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, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Studs’ Potential Chains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Norris: “Octopus” (1901): Part One

Aren’t you ever going to learn any sense? Don’t you know that cheap transportation would benefit the Liverpool buyers and not us? Can’t it be fed into you that you can’t buck against the railroad? When you try to buy a Board of Commissioners don’t you see that you’ll have to bid against the railroad, bid against a corporation that can chuck out millions to our thousands? Do you think you can bid against the P. and S. W.? (661)

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Octopus, the title referring to the railroad trusts that dominated the American West in the late nineteenth century, is Frank Norris’ epic novel. It is the first part of his planned “Epic of Wheat.” Octopus would explore the production of wheat in the American west. The next novel (which is not collected by the Library of America so I will not read it now), The Pit, is about the processing and sale of wheat in Chicago. The unfinished final novel, The Wolf, would have looked at famine relief in Europe, ending the epic with the consumption of wheat. Norris died before he could begin work collecting material on the final novel. The trilogy was as much about power as it was about wheat. The Octopus was one of the best novels I have ever read on power of capitalism to squeeze and exploit producers and the difficulty of opposing that power from within the system.

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Much of the tension in the first half of the novel is about the different strategies of San Joaquin valley ranchers to oppose the growing power of the railroad over their lives. By the period described in the novel, the farmers of the west were transformed from subsistence farmers into petty businessmen cash croppers, tied into market networks that they did not create or control. From the perspective of the ranchers, the railroads are a malevolent force, an almost Lovecraftian horror.

Again and again, at rapid intervals in its flying course, it whistled for road crossings, for sharp curves, for trestles; ominous notes, hoarse, bellowing, ringing with the accents of menace and defiance; and abruptly Presley saw again, in his imagination, the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus. (617)

There is an entire host of issues brought up on the ranches by the presence of the railroad. The price of land is set by the railroad companies that claim that their “improvements” demand compensation in higher land prices and freight rates. The farmers, regardless of the success of a harvest, are tied to steady or rising rates. (The novel is set during some hard time for the ranchers, threatening smaller land holders with bankruptcy). Many of the farmers are indebted and are hoping for a “bonanza” year after a couple years of drought in order to pay off their debts. The high railroad rates threaten their recovery. Another issue had to do with ownership and pricing of land owned by the railroads but improved by the ranchers who leased the land. The railroads eventually threaten to sell this land to speculators. One of the more prominent men in the small community of ranchers, Magnus Derrick, had a history of being active in politics and sees the solution in political action. He hopes to elect members of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Railroad Commission in order to keep the rates low. Others are more skeptical and confess the need to bride candidates directly to prevent them from becoming tools of the railroads. Another rancher, Annixter, reflects a more radical voice who sees politics as ultimately corruption and expresses total fatalism over their prospects of resistance. He refers to previous failed efforts to mobilize the regions farmers (perhaps suggest the era of the Farmers Alliance and the Populists although the inspiration for the plot took place around 15 years before those movements took off). Despite their differences, these ranches essentially are calling for a democratic economy in which they can have a say over the price of freight, which when rose too high means the difference between destitution and survival (regardless of how hard they work or how lucky they are in a harvest).

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The signs of a farming economy in transformation are everywhere in the novel and are particularly conspicuous in the descriptions of the technological transformations taking place on the ranches. At the same time, the collective efforts during the plowing season (described in chapter four of part one) harken back to old American values of cooperation and rural solidarity, something rapidly being undone by the forces of the railroads and industrial agriculture. The collective labor in raising a barn are other memories of the American agrarian ideal. The romantic side of American rural life is represented by the sheep rancher Vanamee and the poet Presely. He sustained a mystical relationship with the land, unlike the more business approach of the larger ranch owners, especially Derrick. He is also the one who sustained a real religious perspective, cultivated by his mystical relationship with the land.

What I found most striking in the first half of this novel is how fearful the ranchers were of the railroad. The language that runs through the novel is that of a horror novel. “[T]he leviathan with tentacles of steel, to opposed which meant to be ground to instant destruction beneath the clashing wheel. . . . A leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom with soundless calm, the agony of destruction sending never a jar, never the faintest tremor through all that prodigious mechanisms of wheels and cogs.” (719, 720) The three major responses Derrick (fight with reason and argument), Osterman (resist with all force), and Annixter (fatalism) are all logical responses to this overwhelming and malevolent power.

Part one of The Octopus ends with the organization of the ranchers into a political force. The railroad issues letters to the ranchers (who are tenants) that their land will be sold on the market at rates that none of them can afford (they were earlier promised 2.50 an acre). This emerges from rage over the railroads schemes and the charisma of Osterman. They form what is in essence a local farmers’ alliance. “Everyone one of us here to join it, to form the beginnings of a vast organization, banded together to death, if needs be, for the protection of our rights and homes. Are you ready? Is it now or never? I call for a League.” (797) Magnus Derrick is elected the president of this organization. The stage is set for an epic confrontation between producers and capital.

“Legal means first; if those fail—the shotgun.” (796)

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.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and Other Stories”, Part Two; Stories from “Gifts”

Creativity is for me a very encompassing idea. I would say that everything which gives a man pleasure is creative and what causes him pain is an inhibition in his creative desire. Like Spinoza, I am a hedonist. Like the Cabalists, I believe that the principle of male and female exists not only in the lower world but also in the higher ones. The universal novel of creation, like the novel of an earthly writer, is finally a love story. (562)

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In his introduction to the short story collection Gifts, Isaac Bashevis Singer discussed writing. Readers of his stories would not be surprised by any of the autobiographical bits he gives, but it does provide a useful summary to what he was trying to achieve in his life’s work. Two important points that emerge is that he felt—with good reasons—that he was in a world becoming more insane. The craziness that his characters faced was minor compared to the craziness in the world that created the world wars, Stalinism, and Hitler. “No. The world that was revealed to me was not rational. One could as easily question the validity of reason as the existence of God. In my own spirit, there was chaos.” (554) In the face of this, Singer chose to embrace writing as a creative act. He discusses at considerable length how he saw God as a writer and writers extending the creative work of God (complete with errors and destructive tendencies).  Of course you would need to be a theist to accept the second part of this argument which explains away Biblical nonsense with the trial and error of composition, the idea of witches and dybbuks existing is more rational than fascism and the gulag is worth considering.

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The second half of The Image and Other Stories carried on many of the same themes from the first half, including fate and show Singer’s revived interest in various aspects of life in pre-war Poland. But for today, I would like to take inspiration from Singer’s introduction to Gifts (also published in 1985) and consider briefly the question of liquidity. In hindsight, this is probably something I should have been saying more about because it so effectively summarizes Singer’s often complicated themes. One of their central struggles is holding onto family, community, tradition, and value in a rapidly changing world. Throughout his stories then we find characters who try desperately to cling to tradition and those who throw up their hands and openly reject those traditions, joining radical groups and embracing the philosophies of the Jewish Enlightenment. Zionists are a bit in the middle. Some seem to truly see Israel as a solution to the problem of liquidity but in a few examples, these characters are just as destructive to family life.

Let me give just a few examples:

“The Conference” puts us right into the heart of the radical community with a 1936 conference of Jewish radicals, communists, feminists, and Zionists. Of course, none of these people are able to get along and they constantly disagree and spend inordinate time revising proposals and minutes until some basic agreement could be made. Very little is accomplished. This is ominous since we know that the right is moving more much active at that time across the border in Germany. Of more interest to the delegates than creating a radical alternative to creeping fascism was a beautiful woman who attended the conference, one of only three women there. Competition for this one woman paralleled the increasingly vitriolic debates at the conference. Singer is clearly pointing out the inefficacy of the pre-war radicals in Poland.

“Strangers” is about an aging Zionist who divorces his wife of fifty years, taking what little property he needed to resettle in Palestine. Right away we notice that his effort to life out a traditional life required him to reject his family and his community. “I want to spend my last years with the Torah and prayer. If I move to the Land of Israel now, my bones won’t have to travel underground to get there when the Messiah comes. I want to breath holy air.” (497–498) After the divorce he moves to Palestine and soon marries a young woman citing the need for a son. Much like the leftists at the conference, this aging Jew turns his personal motivation into what appears to an outsider to be rather lurid. The narrator, observing this as an outsider, finds his own escape to a world going insane saying, “I would run away from home and become a cabalist and a recluse.” (503) Whether it is Israel or mysticism it seems there is a strong element of escapism either as a solution to liquidity or  way to flee from it.

“Miracles” is a fascinating story of how one man experienced a dramatically changing world as a series of miracles. His escape from Poland, his arrival in France, his survival of the Holocaust are all unlikely. He encounters someone who survived a concentration camp who rejected the role of miracles in life. The solution that is offered up over their conversation is that they are fated. “There are powers up above which play with us. Lately it occurred to me that this earth is ruled by a divine prodigy who toys with little soldiers and dolls. When he ties of them, he rips off their heads.” (480) Of course, an acceptance of fate is yet another response to liquidity and as the story shows it may not mean passivity or clinging to tradition.

However, I do not find a satisfying response to liquidity and the upsetting instability and insanity of the world in Singer’s fiction. Actually, it is quite rare to find a satisfying answer to this question and this is something that radicals should always keep on their mind or we will always be fighting the battles of the past.

Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885): Huck as Revolutionary

In my last post I looked at the adults we meet in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and concluded that with the exception of Jim, they were all odious. One possible conclusion to this is that Mark Twain was infantilizing Jim. As the introduction to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stated: “The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves,” placing these two groups into a common religious realm. Some of the humor in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn come from the discourses between these two regarding ghosts, superstitions, and vernacular understandings of astronomy. The other side of this coin is that being moral seems to require never growing up (or maybe growing up just enough to reach moral maturity but not too much that the disgusting adult world makes you quickly forget those values).

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It is obvious to see that Huck spends most of the novel in rebellion against civilization. His adventure began with flight from the Widow Douglas and pap. The story ends with his decision to move to Indian country (something he does not do if we believe the sequels). In between he transcends his entire culture by choosing to free Jim. This part of the novel is important to read, if for no other reason than that it contains more moral wisdom than the entire Bible. Huck decided to write a letter to Miss Watson to tell her about Jim’s location. He based this decision solely on what he had been told, especially religious law. “The plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger.” (833) But then he thinks. “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at least I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened too look around, and see that paper. . . . ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” (834–835)

See, the moral gravity of the choice is such that it places Huck into total rebellion against civilization (“never thought no more about reforming”). This is not new, perhaps, but it takes on a revolutionary character now. Before he rebelled against reform for personal liberty, but at this point he is willing to risk his eternal soul in aid of a friend. Notice that his thoughts dwelled on the solidarity that had been built up between the two.

At this point in the story, Jim has been living in slavery on the Phelps farm. In reality he has already been freed according to Miss Watson’s will. Tom Sawyer, who was visiting the Phelps farm, knows this. Tom Sawyer clings onto Huck’s idea to free Jim and makes it a game. This is a point of great tension between the two. Both are working at freeing Jim, but for one is a revolution and for the other it is a game. Tom Sawyer wants to reenact the great escapes he read about in his books. Huck is searching for the most effective and safe way to free Jim (thinking that he is still enslaved and in great personal risk). Lacking the solidarity with Jim and believing that the stakes are low, Tom cannot take it serious. He constructs all kinds of elaborate mechanisms instead of simply liberating Jim.

Bear in mind, Huck is not entirely pure in this regard. There was a point earlier in the novel where he treated Jim as a plaything. This was when they were separated in the fog. When reunited, Huck pretended that it was just Jim’s dream. Huck is unable to do this anymore. Shared sacrifice and solidarity created the moral necessity and seriousness required of the revolutionary path Huck pursued at the end of the novel. This is something Tom could not see (but perhaps he could have given the right experiences).

I suppose this is leading me to a warning against a too carnivalesque approach to revolution and resistance, but I am not sure a revolution cannot be both fun and serious (although I know that often this cannot be and we must be prepared to act with deadly seriousness). Certainly we should let the play get too much in the way of doing what is needed, especially when the stakes are high. Neither should we allow play make things more difficult. This is what Tom does. “You got to invent all the difficulties. Well, we can’t help it, we got to do the best we can with the materials we’ve got. Anyhow, there’s one thing—there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head.” (858) We do not need to wait for the revolution or the barricades. There are plenty of easily achieved (if not riskless) actions we can take now, without all the pomp.

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Huck chooses to be civilized for the privilege of playing robbers with Tom Sawyer. At the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he is done playing games. But neither is he grown up. He is not Injun Joe, the Duke or the King, or any of the other disgusting adults that populate these stories. Tom could grow up to be the Duke, or even Judge Thatcher, but for Huck there is only the Indian Territory.

striking

Claude McKay, “Home to Harlem” (1928)

Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem gave me troubles about a month ago and put this blog on hiatus. This was surprising. Why would a book exploring working class life in Harlem, written by a Jamaican socialist give me such trouble, considering the themes of this blog? I am not entirely sure and I am certain I was as much bothered by my other obligations than the text itself. But, for whatever reason it slowed me down. (Maybe the tropical air is slowing my brain.) I am, thankfully, returning to the work of a few weeks ago on the Library of America’s volume of Harlem Renaissance novels from the 1920s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay began his writing career in Jamaica when he worked in the constabulary. He emigrated to the United States in 1912 for college work but did not complete his degree. He moved to Harlem at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and was immediately active in labor movements, writing for Communist and labor newspapers. He is most known for injecting a racial critique in the English-speaking left, criticizing those movements of ignoring race in general and specifically racial prejudice within the movement. He spent much of the 1920s abroad, including visiting revolutionary Russia. He did all of this in his late 20s and early 30s. He published Home to Harlem in 1928, but suffered bad reviews from some of the more puritanical participants of black American intellectual life.  As I showed earlier in this blog, one of the major debates in the Harlem Renaissance was on how to portray black life and if it should be politically distorted or describe real life. Home to Harlem clearly fits into the gritty, vulgar, and “real” depictions.

I want to stop, however, and suggest that Du Bois and other more moralistic writers are not entirely wrong. The middle class, professional, upwardly mobile, and educated people were no less a part of Harlem than the working class people scraping by on the borders of economic or moral legitimacy. Depicting real life does not necessarily take us to the gutters.

 

hometoharlem

homeharlem2

Home to Harlem follows the life of Jake, an African-American returning from fighting in France during the First World War. Like many others, he returned with a slightly more global perspective, a bit of cash, and an eagerness to find a place in America. Jake also returned to a Harlem governed by a new set of rules due to the imposition of Prohibition. While it did not stop anyone from drinking, it did make the police a greater threat to the places that Jake liked to frequent, such as the Congo Rose or the Baltimore.

One thing that the novel makes clear is that Harlem was extremely color-conscious and the legacy of interracial sex was a fully integrated part of everyday life. “Ancient black life rooted upon its base with all its fascination new layers of brown, low-brown, high-brown, nut-brown, lemon, maroon, olive, mauve, gold. Yellow balancing between black and white. Black reaching out beyond yellow. Almost-white on the brink of a change. Sucked back down into the current of black by the terribly sweet rhythm of black blood.” (166) In fact every character, especially the women, seem to be described with careful attention to their color and the metaphors for different shades are bountiful. Jake was not just color-conscious, he was also prejudice about other blacks from different regions of the Atlantic. “And as an American Negro he looked askew at foreign niggers. Africa was a jungle, and Africans bush niggers, cannibals. And West Indians were monkey-chasers.” (201)

Jake has a strong belief in working-class solidarity even if it does not quite reach the level of interracial cooperation. Like McKay, Jake understood that the unions themselves often discriminated against blacks, but that did not mean he would look kindly on scabbing. While working at the docks, he took a job but at the end of his first day he learned that he was scabbing during a wild-cat strike (unauthorized by the union). Jake states that he will look for new work but did not want to join what he assumed was a racist union. Other scabs were less conflicted, vowing to continue working.

Another theme is the strong current of gender politics. Harlem’s working class society is conflicted between sexual liberation and proprietary relationship. This is the fate of Jake’s buddy Zeddy who as, McKay explains, found himself trapped—unwillingly—into the prison on monogamy. And with real honesty, McKay seems to think that money and resources are the primary reasons people sustain these possessive bounds. “To be adored by a Negro lady of means, or of a pseudo grass-widow whose husband worked on the railroad, or of a hard-working laundress or cook. It was much more respectable and enviable to be sweet—to belong to the exotic aristocracy of sweetmen than to be just a common tout. But there were strings to Susy’s largesse. The enjoyment of Harlem’s low night life was prohibited to Zeddy. Susy was jealous of him in the proprietary sense. She believed in free love all right, but not for the man she possessed and supported. She warned him against the ornery  hussies of her race.” (177) It suggests the invasion of capitalism into our relationships. Not new, certainly, but perhaps a growing part of life in the vibrant and heavily commercialized and unequal 1920s.

The first half of the novel considers Jake’s life in Harlem after returning from the war.  In the second half, Jake takes a job on a diner car of a train, servicing the American northeast. This opens up Jakes world considerable and he learns about the African-American communities in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.  This experience also changed his views of other blacks.  More so than the experience in the war, Jake’s experience working in the dining car gave him a global perspective and allowed him to place his own history and struggles in that Atlantic context. He learned of Liberia, of ancient African kingdoms, and the legacy of empires white and black. Much of this comes from his talks with the cook, Sam, who was born in Haiti. Jake learned that the U.S. used the war as a cover for expanding their empire in the Caribbean. This seems to me to be the ideological core of the novel. Jakes service to white empires in the war did little to expand his world. Indeed, he immediately returned to his old ways and old neighborhood. Working with Sam opened his eyes.

Harlem in the 1920s

Harlem in the 1920s

That said, the novel is not primarily about lessons. It is trying peel off aspects of life for working class blacks in the 1920s: politics, gender, sexuality, work, culture, identity. I found it consistently fascinating and rich in this regard.