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: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part One

Mules and Men is a beautiful work by the later Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, consisting of her ethnographic work in Northern Florida, near a sawmill town. Her contribution in this work consists mostly of collecting a significant amount of African-American folklore, but by combinging the folklore and stories with the stories, dialog, and interactions of the people who gave the stories, she enriched the narrative and shows how these stories (many of which now have a permanent place in Americana) emerged from social relations. She collected these stories beginning in 1928, but would not see them published until 1935. She was thus, not collecting these tales as part of the Works Progress Administration projects to collect oral histories of former slaves. Her original funding was private.

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Hurston’s introduction reveals some important background about why she thought it was so important to preserve these stories. Much of this may be obvious to us now. She realized that she was talking about collecting the cultural heritage of an exploited people who were told repeatability that their voice was not important to the nation. When she introduced her project, her subjects asked her with disbelief, why would anyone want to read about those “lies” (which is the term they used for this folklore). As Hurston writes: “The best source [of folklore] is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are the most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.” (10) She also cuts right to what she sees as the major motif in the lore she documented: the ability to outsmart superiors and the fluid nature of social relations. This, naturally, is not really an accurate description of race relations in early 20th century America or life in slavery (where many of these stories emerged), but it suggests a deep attitude of resistance and a value that challenged the hypocritical hierarchies in American democracy. She summarizes: “I thought about the tales I had heard as a child. How even the Bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John—not John Henry, who occupies the same place in Negro folk-lore that Casey Jones does in white lore and if anything is more recent—outsmarted the devil. Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer ‘Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him.” (10–11) The fact that she has to introduce John Henry directly suggests how internalized this folklore became to Americans since the 1930s.

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As James Scott suggests in The Art of Not Being Governed, there is a great power in oral cultures, an advantage that literate cultures do not have. It is actually suggested in the quote in the last paragraph. Literature cultures, Scott suggests, are bound by the texts they create. Members of literate cultures are blinkered by what they wrote down, often centuries earlier. Sure, they can reinterpret, but oral cultures are much freer to adapt texts to the new conditions. For many of the stories we read in Mules and Men, their direct use as a mental survival strategy in slavery is clear. Masters are mocked, their oppression and violence explained, and the people at the bottom of the system are able to prove their worth and turn the tables. One may even suspect that the ruling class in the old South was foolish to prevent slaves from reading, because by keeping most of them illiterate, they forced them to create their own narratives of Christianity, a much more liberating narrative.

The fact that the narrative is contested is not even that important, because it becomes the fuel for social interactions. Hurston narrators a humorous (but apparently serious) disagreement about why alligators look the way they do. We are given three different stories, each building off the last as story tellers try to improve on the last speaker. This series began earlier with discussions about other animals. Story telling (and adapting or improving on stories) was a part of community building. This is missing in cultures that share stories through the ages through books. (Yes, the library really is to quiet sometimes.)

There are many stories that can be enjoyed in this volume (around 70). There are several important motifs I came across in the book. Since these stories are liquid there is not a single analysis of any one theme, so I will not attempt to provide it here. There are some tensions pointing in certain ways but many of these have variations. The most important theme running through most of the stories has to do with shifting the nature of hierarchy. Someone on the top of a natural or artificial hierarchy is undone by someone below them. Whether it is a slave outsmarting a slave owner, a woman getting the best of a man, or even men fooling God, we find that these stories challenge social divisions, class, and caste. As a corollary to these we are often presented with bosses or masters as manipulative, corrupt, foolish, or naive. This turns the tables on the hierarchy in another way. Often this narrative is replayed in the animal kingdom.

Mules and Men should be more widely read and appreciated. I suspect that most people know Zora Neale Hurston for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and never get the chance to come across this beautiful work. In the second half of my coverage of this Mules and Men, I will talk about what she has to say about voodoo in the second part of the book and perhaps come back to some of the folklore.

 

Jacob D. Green: “Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave from Kentucky” (1864)

About ten o’clock I stole out to the stable when all was still; and while I was getting on one of my master’s horses I said to myself—Master was in here at six o’clock and saw all these horses clean, so I must look out and be back time enough to have you clean when he gets up in the morning. I thought what a dash I should cut among the pretty yellow and Sambo gals, and I felt quite confident, of course, that I should have my pick among the best looking ones, for my good clothes, and my abundance of money, and my own good looks—in fact, I thought no mean things of my self. (960)

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Jacob Green, perhaps next to Ukawsaw Gronnisaw, is the most elusive of the authors of the slave narratives in this collection. Most of the authors were engaged actively in abolitionist work and therefore had fairly well-documented lives. What we know of Green comes from his escapes, which he documented in a short narrative. Despite coming at the end of a long tradition of American slave narratives, it is less politically conscious and seems to buck many of the conventions (such as an emphasis on hypocrisy or contradiction). Perhaps, for Green, these arguments had been made and defended. What strikes me, having read this the first time today, is that Green’s narrative is really an account of tricks, lies, schemes, and manipulation. If the background of his story was not so tragic it would almost work as a comedic adventure story. I kept thinking of England’s Jack Sheppard, the young working class man, who inspired the imagination of the English working class by escaping from Newgate a series of times before finally being murdered by the state. Both of stories of people in continual opposition to their situation and for that reason have a rightful place in folk mythology. I wonder why Green is not more well-known.

The schemes start from the first page, with a white boy stealing some corn and then trying to force some of the slave boys to take the blame. On the next page we see the lies of white religion. Here this is not presented as hypocrisy but rather as a vulgar attempt to deceive slaves. A page later we learn that Green’s mistress is an adulteress, keeping two lovers on the side, a situation that led to legal shenanigans when one put gunpowder into the other’s pipe. The first time Green was flogged, he was framed by his master’s son for firing a pistol. I could go on. These are just in the first few pages. They are building up to Green’s three major schemes, his escape attempts in 1839, 1846, and finally in 1848.

Although there is a rather playful side to Green’s narrative rooted in the mutual use of tricks, not far under the surface is the same descriptions of the horrors of slavery that define the slave narrative genre. One of the most memorable in this little book comes from Green’s experience in a slave auction. His was the closest I have seen in an original source describing how slaves were “packaged” during these auctions. He also dwells on the experience of an enslaved woman, Sally, who had to watch as her family was split up during one horrifying day at the auction. When she begged for her family to be sold as a unit, she was struck on the head and killed. Ruben, Sally’s husband then attacked his master, beating him to death, before being shot himself. Green later composed a long poem about Ruben’s death. In many ways, this is the true climax of the narrative. In comparison, Green’s final escape seems mundane. This climax is a reminder that violence was the reason slavery survived.

In a way, what Green is trying to say is that neither masters nor slaves were fooling each other. Both sides knew they were being scammed by the others. When the stakes were small (a night of freedom, stolen food) this could really appear to be a game. It was not a game, however. When the stakes were high, the brutal and tyrannical nature of the system came down on its victims, or in rarer cases the frustrations of those on bondage exploded. Green, the slave trickster, ends his tale with deadly seriousness.

Mark Twain, “A Tramp Abroad” (1880): Part One, Germany

Mark Twain wrote many travel narratives throughout his career. There were five, if we include the somewhat more autobiographical Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi. Three are committed to documenting his travels abroad. The Innocents Abroad looked at the experiences of a more casual tourist. Following the Equator is more of a tour of empire, something I will say more about when I get there.  A Tramp Abroad is the second of these are about the year and a half he spent in Europe in 1878 and 1879. It shows Twain making a more serious attempt to get to know a place well, by living there with his family for a prolonged period. Notably, he is no longer “innocent.”

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The sections of the book devoted to his experiences in Germany and Italy are broken up with bits of real American literature, short stories constructed by Twain, set in America. These provide nice juxtaposition between American life and Europeans and their attitude toward folklore and tradition. Some are Twain’s attempt at writing original German folklore. I suspect they are attempts to be failures.

I was very much attracted to how much effort Twain put into understanding the world he was put into it. Unlike the “innocent,” he did not just look at Europe through the lens of being an American. He spends little time seeing the sights (the formal, must-see tourist locations). This gives him time to smell the roses, so to speak. He gets to understand the culture of German students, the tradition of dueling and student clubs, he sees a Wagner opera, visits out of the way castles, and makes friends in the places he lives. He even tries learning German (the subject of his famous essay on the German language).

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Although it is less acute than in The Innocents Abroad we are expected to take Twain’s observations with skepticism. A veil stands in the way of Twain’s understanding despite months of residence in Germany. While we see more of everyday life than in his earlier works, it is no less plagued with misunderstanding. (Partly blamed on language.)

From his famous description of student dueling

From his famous description of student dueling

As an opera fan, I will simply use his experiences watching Lohengrin as an example of this, in part because he uses it to strike home what appears to be his main point. The operas of Richard Wagner, and by extension all German opera we suppose, are horrible to Twain’s ears. “A German lady in Munch told me that a person could not like Wagner’s music at first, but must go through the deliberative process of learning to like it,—then he would have his sure reward. Is this the same as for visiting and encountering other cultures? Once you endure all the painful aspects of a foreign culture, all the annoyances, bizarre ways of looking at the world, then—and only then—could it be appreciated.

If we read the text, it does seem that Twain is making an effort at understanding things, although he never gets very far beyond the surface unfortunately. Whether it is on the attitude of shopkeeper and their distinctive ways of swindling people, the German attitude toward Sundays, or the student’s tendency to form organizations, Twain hovers just on one side of understanding. As a good foreigner he learns just enough to get by, never allowing the experience to change his fundamental assumptions about life. He (at least the persona in the book) will never allow himself to learn enough to be assimilated or even to have a proper understanding of the phenomenon he observers.

I do not suppose this teaches us much, but it does perhaps lead us to a certain attitude that someone in a foreign land should have. Perhaps we could call this a humble objectivity. We can trust our eyes, but with an acceptance of their limitation. But like Twain we should not that censor our comments and observations, for these is much joy to be had in looking at the world through some tinted glasses. Sure, there are real problems with looking at the world from an American frame of reference, but as Twain shows us, this may not always be imperial or full of prejudice. Sometimes, it is just a matter of allowing the tinted gaze to create new perspectives and experiences, as in Twain’s attempts to write new German legends. There is space for creative freedom here that we cannot get by looking at other cultures with absolute fidelity.

Higher education in Germany

Higher education in Germany

Mark Twain, “Roughing It” (1872): Part One

Mark Twain wrote Roughing It in 1872, just as he was giving up journalism. It is a heavily autobiographical look at the silver frontier in Nevada in the 1860s and covers Twain’s life between the end of his abortive adventures in the Civil War as part of a local Missouri militia and his travels to Europe, which became The Innocents Abroad. Using his own words it was “not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation. It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing.” (527) So much the better.  The work is almost flawless as it is.

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The first half of Roughing It is set wholly in 1861 (as far as I can tell). It describes his accompanying his brother, who received an official post in Nevada, on his journey West. It then takes on Twain’s experiences as a prospector and, as he describes his, his brief few days as a millionaire due to silver claims.

I have to say I enjoyed almost every page of Roughing It. It is presented as a series of eighty short chapters, so it can be picked up and read at just about any point and does not command a systematic study. While the line between myth and reality is sometimes blurred, this is part of the culture of the West that Twain encountered. Early on we learn about the story of the vigilante vagabond Slade. Of course, Twain only heard about him from the stories that he picked up during his travels West. His real life encounter with Slade was pleasant and did not seem to match the stories. According to the mythology, Slade was murderer, an outlaw, a skilled lawman when called upon, and vicious to his enemies. When Twain met Slade he noticed that “it was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody-bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with. And to this day I can remember nothing remarkable about Slade.” (588) I, for one, cannot speak of any quasi-mythical figures from my childhood, although we had some notorious individuals. Nothing, certainly, reaching the status of Slade. Perhaps the best example is the fictional figure from The Wire, Omar Little, who over the course of the series reached almost mythical levels in West Baltimore before being ignobly shot in a store. Slade had a similarly pathetic death, which Twain dwells on. He seemed to lose some of his desperado reputation by his “cowardly” way he faced his death with tears and prayers. (I wonder if David Simon had Slade in mind when he wrote Omar.) There is an undergraduate paper in the comparison if anyone wants to pursue it.  My attraction is in this vernacular myth making and how the formalization of literature and even folklore into canons undermined this. I suspect most children growing up knowing much more about the heroes of Greek mythology or Grimm’s fairy tales than their own local heroes and villains. Real or not, we need more Slades.

Drawing of Slade

Drawing of Slade

It took Twain around three weeks to travel to Nevada by stage coach. It was an uncomfortable trip but he learned a lot from it and got 25% of a book out of those two weeks. I recently heard about a environmentalist activist who only takes trains, even on a trip from Europe to Beijing. Along the way he wrote two articles. (If anyone knows the reference, I would be thankful.) It is not true that we lose time by travelling old fashioned slow ways. We cannot lose time, although we can certainly waste time. There is much life to be experienced and learned along the way to places. Now, I do not know if or when peak oil will hit, but from what I have read by the time I am old we will be back to trains, dirigibles, and passenger ships. After reading Roughing It, I cannot say I will miss airplanes. I have some personal experience with such types of travels; maybe all poor graduate students have. I took Greyhound buses from Eugene, Oregon to Albany, New York. I took trains along the same route. I do not think I will get books out of any of these experiences, but for a variety of reason they are much more memorable than the rushed transfers at airports.

Overland Stage Coach

Overland Stage Coach

Even Twain seems to morn the passing of the stage coaches across the West. “Stage-coaching on the Overland is no more, and stage drivers are a race defunct. I wonder if they bequeathed that bald-headed anecdote to their successors, the railroad brakemen and conductors, and if these latter still persecute the helpless passenger with it until he concludes, as did many a tourist of other days, that the real grandeurs of the Pacific coast are not Yo Semite and the Big Trees, but Hank Monk and his adventure with Horace Greely.” (639-640)

In Twain’s case, he not only learned about Slade, but he got a quick introduction to the Mormon migration to the West when be encountered a caravan of migrants and later visited Utah on the way to Nevada. Twain was interested in the Mormons and despite a quick and devastating deconstruction of the Book of Mormon saw them as mostly a harmless group and an interesting part of the American landscape. “The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings.” (624)

The next section of the book considers Twain’s arrival in Carson City and his unsuccessful period as a mine prospector. As a result, for ten days, Twain was a millionaire. One point that comes up again and again in this part of the book is how there was a degree of classlessness in Nevada because everyone had imagined wealth. Everyone seemed to have a good prospect (just undeveloped). People had ways of scheming each other into buying shares of worthless claims. Wages for workers were high, but that aside everyone was benefiting from the bubble economy. Not unlike an out of control housing market, which creates many wealthy people but little actual wealth, the Nevada silver boom promised everyone wealth for only a slight investment of time and effort. Twain, however, lost his claim because hew as not even willing to put in that token amount of work to develop his claim.

Nevada capital at Carson City

Nevada capital at Carson City

I am torn between the odiousness of bubble economies of invested wealth and my sympathies for egalitarian, post-scarcity, post-work cultures. Twain erred on the side of not working during these years in Nevada. For this I must tip my hat to him.

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.

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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.

 

 

Eudora Welty, “The Robber Bridegroom” (1942)

 

 

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Another week, another Library of America volume.  I picked at random someone I never read before, Eudora Welty.

There is something worthy of respect in re-telling folklore for a new time.  Folklore tends to provide fated characters who are doomed to follow the same path with each re-telling.  As often as we invent new contexts for the story the main trajectory of the characters is bound.   It takes some real creativity to manage to stay true to the story while also retelling it in a fresh way.  The way Eudora Welty does this with The Robber Bridegroom is by combining the classic German tale with American folklore.  The story is of a young naive woman, kidnapped by robbers, who escapes only after witnessing the brutal murder (and literally consumption) of another woman.  When she is able to retell the story when the robber returns to collect his finance, she is able to retell what she saw, providing evidence in the form of a severed finger and golden ring, the robbers are put to death.  This story is unlikely to get a Disney version, but Welty does give it an American version by placing it in the U.S. South in the eighteenth century and filling it with mythical figures, most notably Mike Fink – the great riverboat pilot.   I could not help notice the inclusion of a “innocent planter,” which I am certain was also a mythical figure of American folklore although perhaps Welty was not conscious of it.

Mike Fink

Mike Fink

Another tall-tales of the United States.  The kind and benevolent planter.

Another tall-tales of the United States. The kind and benevolent planter.

Welty borrows much that is familiar from readers of the Grimm tale: bandits in the wood, cruel and jealous stepmothers, doting and loyal fathers, the repetition of tales, the intervention of animals with inside knowledge, and naive young women.  It is all placed in a identifiable American setting.  I do not know if this is a testament to Welty’s brilliance or a reflection on the structural similarities in folklore (a Jungian approach), or maybe a deeper influence of Germanic story-telling in American folklore.  In any case, it is a captivating and entertaining tale.  The effect is that we can be truly surprised at the outcome even if we are familiar with the source tale.  It also breaks free of the deterministic trap in the retelling of such stories.

Welty is able to cram a lot of story into this short novella.  In the opening chapter, the planter Clement Musgrove, stays in an inn, sharing a room with two men who turn out to be Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart (who turns out to be the famous “Bandit of the Woods” but sustains an alter-ego as a respectable man).  Lockhart saves Musgrove from Mike Fink’s attempt to murder and rob them.  In response Musgrove helps secure Lockhart’s passport and tells him his story.  After a brutal Indian attack, Musgrove’s son, wife, and friend die.  He remarrys to his friends surviving wife, aptly named Salome.  His true love is for his daughter Rosamond.  In the next chapter (harnessing Grimm) we find Salome brutally exploiting her stepdaughter on a daily basis.  While out collecting herbs, Rosemond is attacked by the Bandit of the Woods, who steals all her clothing.  Observing this is Goat, a local dimwitted man who Salome bribed to kill Rosemond.  Musgrove finds Lockhart and asks for his help in rounding up and killing the Bandit.  In the center of the novel are several conflicts that need to be resolved.  Rosemond fascination and love for Lockhart along side her observations of the horrible acts of his gang, Goat’s love for Rosemund and attempts to take Jamie’s place, and the rise of Little Harp – the most brutal member of Lockhart’s gang all complicate the central act of the novel.  The force that forces a resolution are the Indians.  It is a very American plot device that pulls us out of the Grimm-style tale and return us solidly to American folklore.  To make this even clearer we see Mike Fink return at the end, outcast for his earlier failures.  He returns Rosemund to reality by telling her that Jamie Lockhart has died.  This seems to be read as the famous bandit, for the respectable persons (“a gentleman of the world in New Orleans”) survives and fathers twins of his own.

Welty tests the limits of the moral absolutism of the classical fairytale.  While in the original tale, the robber bridegroom is completely odious and finds a well-deserved death at the end, Jamie Lockhart is redeemed.  Even Mike Fink finds a degree of salvation despite his boorish and thieving introduction.   Far from becoming a classical morality tale, Welty’s version of The Robber Bridegroom contains plenty of frontier-era moral ambiguity.  As Clement Musgrove says when coming to terms with his capture by Indians. “Wrath and love burn only like the campfires.  And even the appearance of a hero is no longer a single and majestic event like that of a star in the heavens, but a wandering fire soon lost.  A journey is forever lonely and parallel to death, but the two watch each other, the traveler and the bandit, through the trees. . . . Massacre is hard to tell from the performance of other rites, in the great silence where the wanderer is coming.  Murder is as soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep.” (69)  Whatever we are supposed to make of this, it is not a message of moral certainty.  When hesitating to kill the dualistic Jamie Lockhart Musgrove says: “But since in addition [to being a bandit] he loves my daughter, he must be not the one man, but two, and I should be afraid of killing the second.  For all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off.  All things are divided in half–night an day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age.” (61)

A final thing I would like to say about Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom is the importance of names.  Several of the names have symbolic significance.  Characters, especially Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart are easily offended when others fail to recall their names.  Mistaken identities play a role in at least one plot point.  I would need to revisit the Grimm tales, but I recall many nameless figures and archetypical stock characters (the villainous stepmother for instance).  Perhaps in translating these tales to the more individualist and democratic United States, she had to insist on the importance of individual identity.  I am not sure how this ties into the more flexible moral universe of the novel.  Perhaps given the democratic, frontier, morally-ambiguous world Welty is trying to present, our name is the only solid thing we have.  Even Mike Fink finds himself expelled from his group and temporarily losing his status as folk hero.