Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sweet Sixteen

In 1934 Caroline Miller became the first Georgian to win the Pulitzer Prize with her novel Lamb in His Bosom. While it's better known than some other early winners, it's not widely known by modern readers. I'm not especially surprised at its relative obscurity, after all, Margaret Mitchell's epic 1937 winner, Gone With the Wind, was destined to outshine many of its counterparts for a long time to come. The Wikipedia entry about Lamb in His Bosom is 65 words long. The entry for Gone With the Wind is 10,665 words!

Set in rural Georgia, the novel tells the story of a poor family eking their living out of the land around them in the two decades leading up to the Civil War. They are modest people, God-fearing, largely uneducated, they don't own slaves (not because of a moral objection, but because they are poor), and they're mostly oblivious to the larger world around them. Their attention is focused on their land, their children, their chores, and their lifelong family drama. I enjoyed this book a lot. You should read it.

#15: The Store

Picture it: America, Post-Civil War. The slaves have been freed, the south has been reconstructed, and freedom is ringing throughout the land. Right? Well, not exactly. Someone with a sense of humor might have titled this book "Now, do you get it?" as  means of completely summing up why slavery only freed the slaves on paper and why the United States absolutely needed The Civil Rights Act to be written and passed. It also gives us 20th century readers a startling look back at what it meant to be a free Black man or woman in the south after the war and some much needed insight on what institutional racism is and how it can completely shape a person's destiny no matter how hard they try to overcome it. It is worth noting that this book provided no heroes or easy solutions and honestly, no hope. In short, it was pretty much exactly the opposite of The Help. (which is a good thing)

Yes, this unassuming little book, The Store by T.S. Stribling did all of that. And it was also a really gripping story.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

No Country for Black Men

In 1933 Thomas Sigismund (T.S.) Stribling reluctantly accepted the fifteenth Pulitzer for his novel, The Store. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, "Stribling was apparently so unimpressed with the award that he showed it to his wife once and put it in the attic, never to examine it again." Sadly it seems that America has also put Mr. Stribling's novel in the attic. Its fade into obscurity is unfortunate because everyone in the United States - and I mean everyone - ought to read this book.

The Store is the second book in Stribling's Vaiden Trilogy. Set in northern Alabama in 1884, the story deals with Colonel Miltiades Vaiden and his ascent back into the middle class. The South's loss of the Civil War and the subsequent end of slavery cost him his trio of professions as: an overseer on a cotton plantation, an officer in the Confederate Army, and a leader in Ku Klux Klan. (So obviously, he's a *gem* of a guy.) Colonel Milt and his homely wife, Ponny, who he generally holds in contempt and treats with disdain, have fallen on hard times; yet he refuses to accept any personal responsibility for his lowered position, choosing instead to blame others at every turn.

The major action of the novel surrounds Miltiades' dubious decision to steal cotton from his employer, Mr. J. Handback, and the calamitous series of events that follows the theft. Due to a decades-old business transgression of Mr. Handback's against his family, Milt felt entitled to the cotton he stole and the money it brought. He felt it was owed to him. He did not, however, feel compelled to share the spoils with his siblings, who were arguably equally wronged by Handback's past shady dealings. In the same way it was obvious to the reader that Mr. Adams' theft of the glue formula was absolutely wrong in the previous Pulitzer-winner Alice Adams, so too is it obvious that Colonel Milt's appropriation of Mr. J. Handback's cotton is wrong.

Miltiades Vaiden is a terrible person. Here is a list of some of his more reprehensible qualities and actions in The Store:

  • He's racist.
  • Years ago he raped a black slave woman named Gracie. The regret he feels at the memory of the rape is not due to the fact that he knows that rape is morally wrong, but rather that he degraded himself by sleeping with a black woman. Because...
  • ...he's racist.
  • He treats his wife, Ponny, terribly. He only married her hoping her father would die and leave his money to her. Which doesn't happen.
  • Prior to marrying Ponny he was engaged to another woman, Drusilla, but before ending their engagement he made sure he slept with her first.
  • At the end of the book, after Ponny has died in a most pitiful fashion, he marries Drusilla's daughter, Sydna, who is 30 years his junior, despite having once slept with her mother and the fact that his own nephew is terribly in love with her.
  • He steals a bunch of cotton from J. Handback and sells it for a sizable sum of money.
  • He coerces Gracie (yes, the woman he once raped) into hiding the money for him, without any consideration for the great personal risk she is taking in aiding him in the crime. Why would he give her any consideration? After all, she is black, and a "Vaiden negro," and somehow bound to him because she served his family as a slave back on the plantation WHERE HE RAPED HER. Because...
  • ...he is really racist!
  • Later, when he is in a tight spot financially due to his own poor money management, he seeks to deprive his black sharecroppers (Gracie again. And her son, Toussaint, who is actually his son, because he raped her!) of their tools so that he can sell them to make some quick cash, knowing full well that losing their equipment will prohibit their ability to harvest their crops, and therefore impoverish them. Which he really doesn't care about, at all.
  • Because he is really, really racist.
All of the white people in this novel, with the important exception of one, are unapologetically racist. As bad as Milt is (and clearly, he's pretty bad), there are people who are even worse. Stribling's white characters fall along a continuum of racism, and it is depressing to see how few people are on the right end of that continuum. The lone non-racist, Postmaster Landers, is not a natural born Southerner, but a transplant from the North, his position was a political appointment. He is not well-liked by his white peers in town, but in his interactions with Milt (who is at least civil and respectful to him, if not particularly kind) he serves as a sort of psychic, directly predicting for him events that come to pass or providing him with portentous advice.

Landers is set apart, separated from the other white characters by both his slightly supernatural characteristics, as well as his treatment of the town's black residents, whom he treats with genuine equality of heart and mind, and complete compassion. For much of the novel I felt that Mr. Landers' purpose was to provide contrast as the sole humane white man in a sea of racists, I thought he was a symbol of hope. As he fights for Toussaint's life near the end of the novel, he makes an impassioned plea for assistance to Milt's nephew, Jerry:

This passage strikes me as profoundly true. It's so obvious - we are all human beings. And yet as the novel's closing events transpire it becomes clear that rather than serving as a symbol of hope, Landers is just the opposite. He is a sad indicator of how little hope Stribling saw for white Southerners to progress in their way of thinking about and treating black Americans.

There is a lot to ponder about this story, but the single most important takeaway for me was Stribling's basic conclusion that the American South was, is, and always will be a white man's country. At one point the Governor of Alabama, who is also an attorney, says just that in a courtroom where his white client is being sued by a black man, and he's attempting to have the case dismissed because (sarcasm) how could a black man ever have the law on his side if his complaint is against a white man? His characters repeatedly prove that in the post-war South racism was such a deeply ingrained aspect of white culture that it would require generations and generations of conscious, deliberate effort - both personal and political - to eradicate. He made these conclusions in the 1930s, and sadly in 2013 it is all too evident that we've still got a long way to go.

Stribling addresses many other racial themes in this novel, and his black characters represent a wide range of cultural perspectives. I could dedicate an entire second blog post just to that topic! The idea of hypodescent is extremely important to the plot, and if you've never heard of it now's a good time to look it up, as it's basically the way race is assigned in America.

The next novel on the list is set in rural Georgia before, during and after the Civil War. And no, it's NOT Gone With the Wind, not yet. It's called Lamb in His Bosom, by a woman named Caroline Miller. I've actually already started it and am loving it so far. Fingers crossed it stays that way!

Book #14: The Good Earth

The main character is Chinese, a man, and a farmer.  I'm not a pre-revolutionary Chinese man, so maybe I don't know any better, but nothing about the main character's voice in this book "felt" authentic. The world that Pearl Buck created seemed solid and tactile enough, but so many of her characters lacked flesh and realism. Their plights were real but they seemed like cold pieces of colorful construction paper hastily pasted onto a beautiful oil panting. There were some instances where she did manage to bring the character's culture to life. One was, surprisingly, with foot binding.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Wealth (and Poverty) of Nations

In 1931, Pearl S. Buck, who would later become the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, published the first book of a trilogy. It was called The Good Earth. In 1932 it became the 14th novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. It has retained its popularity better than many other early winners, even making a return to the bestseller list in 2004 when Oprah Winfrey added it to her famous book club.