Friday, March 23, 2012

Carson McCullers--The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

            This beautifully moving novel was McCullers’ first.  It takes place in a mill town in Georgia in the 1930s, and primarily follows the character of John Singer, a deaf mute man, and the people who are drawn to him.  This group—Mick Kelley, a very poor young girl whose head is filled with music; Dr. Copeland, an African-American doctor slowly dying of tuberculosis, whose idealism has alienated him from his community; Jake Blount, a drunk carnival worker, who tries to preach a message of Marxism; and Biff Brannon, a widowed cafĂ© owner.  Singer’s muteness enables this group of outcasts to confide in him, filling in his character in whatever capacity best suits them.  Mick, who suffers from hunger and poverty, both confides her secret fears and dreams in him, as well as relying on his radio to bring her the classical music with which she is consumed.  Dr. Copeland, who gave his children names like Portia and Karl Marx, works tirelessly ministering to people with lungs weak from mill work who can’t afford to pay him; Singer is the first (and only) white man who has ever treated him simply as another person, not another black person.  Jake recovers from a nasty drunk in Singer’s room, and continues to confide his class-based frustrations to him.  And Brannon, especially once his wife dies, finds Singer’s room to be a place of comfort.
            Though all of these characters consider Singer to be their closest friend, the only person with whom Singer similarly pursues a friendship is his former roommate Antonapoulos, a deaf-mute man who falls ill and is eventually institutionalized after his illness changes him, leaving him mentally unstable.  Singer spends his life devoted to his friend, regularly spending his vacation travelling to see the Greek (as he is often referred to) at the hospital, despite Antonapoulos’s apparent disregard for his friendship.  Singer signs and signs to Antonapoulos, without ever receiving a reciprocal acknowledgment.  At the end of the novel, Singer travels to the hospital only to discover that Antonapoulos is dead.  Encountering three other bowler-hatted deaf-mute men in a bar near the hospital, Singer tries to join them, but is politely excluded from their conversation. After this encounter, Singer returns home and kills himself.
            As the novel takes place in the 1930s in a small southern mill town, poverty is a disturbing fact of life.  McCullers gives unromanticized details about the extent of poverty, noting not only the lengths to which the poor must go in order to eat anything, but also presents rather straightforward information about what poverty like that faced by the Kellys looks like:
Money was the main thing.  All the time it was money, money, money.  They had to pay through the nose for Baby Wilson’s private room and private nurse.  But even that was just one bill.  By the time one thing was paid for something else always would crop up.  They owed around two hundred dollars that had to be paid right away.  They lost the house.  Their Dad got a hundred dollars out of the deal and let the bank take over the mortgage.  Then he borrowed another fifty dollars and Mister Singer went on the note with him.  Afterward they had to worry about rent every month instead of taxes….Bill had a job in a bottling plant and made ten dollars a week.  Hazel worked as a helper in a beauty parlor for eight dollars a week. Etta sold tickets at a movie for five dollars” (238).
From there, she explains who pays for what, and how even lunch has become a luxury, and how “sometimes she and George were downright hungry for two or three days” (239).  By the novel’s end, Mick has left school and taken a job at Woolworth’s, a step which she realizes even as she’s making it is closing off any other future possibilities, that she is being “trapped by something….Once they were used to the money coming in it would be impossible to do without again.  That was the way things were” (318).
While Jake identifies the root of the area’s economic problems on capitalism in general, he also sees this poverty as a particularly regional one: “At least one third of all Southerners live and die no better than the lowest peasant in any European Fascist state….Who owns the South?  Corporations in the North own three fourths of all the South….For under this system pigs are valuable and men are not” (298).  It is in this way that the theme of poverty is tied to larger themes of regionalism and racism in the novel, as demonstrated by a conversation between Jake and Dr. Copeland.  In response to Jake’s monologue about the inherent inequalities of capitalism, Dr. Copeland responds, “you are giving no attention to the very separate question of the Negro….it is impossible to see the full situation without including us Negroes” (298).  Jake continues to talk about Fascism, to which Dr. Copeland replies, “So far as I and my people are concerned the South is Fascist now and always has been” (299).  In fact, the rise of European Fascism allows for several characters to make comparisons between Fascist anti-semitism and American racism.  Once again, Dr. Copeland: “The history of my people will be commensurate with the interminable history of the Jew—only bloodier and more violent” (299).  Throughout most of his life, Dr. Copeland has believed in an ideology of uplift.  As his friend Marshall Nichols explains, “it behooves us to strive with care and not endanger this amicable relationship already established.  Then by gradual means a better condition will come about” (293).  After his son loses his legs because of mistreatment in prison, and he himself is beaten and jailed after trying to find justice for his son at the courthouse, however, Dr. Copeland begins to question his methodology.  Unfortunately, by the time he makes this realization, his health is so deteriorated that he leaves the town to be taken care of by his extended family in the country.  He leaves Jake with a message of solidarity, that social change will only come from working with others—and it is such solidarity which Jake seeks at the novel’s end, solidarity through the type of community which Jake is sure is unique to the South.
And finally, in terms of my own research, there are some interesting points about ugliness and beauty in women (or, more specifically, girls).  For most of the novel, Mick is described as a tomboy, wearing boy’s shorts and with hair in constant cowlicks.  Occasionally—such as for her prom party—she dresses up in her sisters’ clothes and wears make-up, but in these scenes she often appears almost as in drag.  The sexual awakening she experiences with Harry, however, marks something of a turning point in her appearance, as shortly after this scene—in which Harry haltingly admits, “Listen here.  I think you’re so pretty, Mick.  I never did think so before.  I don’t mean I thought you were very ugly—I just mean that—“ (273)—Mick takes on the adult responsibilities of a job at Wooltworth’s, to which she starts wearing stockings and jewelry, more properly inhabiting the costume of a woman.  After her physical intimacy with Harry, Mick is sure that the changes she has undergone can be read from her face; she is sure that her sexuality must be marked on her body.  However, her mother’s response to her physical appearance in this scene is only to tell her to “Quit frowning like that, Mick.  You’re coming to the age where you ought to fix up and try to look your best you can” (278). 
Even more intriguing are the changes which happen to Baby, Biff’s niece and child performer, whose beauty is destroyed in a freak gun accident.  Her (former stage) mother Lucile confides to Biff that,
If a child is kept clean and well cared for and pretty then that child will usually be sweet and smart.  But if a child is dirty and ugly then you can’t expect anything much.  What I’m trying to get at is that Baby is so shamed over losing her hair and that bandage on her head that it just seems like it makes her cut the buck all the time.  She won’t practice her elocution—she won’t do a thing.  She feels so bad I just can’t manage her (231)
Once again, there is a connection between inner and outer virtue, and in this configuration it’s not a person’s moral character which shines through to her outer appearance, but rather the outer appearance which influences the inner character.  The surface is understood to be a marker of the inside—to Mick, who assumes that an inner change must be marked on the outside, or to Lucile, who thinks that changes to physical appearance affect the character inside.  It would be interesting to compare the behavior of Baby to that of Dorothy Allison’s Shannon Pearl, whose physical disfigurement seems to have given her a horrid character.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Siobhan B. Somerville: Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000)

In focusing on literature and film from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, Somerville demonstrates how “emerging models of homo- and heterosexuality at the turn of the twentieth century were embedded within discourses of race and racialization, particularly bifurcated constructions of ‘black’ and ‘white’ bodies’” (175).  Noting that the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case, in which the government’s right to determine an individual’s racial identity was affirmed, emerged at the same time as the discourse of sexology, Somerville explains that “it was not merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively constructing and policing the boundary between ‘black’ and ‘white’ bodies” (3). 
She begins by looking a the “invention” of the categories of homosexual and sexual inversion at the end of the nineteenth century, and compares these discourses with those of the scientific racism of the coincident eugenics movement.  Sexology was differentiated from the subsequently emergent field of psychology in that sexology was physiologically based, seeing the body as a text which could be read.  Writers such as Havelock Ellis and Richard von Kraff-Ebing wrote extensive case studies of sexual deviants, in which they made elaborate notations of physical appearances (from detailed phrenological descriptions to rather subjective evaluative ones of genital appearance), and Somerville notes the inherent racist biases in these “scientific” studies.  Still, it’s important to note the move from a religious authority to a scientific one, in these writers’ attempt to systematically study sexual differences and divorce them from the realm of sin.
One of the many strengths of Somerville’s analyses is her ability to not only historically contextualize the works she examines in terms of race and sexual identity, but also the authors, audiences, and modes of production responsible for the texts.  For example, when looking at the 1914 film Florida Enchantment, she not only looks at the presentation of race, gender, and sexual identity in the film, she also examines the production company who made it, the presumed audience of the theaters in which it was shown, as well as the significance of the changes which were made to the story from its appearance as a novel in 1891, a stage production in 1896, and its film production in 1914.  This historical contextualization allows her to analyze not only the intersections of race, gender, and sexual identity in the film, but more fully in terms of who was watching the film and with whom they would identify.
Somerville also examines the figure of tragic mulatta in fiction as well as Jean Toomer’s queeer characters, among other close readings.  I found her consideration of Toomer to be particularly astute, as she incorporates the ideas of canonical queer theorists Butler and Sedgwick into her analysis while also critiquing their own positions.  For example, when she references Butler’s observation that queer theory needs to take into account the “differential formation of homosexuality across racial borders,” Somerville importantly notes that “Butler reveals an understanding of ‘queer studies’ as a field analogous to (and therefore separate from) the field of critical race theory” (138).  Unlike Butler, Somerville wishes to address racialization and queering as “part of the same mechanism” (139).  In her analysis of Toomer, she identifies a use of “queering” as one which “dislodge[s] it from models that have either privileged the analysis of sexuality over race or attempted to detach processes of sexuality from those of racialization” (140).  Somerville’s analysis is really useful in its emphasis on historicized intersectionality, and the ways in which she works to foreground intersectionality rather than consider it in disparate parts. 

Carson McCullers--Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

This novel, McCullers’ second after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is set on a military base in the South in the 1930s.  It follows two marriages—that of Captain Penderton and his adulterous wife Leonora, and their neighbors, the sickly Alison Langdon and her husband (and Leonora’s lover) Major Morris Langdon, through the heart attacks and death of Alison at a sanatorium, and Captain Penderton’s growing obsession with the enlisted man Private Ellgee Williams, whom he catches in his wife’s room watching her sleep and shoots and kills him. 
As the opening paragraph explains, “There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed.  The participants of this tragedy were: two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse” (3).  Throughout the novel, the themes of sexual deviance and Southern identity frequently emerge, and it is at times implied that they are related in some way.  Though Leonora is “not a pure-bred Southerner,” she is “Southern enough” in her ways to offend her husband’s sensibilities (12-3).  Captain Penderton seems to make distinctions between Leonora’s southern-ness and his own “pure-bred” Southern identity—for the Captain, his southern heritage is distinguished as a “history of barbarous splendor, ruined poverty, and family hauteur….the Captain set exaggerated store by the lost past” (71-2).  Interestingly, the distinctions which the Captain makes between levels of southern identity are through food.  Leonora’s southern-ness can be seen in her dirty stove—“Their gas stove was not crusted with generations of dirt as her grandmothers’ had been, but then it was by no means clean” (13) and the “plain, heavy Southern meals” which Leonora and Major Langdon enjoy, unlike the “subtle cookery of New Orleans” and the “balanced harmony of French food” which the Captain prefers (113).  Leonora’s southern identity is a class-based one, while the Captain’s is one of aesthetic heritage. 
Specifically, Leonora’s problematic identity is based on a sense of sexual excess—not only does she herself take lovers, but she is described as “a little feeble-minded” (16), a quality which endears her to some (such as the Major) and which simply reinforces her husband’s misogyny.  Captain Penderton from the beginning of the novel is described in queer terms, such as “having a penchant for becoming enamoured of his wife’s lovers” (11).  While his own understanding of his sexuality is in terms of balance—“Sexually the Captain obtained within himself a delicate balance between the male and female elements,” this balance is one of infertility: he possesses “the susceptibilities of both the sexes and the active powers of neither” (10).  Throughout the course of the novel, he develops a growing obsession with Private Ellgee Williams, one which drives him to stalk the soldier and the homo-ness of the world of the enlisted man.  Unlike his own home, which is pervaded by the feminine sensuality of his sexually active wife, Captain Penderton longs for the world of the barracks, “two thousand men living together in this great quadrangle” (97), “the neat cots placed in a row, the bare floors, and stark curtainless windows” (118).  The masculine aesthetics for which Captain Penderton longs are acknowledged as a place of queer behavior (122).  Ironically, by the novel’s end the Captain’s obsessive desire has feminized him, as Williams’ invasion of his bedroom reduces the Captain to “clutch[ing] the front of his wrapper and press[ing] his hand against his breast” (126).  The perverse homosocial connection which the Captain realizes exists between himself and the soldier through the sleeping figure of his wife drives him to murder the soldier in the last scene in the novel.
One reading of the novel would identify in Private Williams a root of sexual deviancy, one which the Captain kills in a futile attempt to uproot such perversion.  Private Williams is completely of a world of “homo-ness,” as he was raised in an exclusively male household by a father who preached that “women carried in them a deadly and catching disease which made men blind, crippled, and doomed to hell” (18-9).  Amusingly, he hears similar ideas in the homosocial world of the military in their warnings against venereal disease, and the result is that “Private Williams had never willingly touched, or looked at, or spoken to a female since he was eight years old” (19).  With this foundation, the Private’s vigils at the bedside of the sleeping Leonora seems to be his own flirting with sexual deviance, as he approaches the altar of what he understands as the root of sexual sin. 
That such a hegemonic institution as the military should be designated as such a queer space is perhaps best summarized by a conversation between the two officers over dinner: “You mean…that any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normalcy is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness.  In short, it is better, because it is morally honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?” (114).  Major Langdon agrees, and Captain Penderton disagrees.  Nevertheless, they both acknowledge the existence of what Tennessee Williams (in his 1971 afterword to the novel) describes as “something almost too incredible and shocking to talk about….the incommunicable something that we shall have to call mystery which is so inspiring of dread” (133).  In McCullers’ vision of the South (which Tennessee Williams ties to a larger “Gothic School” of southern writers), there is this intuition of unspoken decadence which these writers are able to articulate and evoke in their work, and it is this acknowledgement of the dreadful and mysterious which makes them so popular.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Erskine Caldwell--Tobacco Road (1932)

Toward the end of Tobacco Road, preacher Sister Bessie Rice, explains why it’s better to preach against things rather than for things, because “That’s what the people like to hear about.  They want to hear about the bad things” (161).  This may be the theme for the entire novel, as the characters in the novel live in inescapably desperate poverty.  Tobacco Road is a trap—though it was once, a few generations ago, the successful place of transport for tobacco, the changeover to sharecropping cotton resulted in leached soil, an inequitable sharecropping system, the growth of cotton factories, and eventually the pullout of the boss, which resulted in the general collapse of the area.  With a very few exceptions, the only road for survival is escape—of the seventeen children born by Jeeter and Ada Lester, only two have remained at home: the harelipped and hypersexualized Ellie Mae and the simpleminded Dude, whose only interests are throwing a ball against the side of the house and finding a functioning automobile horn to honk.

Caldwell seems to be making a statement about those who have been left behind by industrialization and capitalism, as even those who are able to put in a crop can’t win: “A bale to the acre was the goal of every cotton farmer around Fuller; but the boll weevil and hard summer rains generally cut the crop in half.  And on the other hand, if it was a good year for the raising of cotton, the price would probably drop lower than it had before.  Not many men felt like working all year for six-or seven-cent cotton in the fall” (174).  Jeeter Lester is worse off than those, though, as he hasn’t planted a crop in several years, as all possible sources of credit have dried up.  The only possibility left for the Lesters is the county poor-farm—or, as the novel ends, death by fire.  Often, Jeeter refuses to leave for better economic prospects, however, because he claims that the land is in his blood.  Even then, however, the surviving son, Dude, seems to be haunted by the dead Jeeter, as he notes at the novel’s end that he thinks he might see about putting in a cotton crop, like his dad always wanted to.  The novel ends on this sense of absolute futility.

Nevertheless, what’ s most interesting to me are the presentation of female ugliness and sexuality in the novel.  Both Ellie Mae and Sister Bessie Rose are women whose faces are grotesque: Ellie Mae’s cleft lip is such that her “upper lip had an opening a quarter of an inch wide that divided one side of her mouth into unequal parts; the slit came to an abrupt end almost under her left nostril.  The upper gum was low, and because her gums were always fiery red, the opening in her lip made her look as if her mouth were bleeding profusely” (21).  Sister Bessie May, the preaching woman, is in fact “much better-looking than most women in the sand hills, except for her nose.  Bessie’s nose had failed to develop properly.  There was no bone in it, and there was no top to it.  The nostrils were exposed, and Dude had once said that when he looked at her nose it was like looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun” (45).  Both of them are hypersexual—Ellie Mae doesn’t seem to talk, but only dawdles behind chinaberry trees, emerging to jump on men such as Lov with an “excited, feline agility” (34); Sister Bessie can’t keep her hands off of Dude when kneeling to pray with him, and the two of them shortly end up embracing and rubbing against each other (51).  Further, in the hotel scene—a scene so absurd as to echo a Restoration play—Sister Bessie is taken to several different rooms throughout the night, all of which have occupied beds (and it’s implied that she engaged in sexual activity throughout the night in these different occupied rooms).  

There’s a Faulknerian comparison of women to cows in the novel, as Lov’s complaint that his wife Pearl—the pretty Lester daughter, whom Jeeter approved marrying Lov at the age of twelve—as it’s considered as unnatural for a woman to reject male sexuality in the same way that Lester’s cow was worthless once it “wouldn’t take no freshening” (17).  In refusing to sleep in the same bed as Lov, Pearl is frequently characterized as “queer.”  (She’s also Ada’s daughter by someone other than Jeeter; all that’s known is that her father was that he was “from Carolina and on his way to Texas” (31)).  So, while a properly natural woman responds to a man’s advances, it’s only a monstrous woman who expresses or acts on her own sexual desires, as we see with Sister Bessie and Ellie Mae.  

This insistence on the “natural” is related to the role that God is understood to play in the novel’s deprivation.   Jeeter’s concept of the unshakeable divine plan for the farmer is reminiscent of Anse Bundren in As I Lay Dying, such as when he explains that, “When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man” (36).  Thus, anything that doesn’t work for Jeeter can be blamed on divine plan.  Bessie, on the other hand, represents an interestingly active interpretation of the divine.  Not only does God’s plan reveal itself to her to align nicely with her own desires—such as her desire to marry Dude—but she seems to consider God as finite, or having limited abilities.  When, for example, Jeeter asks her to pray for Pearl, she suggests that it might be more successful if she was to talk to Pearl herself, as “I expect I know more about what to tell her than He does, because I been a married woman up to the past summer….I expect I know all about it.  God wouldn’t know what to tell her” (48). Religion, like mules and guano (and women), is simply another resource available to those on Tobacco Road, to be used or blamed according to the individual’s ability and predilection.