Tennessee Williams: “The Rose Tattoo” (1950)

A man that’s wild is hard for a woman to hold, huh? But if he was tame—would the woman want to hold him? (Estelle, p. 662)

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In Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo we see yet another example of a strangely dysfunctional family that works to control or limit the options of younger members through the imposition of the values of the elders. As a comedy, the tale is light and ends with everyone ending up with the right person. In this case, the example is a Sicilian immigrant family in the Gulf Coast. Throughout the play it is largely isolated from the rest of the South, the contact from the outside coming in the form of a love interest to the young lady Rosa and a salesman who reminds us how closed off the South was to immigrants for much of the twentieth century. The plot mostly revolves around Rosa’s mother Serafina and her efforts to prevent the sailor, Jack, from courting her daughter. After the death of her husband, Serafina withdrawals more and more into her home and her work as a seamstress. This happens at the same time that Rose attempts to move away from those familial confines causing the central family drama.

Serafina is essentially incapable of thinking of a life without her husband. We cannot know the full reason why she became this way, but it is not hard to imagine similar people. She talks at length about the centrality of him in her life. It is presented in the context of an erotic discussion about monogamy.

When I think of men I think about my husband. My husband was a Sicilian. We had love together every night of the week, we never skipped one, from the night we was married till the night he was killed in his fruit truck on that road there! . . . I could up all the nights I held him all night in my arms, and I can tell you how many. Each night for twelve years. Four thousand—three hundred—and eighty. The number of nights I held him all night in my arms. (678–679)

Well, if truthful apparently monogamy works for her. Of course for the people that it works effortlessly for, the suggestion that others may feel the need to stray is unthinkable. The suggestion in the same conversation that her husband had an affair nearly drives her to madness. The traffic undercurrent of the incident is that you realize that Serafina is so fixated on the memory of her husband, she will not change. She is rooted in the past. This informs her interventions into her daughter’s love life with Jack. Jack is burdened with expectations since he is a sailor and presumed to be morally fallen.

Catholicism dwells in the background of The Rose Tattoo. Along with her widowhood, religion is the major restraint on Serafina’s moral independence. Her struggle is played out in a romance with Alvaro. In the end it works out well for everyone. Two new relationships are born and the past is overcome, at least temporarily. The tension of the play is still worth taking seriously despite it all ending quite nicely. Serafina spends most of the play in dreadful fear of the moral influence of the outside world. This protectionism has real consequences as Williams has shown in his more serious plays. She even strikes out at the Catholic schools, blaming them for what she saw as the moral decline of Rosa.

Today you give out the diplomas, today at the high school you give out the prizes, diplomas! You give to my daughter a set of books call the Digest of Knowledge! What does she know? How to be cheap already?—Of, yes, that is what to learn, how to be cheap and to cheat!—You know what they do at this high school? They ruin the girls there! They give the spring dance because the girls are man-crazy. (697)

It is, of course, our great joy when Serafina becomes man-crazy herself.

Tennessee Williams: “Summer and Smoke” (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch it for yourself.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Old Love” (1979)

As in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s other short story collections, Old Love is thematically diverse but largely confined to the experiences of the Jewish Disapora, being set either in pre-war Poland or in the United States. The most common character is someone like Singer, an aging scholar or writer who emigrated to the United States and enjoys rising fame. Singer himself was never a radical, although many of his themes touch on the struggle for locating human freedom within familial, institutional and cultural confines. In the introduction to Old Love he writes on what he sees as the major theme uniting this collection of stories.

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The love of the old and middle-aged is a theme that is recurring more and more in my work of fiction. Literature has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience. Furthermore, while many of the young believe that the world can be made better by sudden changes in social order and by bloody and exhausting revolutions, most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything by their own kind. The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and manifestations.

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Now, while I certainly agree with the first point and would submit that much suffering would be removed from the world if marriages entered into by people in their 20s expired after five years. The centrality of young people to romantic comedies is ridiculous beyond measure to anyone who actually gone through a dozen relations in as many years (especially the happily ever after parts). I do not think the logical conclusion of this is to reject youthful revolt, and his claim that revolt against the social order is always bloody and exhausting. I think Singer’s own evidence reveals a great number of older people in revolt against the central institution of their lives: family and marriage. Despite wanting to approach the theme of love among older people, we find it quite elusive and frustrated.

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Take for instance the first story in the collection, “One Night in Brazil.” The narrator visits an intellectual friend and finds his friend married an old acquaintance from Warsaw. She claims she has been possessed by a dybbuk. The husband goes off with a girlfriend. Lena, the woman, attempts to seduce the narrator but they are consumed by mosquitoes, return home full of bugs and blood. They wash it off in a grotesque scene just as the husband returns. We see in this story the themes of serial monogamy, the resultant alienation in marriage (seemingly made worse by the third or fourth attempt) and a strange pining for lost love. If this is an attempt at love among the old, the next story “Yochna and Schmelke” is about young people. Yochna is raised pious and arranged to marry Scmelk through her father. The story discusses the early feelings of Yochna during the marriage, especially the wedding night and its rituals. Contrary to tradition Scmelke left on the holy days with his father in law. The later returns, with the other assumed lost. She is abandoned and pregnant, because she cannot remarry if they do not find a body. Of course, this is not unlike marriages once they pass the honeymoon which quickly become corpses.

“The Psychic Journey” explores the banality of marriage, the attraction to novelty and the desire for companionship in late capitalist marriages that often keep couples separated. A psychic connection provides some hope for a more meaningful relationship. The narrator meets a woman interested in the occult while feeding birds. They begin a friendship based on mutual interests. It turns out she has been watching him and following his work and interests.  They take a trip together to Israel at the time the 1976 war breaks out. She abandons him. After the trip, he stops seeing Margaret and reunites with wife, Dora. He tells her he went to California, never mentioning the trip to Israel although Dora was in Tel Aviv at the time of their illicit trip. He later learns that Margaret has started psychic business in New York leading him to confess his trip with the strange woman.

Readers can easily come away from this collection with a feeling that married couples are required to scheme to keep sane, crafting elaborate images of each other or themselves just to keep the facade of the institution together. In “The Bus,” Singer uses the device of changing seats on a tour bus in Spain to allow the narrator to see two sides of each couple. Here is how one married couple talks about each other:

One good trait she did have—she could attact a man. Sexually, she was amazingly strong. I don’t believe myself that I am speaking of these things—in my circles, talk of sex is taboo. But why? Man thinks of it from cradle to grave. She has a powerful imagination, a perverse fantasy. I’ve had experiences with women and I know. She has said things to me that drove me to frenzy. She has more stories in her than Scheherazade. Our days were cursed, but the nights were wild. . .

Nothing is left me except my imagination. He drained my blood like a vampire. He isn’t sexually normal. He is a latent homosexual—not so latent—although when I tell him this he denies it vehemently. He only wants to be with men, and when we still shared a bedroom he spent whole nights questioning me about my relationships with other men. I had to invent affairs to satisfy him. Late, he threw these imaginary sins up to me and called me filthy names. (214–216)

Well, if Singer is after a description of love among middle-aged people, he may have succeeded in convincing me that as we get older our relationships get only more sociopathic and absurd. Maybe there is some wisdom in this. There are limits to how much any one of us can overturn our cultural and social baggage. This must explain the remarriage rates. Rationally, a marriage as a youthful mistake makes since, but remarriage must be insanity (more than once Since shows affairs to have the same banalities of regular relationships). But if for whatever reason staying is impossible and one finds themselves back into relationships, perhaps a bit of playful fatalism is the best we can hope for. But always beware that the strange sleeping next to you may burn your life’s work, decide to put a knife in your chest, or become possessed by the spirits of the dead. This is all to be expected.

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part Two. Pierre in Revolt

“If a frontier man be seized by wild Indians, and carried far and deep into the wilderness, and there held a captive, with no slightest probability of eventual deliverance; then the wisest thing for that man is to exclude from his memory by every possible method, the least images of those beloved objects now forever reft from him. For the most delicious they were to him in the now departed possession, so much the more agonizing shall the be in the present recalling” (357)

I included this from Pierre only because of my inability to take Melville’s advice here, and I suffer daily from it.

As I left things at the mid-way point in Herman Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Pierre Glendinning learned of his long-lost half-sister and married her after learning of her past. In the process, he alienated his mother, the woman who has hitherto dominated his life and controlled his future. He also left his fiancé, Lucy. Not insignificantly, at this point Pierre began a series of revolts that would dramatically change the course of his life. If Isabel, his sister, truly reflects the more primal and democratic and free America (leaving Pierre to symbolize the old aristocratic culture), then we can read the novel as the triumph of the democratic over the aristocratic. This may seem to be fighting old battles, but we must remember that the United States did not fully free itself from aristocratic influences with the Revolution. The aristocrat remained in the landed elite, in the slaveholder, and in the various anti-democratic forces not so easily undone.

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The largest revolt Pierre pursues is his entrance into the city. He sees evidence everywhere of the more democratic and diverse climate. In a humorous exchange with a coach driver, he finds that his aristocratic bellowings have little impact on the driver, mocking his dictatorial pretentions with “though to be sure, I don’t know nothing of the city where I was born and bred all my life—no I know nothing at all about it.” (271) But it went beyond the attitude of a single cab driver. Pierre feels he is surrounded by the dregs of society, none of whom respected his name and station. “Day-dozers and sluggards on their lazy boxes in the sunlight, and felinely wakeful and cat-eyed in the dark; most habituated to midnight streets, only trod by sneaking burglars, wantons, and debauchees; often in actual pandering league with the most abhorrent stinks. . . this hideous tribe of ogres.” (271)

He attempts to make his living by writing, maintaining faith in his earlier aptitudes. He did not quite understand how little his talent for poetry would fetch him in the urban American city. The “fine social position and noble patrimony of Pierre” was worth less than nothing on the streets of the city. In an interesting passage, Pierre finds himself contemplating what it will take to survive and the requirement that he learns a trade. His arrogance and overblown self-esteem convinces him that he could learn and adapt to any useful trade. He even makes the mistake that the mind and body are essentially detachable in the workplace. This is a common capitalist ploy, to pretend that they work regimens they impose on workers is less odious than it is. “But not only could Pierre in some sort, do that; he could do the other; and letting his body stay lazily at home, send off his soul to labor, and his soul would come faithfully back and pay his body her wages.” As if to strike home his point Melville adds. “So, some unprofessional gentlemen of the aristocratic South, who happen to own slaves, give those slaves liberty to go and seek work, and every night return with their wages, which constitute those idle gentlemen’s labor.” (304) This just goes to show that a simple relocation is not enough to create a democratic spirit in the individual. In any case, his pondering about manual labor are not that important as he settles in for a life of writing.

New York in the 1850s

New York in the 1850s

Another point of Melville’s, it seems, is the utter violence of such breaks. They are perhaps necessary for liberty, but they do often cause harm. This is seen in the return of Lucy to the story in the final acts. But rather than resist her fate, she seems to accept it, but in the process is pulled along with Pierre into his dramatic transition to urban, democratic life. The result, although not lurid, was perhaps scandalous. A menage-a-tois results, with the three dwelling together in the city. Pierre is unable to produce for the low-brow marketplace of the city. His book is rejected by publishers. He is sued for the advances he received because the pages he was sending the publisher were not seen as suitable for the market. His publishers call him a “swindler.” (I wonder if Melville ever heard those very words?) Driven beyond the bend he murders the new heir to his estate (and Lucy’s new finance), is taken to jail. Lucy dies when unable to come to terms with the reality of his relationship with Isabel (wife and sister).

It is difficult to get beyond the silliness of the plot and even as a Melville admirer I found the book to be a bit of a burden. Of course, the book is a mess and not Melville’s finest. I do think there is something powerful in the story about the changing American scenery. Pierre certainly moved from the aristocracy to where he would need to assert himself by his own merits, but that environment he entered was dominated by capitalist print culture. In a sense, he merely found out that in democratic culture, he is required to service another master: the market. How freedom can exist in the market has never been fully explained to me by the capitalist apologists.

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part One. Old America, Young America

“Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he cannot love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sign is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!” (41–42)

It has been almost a year since I started my series on Melville, but I abandoned it after completing my reading of Moby-Dick. One of my goals this year is to roll up all these lose threads and starting looking at authors in complete sets. (We will see about Henry James—fourteen volumes—when we get there.) The third volume of the Library of America collection of Herman Melville includes his final three novels (Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence-Man), the short-story collection The Piazza Tales, various prose writing—including some of his awesome stories and reviews—, and finally the posthumously published Billy Budd. Only the final work represents a return to sea fiction. Notice with me that Melville produced his six works of sea fiction between 1846 and 1851 (ponder that G.R.R. Martin). Pierre came out a year later in 1852. He had another period of rapid production between 1855 and 1857. During the rest of his life—he died in 1891, over twenty years after his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne died—he published only poems and some small pieces. Reviewers and his family thought Melville insane during this period. In order to meet expenses, Melville took a job from 1866 until 1885 as customs inspector for New York, following Hawthorne’s path. But while the position served as a temporary measure for Hawthorne before he produced his great novels, the customs house would be were America’s greatest writer would spend the rest of his days. He made only $10,400 from the sales of his books. How many great works are lost to us because of that job in the custom house?

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Pierre, or the Ambiguities begins with Melville’s praise for the “Majesty” of the Berkshires, followed almost immediately with the genealogical history of the tale’s protagonist Pierre Glendinning, rooted in an aristocratic family. The contrast between the monarchical and aristocratic England with the democratic America is one of the major tensions through the story. While in Hawthorne we see the endurance of family traditions, in Melville’s America these legacies are more distant and seem to have less hold, or at least are overwhelmed by the tide of democracy. In the first chapter is the quite political statement: “In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old.” (13) A few pages later, he makes clear that the American elite migrate to the cities and build houses, while in Europe they would build country estates. Pierre was of the European type¬¬—a country aristocrat—in urbanizing America. What is left of Pierre’s family maintains the symbols of aristocracy, but are truly a family in decline. The past generations are even taller, with more grand careers, and more “majesty.” Moby-Dick thrust us right into the multiple, democratic world of the whaling whip. Pierre starts us someplace more static but moves us into the city, transforming the young Pierre Glendinning in the processes.

As the novel opens he is slated to marry Lucy. Soon enough Pierre learns that he has a half-sister Isabel, announced in the form of a letter. She announces her desire to see him and the deep connection she shares with him. The letter has a profound impact on Pierre who wants to seek out his sister rather than pursue the marriage with Luck. “Well may this head hang on my breast,—it holds too much; well may my heart knock at my ribs,—prisoner impatient of his iron bars. Oh, men are jailers all; jailers of themselves; and in Opinion’s world ignorantly hold their noblest part a captive to their vilest.” (110) With his commitment to seek out his sister, Melville shifts to telling the back story of Isabel. Unlike Pierre, who was raised by a matriarch intensely interested in dynasty and family reputation, Isabel was thrust into the world detached and in the wild. “Pierre, the lips that do now speak to thee, never touched a woman’s breast; I seem not of women born. My first dim life-thoughts cluster round an old, half-ruinous house in some region, for which I now have no chart to seek it out. . . . It was a wild, dark house, planted in the midst of a round, cleared, deeply-sloping space, scooped out in the middle of deep stunted pine woods.” (137)
Isabel seems to be a metaphor for America. In her early years, her only company were “an old man and woman,” both all but silent toward her and only mumble about her to each other. Like Europe looking on the infant America. Isabel began to speak her own polyglot, language (again, like America). Isabel is eventually taken in by a woman, who educates her, especially in music. She still lacked any ties to her heritage, but her father was sending money in support.

In many ways, Pierre and Isabel seem to represent two sides of America. Isabel is longer in the wilderness, primal, free, musical, lacking the need for guidance of adults, liberated. Pierre is younger but closer to the mythical traditions of his family, more obedient to his family, and more civilized, growing up under relatively strict guidance. There is the America that could not entirely break free of European traditions of hierarchy, obedience and power: the side of America that was never quite comfortable with freedom.

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After hearing the story of Isabel, Pierre decides to redeem her place in the family, which is attempts by marrying her. By telling her story, Isabel is able to pull Pierre away from his family and lead him on a path to rebellion.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The House of the Seven Gables” (1851)

“Shall we never, never rid of this Past! It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment; and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times–to Death, if we give the matter the right word!” (509)

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Through my exploration of Nathaniel’s Hawthorne’s works over the past few weeks, I kept coming back to the question stated in the above quote from his The House of the Seven Gables. It is not only that the young tend to me more creative (at least until they are educated), more energetic, and seem to have a better conception of freedom than adults. More troubling is that our elders have created a world that is hard to free ourselves from. Perhaps it is inevitable that the elders attempt to pass on their values to their children through education, but they also more unknowingly create systems and institutions that bind us to their values, whether we agree or not. How could it be otherwise? Without being too hard on my parents and grandparents, it is hard not to accuse them of exasperating the ecological crisis to the point where repair and sustainability is unlikely and of codifying a system of exploitation that is now global in its reach. And it is unlikely that it will be that generation that either dismantles those systems or is left to pick up the pieces after it falls. That is the job of the youth. So why do so many of us feel that we owe our parents so much loyalty?

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

That quote is spoken by Holgrave, the photographer, who is actually the scion of the Maule family, who had their home (The House of the Seven Gables) taken in the aftermath of the murder of witches in Salem by the Pyncheons. The Pyncheons hold onto the home with their dying grasp, while the surviving Maule cannot let go of the past, hiding out in the house under a false name. Here is some of the rest of what he had to say. “A Dead Man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he died intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A Dean Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! We are sick of Dead Men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity, according to Dead Men’s forms and creeds! Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” (509)  Yes, what more do we owe these zombies.

Hawthorne’s main argument running through The House of the Seven Gables is the almost unbearable decrepitude of life for all the characters. Most of the characters are old and cannot help but live in the past. Hepzibah Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon and Clifford Pyncheon are all of the same old and barren generation. The Judge, the man responsible for putting Clifford in prison for thirty years, is searching for ancient land titles to provide wealth for the family, which is soon to die out anyway. Clifford, just out of jail, is so frozen that the loss of the one youthful element in the home, Phoebe, sends him into a catatonic state. You must read the novel to get a full feeling of the paralysis and banality of aging. However, it is not easy to recover from. For the Maule’s the past is so alive, they seem to truly maintain the witchcraft that their ancestor was killed for practicing. Whether it was real then or not, it became real in the resentful heirs to the Maule line. In one of the more horrifying episodes, we learn how witchcraft was used to literally enslave the body and mind of Alice Pyncheon, an act of an Maule eager for revenge.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne's day.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne’s day.

This was written and published one year after The Scarlet Letter and is thematically similar. Both deal with dead sins and their burden on the living. The House of the Seven Gables is vastly more disturbing to me. At least in The Scarlet Letter, there were signs of the youthful potential in Pearl’s disobedience and impertinence. In Phoebe we find someone who can and does escape the home but is still of the Pyncheon clan. In both novels, the solution to the burden of the past was simply letting go. For Hester Prynne it was the symbolic removal of the red “A” for the Pyncheon’s it only took moving out of the House of the Seven Gables and leaving the past dead.

Another important message of The House of the Seven Gables (and perhaps its only hopeful message) is that our individual clinging to the past may not necessarily result in social stagnation. The Pyncheon wealth was in land and social prestige, but was largely used up by the opening of the story. When we meet Hepzibah, she is opening a small shop near the home in order to make ends meet. This may symbolize the shift to a democratic, commercial economy. Judge Pyncheon’s obsessive over the old land deeds and his position is really of the old colonial ways. Interestingly, the Pyncheons escape from the judge on a modern train. Holgrave–full of resentments to be sure–was the most modern character in profession and social mobility. (Was this a legacy of his witch heritage?) “Thought now bu twenty-two years old . . . he had already been, first, a county-schoolmaster; next, a salesman in a country-store; and, either at the same time or afterwards, the political-editor of a country-newspapers. He has subsequently travelled New England and the middle states as a peddler, in the employment of a Connecticut manufactory of Cologne water and other essences. In an episodical way, he had studies and practiced dentistry.” (503-504) It actually goes on, with his adventures in a utopian community, his participation in mesmeism, and his travels to Europe. It is hard not to see him as a symbol for democratic America.

 

 

H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” Part 2: The Burden of the Past

In my last post on H.P. Lovecraft, I was beginning an exploration of the nature of Lovecraft’s conservatism, which seems to be based on a fundamental mistrust of the Enlightenment project, particularly its Promethean potentialities. Fear of knowledge, the failure of science, the limitations of the senses and the total inability of humans to explain, describe, or conceive of anything outside of our own local environment is the heart of Lovecraft’s xenophobia. Not only does Lovecraft seem to be wrong about this. Scientists have done a wonderful job describing reality even at the hitherto inconceivable quantum level. Anthropologists work hard understanding different cultures. Everyday historians expand our knowledge of the past. And every child or every revolutionary worth listening to has dreamed up completely different potential futures. Lovecraft’s approach is not only empirically wrong, but it is also cowardly–suggesting an approach to the world as fearful as his trapped and paralyzed characters.

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For today, I read three stories (“Pickman’s Model,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror”) and the novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. We see much more of this theme of the failure of science throughout these four works.  In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the failure is in the ability of psychology to explain a mental illness.  In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteorite, which brought an alien force to a Massachusetts farm is studied by scientists in a lab.  Of course, scientific methodologies fail utterly. “It had acted quite unbelievably in that well-ordered laboratory; doing nothing at all and shewing no occuluded gases when heated on charcoal, being wholly negative in the borax bead, and soon proving itself absolutely non-volatile at any producible temperature, including that of the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe.” (344) It is made of an unknown substance. Scientists think it might be a new element, but in defiance of their experiments, the meteorite dissolves into the air.  Even the colors associated with the meteorite are outside of the normal visible range. As always, it is in ancient books by mad Arabs, like the Necronomicon that have true explanatory power.

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I am not suggesting that there are no legitimate critiques of technology and science–or even the Enlightenment project as a whole. On this point, I am probably closest to Murray Bookchin or Kropotkin in desired a human-scaled technology that is serving human interests and at the same time functioning at the human level (avoiding Mumford’s “The Machine”).  Lovecraft is going far from a challenge to misuses of science and technology.  He wants to say that science is incapable of even understanding the totality of the world. A comparison with Philip K. Dick may be apt. Both Lovecraft and Dick were skeptical about technology and both considered the threat of malevolent external forces. While Dick’s threats were clear and explicable (a powerful state, a technological regime, a sociopathtic android, a corporation), Lovecraft’s are unknowable. While Dick’s fears of technological systems led him to argue for human-scaled production and the dignity of work, Lovecraft rejects all knowledge, being skeptical that any craft can aid humans.  Perhaps we can see Dick as gnostic and Lovecraft as agnostic.  While Dick’s approach to the unknown seems to require us to understand and expose it, Lovecraft keeps us huddling in fear. Like the town in “The Colour Out of Space” that ignores the cursed field, we are best off not even trying to explain the horrors of our world.

Another dimension to Lovecraft’s conservatism is the heavy role of the past in shaping our lives.  The artist Pickman, in “Pickman’s Model” has no choice but to paint images of the horrors he sees in his studio. It is not clear why he could not just walk away from the madness-inducing horrors. Other, however, are burdened by family and the past.  Often families have deep connections to the cults that worship the alien gods that make up Lovecraft’s mythos.  A child born into such a family has no more chance of escaping this family history than he does his DNA. Regional and local histories play a similar role.  Now, Lovecraft must have known that this is nonsense. People leave their home towns, their family burdens, and the religion of their parents all of the time. Lovecraft even spent much of the mid-20s (the time these four stories were written) in New York City, living for the first time away from his home region.

This type of generational tyranny is one of the major themes of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Dunwich Horror,” but it come up in Pickman’s explanation of his art. “You call the Salem witchcraft a delusion, but I’ll wage my four-times-great-grandmother could have told you things. They hanged her on Gallows Hill, with Cotton Mather looking sanctimoniously on.” (200) A page later he explains in pejorative terms how new immigrants cannot understand such things. Only those natives who have the deep roots to the past carry that burden and impotence over their future.  In “The Dunwich Horror” Wilbur Whateley is actually the son of a demon (which explained his precocious development).  Joseph Curwen, from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, traced his lineage back to the Salem of the witch trials as well, which had no small role in his sacrifices and intellectual curiosities.

As with technology, I do not want to throw history or family out entirely. Free people can certainty find happiness and meaning through participation in their family. Raising children (as Lynd Ward might have said) is a Promethean act.  However, what Lovecraft’s mythos (or the little I have read of it so far) gives us families and regional histories that exist only as inescapable chains.  If someone in the 20th century cannot escape the legacy of the Salem witch trials, it is hard to see how they can live a free life.  Of course, if we lived in a world that follows Lovecraft’s rules we would have little need for such liberty.

What does the contemporary popularity of Lovecraft’s vision tell us about the rampant fatalism of late capitalist culture? Is it working as part of “capitalist realism,” convincing us that there is no alternative to our bleak and insignificant lives?

James Baldwin, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953): Religion and Freedom

Go Tell It on the Mountain parallels nicely with one of the major themes I teased out of Eudora Welty’s work, namely the relationship between individual freedom and our social institutions.  While Welty was primarily concerned with the family, family traditions, and nostalgia as a barrier to freedom, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, looks at African-American Christianity in much the same way.  While providing a source of identity, community, and values it creates an environment that is individually the cause of much torment, anxiety, and confinement.  At more than one moment, the protagonist’s father Gabriel threatens to “beat sin out of him.” (190)  Religion becomes a cover for his child abuse, for long-term resentment toward his son (who is not his biologically), and control over his son’s future career plans.  Gabriel is himself shaped and conflicted by his religious values, fathering a bastard child.  (We wonder at a few points if his religious obsession with the sin of sex makes that diversion from God’s path nearly inevitable.)  It is not, however, an entirely insidious part of the character’s lives.  Except for a few characters in open revolt against religion, we cannot imagine them outside of the guidance of the church, but the psychological (and physical) abuse and the long train of bad decisions makes us wonder if they would not be better off in revolt against these traditions.  Like America, these characters stand on the edge of freedom but choose to stand safely on the side of repression.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin's novels and some of his short stories.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin’s novels and some of his short stories.

John, the protagonist, has many parallels with James Baldwin’s own life.  Both grew up in New York, raised by men who were not their biological fathers.  Their stepfathers are preachers and both are expected to enter the church.  John and James also both grew up with a handful of half-brothers and half-sisters.  If Go Tell It on the Mountain can be trusted as autobiography, then these siblings provided potential alternatives from the expected life in the church.  Baldwin took advantage of these and evaded the religious life through writing, which he started doing at a very young age.  His biographical chronology reveals Baldwin to be quite precocious.  He started writing eleven or twelve, began sketching Go Tell It on the Mountain before the age of twenty.  He met Richard Wright when he was 20, gaining his encouragement (and connections), which helps his continued writing.  He also realized his homosexuality around this time.  Go Tell It on the Mountain was published before he was 30 years old.  This places his writing career at a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, but as a Northern writer he would have a different relationship to the questions the Civil Rights movement thrust on the nation.  His questions are urban, international, and economic.  And while he did participate in some of the actions of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, he would have a closer relationship with the more urban “Black Power” perspective, meeting Huey Newton and working on a film adaptation of Malcolm X’s autobiography.

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Go Tell It on the Mountain is divided into three parts, but it really comes together as five chapters.  The first part, “The Seventh Day,” sets up the spiritual life of fourteen-year-old John.  We also learn immediately of the alternative, represented by Roy – his half-brother.  The novel opens with sexual curiosity.  John is curious about the sexuality in the street life of Harlem, Roy’s experiments, and his parent’s sex life.  John’s physical attraction to Elisha (who is already “saved”) perhaps parallels Baldwins own sexuality.  John lives in fear and awe of his stepfather.  His mother constantly reinforces the idea that his stepfather is a holy man.  He is also plagued with the idea that he is surrounded in sin.  In a memorial passage, we are introduced to a woman in a film John watches.  Rather than enjoying the film, John dwells on the fate of this woman’s soul and the fate of women like her.  The film is also a spiritual test for John. Would he accept or reject the sinful world or embrace God.  “He could not claim, as African savages might be able to claim, that no one had brought him the gospel.  His father and mother and all the saints had taught him from his earliest childhood what was the will of God.  Either he arose from the theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment.” (38)  It is also in this first section of the novel that Roy is stabbed by some whites, again suggesting a powerful alternative for John, but it is also interpreted as a threat to his soul.  Unfortunately, most of us cannot see alternatives for what they are.

The second part is broken up into three chapters and open us up to the perspective of three of the most important people in John’s life: his aunt Florence, his stepfather Gabriel, and his mother Elizabeth.  It is presented as “the prayers of the saints,” for in John’s mind all three are saintly figures.  As we learn the details of these people’s lives we know that the narrative they presented to John was incomplete, convincing us that the religious life was not simply a free choice John made (which is how John often sees it, as when watching the sinful film) but chains, constructed through lies and half-truths.  The most dramatic of these lies is Gabriel’s illegitimate child.  Gabriel buys off the woman, Esther, using money stolen from his second wife, Elizabeth.  When the affair and the illegitimacy is exposed, Gabriel shows little remorse or concern.  Gabriel is able to harness all sorts of religious explanations for his actions, most notably the assumption that sin is the domain of the daughters of Eve.  Esther, a drinker and more attractive than his wife, brings him to sin.  Gabriel is able to twist his ending of the affair as a victory for the Lord.

Before looking at the final chapter of the novel, we cannot help but observe that like Gabriel and Elizabeth, Elisha wants John to find God and follow a religious path.  He is able to present these arguments to him without the near tyrannical authority of a step father (or a vengeful Lord seen through the eyes of a vengeful stepfather).  Rather than “beat the sin” out of John, Elisha presents a kinder, more forgiving Jesus.  “But when the Lord saves you He burns out all that old Adam, He gives you a new mind a new heart, and then you don’t find no pleasure in the world, you get all your joy in walking and talking with Jesus every day.” (52)  None of the “three saints” find much joy in the religious life.  What they find are tests, dramatic explosions of emotion, woe and pain.

The final section, “The Threshing-Floor” starts in a strange place.  John is engaged in alternatively a struggle with God and a struggle with his stepfather.  This intense experience turns out to be John’s conversion experience (afterward he is “saved”).  It is Elisha he sees when he comes out of this quasi-hallucinogenic experience.  Later in the evening, John is reassured by Elisha that he is saved, but his joy at this fact is not shared by his father, who remains resentful of his stepson.  This is a victory of sorts.  He in a sense is able to choose a variant of Christianity that is based more on love than on fear.  Does this place him as a spiritual equal as his father?  Perhaps even more than that.  It is doubtful that is transforms the power dynamic in that will likely leave John under the power of the physically (and as it turns out sexually) more daunting Gabriel.

What is key is that John feels liberated.  “He was free — whom the Son sets free is free indeed — he had only to stand fast in his liberty.  He was in battle no longer, this unfolding Lord’s day, with this avenue, these houses, the sleeping, staring, shouting people, but had entered into battle with Jacob’s angel, with the princes and the powers of the air.” (210)  In contrast to his perspective earlier in the novel where the religious path is a constant losing struggle.  At one point Gabriel condemns a parishioner for not attending church enough.  Gabriel was in perpetual conflict with his desires.

As an autobiography we can read this libertarian tension as continuing.  Baldwin would himself move from a religious career becoming a novelist, essayist, and activist.  I suspect John’s future is just as open, but it required first a liberation from the traditions and beliefs of the family.  In this we can be happily optimistic in contrast to Welty’s claustrophobic novels.  The family may be chains but they are not unbreakable.  John may benefit from the urban environment in ways Welty’s rural characters could not, but the important point is that John is able to shove off the monkey of family expectations (and physical or emotional tyranny) from his back.

 

Eudora Welty, “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1972)

In Eudora Welty’s final novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, she remains in the realm of memory and the legacy of family relations, the focus of most of her novels.  Rather than the sprawling, institutionalized families of Delta Wedding and Losing Battles, this novel is written on a much smaller canvas.  Welty is interested primarily in how on woman, Laura McKleva Hand comes to terms with her father’s death, his remarriage to a sexually aggressive (and to Laura threatening) woman Fay, and her past.  Again, like the other two major family epics Welty wrote, this one is uses a family event as its setting.  Here it is a funeral that allows the major character to revisit her family history and memory.  We again find a central tension between the family (represented by Laura) and an outsider (here represented by Fay).  It is more complicated in this novel than in Losing Battles, where the outsider, Judge Moody, was clearly outside of the group.  In The Optimist’s Daughter, Fay was brought in by the family patriarch.  While Laura and many other attending the funeral assume Fay is an outsider and treat her as a golddigger, we learn that their terse rejection of Fay is based much on class prejudice and probably the sexual threat Fay poses.

daughter

Part one of this short novel covers Laura’s return to the South from Chicago to aid her father through a relatively minor eye surgery.  There she meets her younger step-mother Laura, who she immediately dislikes in large part for her seeming disinterest in her father’s well-being, which only reinforces the narrative Laura constructs of Fay as a gold-digger.  Laura cares for her father during his recovery but he dies.  Part two covers the family reunion brought on by the funeral.  The central part of the novel, stretching into part three covers Laura’s deep nostalgia for the past.  Here we are in familiar territory, again navigating the suffocating past.  For Laura it is a bit more innocuous and distant than it was for characters in Welty’s other novels.  Laura can always return to Chicago.  She can appreciate her past but always return to Chicago without the visceral tyranny that family history can so often bring to our lives in the form of memories, personal obligations, family expectations and traditions.  Laura has escaped and this makes her harsh rejection of Fay rather disingenuous.  The family mocks her and even assumes that her rapid return to her hometown in Texas involved among other things sex with other men (disgracing the memory of Judge McKleva).  Fay, who actually lived in the home, navigated the relationships, and was the Judge’s companion since their marriage, might have a stronger claim to membership than the more distant Laura.  Laura can take in nostalgia like a tourist, without many of the psychological burdens.  Laura will return to Chicago more conscious of who she is, with a deeper appreciate of her family, but she seems to have lost her claim as a member of the family.

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Laura even works to help destroy some of the memories of her father.  She burns some of his letters, but in the next page scolds Fay for damaging her mother’s breadboard.  Fay’s response is properly liquid, “Who wants an everlasting breadboard?” (987)  When Laura repeats and expands her attack to include the entire house that she “desecrated,” Fay correctly points out that Laura has no claim to the house and its memories.  Gold-digger or not, Fay had made that house her own.  Laura, however, is unwilling to accept her position as a tourist.

In her final thoughts, Laura essentially comes to agree with Fay and correct her nostalgia to be in line with her actions.  She is, after all, having this debate about who owns the rights to the house at the same time that she is returning to her home.  “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” (992)

Perhaps it is here that we can find a proper solution to the oppression that family, tradition, and nostalgia impose on us.  Any claim that memory and the past has to control us is ultimately a lie.  Any such control is self-imposed.  Memory is there to serve us, not to dominate our actions and emotions.  The lesson I am going to take from reading Welty’s novel is not that far from my conclusions to The Robber Bridegroom.  That novels’ power rested in its flexible use of folklore and tradition.  By remaking a Grimm tale into a frontier American setting, Welty undermined the ability of folklore to control our interpretations of the past.  Our families and our own minds constantly craft new folklores all the time.  The mistake we make is in assuming that a permanence and transcendent power to those tales.