Tennessee Williams, “Battle of Angels” (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sojourner Truth: “Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave,” (1850)

She came to the conclusion, that she had been taking part in a great drama, which was, in itself, but one great system of robbery and wrong. “Yes,” she said, “the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.” True, she had not received labor from others, and stinted their pay, as she felt had been practiced against her; but she had taken their work from them, which was their only means to get money, and was the same to them in the end. For instance—a gentleman where she lived would give her a half dollar to hire a poor man to clear the new-fallen snow from the steps and sidewalks. She would arise early, and perform the labor herself, putting the money into her own pocket. . . But, in her retrospection, she thought of all the misery she might have been adding to, in her selfish grasping, and it troubled her conscience sorely; and this insensibility to the claims of human brotherhood, and the wants of the destitute and wretched poor, she now saw, as she never had done before, to be unfeeling, selfish and wicked. (640–641)

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The most significant aspect of the Sojourner Truth’s narrative of her experience being enslaved in New York until 1828 is that is shows how fine the line was between slavery and freedom in most of early American history. This Library of America collection does not include Twelve Years a Slave, which makes a similar case, but the slave narratives often show how easily it was to fall into slavery from freedom and how tenuous it was even in the North. Henry Bibb’s escape and return to slavery is another example of this. In the end, the lesson is that no black person in pre-Civil War America were free unless that freedom was voluntarily given by whites. Sojourner Truth says as much in the title of her narrative when she adds “Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York.” Furthermore, Truth’s life story speaks of how vicious and degrading life could be in the United States even for free black women.

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Truth tells her story in third person, using her birth name, Isabella. She uses small vignettes instead of chapters to break up her story. She was born in the late eighteenth century when slavery was still a major institution in several Northern states. Her enslaved parents spoke Dutch. New York at the time was a society with slavery, if not a full-blown slave society. This distinction mattered little to Isabella and her parents who endured all the violence and exploitation of slavery. Despite its importance, New York abolished slavery. Isabella was promised her freedom one year earlier, but due to an injury that rendered her less productive, her master (now a farmer in New Paltz) kept her in slavery until the end. This event reflects one of Truth’s major arguments about the one-sided nature of slavery and the weakness of contract, promises and even law in defending enslaved men and women.

But the reliance on the state for freedom is no more self-assured as seen in the sale of Isabella’s son to the deep South. This was forbidden in the law ending slavery to prevent people from simply selling soon-to-be-freed slaves, making the law potentially moot. Nevertheless, Isabella’s son was sold and it took a fair amount of struggle for her to bring him out of slavery. It is a sign of just how weak the law can be in the face of the interests of those with money and power in the society.

As for the fate of freed men and women in a society actively defending the rights of slavers and the consumers of humanity:

We have now see Isabella, her youngest daughter, and her only son, in possession of, at least, their nominal freedom. It has been said that the freedom of the most free of the colored people of this country is but nominal; but stinted and limited as it is, at best, it is an immense remove from chattel slavery. This fact is disputed, I know. (619)

Precious to be sure but nevertheless, its limitations reflect a moral failing for the society.

Mark Twain: “The Prince and the Pauper” (1881)

The Prince and the Pauper is the first of three novels (one a quasi-biography) set in Europe in the medieval and early modern period. All three, in good American fashion, stress the hierarchical, aristocratic and brutal nature of European society. The Prince and the Pauper does this by making clear the arbitrariness of aristocratic status and revealing the moral failings of the ruling classes. The novel also shows that class matters in the development or children’s moral order. In this way, it is hard not to set is next to a work like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written around the same time, which suggests a Rousseauian inert morality in the uncivilized. Like Huck, Tom Canty was often left to his own devices and raised by drunks, but much more moral than the society surrounding him. It is not quite an argument that poverty and neglect makes good people. Tom Canty’s father may have been poor and neglected as well, but emerged to be quite a brutal father. What is more clear is that an elite upbringing leads to absurd values and awkward relations with other people.

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The Prince and the Pauper is well-known and often retold. It is one of the most well-known tales in American literature, although I suspect it is more known from its derivations than the original. The tale is set in London, right before and after the death of Henry VIII. Prince Edward accidentally switches places with a street kid, Tom Canty. When the king dies, Tom is elevated to king. His odd actions and decisions (he was not prepared for the role of course) are explained away by advisers. Meanwhile, Edward has a series of adventures in the streets, made humorous by his insistence that he is not Tom, but a prince (later King). Normalcy is arrived at when Edward crashes his own coronation. Tom, who does not really want to be king after all, switches places, but Edward grants him some benevolence, making him a ward of the crown.

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Much of the class-based brutality of early modern London was institutional. Twain knew as much as incorporated these institutions into his explanation of Tom’s life. Edward will experience these same institutions during his stint at Tom. “Drunkeness, riot and brawling were the order, there, every night and nearly all nights long. Broken heads were a common as hunger in that place. . . . He only begged just enough to save himself, for the laws against mendicancy were stringent, and the penalties heavy.” (13) Later Edward will spend some time in prison. Much of the life of the poor consisted of evading and staying just enough on the right side of the law to avoid the full violence of the state from beating them down. Twain uses Edward’s stint in prison as a change to contemplate the morality of the criminalization of poverty and dissent (such as being a Baptist).

Although poor, Tom liked to replicate the lives of the aristocracy, creating his own royal court. Like Tom Sawyer’s pirate band, it is both a form of place and an attempt to create his own world of autonomy and empowerment. This play prepares him only slightly for his future role as the king. The problem was that he was ill-suited to be a king because he lacked the training in being brutal. We learn little about it, but we imagine Tom Canty’s royal court was benevolent to the people. When he brings that to the court, is is certainly awkward for the real court to watch. He knew little about royal life, as an abused child the concept of a whipping boy was baffling to him (as it should be to all but the totally deranged aristocracy).

The most notable thing about Tom’s time as king is his benevolence to criminals. Perhaps because these are the people he knew, or perhaps because of his own fear of the law, Tom pardoned the people who came before him, regardless of their crimes. While a proper king can think only of the law and justice (at least that is how they justify the brutal application of the law), Tom understood how odious the state’s mechanisms of justice where. “Death–and a violent death–for these poor unfortunates! The thought wrung Tom’s heart-strings. The spirit of compassion took control of him, to the exclusion of all other considerations; he never thought of the offended laws, or of the grief or loss which these criminals had inflicted upon their victims, he could think of nothing but the scaffold and the grisly fate hanging over the heads of the condemned.” (92) Tom never learns to king.

People spend lots of time on their knees in aristocratic societies

People spend lots of time on their knees in aristocratic societies

However, does Edward learn something from his experience as a pauper? He indeed spends much of the novel the butt of jokes because he sustained his princely demeanor and attitude despite living in the gutter. I fail to see a difference between Edward at these moments and the “duke and the king” of Huck Finn, both are meant to be ridiculous. The Duke and the King may be real royalty for all it matters to their situation on a Mississippi River raft. In any case, Edward is certainly exposed to enough of the truth to fuel several Ebenezer Scrooge level transformations. The meeting with a man maned Yokel is maybe the most dramatic. Yokel gives his story while also condemning the reality of English law. “Thank you, mates, one and all. I begged, from house to house–I and the wife–bearing with us the hungry kids–but it was a crime to be hungry in England–so they stripped us and lashed us through three towns. . . . And still I begged again, and was sold for a slave–here on my cheek under this stain, if I washed it off, ye might see the red S that branding iron left there! A SLAVE! Do ye understand that word! An English SLAVE!” (110)

Well, Edward does clean up some of the mess monarchy has created after returning to his privileged position. He gets that guy out of slavery, he redeemed a few criminals, and made Tom a ward. His reforms are highly personal, based on his experiences as a pauper. This is not necessarily bad, but it is not akin to Scrooge focusing his efforts on his clients and employee. Those were the site where he caused harm. As monarch, Edward was the heart of the system. We should expect more than an emotional reaction to his experiences. That is something that Tom and Edward had in common; they both failed to address themselves to the broader need for justice, making reforms at the individual, not systematic level.

 

Eudora Welty, “Losing Battles” (1970)

Losing Battles works as a mirror image of Delta Wedding in some fascinating ways.  Eudora Welty is still working within the tradition of Southern literature’s family drama.  In both novels, a private family gathering becomes a introduce the complex relations within a community of related people as well as their family culture, traditions, values, and idiosyncratic tendencies.  The family here, the Beecham and Renfro clans, is economically marginalized in contrast the Delta Wedding‘s Fairchilds, who were members of the Southern aristocracy.  Welty shows that it does not matter what side of the class line you sit on.  Family can always be an oppressive force in your life, stamping out individualism.  In both tales, the inward perspective of the family has a purpose to protect the family.  Being at the top of the social hierarchy, the family in Delta Wedding‘s obsession with purity and maintaining the integrity of the unit seems odd.  The Beecham’s, a family under real threat, carefully protects itself, creating a political narrative of their victimization.  They go so far as to defend incest within the family from the attack of powerful outsiders.  On the surface, the Beecham’s are more sympathetic than the Fairchilds, but nevertheless, we are reminded by Welty that family is the source of our identity and one of the hardest shackles to free ourselves from in our search for freedom.

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The situation is a family reunion concocted to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family matriarch Elvira Jordan Vaughn.  Almost immediately we know we are in the realm of poor whites.  We hear about the installation of new tin roofs, we see girls wearing homemade clothing that is passed down from older sister to younger sister (identified by the fading colors), and women working at home maintenance.  In Delta Wedding all the real work was done by the background characters identified only as “the Negroes.”  It is a more delightful and alive setting.   “Now there was family everywhere, front gallery and back, tracking in and out of the company room, filling the bedrooms and kitchen, breasting the passage.  The passageway itself was creaking; sometimes it swayed under the step and sometimes it seemed to trembled of itself, as the suspension bridge over the river at Banner had the reputation of doing.  With chairs, beds, windowsills, steps, boxes, kegs, and buckets all taken up and little room left on the floor, they overflowed into the yard, and the men squatted down in the shade.  Over in the pasture a baseball game had started up.  The girls had the swing.” (444)

The central couple in this tale is Jack Renfro, Gloria Renfro, and their 2 year old daughter Lady May.  Jack is scheduled to get out of jail the day after the birthday party, an unacceptable proposition, so he flees his confinement and returns home a day early, again breaking the law.  Jack feels he was unjustly punished by the Judge Oscar Moody.  Gloria turns out to be Jack’s cousin.  Their daughter, who Jack had not seen until this day, shows none of the signs of genetic defects that encouraged the state to ban such marriages.  The clan is much bigger, with many stories to tell, but the Renfro couple provides enough for us to see that this is a family that is in opposition to the law.  They have their own way of working in the world.  In a sense, they function like the intentional communities that were so popular in U.S. history (something I have not yet had much reason to write about).  The worrying thing is that although transgressive in respect to the external legal authorities, such organizations tend to be internally quite oppressive.

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Jack returns in triumph in time for the reunion and tells a story of how he helped a man free his car from a ditch.  Jack learns that this man was Judge Oscar Moody.  Jack returns to the road to undo this act or take back the good act.  The plan goes awry and with some comic splendor, Welty describes how Moody’s car ends up stuck on a roadside sign.  They are unable to get the car down of receive any help.  Jack eventually invites the Judge over to the home.  This sets up the main tension in the novel, which is the encounter between the legal realm of the state government and the moral economic realm of the Beecham/Renfro clan.  While the rest of the family is not happy about the invitation, they can use Judge Moody and his wife’s arrival to complain about how their family has been mistreated by the powers that be.

As we learn in Lexie Renfro’s story about Julia Mortimer, the clan can be very oppressive to individual expression and even cruel when faced with the suffering of an outsiders.  It is in this sense that they are not so unlike the Farchilds, aloof to anyone outside of their community.  Lexie was taking care of Julia in her final days but abandoned her to attend the reunion (Julia’s funeral is the event that brought the judge to the town).  Before this, Lexie physically and psychological abused her patient.   More troubling is the acceptance and even tacit approval given by everyone else for Lexie’s abusive actions.

In the final sections of the novel we hear more stories from different members of the family, but we also see the voice of the state (Judge Moody) express himself.  While embracing the strict objectivity and legalism we would expect from a servant of the court, we also learn that his position allows him to empathize with outsiders to the clan (such as the scorned and abused Julia Mortimer).  While the family insists that Jack was wrongfully convinced and that they had the correct narrative of the trial, we have real reason to doubt their objectivity.  Their approach is subjective, as we suspect are the internal logic, history, and policies of all large families.  The Judge, in a sense, is less a voice of the state than a possible perspective on a universal morality.  In the last section of the long novel, when asked about her religion, Judge Moody’s wife says: “I’m neither one [Methodist or Baptist], and gladder of it every minute.” (847)

I am not sure this is an easily resolved tension.  I do think it is likely that without some form of legal apparatus, we are likely to descend into clannish or tribal mentalities.  This is not a defense of the state, as much as it is a criticism of whatever it is that leads us to create oppressive or Byzantine systems at the local level.  I, for one, find the logic at work in families like the Beechams, Renfros and Fairchilds horrifying.