H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

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The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.

 

William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (1820-1861)

As with my reading of the letters and writings of George Washington, I am not expecting to find in William Tecumseh Sherman a libertarian writer or even many libertarian themes.  Like Washington, he was a soldier and ran an authoritarian institution.  But also like Washington he was a key player in a revolution that certainly did expand human liberty.  Unlike Washington, Sherman was from humble origins and rose up through the ranks through his ability.  Like many other mid-nineteenth century Americans, Sherman was restless, anxious, and always eager to experiments and take risks.  Of course when we talk about the antebellum period, we also need to place an asterisk next to the term ‘democracy.’  There is something in the period when we look at people like Sherman or John Brown, who seemed to be comfortable in a certain liquidity even if they were not always successful in their attempts.  To the degree capitalism can be democratic, it must be fully participatory for all people.  I am not sure that is possible but maybe the U.S. got closest before the Civil War in certain frontier areas. 

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The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman was published in 1875, two years after he began writing them.  They were reworked ten years later into the form that we have today.  According to the introduction, his motivation was largely for historical preservation.  At the time of his writing he had doubts about when the official records from the Civil War would be released.  He also seems eager to get his side of the story down.  I suppose he was already a controversial figure a decade after the war.  “In this free country every man is at perfect liberty to publish his own thoughts and impressions, and any witnesses who may differ from me should publish his own version of facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested.  I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs, and we all know that no three honest witnesses of a simple brawl can agree on the details.” (5)  I rather like this attitude.  It is one often ignored by freshmen history students who gobble up whatever document they read or whatever article they find online.

Sherman’s father was a lawyer, who became a state Supreme Court judge for Ohio, after his family moved there (Sherman was born in Ohio).  But since his father died when Sherman was nine years old, leaving his mother destitute with too many children, the Sherman’s were more or less placed under the protection of a family friend, Thomas Ewing.  The Ewing’s are the ones who move Sherman into a military career.  He entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1836, at 16 years old.  He did well at West Point, graduating in 1840.  He then served in Florida, where he participated in a small way with the removal of the Seminoles. He married Ellen Ewing, Thomas Ewing’s daughter.  At the time of the Mexican War, Sherman was engaged in recruitment efforts.  He spent most of the Mexican War in California where he performed his military duties but also engaged in various business enterprises, many connected to the gold rush.  Considered leaving the army to engage in various business deals but decided to stay in, taking up a commissary post in New Orleans.  (This may be where he learned some of his logistical skills that served him so greatly during the war.)  In 1853 he left the army to become a banker in San Francisco.  While there he remained in the California militia as an officer and had various adventures in that post.  In 1858, his bank failed and he returned to Louisiana  and took a teaching job.  When Louisiana seceded, he moved to St. Louis and later returned to the army at the rank of Colonel.  Although Sherman remained aloof from politics during the politically vibrant 1850s, he was from time to time prophetic, seeing slavery as the major division in the nation, predicting the rise of the free labor economy, and viewing Lincoln’s hopes of a short war as naive.  All of these events are described in the first eight chapters of the first volume of the memoirs.  Like Grant’s Memoirs, Sherman’s are by and large Civil War memoirs, as you might expect.

Sherman lived a quite liquid life in his first forty years.  At the age of 38, Sherman liquidated all of his debts, leaving himself with only $1,000.  Sherman does not really comment on the ethos that led him to this restlessness, but he does point out the type of energy that drove the gold rush because it complicated his life in the military there.  Many soldiers deserted because there was more money to be made in the gold rush economy (often paying wages 2 or 3 times what the military received).  Sherman describes some of his efforts to stop this type of desertion but he is not very judging, seeming to understand their motivations.  I was reminded of Melville’s Omoo (see here and here) when reading the first part of Sherman’s Memoirs because they exemplified the restless spirit that drove the protagonist of that novel to never be satisfied with the job he held.

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With the outbreak of the war, we start to get some of Sherman’s ideas about violence.  One thing he stresses from the beginning is the brutal equality of war.  (This is in Bierce’s work as well.)  He tells one woman that “young men of the best families  did not like to be killed better than ordinary people.”  Allow me to quote at length one of his first experiences of violence during the war.  “One of the regular sergeant file-closers ordered him back, but he attempted to pass through the ranks, when the sergeant barred his progress with his musket “a-port.” The drunken man seized his musket, when the sergeant threw him off with violence, and he rolled over and over down the bank. By the time this man had picked himself up and got his hat, which had fallen off, and had again mounted the embankment, the regulars had passed, and the head of Osterhaus’ regiment of Home Guards had come up. The man had in his hand a small pistol, which he fired off, and I heard that the ball had struck the leg of one of Osterhaus’s staff; the regiment stopped; there was a moment of confusion, when the soldiers of that regiment began to fire over our heads in the grove. I heard the balls cutting the leaves above our heads, and saw several men and women running in all directions, some of whom were wounded. Of course there was a general stampede.  Charles Ewing threw Willie on the ground and covered him with his body.  Hunter ran behind the hill, and I also threw myself on the ground. The fire ran back from the head of the regiment toward its rear, and as I saw the men reloading their pieces, I jerked Willie up, ran back with him into a gulley which covered us, lay there until I saw that the fire had ceased, and that the column was again moving on, when I took up Willie and started back for home round by way of Market Street. A woman and child were killed outright; two or three men were also killed, and several others were wounded. The great mass of the people on that occasion were simply curious spectators, though men were sprinkled through the crowd calling out, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis” and others were particularly abusive of the “damned Dutch.” (191–192)  It was events like this that may have convinced Sherman, very early on, that the war would be long, bitter, and indiscriminate in its violence and that the proper response to such insanity is acceptance.

George Washington, “Presidency, 1789-1797

I found Washington quite a bit more interesting and even likable as I read over some of the documents produced during his presidency.  Perhaps the position forced him to ponder (or at least to write down with more detail) his feelings on governance.  Where I need to remain critical of Washington is that while he was actively establishing the U.S. Empire in the West, as revealed through his Indian policies and his response to the Whiskey Rebellion, he stressed non-interventionism in European affairs.  Clearly he wanted the U.S. to be an equal with the Europeans and to do so he continued the imperial claims (if not the policies) of the British.  This is not a new observation, but it is notable how clearly stated it is in even this brief selection of documents.  Some of the highlights in the final part of the Library of American collection of Washington’s writings are his inaugural addresses, his diplomatic letters to some Indian tribes, his letters to ambassadors and cabinet members, and his yearly addresses to Congress.  Washington continued his correspondence with the Marquis de Lafayette, which provide one window into the French Revolution (as do his letters to Jefferson in the same period).  These are included as well in the collection.

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First, to carry on from the previous post, Washington says even less about the slavery during his presidency than he did in the run-up to the drafting of the Constitution.  This may be due to politics, but I cannot help but think that Washington clearly saw slavery as domestic affair.  It only comes up in his private writings about the management of Mount Vernon or his plans for his estate.  He did free all of his slaves in his will and provided for the care of the young or elderly.  In a letter to the French ambassador to the United States, Jean Baptiste Ternant, Washington offered support to help put down the slave revolt in Saint Domingue.  “I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United States are to render every aid in their power to our good friends and Allies the French to quell ‘the alarming insurrection of the Negroes in Hispaniola’ and of the ready disposition to effect it.” (785)  Otherwise, as I suggested, the issue of slavery is simply not there in Washington’s public eye, either due to political savvy or an odd blindness (given the large slave population in his home).

Washington also addresses the question of religious liberty, only in passing.  In a letter to the United Baptist Churches he strove to convince them that the Bill of Rights (still being debated and implemented at the time) and the Constitution would not undermined religious societies.  It seems clear to me that Washington saw little role for religion in government outside of a defense of liberty.   (I know that is an obvious point, but I never actually read Washington to any significant degree before so some of this is confirmation of textbook knowledge.)  “If I could not conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to established effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” (739)  Notice that he asserted the need for positive barriers to religious tyranny, not simply the absence of an established religion.

Let me get to my main point, Washington not only envisioned a U.S. empire in the West, but he worked hard to establish it.  Evidence of this comes from his view of the people living on the frontier.  Many of his official documents such as his yearly messages to Congress call for a stronger military, more respectable foreign affairs, and unity across regions (that is bringing the West into the national fold).  In his second message, the need for a stronger military is tied directly to maintaining power on the frontier.  The most earnest of these reports to Congress on the difficulties on the frontier was his fourth, delivered in 1792.  Controlling the ambitions of frontiersmen, which might undermine the U.S. relations with Indians, was a core concern of his when drafting the message.  The central event of his Presidency, in regards to the frontier, was the 1794 Whiskey tax rebellion, which can be seen as the culmination of many 18th century anti-state movements by people in the American frontier.  However it was looked upon by the people who participated in the rebellion, Washington saw it as an anti-statist movement.  In his call to mobilize the militia he listed their crimes as including “intercepting the public officials on the highways” and tormenting private citizens who supported the whiskey tax and its collection.  We can learn a bit from his language.  One is that it was not the tax itself that was seen as odious, but rather its implementation and enforcement.  (This may be a moot point for what is a law that is not enforced, but most of us do not feel conscious of how disgusting the state is until its laws inconvenience us.  It is the moment of truth.  Many who admit to the justness of the law will cheat on their taxes to the extend they get away with it, complain about bureaucratic regulations, or even perform acts of everyday civil disobedience, while never being conscious that they are undermining the very foundation of state authority.)  Washington was also worried about the emergence of armed bands on the frontier at the very time he was mobilizing the formal militia for action.  In classic state-making, there can be only one authority. (See 870–873 and 882-884 for documents on the Whiskey Rebellion).

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion

To the conquered Seneca, forced into the American empire through the treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain opens the door to the continued exploitation of Seneca lands.  Most of 1790 letter to the Seneca dealt with the proper approach to selling more land to citizens of the U.S.  He insists that “in the future you cannot be defrauded of your lands.” (774)  Of course the resolution of claims of being defrauded would be handled by U.S. courts.  He seems authentically interested in the problem of land speculation, but his approach is that of a valiant elder brother.  Much of the rest of the document details his “brotherly” advice for the Seneca, including staying away from a rowdy neighbor (the Miamee), to support the leadership of Cornplaneter, and apprehending criminals.  All in all, Washington wants to sustain the rhetoric of Indian independence but certainly acts as if the U.S. is in charge of their affairs.  Washington often complained in his letters about the lack of a “pacific disposition” among the tribes the U.S. had dealings with along their frontier as well as the machinations of the Spanish.  Long before the Monroe Doctrine, Washington was defending an imperial policy in North America reflecting a dream of hegemony.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

So, Washington was overseeing the establishing of the U.S. empire.  The “Farewell Address” contains some summation of his desires for a united American people (“frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest.” (965))  At the same time that he calls for nation unity and a strong central state, he does deliver an small dissertation on the equality of peoples and the dangers of loyalty to one nation.  “The Nation, which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slaves.” (973)  Of course, his main concern here is against international entanglements,  I doubt he would have extended that same logic to the U.S. itself, but we certainly can do that.  Foreign entanglements may be dangerous, but so are internal entanglements and perverted loyalties to institutions.

George Washington, The Colonial Period (1747-1775)

Most of the Library of America volume committed to George Washington’s writings are his letters, with some speeches and official documents thrown in.  I am not quite sure how to go at Washington this week, but I know I do not want to get into the tedious founder bashing.  Nevertheless, it is worth reminding ourselves that he was the richest U.S. President, with a net worth in current dollars of $525 million.  Most of this wealth was inherited or stolen from the labor of slaves (of which his plantation has over 300 at the time of his death).  He was doubtless a revolutionary.  And while compared to someone like Toussaint L’ouverture or a Robespierre, he strikes us as decidedly pompish and boring.  My impression of him when I studied him in college was that he was at best a dumb jock, with good connections and great interpersonal skills, allowing him to move up.  While none of us can doubt the contribution of Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, or even Franklin to the development of the character of the nation, what was Washington’s intellectual contribution?  Maybe I can learn something new reading this volume.

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We start with this odious document “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”  We can see immediately that Washington was firmly rooted in the aristocratic tradition of Europe.  Whatever frontier spirit drove the settlement of the United States and its development in the colonial period, by the time we get to 15-year-old Washington (1747), it seems a distant at least as far as these rich planters were concerned.  I suppose I could take a look at these writings as benevolently as possible and guess that Washington needed to continually remind himself of these important rules of conduct or we would expose his true character as a vulgar ruffian.  In any case, it is a very class-conscious document, with many rules on how to treat the people above your rank and below your rank.  A few have some universal merit such as “When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it” or “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” (6,10)  He takes on a profession at this time as a surveyor, essentially going into the big business of land speculation.  (Still a great way for rich people to get richer.)  Soon after this, he begins his military career just in time for the Seven Years’ War to break out, drawing the colonies into a global imperial conflict.

Washington seems to have been deeply interested in the alliances of the frontier Indians, negotiating with the Iroquois and suggesting to his superiors that they recruit the Cherokees and other Southern tribes into the war effort.  In one letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Washington discussed his salary, insisting that his place in the military was that of a volunteer and that he was “indefferent” to pay.  This again reflects his aristocratic leanings, seeing military service as more of a matter of honor and service than a career.  Despite this, he comes and goes in the military during the war.  Several of his war letters center on the problem of recruitment.  “The spirit of Desertion was so remarkable in the Militia that it has a suprizing effect upon the Regiment, and encouraged many of the Soldiers to desert.” In the same letter, Washington recommends the execution of some deserters.  It is worth examining at length just to get another window into this founder.  “He deserted, and carried several men with him: and, upon the most solemn promises of good Behavior, was pardoned — But for this only reason–we had no power to hold General Courts martial and now he was instrumental in carrying off seven others; two only of whom were taken.  For these reasons I hope your Honour will think him as worthy an Example against Desertion, as Lewis against Cowardice: whose execution I have delayed until the arrival of the Draughts.  These Examples, and proper encouragement for good Behavior, will I hope, bring the Soldiers under proper Discipline.” (78)  A later document suggests the pardon of James Thomas who along with Henry Campbell was charged with Desertion and sentenced to death.  Campbell still seems to have been executed.   Washington’s military letters continually complained about the lack of recruitment, low morale, and their inability to maintain troop strength.  Since he has some similar troubles during the Revolution, I can only wonder if the problem was the imposition of an aristocratic military on a more democratic society.  One final thing that comes through his letters from the Seven Year’s War is that Washington was very concerned with how his superiors saw him and his performance.  He tried to explain his failures, stressed his honor and his commitment to service, and his willingness to learn from his errors.  He sometimes sounded to me to be like an employee who has been written up by his boss a few too many times.

Other documents from the colonial period include advertisements from some of his slaves that ran away, letters regarding his marriage to Martha, and his business concerns in the early 1760s.  We can guess that some of his opposition to the British that emerged in the 1760s was due to what he saw as unfairly costly imported goods and low prices for tobacco exports.  As early as 1765 he was stating arguments in his letters suggesting that America would be better off manufacturing its own goods and trading them internally.  “I am apt to think no Law or usage can compel us to barter our money or Staple Commodities for their Manufactories, if we can be supplied within ourselves upon the better Terms.” (177)  Throughout the late colonial period, these documents suggest that Washington was not fully unaware of the issues at the heart of the colonial crisis but he remains mostly concerned with his private affairs and local development efforts (like the improvement of the Potomac navigation).  The result of some of these efforts were tending toward independence, seeing the way to escape British debts as greater economic independence at home.

Let me end with his response to the outbreak of fighting in 1775.   “Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves.  Sad alternative!” (164)  Unfortunately, due to planters like Washington, an incomplete revolution, and a Constitution defending slavery, this prediction would come true in a different context.

 

James Baldwin, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956): Destructive Love

Considering that Giovanni, the Italian bartender who begins a relationship with the narrator, an American expat in Paris, is executed for the murder of the owner of a gay bar at the end of the novel Giovanni’s Room, we might assume that he is the destructive one.  Indeed, it is Giovanni that has the emotional outbreaks and displays his feelings for all to see.  Reading this novel, I could not help but feel that the true destructive force was David – the expat – who was capable of keeping his emotions quite tied up.  David is the narrator of the novel, but there is no reason to trust that his confession is fully honest.  He tries – and is mostly successful – in keeping his emotions tied down.  But in doing so he destroyed a number of people’s lives, contributing to the deaths of two, and ruining his own relationships.  On this theme, there is really not special about the theme of homosexuality.  David could as easily have been a conflicted heterosexual, leading to the same destruction, even though he would not have been conflicted for the same reasons.   I do not want to downplay how traumatic David’s homosexuality may have been for him.  Much of the novel involves his struggle with it, his lies to his family, his effort to sustain a heterosexual relationship with the charming Hella, his guilt over his feelings for Giovanni, and the relative sexual freedom he enjoyed as an expat.  These would all be framed different had David not been imagined as a homosexual.  That said, no shortage of heterosexuals have experiences pressures to marry within their class, to respect long dead marital vows, or to protect their relationship with their children.  Romantic expectations affect us all.  Their tyrannical power is simply more clearly seen in works covering the most oppressed sexual minorities.

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Baldwin’s novel is broken up into two parts.  The first sets up David’s relationship with Giovanni, which grew out of the relative boredom David felt as Hella traveled in Spain.  Through his homosexual friend Jacques, David is introduced to Giovanni and the gay bar that would be so important in the plot.  Jacques invited David to recklessness with a very convincing monologues that can be applied to numerous situations.  All that is required for a full realization of life’s potential is the absence of a concern about the future.  Liberty requires a degree of recklessness.  “Love him, love him and let him love you.  Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?   And how long, at the best, can it last?  since you are both men and still have everywhere to go?  Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark.  And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his.  But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.  You play it safe long enough and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and and forever and forever–like me.” (267)  If is convincing enough that David is chooses to begin a relationship with Giovanni.

The second part of the novel focuses on the destructive nature of David’s decisions.  One could almost say that the root of his problems was that he was not projectural or destructive enough.  He took Jacques’ advice seriously in the short-term but did not carry it out.  (Can any of us?)  His family expectations and his relationship with Hella convince him to move out of Giovanni’s room.  Fearing the future, David picks up a homely woman, only to leave her.  It seems he wanted to prove that he could play heterosexual prior to Hella’s return.  Almost simultaneously Giovanni is fired from his job and  ends up scraping by on the charity of his friends.  David greeted the returning Hella with a marriage proposal (which also works as a cover to get some money from his father).  Giovanni is distraught by David moving out and by his lack of work or money.  Giovanni brutally kills the bar owner, Guillaume.  The events leading up to the murder were his confession to Giovanni that he was essentially used up (“Giovanni, like a falling move star, has lost his drawing power.”)  A bar like his needed an unknown, mystery man.  Giovanni is put on trial and the newspapers reveal all the notiorious details of his life in Paris.  He is executed at the same time that the narrator tells his story.  The final loose end is the collapse of Hella and David’s relationship, which was destroyed by the exposure of his homosexuality.  She discovered him with a sailor.  In the second half, David’s most destructive act was his attempt to reinvest in his relationship with Hella, considering he had the chance to escape.  Who knows if there was any future for Giovanni and David.  It is also wrong to assume that there was nothing meaningful in his plans with Hella.  It was David’s attempt to have it all that was so destructive.  Did he have any alternatives?  He could have listened to Jacques’ advice and stopped playing it safe, stopped despising his flesh and desires.  Yes, it would have required a painful and honest moment with Hella and himself.  It might have avoided the broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken souls that we are left with at the end of Giovanni’s Room.

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A final biographical note on Baldwin in Europe is in order.  Baldwin lived in France between 1950 and 1954.  This novel was published two years later.  Not as dramatic as the events of Giovanni’s Room happened to Baldwin.  The biographical sketch at the end of the “Library of America” volume suggests he spent most of his time writing.  He likely knew about expats scraping by and can speak from personal experience and observation about the comparative freedoms expats enjoy.  These are themes in the novel.  While it is true that expats (often Zygmunt Bauman’s tourists) have liberties that people closer to home lack, we should not overstate the significance of this.  At best, it can be a lifestyle approach to freedom.  Not all of us are capable of moving abroad and most that do move abroad do so as economic migrants and often find their life in a new land to be one of drudgery, labor, and exploitation.  David (like Baldwin) came to France with a bank account, connections, and a U.S. Passport.

Enjoy a James Baldwin interview, recorded in 1963, mostly on race issues.

 

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.

Eudora Welty, “The Ponder Heart” (1954)

While Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding was set in a rather odd subculture of an elite Southern family, the Fairchilds, and seemed to function by its own absurd and sociopathic rules, the much shorter The Ponder Heart actually exists within social institutions.  The Ponders are no less wealthy than the Fairchilds, but the story exists on a larger canvas despite its smaller size.  The plot covers Daniel Ponder’s attempt to give away all of the family’s wealth and the resistance to these acts by the Ponder’s family.  In order to struggle against Daniel Ponder’s spendthrift ways, the Ponder’s rely on social institutions, most notably the asylum, marriage and the courts.  We can thus read this novel in a pretty straightforward fashion as a discourse on the use of these social institutions by those of power to maintain their wealth.  The novel is a brief comedic sketch of the various failures of these efforts, but the reality of elite use and misuse of such institutions is not at all funny.

 

The narrator is Edna Earle Ponder, who is one of the people trying to restrain Daniel’s good heart so it is not clear what motivated Daniel’s generosity.  From the perspective of the narrator, Daniel is a simpleton, insane, or simply incapable of restraint.  He is however, presented as a good person.  “Still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world.  He has the nicest, politest manners — he’s good as gold.” (341)  Essentially, she sees him as a child. Only a child would make such foolish choices with the family fortune.  Daniel seems to have progressed in the opposite direction from a corporate kleptomaniac.  While the contemporary thief may start small (thieving wages from employees, sneaking money from the tip jar) before moving onto the bolder plans that involve hostile takeovers and government bailouts, Daniel started by giving away small things.  What worried his family was that he started to become interested in giving away big things, “property.”  “Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might go the Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out rom under Uncle Daniel’s feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn’t there to stop him.” (343)  It is likely that his desire to give away his wealth was a product of his intense sociability.  This is Edna’s first observation about her uncle Daniel.

Daniel is, however, wealthy.  He can give away money without concerns for the consequences because he has plenty more to surrender to friends and acquaintances.  Charity, generosity, and the social power they provide for philanthropists are themselves products of income inequality.

When private means of securing wealth fail, the Ponders turned to the typical institutions of control for help.  The successive failure of these efforts is the comic material at the heart of the novel.  The asylum picks up the wrong Ponder.  The attempt to marry Daniel Ponder to a widow (who will presumably help keep an eye on the family’s wealth) fails because Daniel instead marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, “a little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.”  (352)  By putting Daniel on an allowance, the banks are able to prevent him from exercising too much generosity.  Still, this marriage finally kills off Sam Ponder (Grandpa).  The final attempt to confine Daniel’s generosity comes after the unexpected death of Bonnie Dee.  The trial ends with an acquittal and Daniel gives away all the money.

Welty clearly sees these social restraints as ineffectual as they are systematically defeated – not trough Daniel’s skill as it seems to be witless – by their own incompetence.  Daniel bumbles his way to victory because of the more epic failures of those around him.  While this is a bit too optimistic in my view.  Courts, asylums, banks, marriage and other human institutions have done a very good job of sustaining an inequality in wealth and preventing just the very thing that Welty imagines (a wealthy person of conscious and generosity).