James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933): Part Two

Very few, even among the most intelligent Negroes, could find a tenable position on which to base a stand for social among the other equalities demanded. When confronted by the question, they were forced by what they felt to be self-respect, to refrain from taking such a stand. As a matter of truth, self-respect demands that no mad admit, even tacitly, that he is unfit to associate with any of his fellow men (and that is aside from whether he wishes to associate with them or not). In the South, policy exacts that any pleas made by a Negro—or by a white man, for that matter—for fair treatment to the race, shall be predicated upon a disavowal of “social equality.” (475)

In the second half of James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way, we are first introduced to his work as United States consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He got these positions through the aid of Booker T. Washington, to whom he reported on the conditions of blacks in Latin America. He is not too happy with this position due to health problems and anxiety about the US involvement in Latin America. Johnson does document the revolution in Nicaragua, which the US government supported. These were actually good times. The port he was stationed at was small and uninteresting, except when the US naval ships arrived in port, which created a “social flurry” for Johnson and his wife. As a diligent consul, he worked hard to defend and expand US commercial interests as well. He had become an agent of empire.

At the end of this section of the autobiography, Johnson tries to come to terms with the US role in Latin America. He argues that empire was about more than simply defending investments, concessions, or securing debt obligations, but is rather part of a larger strategy (going back to the early nineteenth century) to protect and secure order and commerce through Central America and the Caribbean. To me these sounds to be true enough, except that the goal of smooth and peaceful trade through Central America seems to imply the access necessary to collect on those debts and obligations. I will generally agree that the major goal of empire in the modern world is the imposition of order on the fundamental “anarchy” of everyday life. This battle has been waged by governments, missionaries, capital and the other agents of empire. By 1915, he is clearly on the anti-imperialist side of things, arguing that: “For the seizure of an independence nation [Haiti], we offered the stock justifications: protection of American lives and American interests, and the establishment and maintenance of internal order. Had all these reasons been well founded, they would not have constituted justification for the seizure of a sovereign state at peace with us.” (515)

The final part of Along This Way picks up with Johnson’s return to full-time residency in the United States and his growing involvement in the civil rights movement of the day. He joined the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People and began writing editorials for the New York Age. He also took the time to continue his writing as a lyricist and develop his slowly emerging fame as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (a novel he wrote while Johnson was a US consul). His politics involved the dilemma addressed in the quote opening this post. How to move toward arguments for social equality, and indeed even defining what that might mean. Much of this work involved breaking away from the “Tuskegee Idea” of Booker T. Washington, which set social equality as an unachievable or nebulous goal. But he did take one important idea from Washington, namely that “hammering away at white America” was not enough. “I felt convinced that it would be necessary to awaken black America, awaken it to a sense of its rights and to a determination to hold fast to such as it possessed and to seek in every orderly way possible to secure all others to which it was entitled. I realized that, regardless of what might be done for black America, the ultimate and vital part of the work would have to be done by black America itself; and that to do that work black America needed an intelligent program.” (479) This seems to be an important principle predicated on direct action.

Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Kenneth Galbraith: “American Capitalism” (1952)

The notion that there are aspects of monopoly tin a large proportion of American industries was bound to bring a major change in liberal attitudes. In fact, it dealt the ancient liberal formula a far more serious blow than has even yet been realized. It is possible to prosecute a few evil-doers; it is evidently not so practical to indict a whole economy. (49)


The above comes from the chapter “The Ogre of Economic Power,” from John Kenneth Galbraith’s breakout text American Capitalism. This is one of the four texts included in the Library of American collection of Galbraith’s writings from the 1950s and 1960s. (I am not sure if another volume is in the works). What strikes a radical about reading a liberal like Galbraith is how late he came to a basic understanding about the economy, and how amazing the discovery is. There is actually not so much in American Capitalism (the specific examples aside) that cannot be deduced from Marx or even Adam Smith. But we welcome his realization that the US economy was dominated by a small elite. He even has some interesting things to say in the way of possible solutions to the problem of economic centralization in the hands of an oligarchy.


Galbraith was a Canadian by birth. He had a traditional academic career, completing his Ph.D. dissertation in his mid-twenties. His formative years were in the Great Depression, where he was exposed to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who influenced not just his ideas on the economy, but practically a generation of economists, trying to come to terms with the Great Depression. The Depression is on Galbraith’s mind when writing American Capitalism. It was not ancient history for him. It was integral to his world view. In this sense, it is hard to blame him for his insistence that the state stand in to oppose the centralization of capital. Galbraith was living in an era where libertarian ideas (especially anarchism) were fading. The lessons of the Depression and the World Wars and post-war “prosperity” was for many that the state could create a compromise economy that could save capitalism without expanding its excesses. I suspect I will come back to this plenty while reading these four early works of Galbraith.

Library of America volume cover

Library of America volume cover

American Capitalism is a slim volume. Its title suggest a general history of American economic history, or even a picture of the overall economic situation. It is neither of these things. Instead, the book is a focused study of the problem of monopoly. Why, in contrast to classical theories, was the American economy becoming more, not less, centralized? That is the narrative of power. For the other side of the dialectic, Galbraith presents his theory of “countervailing power.” This is often, but not always the state. It can also take the form of insurgent businesses, labor unions, communities, or co-operatives. Why anarchists may find something of value in this text is in his theory that the power of monopoly always inspires resistance in the form of these “countervailing” forces. While most will look upon his belief that the state is one of the most effective institutional means to formalize this resistance, it is hard to deny that the state did significantly tame capitalism in a handful of countries in the middle of the 20th century. We now know it was an unstable situation and quickly undone as soon as the global capitalist class reformed itself economically and politically.

One important point he makes about oligopoly is that it does not really require collaboration by all the members, as in the classical conspiratorial vision of monopoly. Traditionally, proving collaboration required direct evidence so that is what regulators looked for. But this was rarely required. Galbraith writes of the tobacco companies:

There was no proof that these firms had entered into any overt agreement on prices. This had been the old test of guilt. Rather, each had merely behaved as though it fully understood and respected the welfare of the group. The leadership of one of their number had been accepted when it was evidence that a price decrease would be to the profit of all, and again when it was evidence that a price increase would be to the common benefit. (50)

This does not mean employers’ associations did not regularly meet and cooperation, however, just that it was not necessary for market manipulation.

He points out that one reason oligopoly emerged from the Second World War so powerful in America was that the policies of the government in the New Deal and the war were not interested in any regulation of collaboration. The New Deal was more concerned with employment and rising wages (big firms could do that as well as small firms, it was believed). During the war, it was much the same. As the economy recovered, businesses were more centralized than ever and this worked well for the needs of an interventionist state.

Galbraith’s most innovative idea in American Capitalism is countervailing power. This was not competition, something that is—naturally—suppressed in a monopoly or oligopoly. He turns toward the state in the end as part of this effort, but he does not really need to. He has plenty of historical examples of unions, farmers associations, and cooperative challenging capital effectively without much state support. (Although he sticks in at the end that these movements sort of need the state, even if the evidence does not fully support this.)

In short, the less of American Capitalism is that no matter how strong the capitalist elite may seem, their hegemony is not uncontested or passively accepted. What this resistance will look like willed pend much on the nature of the economic hegemon and the local economic situation, so there is no model to work from. After all, Galbraith was an economist not an activist.

In parts of the American economy where proprietary mass buyers have not made their appearance, notably in the purchase of farm supplies, individuals (who are also individualists) have shown as much capacity to organize as the Scandinavians and the British and have similarly obtained the protection and rewards of countervailing power. The Grange League Federation, the Eastern States Farmers’ Exchange and the Illinois Farm Supply Company, cooperatives with annual sales running to multi-million-dollar figures, are among the illustrations of the point. (113)

farmer's alliance



Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)


Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)


As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.

Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part Two, Hoodoo

Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has its thousands of secret adherents. It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself. Such as fire-worship as signified in the Christian church by the altar and the candles. And the belief in the power of water to sanctify as in baptism. Belief in magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started. (176)

There is a story retold by Zora Neale Hurston at the end of Part One of Mules and Men. It is about a man named High Walker who could raise the bones in the graveyard to life, but only for a moment. He needed only to command the bones to “shake yo’self.” Another man asks the devil to take his soul so he could die. He is sick of the world as it is. He dried up and left only bones behind. High Walker came across these bones and asks them to shake. The bones do not shake but it does talk to High Walker telling him to beware and that he will join them soon. High Walker finds a white man and tells him about the talking skull. When the skull does not reply to High Walker in the presence of a white man, the white man kills High Walker by slicing off his head. Later the skull tells High Walker that he told him that to watch out. The white man runs off when he seen the bones shake on their own. They proclaim victory having seized High Walker’s bones.

This story is sits in the book just before Hurston makes the transition to discussing hoodoo. It suggests a few things about this African-American religion. The struggle over the boundary between life and death, the power of the devil, the unknowability of the nuances of the religion to white people, and its playfulness. Hurston tells us that hoodoo is a part of the suppressed and underground tradition of black people in America, as much a part of their tradition as the folk stories. By including this in Mules and Men she is posing a challenge. You cannot just accept the stories—even incorporate them into mainstream American culture through public education—without taking the entire package. Although I guess she knows few will. Brer Rabbit will always have a place in American folklore. I am less sure about voodoo (at least not as something most people will praise and speak of casually with their children). Perhaps what make is more frightening is that it is not capable of being assimilated. It is part of a culture of resistance in active revolt and as such not possibly co-opted.

Hurston tries to find the origin of hoodoo in general use of magic in all cultures, suggesting its roots even as far back as the mythical figures of the Old Testament. She clearly wants to tell us that the line between Christianity and voodoo is not very far. Moses in her view was a glorified conjure doctor. Yet, she quickly gets to her main point which is the application of hoodoo in the contemporary United States, especially New Orleans, where she experimented in various hoodoo ceremonies and rituals as well as telling stories about practitioners and consumers of hoodoo. People sought out voodoo for dramatic life-changing needs such as finding a mate and for more mundane things like medical treatment. I find it interesting that this religion fills in where Jim Crow segregation likely made access to physicians more difficult. One “member of a disappearing school of folk magic” used hoodoo to provide legal services, including criminal defense.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Looking at this we are almost forced to go back to this question I looked at in some early posts (“McTeague”) about the role of professionalization in a free society. The question is, by whose standards is this conjure doctor lawyer unsuitable? The law’s standard, of course. But whose interest is served by seeing the formal written law as the only possible standard for resolving conflicts in society. I do not want to aggrandize this practicioner too much. Many of the spells he cast seemed to have the purpose of obstructing justice (silencing witnesses and such), but at a more basic level we understand that the reason lawyers have power to interpret the law and most of the rest of us do not, is that they have a piece of paper backed by the legal authority of the state. I am still not sure how we can find alternatives to professions (even Bakunin seems to accept some professionalization in his theory of authority), but I suppose they should be more free and more reflective of people’s diverse traditions and values.

The end of Mules and Men consists of some fairly extensive appendices, with a glossary, some songs lyrics with musical scores, and methods for casting various hoodoo spells (many of them cures for illnesses, but some are more interesting things like love potions).

In short, Mules and Men is a great book. Hurston did a great service in recording African American folklore traditions at a particular moment in time, but she also gives us good reasons to see this tradition as part of the broader narrative of black working class resistance. Her inclusion of hoodoo is a powerful reminder that we cannot bracket these traditions when we study them.


Tennessee Williams, “Battle of Angels” (1939)

Tennessee Williams wrote Battle of Angels in 1939. Its initial run was quite brief, running only for about a week or so at the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941. It would be published six years later. As I can tell, it was not performed until reworked into Orpheus Descending in the 1950s, after Williams had secured some success. The two plays are often published together. There are several themes at work in this play mostly about the nature of Southern small town life. It takes on a rather mystical angel at various times through the elusive character of the Conjure Man. I was to mention only one theme: the oppression of law both informal and formal. (It is a Sunday and I have a bit of other work to do on top of this blog, so I will be brief.)


The plot surrounds a migrant worker Val who arrives in a small town and takes a job in a general store. He piques the interest of an unmarried woman Cassandra (whose failure to marry has made a notorious figure in the community). Their date goes badly when she seems to expect sex from Val. Val later falls in love with the married manager of the store, Myra. Myra’s husband is old and dying and she is attracted to Val so they eventually become lovers. Val has a past. He fled Waco due to accusations of rape (he is apparently innocent but we really only has his claim that the woman from Waco was slighted by Val’s regrets the next day). During his employment, Val comes to the aid of an unemployed black man who is threatened with arrest for vagrancy. These four characters are bound by legal expectations. Val, like Caleb Williams or Jean Valjean, is being chased throughout the country for alleged crimes. This makes it impossible for him to settle in one place. The opposite is the fate of Loom, the black migrant, who by not being tied to the employment of a white man is considered a dangerous element in the small town. Cassandra is scorned by the other women in the town for her sexual liberty. Myra is bound to a banal and lifeless marriage. She is so desperate to escape that she has to lock the backroom door at one point and hide the key so as not to be driven to adultery with Val, who she is quickly falling in love with.

Cassandra has actually thought long and hard about the limitations she faces. Mocked by the other women in the town and even rejected by the rather sensuous and free Val, she has internalized her role as a pariah. It does, however, limit her freedom in the town. She is typecast and in fact she is presented to use as a bit of a tramp before we learn how she interprets her world. Williams may have been hacking the values he critiqued in structuring the introduction of Cassandra’s character that way. Cassandra’s monologue is fascinatingly rich. “You must be blind. You—savage. And me—aristocrat. Both of us things whose license has been revoked in the civilized world. Both of us equally damned and for the good reason. Because we both want freedom. Of course, I knew you were really better than me. A whole lot better. I’m rotten. Neurotic. Our blood’s gone bad from too much inter-breeding. They’ve set up the guillotine not in the Place de Concorde, but here, inside our own bodies.” (220) She sums up later on that the same truth confines Myra using some of the same language. “They’ve passed a law against passion. Our license has been revoked.”

Cassandra is facing the informal laws of the community, but the expectations are just as odious on Loon. In fact, the law against vagrancy builds on social expectations of their own. One of the thugs who question his “vagrancy” says: “Yeh, you all hush up. I’m talkin’ to this young fellow. Now, looky here: a nigger works on a white man’s property, don’t he? White man houses him an’ feeds him an’ pays him living’ wages as long as he produces. But when he don’t, it’s like my daddy said, he’s gotta be blasted out a th’ ground like a daid tree stump befo’ you can run a plow th’ought it!” (237–238)

I found the play to be worth reading. I cannot yet say if Orpheus Descending improves on Battle of Angels. I suspect it does, but this work stands on its own and parallels some of the transgressive themes of Not About Nightingales.


Tennessee Williams, “Not About Nightingales” (1939)

Tennessee Williams dedicated Not About Nightingales to one of his heroes, Clarence Darrow. Its major them would have been attracted to Darrow for it looks at the tension between the individual and the institution. This play is set entirely within an island prison, an apparently thinly veiled allegory for Alcatraz, but Williams claims that the prison is a model for all prisons. There are actually a series of interlocking confinement devices at work in the play. The island imprisons everyone who arrives, the prison contains 3,500 “criminals,” and “Klondike” is a solitary confinement cell—a place feared more than any by the prisoners. The action of the play centers on the arrival of a new secretary Eva, devastated by unemployment and desperate for work, and her love affair with an inmate Jim, who works in the office close to the warden and Eva. The second related plot is about a hunger strike that the inmates stage in protest of poor conditions and poor food. These two plot lines come together in the tragic aftermath.

Not About Nightingales was very timely in 1938, but it would take sixty years before it would be performed on the stage. A production (on Youtube at the time this post was written) is posted below.

As the play opens we meet a woman from Wisconsin who comes to the prison to visit her son, a sailor, who was put in prison for larceny. She is suspicious about the end of his letters. It is revealed that her son, Sailor Jack, has gone insane. Jack is just one of many prisoners at nearing this state. The warden, seemingly capable but largely indifferent to the running of the prison and unwilling to face what is going on within the walls of the prison, shovels most of these problems under the table, whether it is a financial irregularity or even the death of inmates.

He hires Eva almost as soon as she walks into the door because he is attracted to her. Eva is desperate for work. The bad economy has driven her to work in a prison, something she dreads for a variety of reasons. The immorality of working for a prison is made clear to Eva during a conversation in the second act with Jim, from which the title of the play emerges. Jim is disgusted by the Keats poem “Ode to a Nightingale” proclaiming that “Don’ those literary punks know there’s something more important to write about than that? They ought to spend a few years in stir before they select their subjects!” (149) For Jim, art must be directed toward class war. Eva defends Keats with: “He got out of prison by looking at the stars. He wrote about beauty as a form of escape.” (150) This part of the discussion highlights Williams view of art in the Great Depression era. This view was shared by many leftist writers of the time, who saw the proper role of art as polemical. In a follow up conversation, Eva and Jim discuss the morality of working for the prison. Jim states that she is contributing to the system that he and the other inmates are working to overthrow. Eva, desperately poor sees herself as having no choice but to work in the prison. In a way she is like many of the inmates who were forced to crime by the times. This strikes me as the key point in the entire play and its moral center.

The institution corrupts all people. The good-natured and intelligent Jim is drive toward violent rebellion. Eva serves a police force she does not empathize with and sees her authentic love affair with Jim transformed into something criminal (subject to voyeuristic investigations by the guards). Most importantly, the warden uses his power to constantly sexually harass Eva. He seems to have hired her due to her attractiveness, being largely disinterested in her credentials. He is on the outs with his wife, who leaves him at some point during the course of the play, and has had affairs. The warden sees Eva much as he sees the inmates, a captive person who must respond favorably to his advances. Once he learns of her feelings for Jim, he uses his upcoming parole decision to extort the promise of sexual favors. “Suppose I—I did sympathize—do as you say—and—and kept my mouth shut and anything else that you want! Would you send the letter? Would Jim get his parole? . . . The mailboat leaves at eleven-forty-five. You could have it sent over by that. Don’t worry. I won’t back out. I’m not afraid of you now. I like you—I’d like to show you how much.” (181)

The outcome of this is cut short by the outbreak of violence in the hunger strike. The prisoners jury-rig the solitary confinement cell to reach 150 degrees, using it to kill a guard. Jim participates in the murder of the warden. The arrival of the military forces the prisoners to either try to escape and swim to shore or fight it out against the military. Jim chooses flight and is never heard from again.

The causes of the prison rebellion seem to outsiders to be slight, but to the prisoners they are matter a great deal. Struggles need to be understood in their context, but all too often privileged people critique oppressed people for their strategies of resistance, their values, or their goals. Certainly people not in prison would not understand starting a hunger strike over monotonous food, but from that it should not be said that their struggle was meaningless or silly. As Jim attempts to explain to Eva, food was almost all they had.