When he returned South yet again, it was to find his wife, who had become the mistress of her master. He renounced her and remarried someone else before beginning abolitionist work in Canada after the Fugitive Slave Law made his stay in the United States problematic. Unlike many of the authors of the antebellum slave narratives, Bibb never saw the end of slavery in North America. Let me just stop here and mention that in the first three of the antebellum slave narratives published in this book (Douglass, Brown, and Bibbs) sexual violence plays a key role. This strongly suggests that it was universal or near universal. Slavery in the United States simply provided too many opportunities for sexual violence without any contravening power. American slavery was—among other things—systematic and institutionalized rape.

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I have never read Bibb’s narrative before coming across it in this collection, but I was immediately struck at how rich a description he gives of what it is like to be a slave. What other former slaves hinted at, Bibb describes with brutal clarity. What others simply neglect or did not experience, Bibb articulates. A good example of this is his clarity about what it was like to be an enslaved man with a wife, how that affected his decisions, and the bittersweet result of his getting sold to his wife’s planation. While he got to see his wife, Malinda, more often, he also had to experience her degradation and the violence of the system inflicted on her while he was powerless to stop it. Another example of this is his quite vivid and interesting descriptions of superstitions among slaves, including one charm Bibb purchased to protect himself from punishment (and no, it did not work).

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Bibb was apparently under great pressure to defend the truth of his claims because the book’s preface includes a dozen testimonials from various people who knew Bibb, clarifying the truth of his claims (one of these is from the master he ran away from). The fact that he had to do this, reeks of racism suggesting that only that which can be confirmed by white people can be considered true.

Freedom was never far from Bibb’s mind. Even his decision to marry was burdened by his realization that by marrying he would more likely bind himself to his status as a slave. Running away as a married man troubled him deeply. “I was to put into operation my former resolution, which was to bolt for Liberty or consent to die a Slave. I acted upon the former, although I confess it to be one of the most self-denying acts of my whole life, to take leave of an affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure, with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes as she bid me a long farewell. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to suppress my feelings while taking leave of my little family.” (460) While he escaped that time, he returned to fetch his family and fell back into slavery.

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Chapter seven and eight is particularly notable for Bibb’s description of institutions of power used to maintain slavery in the South. These varies from the informal mob to the formal legal institutions of the courts and a “slave prison.” Bibb stayed at one of these slave prisons in Louisville with his family. It was a combination of a prison, a workhouse, and location for sexual violence. “Soon after she arrived at this place, Garrison gave her to understand what he brought here there for, and made a most disgraceful assault on her virtue, which she promptly repeled;  for which Garrison punished her with the lash, threatning her that if she did not submit that he would sell her child. The next day he made the same attempt, which she resisted, declaring that she would not submit to it; and again he tied her up and flogged her until her garments were stained with blood. He then sent our child off to another part of the city, and said he meant to sell it.” (493–494)

In their various attempts to escape, Bibb and his family faced many hardships. One of his children died. But through all of this, his determination to escape remained. We learn how difficult and unlikely it was to escape as a family. In the end, Bibb escaped from an Indian man who purchased him after his family was broken. He made his way through the Indian Territory, through the prairie and finally to Michigan.

The narrative ends with Bibb’s final attempt to secure the freedom of his wife. We may see his decision to break off his marriage as harsh (“practically dead to me as a white, for she was living in a state of adultery”), since it is not likely that Malinda had much choice in becoming a concubine of her master. Bibb confesses as much, but adds “it is quite probably that they have other children according to the law of nature, which would have a tendency to unite them stronger together.” (553) Bibb does use this as part of his moral polemic against slavery, calling all slave marriages farces without legal standing. I, of course, understand this argument on grounds of equality and justice, but I am still ambivalent about the state sanctioning specific relationships. Why would an informal slave marriage be less morally binding than one approved of by the government (especially a government that condoned slavery)?

In any case, this is the best slave narrative for approaching the question of sexuality and it is also one of the most dramatically exciting because Bibb is always attempting to escape. He did not need to go through the process like Douglass of achieving moral independence first (if he did he does not really mention it). Bibb simply wakes up one day deciding to be free and never retreats from his goal.

Frederick Douglass: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845)

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revised within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afford by the triumph was the full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody army of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. (331)

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the great slave narrative of the antebellum period and it is certainly the most well-known, thanks to its clarity in exposing the myths of the Old South. It is often taught in high schools and undergraduate courses for this reason. Douglass’ main concern—besides telling some of his life story—was to show the hypocrisy of the slave-owning South. Using his own life and his experiences, he managed to dismantle pretty much every one of the major myths. We can sum this up as follows. While the defenders of slavery were saying slavery was good both masters, slaves, and Southern society, Douglass showed how it debased and made savage both slaves and masters, corrupted the legal institutions, and created irreconcilable divisions to society. The story also works as a coming of age story, beginning with Douglass’ birth in slavery, his self-education, and finally the climax consisting of his debasement in the face of Mr. Covery’s violent labor regimen, his resistance to that, and his eventual escape to freedom.

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The narrative is preceded by two introductions, the first by William Lloyd Garrison and the second by Wendell Phillips. Together they point to the historical significance of Douglass’ narrative within the growing body of anti-slavery literature. Narratives by former slaves were few at that point. They also stress that Douglass lived in a part of the country known for milder forms of slavery, so the situation described by Douglass can only be worse throughout the deep South. Finally, the suggest that his experiences are integral to the slave system. Take Phillips comments. “We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are essential ingredients, not occasional results, of the system.” (278)

In the opening chapter, Douglass has a fascinating look at something that may seem trivial but turned out to be central the experience of slaves: not knowing his birthday. As he shows, not knowing his birthday was merely a part of the veil of ignorance put over enslaved men and women. Much more crushing is the inability of Douglass to know his mother as mother, but this derived from the same logic that made his birthday insignificant to the working of the slave system. This chapter also looks at the phenomenon of white fathers of slaves (like Douglass’ own father) and the cruelty of overseers. He also includes the description of the torture of his Aunt Hester. Whites fathering slaves and the sadistic torture of Hester together expose one of the major myths of the old South, that it was a land of chivalrous sexual virtue.

The next few chapters follow Douglass’ childhood and the workings of farm life. He has comments on the power regiment, the use of songs by enslaved men and women to express their sorrow. Douglass points out the high turnover among overseers and even masters. Douglass himself was passed around a few times before he escaped slavery. Another myth of paternalism—that slavery exchanged loyalty for loyalty—shattered. In the first half we also learn how Douglass learned to read by interacting with local white kids, many of whom saw slavery as inevitable but learned to question it (a bit) by interacting with Douglass.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

The climax of the story is Douglass encounter as a young man with Mr. Covey who hired the slave Douglass from his master. Covey was a poor white who managed to save enough to purchase one slave (for breeding). He lacked the intellectual training in the ideology of slaveholding, which however hypocritical at least forced some more conscientious masters to mitigate their brutality. All he had was the application of power, which he used excessively on Douglass. He used lies and force to sustain his authority. When Douglass finally defeats Covey in a brutal fight, he achieves some degree of independence and forces Covey to refrain from whipping Douglass. I like to point out this example to those enamored with non-violence. While violent resistance does not always work, it certainly has its moments and when power is so devastating to body and soul, violence is often the only way to achieve freedom.

The final chapter discusses a bit about how he got his freedom, but he does not share details to protect the people who helped him and to ensure that other slaves can use that method. He condemns the openness (the lack of a security culture) among some abolitionists who openly talk about the “underground railroad.”

In an appendix, Douglass attacks the application of Christianity in the South. He confesses some admiration for Christianity on principle (but it is spit out through a clenched jaw). Largely, his experience of religion is one of hypocrisy.

“We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church member’s. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time” (363, 364) Unlike the first three slave narratives in this collection, religion is not a part of the arc of the slave. It exists only as some of the links in the chain.

Douglass points out on almost every page the workings of power. Power transforms those in authority into monsters. Those under the whip are also turned into brutes. Part of the significance of the battle between Douglass and Covey is that Douglass was transformed into a monster before he could arise as a man. The reason terror was necessary was that the power regimen was actually quite weak, as we see in Covey’s faltering in the face of Douglass’ resistance. Power that is this weak and this unjustifiable can only survive by turning those involved into monsters. It simply cannot survive with self-conscious human beings.

Well that is Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. He has two more, but I will reserve that for the volume of Douglass’ writings, somewhere else in the Library of America.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Passions” (1975)

I have gone out of the habit of writing. One day a Hitler comes and burns books. The next day it’s a Stalin who demands that all poets exalt his murders. New tyrants will emerge and they will destroy the literature of the world. Since sex is only for two—and sometimes even for one—why must poetry be for many? I am my own bard. Sometimes when I used to lie with Getzele in bed, we held a poetic duet. Well, but two can also be too many. L’chayim. (737)

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I am taking another stab at Isaac Bashevis Singer. I do not quite know why he has provided such difficulty for me, more than any other author in the Library of America series. It is not because of the themes, which actually are much in line with this blog. Singer’s characters are often on the move, challenging or controlled by their tradition and institutions in their life. As in his other story collections, Passions, published in 1975, is set either in pre-World War II Poland or in the United States (mostly New York City) in the middle of the century. These twenty stories reflect the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora in the twentieth century, often resulting in extremely lonely, isolated, alienated characters carrying heavy burdens of history (sometimes personal sometimes of the Holocaust). Many of these characters are college professors, writers, or teachers at some level of conflict with the Jewish tradition. Transgression, as a means of escaping these burdens is often an option, but Singer’s characters rarely pursue this path without hesitation or tragic consequences. Nevertheless, Singer is never willing to reject entirely the transgressive option. We can also assume that these writings are heavily autobiographical, either deriving from Singer’s childhood and youth in Poland or his professional success in New York.

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Many of his characters exist in a sort of spiritual or social death, often despite success. A general state of paralysis and indifference exists over the lives of several characters people. In “Old Love,” Harry Bendiner lives a lonely life between Miami and New York. He even confesses, when looking at the development in Miami that: “once you pass eighty, you’re as good as a corpse.” (584) He meets a widowed woman who shuffles through life in much the same way. She speaks of her daughter and this almost inspires Harry to seek her out in British Columbia, but the story ends with the same oppressive burden of paralysis that it began with.

Throughout Passions and Other Stories mobility does little to prevent this feeling. People can move around all they want (or sometimes as a result of outside pressure) but they either return home, fall back into new banal patterns, or simply find themselves more isolated and alone than they felt back in their home towns.  Clearly family is one of the burdens that traps people into a place, but it is often no more powerful that ideology. Modernism is a common issue in Singer’s stories, creating young modern Jews who seek out a modern world in the city, often finding only loneliness and isolation.

The story “Errors” points out how oppressive the traditional family can be, showing that there is not a clear preference in his writings for tradition or for modernity. Both can be ultimately alienating. In this story, the patriarchal Zablocki stands out as a symbol for traditional filial oppression, violently abusing both the farm hands and his wife, who he “tormented to death.” (599) Zablocki was finding his domain slowly evaporated by modernity, symbolized in his tendency to lose lawsuits. “The New Year Party” gives a brief glimpse into how migration forced shifting family relations, often disempowering patriarchs. Although a positive development, Singer wants to point out how distributing and alienating the change could be. In that story, Pearl’s father lost his moral authority over his family in part due to being forced to work on the Sabbath and seeing his daughter become attracted to leftism and atheism. The man she eventually married kept patriarchal privilege (suggested through his domination of the family and his serial adultery), while being nominally politically progressive.

The signs of modernity are everywhere, besieging the traditional moral communities that Singer grew up in. The following passage is from “A Tutor in the Village.”

The peasants were becoming enlightened. The young generation wanted leather boots, not makeshift shoes of rags and bark. They wanted shingled roofs, not thatch. They girls wanted to dress in the city style. Witos, the leader of the peasant party in the Sejm, sent speakers to Kocica, who lectured to the peasants on their needs. The Communists, too, had their agitators. (693)

This is repeatedly the cause of the dislocation and alienation that the characters often feel. This is not something we should necessarily worry too much about. For many of the men, what is being lost are patriarchal privileges rooted in the family and in tradition. Others did not have much of this power to begin with, but they were losing their voice. Many of the characters are writers and thinkers and speakers working in esoteric traditions that simply lose much of their power when facing the modern world. An idiosyncratic theologian may still have a place in a village, but in New York City or Israel or Miami he is forced into conformity or risk total alienation. “Modern civilization wipes out all individuality.” (750)

My three favorite stories in this collection are “The Witch,” “The Admirer,” and “The Fatalist.” “The Witch” is about a widower and math teacher who becomes strangely infatuated with an ugly, stupid former student of his. He begins a relationship with her, a relationship that he is ashamed to confess publically, but only after learning that she may be a witch and cursed his wife to die of cancer. This can be read literarily, that he was bewitched. But a more promising reading is that the man was declaring his independence from social expectations. The young woman’s ugliness is an objective, not a subjective fact. She is ugly and stupid in her eyes based on social expectation. The death of his wife helped liberate him from these expectations. “The Admirer” is an odd tale about a writer who gets a visit from a fan, who is exposed through a series of phone calls from her estranged husband and her mother to be crazy. It is another case where a lonely intellectual is prevented from possible companionship through external expectations about what is normal and proper (enforced in this case through telephone calls). “The Fatalist” is just a fun story about a believer in fate who wins a girl by taking his belief in fate to its logical conclusions.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1901-1905: Displays of Power

To worship rank and distinction is the dear and valued privilege of all the human race, and it is freely and joyfully exercised in democracies as well as in monarchies–and even, to some extent, among those creatures whom we impertinently called the Lower Animals. For even they have some poor little vanities and foibles, though in this matter they are paupers as compared to us. “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord? (514)

The final decade of Twain’s writing reveals the depth of his cynicism and frustration with humanity. The Chinese writer Lu Xun believed these later writers exposed Twain as a misanthrope. At least is reveals his disgust with the world as it is, in all its pettiness and corruption. Lacking in Twain’s view of the world, at least in these later works, is a belief in the potential for human solidarity. Even with Adam and Eve is was difficult to achieve.  In this post, I will look at Twain’s writings from 1901-1905. His major accomplishments from this period include his greatest anti-imperialist writings and the completion of his series of fictional writings of Adam and Eve.

 

The essay, “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?” brings forth one of the most important questions anarchists need to answer: Why is it so common on human history for one man to oppress thousands or even millions. Twain is not always the most promiscuous with answers to the conditions he critiques, but he does venture one here. He suggests we are very easily seduced by the symbols of power and distinction. Hierarchy creates a situation where any one of us can partake in the “little distinctions.” We accept a big lord because it makes us possibly a little lord.

All the human race loves a lord–that is, it loves to look upon or be noticed by the possessor of Power or Conspicuousness; and sometimes animals, born to better things and higher ideals, descend to man’s level in this matter. In the Jardin des Planets I have seen a cat that was so vain of being the personal friend of an elephant that I was ashamed of her. (523)

The same point is more of less made in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” in which the Czar confesses that the only thing standing between him and destitution and powerlessness is his clothing. The story consists of a divine right ruler asking the same question so many anti-authoritarians have asked throughout the ages:

A horse with the strength of a hundred men will let one man beat him, starve him, drive him; the Russian millions allow a mere handful of soldiers to hold them in slavery — and these very soldiers are their own sons and brothers! (643-644)

Twain presents a quite convincing argument that it is again the accoutrements of power that matter. We have seen this in The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee, and even Joan of Arc, where Joan does little more than convince the French King that he is rightful (basically giving him a new hat).

Display of power

Display of power

In Twain’s later life, the most grotesque abuse of power was the expansion of the European and American empires across the globe. This inspired his two great anti-imperial essays, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” Both are satires addressed to the victims and enemies of empire. The later exposes the vapid and brutal reality of Belgian rule in the Congo, and by presented the defense, he exposes the argument’s weakness. In both articles, the argument presented in favor of empire is also a matter of accoutrements, in this case civilization, business, and Christianity. These are all elements of American presumption that Twain has been at war with for much of his career. What the West was exporting to the rest of the world were precisely its most ridiculous, hypocritical, and anti-social characteristics. As Russia was forced to muse: “It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other. Is there no salvation for us but to adopt Civilization and lift ourselves down to its level?” (465) “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” is a more brutal document, inspired by the exploitation of the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. King Leopold is presented as a self-conscious man, needed to defend his actions from the public, the press, missionaries, and the English critics. Of course Leopold has a point that his critics often had shameful records of their own and shares with Leopold the view that “Civilization” is so valuable that any degree of violence is acceptance in achieving it. In this way, the argument is not that far from the one in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” but instead of thee display of power being used to gain popular support for hierarchy, they are being used as a more direct justification. Civilization is the ultimate accoutrement of power in the age of imperialism.

This is their style! I furnish “nothing!” I send the gospel to the survivors; these censure-mongers know it, but they would rather have their tongues cut out than mention it. I have several times required my raiders to give the dying an opportunity to kiss the sacred emblem; and if they obeyed me I have without doubt been the humble means of saving many souls.

By closing the article with King Leopold’s confession, “I know the human race,” we get the sense that Twain connected empire with his earlier questioning of why it was possible for the few to rule the many.

leopold

Twain’s answer to this harsh reality of human nature seems to be Adam and Eve, those original rebels who refused to submit to the lawmakers. The most moving aspect of Twain’s series of tales about the life of Adam and Eve is how they started as strangers with great differences and end up with a profound and convincing solidarity. Adam’s gasp at Eve’s grave sums this up”

Whosesoever she was, there was Eden (709)

Eve’s explanation for their bind was based on difference. She loves him not because of his many good qualities and labors, but because he is masculine and “mine.” We also observe that their relationship is based on incredible struggle and personal trauma: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This had to be recreated in their relationship and I would like to think exists still in those examples of shared solidarity.