Zora Neale Hurston: Selected Articles

Glee clubs and concert singers put on their tuxedoes , bow prettily to the audience, get the pitch and burst into magnificent song—but not Negro song. The real Negro singer cares nothing about pitch. The first notes just burst out and the rest of the church join in—fired by the same inner urge. Every man trying to express himself through song. Every man for himself. Hence the harmony and disharmony, the shifting keys and broken time that make up the spiritual. (870–871)

This volume of Zora Neale Hurston’s non-fiction writing ends with a series of articles published over the course of her career, beginning in the 1920s and ending with what may be her final public word, criticizing what she saw as the presumption of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Most of the articles collected here deal in one way or another with Hurston’s studies in folklore or are autobiographical. The highlights for me were defiantly some of her writings for Negro: An Anthology and some of the folk lore she collected for the Florida Writers’ Project (a subset, I guess, of the Works Progress Administration).

The selections open with “The Eatonville Anthology,” which is a set of vignettes about life in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville Florida. In this, Hurston made an attempt to get at the rich texture of this small town. Although it was an all-black small town, it has an incredible diversity. From this we can understand her often-stated hostility toward the idea of “racial consciousness.” We also see that even if it is sustaining a mainstream set of values, a small town seems to need rebellious elements to survive. The best example of this here is Daisy Taylor, the “town vamp.” When she left for Orlando, an environment she could more likely hide herself, we think that Eatonville lost a great deal of vibrancy.

Her writings for Negro: An Anthology, edited by Nancy Cunard and published in 1934, are an attempt to lay out the elements of African American culture with a degree of scientific objectivity lacking in Mules and Men. It is simply a great introduction into black folklore, cultural icons (Mother Catherine, Uncle Monday), and motifs. It also has one of the most succinct explanations of the place of the Devil in black folklore. Also read this for the introduction to the “jook” or the “Negro bawdy house.”

Hurston’s work on folklore for the Florida Writers’ Project is no less significant, coming after she had already completed Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. She provides a mature and useful definition of folklore. She sees art as the discovery of the truth that already exists in folklore. It is worth quoting at length. From my perspective as a left libertarian, I appreciate this because it helps us respect the canon while also realizing that it is important to decenter it. The canon is the realization of the truths of a culture, not the true expression in itself. We sometimes see artists as the vanguard, but maybe we need to see them more like a scientist analyzing the facts of culture.

Every generation or so some individual with extra keen perception grasps something of the obvious about us and hitches the human race forward slightely by a new “law.” For instance, millionso f things had been falling on and about men for thousands fo years before the falling apple hit Newton on the head and made him see the attraction of the earth for all unsupported objects heavier than air. So we have the law of gravity. In the same way, art is a discovery in itself. Seen in detail it is a series of discoveries, perhaps intended in the first instance to stave off boredom. In a long view, art is the setting up of monuments to the ordinary things about us, in a moment and in time. [. . .] Folklore is the arts of the people before they find out that there is any such thing as art, and they make it out of whatever they find at hand. (876)

In later details, Hurston explains that the relative underdevelopment of black art in America (in her opinion anyway) was due to the silence enforced on generations by slavery.

One article that should be brought up is “Crazy for this Democracy,” written in 1945. As my last point highlighted, Hurston censored her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) after the US entered World War II. She removed much of her criticism of US imperialism, specifically her claims that Japan was merely copying the US imperial practice in the Pacific. By 1945 she was no longer able to sit on her hands on this issue and published a devastating critique of US. He fed into the language of the “Double V” movement, which consisted of the belief that the battle against fascism in Europe was deeply connected to the battle against Jim Crow. What makes the document unique and important is that Hurston places the struggle against Jim Crow in a global context. This essay should be read more often as an example of African-American global consciousness in the 20th century.

Her 1955 letter to the Orlando Sentinel, “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix,” is her response to Brown v. Board of Education. She was not saying that Jim Crow is defensible (see “Crazy for this Democracy”), nor was she saying that integration was not an admirable goal. Her criticism of the decision was that it exposed a hypocrisy among black leaders. She correctly points out that a major trend in black life since Reconstruction was the movement toward self-rule. We see that in the Union Leagues, towns like Hurston’s own Eatonville, and—Hurston points out—in black educational institutions. She feared that a subtext to the decision was that black teachers could not teach black students. Forced court order integration seemed to undermine these efforts in her view. This would be fine if it was not for the rhetoric of racial consciousness (which she attacked at length in her autobiography). As she summarizes: “Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them. Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association. That old white mare business can go racking on down the road for all I care.” (958) I do not know much about how the black nationalists responded to school desegregation, but I suspect they may have agreed with Hurston here. I would only add that Hurston’s own education was based on “ethical and cultural desegregation” but formally tied to all-black institutions.

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Zora Neale Hurston: “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942)

What I had to swallow in the kitchen has not made me less glad to have lived, nor made me want to low rate the human race, nor any whole sections of it. I take no refuge from myself in bitterness. To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat. I have no urge to make any concessions like that to the world as yet. I might be like that some day, but I doubt it. I am in the struggle with the sword in my hands, and I don’t intend to run until you run me. So why give off the smell of something dead under the house while I am still in these tussling with my sword in my hand? (765)

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Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography written mostly in 1941. This date is important because she consciously removed much of her criticism of American imperialism after the Pearl Harbor attacks. What we end up reading is a slightly self-censored account of Hurston’s life and times. There are voluntary excisions and the edition in the Library of America has much of her earlier version. I will take a look at what she has to say about America’s place in the world later.

The autobiography is lively and interesting throughout. For me, what makes this work so interesting is the tension throughout between mobility and community. Hurston was clearly of the black South in this way. For all the clichéd images of the black South as rooted in towns, confined by Jim Crow, after slavery mobility became a way of life, not just for those who moved North but within the South as well. Hurston’s father was one of these wanderers, looking for new opportunities (and often new women). Yet at the same time, he settled in Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in the South, a prime example of black self-rule. We imagine that Hurston’s interest in black autonomy was inspired in large part by growing up in such a community. Hurston’s life was full of this same need for community and companionship frustrated by an opposing need to explore the world, seek out new opportunities, and develop her abilities. Whether it was going from job to job in her youth, fleeing her step mother, or escaping an ill-conceived marriage Hurston was often on the move. I wonder if her ability to navigate the world was based on her foundation in the strong community of Eatonville. As we see again and again in American literature, individual freedom and the enduring community are really two sides of the same coin.

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The strong sentiment throughout the book if Hurston’s dedicated individualism. She was quite conscious of his this individualism was becoming more difficult to maintain in the face of an emerging black rights movement in America. She speaks of this tension from time to time in the book, especially in a chapter “My People! My People!” In this chapter she talk about her love of black people, but also what she saw as their failing, including that of the educated black middle class, who she accused of trying to find their place in white America. I wonder if much of this attitude comes from that fact that her childhood was largely in an all-black town. She lived there until she was thirteen, so she did not experience the day-to-day discrimination and violence that so many others experienced. Here is a bit of what she had to say about this:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them. I learned that skins were no measures of what was inside people. So none of the Race clichés meant anything anymore. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race. Therefore I saw no cures in being black, nor no extra flavor by being white. I saw no benefit in excusing my looks by claiming to be half Indian. In fact, I boast that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief. (731)

She concludes by getting right too it. “Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearance and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My people! My people!” (733) What is only slightly hidden under this is that once you get rid of that quest to find a voice of the people, you are left with that individualism and the claim we seem to come to is that it was only possible given a strong community solidarity.

Dust Tracks on a Road is in roughly three parts. The first five chapters deal with Hurston’s childhood and the emergence of her curiosity about literature, writing and folklore. This awakening in her mind is her major focus in these chapters, along with the history of her father and his arrive in Eatonville. The next five chapters deal with her education and the maturation of her career. She got a late start due to poverty and the need for work, but through the help and inspiration of some important teachers and thinkers her career took off and she began her field work on African-American folklore. The final five chapters deal with different topic such as Hurston’s views on religion, race, love, and literature.

Although Hurston is most well-known for her study of black folklore and her novels about black life, she was inspired in her youth by folklore around the world. She was given texts by some white teachers passing through. It created for her an image of the ideal individual. It seems that this fed into her overall promethean individualism. “In a way this early reading gave me great anguish through all my childhood and adolescence. My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods. Stew beef, fried fat-back and morning grits were no ambrosia from Valhalla. Raking back yards and carrying out chamber pots, were not the tasks of Hercules. I wanted to be away from the drabness and to stretch my limps in some mighty struggle.” (596–596) The power of this folk literature is its ability to dream of the absolute limits of human potential. Unfortunately, for Hurston and for many others, it caused a great isolation that could only manifest in a bold individualism. (For the less creative it manifests in social awkwardness, Internet trolling, and other horrendous modern vices we need not get into.) “A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessing of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.” (598)

One of the more important moments in her life was the time she spent with a dramatic troupe. It is yet another example of how community and solidarity were simply the reverse side of wandering and individualism. Detached from communities, they formed a tight-knit society on the move. Her experiences there match the tension in her father’s own life, between rootlessness and his settlement in Eatonville.

I saw thirty-odd people made up of all classes and races living a communal life. There were little touches of professional jealously and a catty crack now and then, but let sickness or trouble touch any member and the whole cast rallied around to help out. It was a marvelous thing to see. There were a few there from good families and well-to-do homes who slept in shabby hotels and made meals on sandwiches without a murmur. From what they said and did, you would think they were as poor as the rest. (664)

The wandering troupe seemed to abolish class distinctions within their own community.

I want to leave this with a look at one of the chapters that did not make it into the final text, “Seeing the World As It Is.” This was the original final chapter, but was cut due to editors opposition to her international commentary. This must have had something to do with the outbreak of World War II, but I wonder if the editor would have been so insistent that Mark Twain remove anti-imperial commentary from his autobiographical works for the same reason. The deleted chapter provides a much more focused and direct attack on “Race Solidarity,” which she saw as a presumptuous attempt to unify black people’s thinking and political perspectives. In addition she finds the leaders who promote “racial solidarity” (she calls them “Race Men”) are odious and opportunistic. There are some unfortunate aspects to this, such as her insistence on rejection of worried about the past. This seems to contradict the evidence she provides in Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, both of which show how history does have an impact on how people see their place in the world. Poverty played a role in Hurston sitting out the 1950s for sure, but we see here that she concerns about a struggle based on “racial solidarity.” Although her opinions almost certainly emerged in the context of a an all-black, self-governing community her cultural upbringing was interracial, indeed global.

The rest of the deleted chapter “Seeing the World As It Is,” attacks US hypocrisy in the international arena. We can understand almost at once why it could not appear in print in 1942. “The Unite States being the giant of the Western World, we have our responsibilities. [. . .] But there is a geographical boundary to our principles. They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves. Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored. We are like the southern planter’s bride when he kissed her the first time.” (791) She associates the Nazi conquest of Europe with colonialism, showing that Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” are as hypocritical as the Wilsonian demand for national self-determination. In the end, the “four freedoms” were a form of white privileges. Pearl Harbor was long enough ago that I think we can safely read this chapter for what it was, an obvious declaration of the reality of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, something well known now.

 

 

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)

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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)

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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: “Camino Real” (1953): In Praise of the Vagabonds

Camino Real was written in 1952 while Tennessee Williams was living in Key West. It was not well-received and the bad reviews left Williams depressed. The play was dedicated to Elia Kazan who directed the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I must say, I tried to find a performance I could watch from Youtube or download, without much luck. I am not sure this is a play that was meant to read. (Williams deals with this in an afterward to the published version where he says that reading the play will not improve the experience for those who did not like it performed.) Perhaps its magic is hidden in the performances. The first draft of Camino Real was called something like Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. The final version contained fifteen of these “blocks.” We are fortunate that Williams wrote a rather reflective forward to the published version of the play, which deals with some of the negative feedback he received and gives some guidance to interpretation. He explains that the main motif of the play was intended to be freedom.

My desire was to give these audiences my own sense of something wild and unrestricted like water in the mountains, or clouds changing shape in a gale, or the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream. This sort of freedom is not chaos nor anarchy. On the contrary, it is the result of painstaking design, and in this work I have given more conscious attention to form and construction than I have in any work before. Freedom is not achieved simply by working freely. (743—744)

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There so a lot of wisdom in there for libertarians who actual want to create a free society, and not just talk about it. What Tennessee Williams said he was after in Camino Real was a well-planned and thoughtfully-designed joyous experience of release.

The setting, which Williams insists is no real place but a separate existence, is an open plaza with a great deal of life and openness, but also a tension between vagabonds who pass through or well in the “Skid Row” part of the plaza and those on the luxury side. Class is not directly theorized in the play. It is just assumed as the context. Almost all of the characters in the play (and there are great many minor and significant) are from one or the other side of the town, or act as the gate keepers keeping the two separate. Many literary figures find their way into the play from Don Quixote, in the opening scene, to Jacque Casanova, a major character to takes on a role of a tramp.

All of the literary characters who take the stage in Camino Real have been pushed to the margins and are no longer really necessary for the world. Casanova, for instance, relies on remittance checks for survival. (Casanova is historical, no literary, but he has been internalized enough to work as an archetype.) Williams may be mourning the declining interest in this impressive gang of rebels and freethinkers.

The play read to me like a prolonged meditation on the freedom of mobility of the poor, marginalized, and criminalized against the restrictive forces of order. The central action of Block Six is about the efforts to capture the vagabond Kilroy. After dodging the police he says:

How do I git out? Which way do I go, which way do I get out? Where’s the Greyhound depot? Hey, do you know where the Greyhound bus depot is? What’s the best way out, if there is any way out? I got to find one> I had enough of this place. I had too much of this place. I’m free. I’m a free man with equal rights in this world! You better believe it because that’s news for you and you had better believe it! Kilroy’s a free man with equal rights in this world! All right, now, help me, somebody, help me find a way out. (780)

Help comes in the form of Esmeralda and the gypsies, but Kilroy ends the scene in the hands of the police. A very similar scene is acted out in the final block with a happier outcome. There Esmeralda give the following speech in praise of the vagabonds.

God bless all con men and hustlers and pitchmen who hawk their hearts on the street, all two-time losers who’re likely to lose once more, the courtesan who made the mistake of love, the greatest of lovers crowned with the longest horns, the poet who wandered far from his heart’s green country and possibly will and possibly won’t be bale to find his way back, look down with a smile tonight on the last cavaliers, the ones with the rusty armor and soiled white plumes, and visit with understanding and something that’s almost tender those fading legends that come and go in this plaza like songs not clearly remembered, oh, sometime and somewhere, let these be something to mean the word honor again! (839)

I guess that is as nice a place to stop as any. I am not sure what quite to make of Camino Real. I am interested in seeing it performed and would appreciate any leads.

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Tennessee Williams: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a quite amazing play. It contains the maturation of some of Williams’ most central themes, such as the burden of the past, the violence of human institutions (again the family is the most visceral and inescapable of these), and the difficulty of honest relationships. The key point to me is that Blanche DuBois was making an honest attempt to remake herself by moving into her sister’s house after fleeing her ancestral home of Laurel. While she certainly made mistakes, she is not a horrible person and did not deserve the abuse she received by her brother-in-law, which ranged from intrusive interrogations, spying, rape, and ultimately exile and institutionalization. As we learn, Blanche has good reasons for her life falling apart. It is striking that compared to the family, the law and the state is actually quite open about giving people second chances. As difficult as it may be to survive the bureaucratic machine of the state after a mistake or a catastrophe, it at least (through systems of parole and bankruptcy) hold onto the mythology of second chances. Stanley (and more hesitantly Stella Kowalski) exploits Blanche’s weaknesses for his own pleasure and domination in the household.

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Stanley is a working class guy and actually has a rather strong relationship with his wife due to their sexual chemistry and regular periods of freedom from each other. Certainly Blanche’s arrival—destitute and homeless although under certain pretensions—disrupts their delicate system. Stanley is eager to defend his little world from what he soon takes to be an intruder. (The hot water bathes seemed quite bothersome.) Class prejudice shapes Blanche’s view of Stanley. She also picks up on his defensive attitude toward his space and his family. “Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and these he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you—you here—waiting for him! Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in the front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking!” (510)

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Blanche may share some of the delusions attitudes of Amanda in A Glass Menagerie, but unlike Amanda, Blanche is really harming no one else with her delusions of grandeur and her promiscuity. If we look at her situation we find much to sympathize with. She was left in the ancestral home with the remnants of a Southern aristocracy (now a gerontocracy). Her job is to bury these elders one at a time. In the end she is left bankrupt and bearing the moral responsibility for being the last member of a decaying dynasty. Her husband killed himself after being exposed as a homosexual. Alone in her hometown she becomes promiscuous and an alcoholic and is eventually kicked out of the hotel she was staying at. She was fired from her job as a teacher around the same time (reportedly for starting a sexual relationship with a student). She certainly could have used some solidarity and support from her surviving relatives. This does not excuse her attitude toward her brother-in-law, which is dreadfully aristocratic.

The tragedy of the play is built on the tyranny of expectations both individual and social. Despite what Blanche says about Stanley, comparing him to an ape, he is as capable as the people of Blanche and Stella’s hometown of using moral expectations as a weapon. It is not clear that he holds them, but he sure does put on the moral outrage when he reports on what his informants tell him about Blanche’s unfortunate past in Laurel.

Of course the play ends with the largely unseen but very ominous threat of the asylum. Stanley arranged for Blanche to be taken in as a ward of a mental institution after her nervous breakdown resulting from Stanley raping her. Signs of her mental deterioration preceded this event and the rape is a tragic addition to her life of suffering. Stanley wanted to get rid of her and likely would have used a similar device to get rid of her. Why is it that in so much art, the police, the prison, the school and other authoritarian institutions are so easily attacked and undermined yet we continue to send our children and our brothers and sisters to these places? Why do not these depictions of institutions do more to undermine their power over our lives?

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.)

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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.