Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Katherine Anne Porter--The Old Order: Stories of the South (1944)

I adored this collection, and intend to read more by Porter as soon as I can.  The Old Order is a collection of short stories concerning the life of a rural Texas family ruled by Sophia Jane, the matriarch and mother of eleven children. The first half of the collection deals with Sophia Jane and her African American servant and companion, Nannie. Their relationship comprises the closest bond in the family, more so even than that between Sophia Jane and her children. The second part of the collection concerns itself with the family of Harry, one of Sophia Jane’s favorite children, and his daughters Maria and Miranda, who are four years apart in age. 
Consisting of most of the second half of the text, “Old Mortality” is a longer piece in three parts: 1885-1902, 1904, and 1912.  In Part I, the girls Maria and Miranda cannot escape their family history: overshadowed by stories of their late Aunt Amy’s great beauty and romantic escapades, the girls struggle to discover their own individuality under the weight of so much history.  In Part II, they experience a small break from their “immured” existence at convent school when their father takes them to the race track to bet on their Uncle Gabriel’s horse.  Uncle Gabriel, the romantic hero of so many stories involving Aunt Amy, is a great disappointment, as he is a fat, desolate drunkard, whose horse (which the girls are forced to bet on) is given 100 to 1 odds.  Miraculously, the horse wins, though Harry takes the girls money to be put in the bank.  In the final section, Miranda, who has left school and eloped, encounters her old maid Cousin Eva on the train, as they both travel home for Uncle Gabriel’s funeral.  Aunt Eva tries to set Miranda straight about a few of the more romantic and sanitized versions of family stories.
Porter is rather frank about the existence and effects of slavery in the first section.  Slavery has yet to be abolished when they first meet as children, when Sophia Jane’s father purchases Nannie along with her mother and father; Sophia Jane is so taken with Nannie that she insists, “I want the little monkey….I want that one to play with” (14).  Appalling as it is to read this, it gives a proper sense of verisimilitude to their relationship.  Sophia Jane never undergoes any dramatic epiphanies about race relations, though over the years she and Nannie forge a bond by their shared experiences and hardships.  Most striking to me was Sophia Jane’s taking over as wet nurse when Nannie almost dies from puerperal fever—not only is it astonishing that she nurses her own children (allowing her access to a bond with her children she’s never experienced before, and which she insists upon having with her subsequent children), but she also nurses Nannie’s child Charlie.  It was striking enough to read a scene in which a white southern women nurses a black child at this time in Sherley Anne Williams’ 1986 Dessa Rose; to read such a scene in this 1944 collection was quite surprising.  The stories also contain variations on the white liberal consciousness raising scene, quite common in southern literature from this era (Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, for example, was published in 1949, five years after this).  In these stories, much of this is a result of Nannie’s move from the big house to an empty cabin in her old age; the white family members are surprised that she does not wish to live with them any longer, which prompts realizations such as that by Maria, who thinks with a pang that “they had not really been so very nice to Aunt Nannie” (42).
Not only a commentary on race relations in the South, these realizations also illustrate the conflicts at the heart of southern life, especially between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement.  Sophia Jane’s children are described as unable to function alone:
As their fortunes went down, and they have very few servants, they needed her terribly.  They realized how much the old woman had done for them, simply by seeing how, almost immediately after she went, everything slackened, lost tone, went off edge.  Work did not accomplish itself as it once had.  They had not learned how to work for themselves, they were all lazy and incapable of sustained effort or planning.  They had not been taught and they had not yet educated themselves.  (44)
In fact, Sophia Jane and Nannie share this disdain for her children and grandchildren, and spend quite a bit of their time as they grow old complaining to each other about these children.  Not only do they share contempt for their children, but also, more generally, of men.  In fact, another important theme throughout the piece is the solidarity with which women meet life, and the kind of “deeply grounded contempt for men” which most of them share (here used to describe Sophia Jane) (24).  Both Sophia Jane and Nannie survive despite of, rather than because of, the men in their lives.
They must be strong, because the limitations placed on them as women are great.  A theme which I’m particularly interested in which occurs often is the relationship between these limitations and a women’s physical beauty.  Old maid Cousin Eva’s entire life seems to have been determined by her lack of chin, which is blamed for her failure to marry as well as her strident political activity as a suffragist: “For even then it was pretty plain that Eva was an old maid, born.  Harry said, ‘Oh, Eva—Eva has no chin, that’s her trouble” (111).[1]  Harry makes clear the connection between appearance, value, and character:
“He was a pleasant, everyday sort of father, who held his daughters on his knee if they were prettily dressed and well behaved, and pushed them away if they had not freshly combed hair and nicely scrubbed fingernails.  “Go away, you’re disgusting,” he would say, in a matter-of-fact voice.  He noticed if their stocking seams were crooked.  He caused them to brush their teeth with a revolting mixture of prepared chalk, powdered charcoal, and salt.  When they behaved stupidly, he could not endure the sight of them. (112)
In fact, Harry also passes judgment on Miranda, saying that she “was going to be a little thing all her life, she would never be tall; and this meant, of course, that she would never be a beauty like Aunt Amy, or Cousin Isabel.  Her hope of being a beauty died hard, until the notion of being a jockey came suddenly and filled all her thoughts” (130).  Once again, once the hope of beauty is gone, it seems to clear the way for other possibilities.  The life of the beautiful belle is fixed, determined, and tragic; in these stories, it seems to be the ugly women who have the potential for more interesting lives.  It’s certainly not an easy life—at one point, contemplating Cousin Eva’s life, Miranda wonders, “why was a strong character so deforming?” (158). 
The collection does ultimately return to a larger question of the future of the South.  At the end of the novel, as Cousin Eva and her father good-naturedly banter, Miranda feels out of place, wondering, “Where are my own people and my own time?” (163).  Along with her sister, “they had lived not only their young years, but their memories, it seemed to them, began years before they were born, in the lives of the grown-ups around them, old people above forty, most of them who had a way of insisting that they too had been young once” (98).  Ten years after Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and the youth of the South are still trying to live not only their own lives but those of a past which refuses to die—or even be past.

[1] The more complete description of Eva given:
Eva, shy and chinless, straining her upper lip over two enormous teeth, would sit in corners watching her mother.  She looked hungry, her eyes were strained and tired.  She wore her mother’s old clothes, made over, and taught Latin in a Female Seminary.  She believed in votes for women, and had traveled about, making speeches.  When her mother was not present, Eva bloomed out a little, danced prettily, smiled, showing all her teeth, and was a like a dry little plant set out in a gentle rain.  Molly was merry about her ugly duckling.  “It’s lucky for me my daughter is an old maid.  She’s not so apt,” said Molly naughtily, “to make a grandmother of me.”  Eva would blush as if she had been slapped.  Eva was a blot, no doubt about it, but the little girls felt she belonged to their everyday world of dull lessons to be learned, stiff shoes to be limbered up, scratchy flannels to be endured in cold weather, measles and disappointed expectations. (104)
However, it is Eva who survives, compared to the beautiful Amy, who dies a tragic and mysterious death on her honeymoon in New Orleans.  Ugliness here is connected to industriousness, studiousness, and intellect, perhaps not considered attractive in a woman by society, but that Porter allows Eva to end the collection reveals a certain sympathy for Eva rather than Amy, whom she kills off.

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