The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A Review

The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton
Library of America

At the heart of it, Wharton’s novels are about freedom. It isn’t an existential freedom, it’s a practical one, one that assumes money and love are really what influence a person. For a Lilly Bart in the House of Mirth it is a serious matter, one that leads to her destruction. With The Custom of the Country, Wharton takes a different approach, one that is not as immediately tragic as Mirth, but when looked at from a distance, is as devastating.

Undine Spragg is a young woman from Apex who comes to New York to climb the social ladder and be someone. With Undine, there are only a few things she is interested in, clothing and parties, and those are really just so she can fit in amongst the best people, the ones she reads about in the society pages. She doesn’t belong to New York society and Wharton obviously has fun contrasting her manners against those of the old line New York families.

Nevertheless, she does worm her way into a social scene thanks to her parents who seem to live for her and think nothing of living as high as they can. She marries into one of the old line families, but as often the case with Wharton, that status doesn’t come with money. Her husband Ralph only has a small income and would rather write poetry (I wonder what dreamers in our New Gilded Age will want to do?). It’s not a match for the ages. He makes it for love; she for status. Neither of them get what they want. For Ralph, it slowly destroys him. He has a lover, but he is too bound to convention. Undine, though, doesn’t really care. As long as she has money, she’s happy. She ultimately divorces him, a move that shows her as a scandalous money grabber. She will marry two more times, each time increasing her income.

For Undine, freedom is something to be bought. She is unable to see that is the case. She is a primal person; one who is incapable of thinking beyond the immediate social circle needs. It leads her to surprises when her assumptions fail to be true. Her marriage to the French count is a failure because she assumes because he is rich he can spend his money as he wishes. But for him, the family is an obligation he must honor. Each in their way, is constrained by the structures they are part of and they have accepted as the way the world is. Wharton makes this even more clear when the Count spends a fortune to pay his brother’s gambling debts, but won’t allow Undine to stay in Paris for the season.

Undine, despite her avarice, might seem the most free. She isn’t tied down by convention. She gets divorce three times; doesn’t commit suicide like Ralph; survives every society snub. Wharton doesn’t find anything redeeming in it, though. Her tone isn’t a moralizing, nor is wild like a Thackery in Vanity Fair, although Undine is like a Becky Sharp, but there is a very dry sense of satire. It is so dry it is easy to miss. For readers who want to relate to their heroines, this is not the book; try The House of Mirth. It’s in that dryness, the realistic depiction of a woman so consumed by status and money, that Wharton creates a character who is so untethered to reality, she has no idea what she really wants. She destroys everyone, unintentionally, of course, and when she has gotten everything she wants, or says she wants, Wharton reveals Undine’s true desperation.

The Custom of the Country contrasts the two competing approaches to living: fidelity to tradition, what ever those might be; or a careless disregard for all rules. In both cases, though, the characters are trapped in worlds they come from or think they are joining. While the case of Ralph Marvell holding on to a family honor is tragic, that of Undine who does not know who she is, is even more tragic. It’s an illusory freedom. She has no idea what she truly wants and that leaves her after she has married the multi-millionaire uncertain if she has enough yet. It’s a dark ending. She has bought into fashion without understanding the fashion is always changing.

Wharton’s work always meets at the intersection of wealth and freedom. At her best her works are cautionary tales. Although Undine’s passage through the aristocracy of Europe might seem unrealistic, translate them to pop cultural icons, and you have glimpses into a new Gilded Age. The Custom of the Country is a dark and dry satire, which makes it a little bit more difficult to approach like Mirth and the Age of Innocence. But it is one of her better works and worth a read after Mirth and Innocence.

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You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke White – A Review

You Have Seen Their Faces
Erskine Caldwell, text
Margaret Bourke White, photos
Modern Age Books, Inc NY,
1937 55 pg

You Have Seen Their Faces was a radical book in its time. Perhaps it would still be if time didn’t make it easy to say, good thing things aren’t like that now. The Great Depression started over 80 years ago, and distance between the images, the clothes not only out of fashion, but archaic, the Dorthea Lange-like scenes of run down shacks have long passed from the  landscape, and the chain gains that were common place of the south no longer exist. Still there is something in the book that is more than an earnest examination of the conditions and remedies of the depression in the south, something that resonates today. It is a book that tried, despite its flaws, to describe America not only as it tried to deal with economic hardships, but the color line to paraphrase W.E.B. Dubois.

In You Have Seen Their Faces Caldwell and White attempt to document the lives of share croppers and tenant farmers in the deep south. Although the Great Depression was the impetus for the work, Caldwell shows a broader interest in just the poor. He isn’t out to document just those who’ve been thrown off the land during hard times. He want’s to see what is the root cause. What is it that perpetuates the endless lives of poverty and toil without hope that afflicts both white and black farm workers.

Caldwell delivers his criticism over a series of chapters describing both the sharecropping and tenant farming system. In his hands they are nothing more than virtual slavery. For black farmers it is slavery in all but name. The farmers had to borrow from the plantation store to start the farm, naturally they would  become indebted, and if they tried to leave local law enforcement would force them back to the plantation for failure to pay. It was a system for black farmers that offered no hope of escape. For white tenant farmers there was almost as little hope. They were a little bit more free, but they always owed money and, according to Caldwell, were given worse land than black farmers to foment racial tension.

Charges such as those are what make the book strong stuff.  His best insight on race is the about the channeling of the poor white rage towards blacks who were poorer, but held up as a menace that had to be put down. And for all the repression the white farmers were just as poor. Juxtaposed with quotes from whites that are predictably concerned with justifying lynchings, beatings and the imposition of Jim Crow, his analysis is extremely harsh, and for the times, strong. One of that generation’s great failing was the covering over of racial problems, something that would have to wait until the 50s for the starting of any form of broader acknowledgement. Cadwell for sure, did not hesitate to describe the system.

Caldwell was a good observer and knew the conditions of the farmers well. For a modern reader, one of the thing that catches his eye is the destruction of the land. He describes how the tenant farmer is given a piece of hill to farm and at first he gets a descent crop, but after a few seasons the unprotected soil is washed away and nothing is left but sand and futility. Top soil was a big problem during the depression, as it is today. It is that kind of detail that makes the book resonate still.

The photos, as you can see from the two included here, are arresting, part of that depression era style that seemed to find the deepest crags in even the youngest faces. They are, for the most part, documentary in nature and do show the hard living that ages people prematurely. There are more than a few pictures of shacks that are papered with magazines or newspaper pages. In all the photos from the era and earlier, though, you have to be careful with assuming something is of the moment, a true spontaneous moment caught on film. And it is to the credit of the book the White describes her process (and every single camera she used), which in most cases is anything but spontaneous. Usually Caldwell would talk to the participants for a while, often an hour or more, and when she saw the image she was looking for she took it. There is a reality in the images, but it is consciously composed.

That composure leads the weaknesses of the book. The first, and most egregious, is the captions for the photos. As the authors clearly state at the beginning of the book they are not quotes from the participants, but “are intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals protrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons.” The quote in the above photo isn’t too bad, but some are just dumb, and at worse paternalistic and playing on stereotypes. The ones of African Americans sitting by a river with the caption “Just watching the Mississippi roll by,” seems the most egregious.

It is that paternalism that weakens the book, diffuses its strength. Caldwell is writing an essay about the south, something he knows well, but he doesn’t have the voices of the south. He holds it distant, talks about it in the plural. Occasionally he comes in close to describe a farmer but he can’t stop from analyzing and ultimately offering a solution (something along the lines of farm support, which was introduced but in practice did not reach the people he was writing about).

Still the fundamental problems of the tenant farmer have been transferred to the migrant farmer and the shacks given to them. Agricultural slavery? Try the tomato industry in Florida (Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit). Times have changed, photos to color, but the  issues remain.

It’s Nobel Time – Time for American to Feel the Annual Naval Gazing Pain?

It is Nobel Prize time again and the requisite articles about the insular nature of American writing are making their annual appearance. As someone who reads an awful lot from around the world and in original languages, I’m, of course, predisposed to enjoy this latest addition to the perennial hand wringing fest. Since I find most tips for writers tedious and have been making a move away from the realism of experience in Carver, etc, that had been held up as the model of good writing when I was coming up, I enjoyed the barbs thrown. Are the criticism justified? I don’t know. The problem I always have is the books usually don’t sound that interesting. Yet another middle class family saga: yawn. Of course that is a problem, because that’s exactly where I come from. At least I didn’t live in a suburban hell (and all suburbs are hell).

What do you think of these kind of articles?

From Salon:

But if we don’t win yet again, we are at fault. America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

The critical establishment was split on the award to Toni Morrison, but the Nobel Academy knew precisely what it was doing when it cited her “visionary force, [which] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” You struggle through “Beloved,” but you reach an understanding you didn’t have before. Can you honestly say that about Oates’ “We Were the Mulvaneys”?

[…]

Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.

As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.” This sentiment is a sibling to Wallace’s anger — and both have a predecessor in T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he called art “a continual extinction of personality.”

Sheppard Lee Written by Himself – by Robert Montgomery Bird – A Review of an American Satire

Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself
Robert Montgomery Bird
New York Review of Books, 425 pg

Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself is a forgotten American classic from the early part of the nation’s history, one that revels in poking fun at the contradictory tendencies in the young democracy. Bird’s vision of its inhabitants isn’t so much caustic, but a distaste for the pretentious idlers who only want to be aristocrats. His writing, though, is not dull and full of scolding, rather in the tradition of satire he makes fun of his characters, who, despite their striving, never quite achieve what they long for. His take on antebellum society (with one exception) is filled with humorous touches that both make fun of and describe the country.

Shepard Lee is the lay about heir to a large farm in New Jersey whose only ambition in life is to do nothing because nothing interests him. Since nothing interests him he knows nothing about money and is slowly swindled out of his land, trusting in people too much mostly because it is the easiest thing to do. Finding that living well and not working only leads to poverty he becomes desperate as his income (his land holdings) dwindles and he begins to dream of finding pirate’s treasure. He descends into superstition as his black servant explains how if one dreams about Captain Kid’s treasure three times in a row, one can find the treasure at midnight. Complaining all along about the indignity of digging for the treasure at the middle of the night, he sets out to find the treasure, and, of course, only experiences mishap after mishap. He is a useless shovel man and only manages to injure himself in the process, something Bird draws quite comically.

It is at this moment he accidentally kills himself and the book takes its strange and fantastical shape. Looking at his dead body Lee wonders what to do next when he sees a dead hunter near by. He is a rich man and Shepard Lee wishes he could be like that man and as he does so he suddenly finds his spirit sucked into the man’s body, reanimating it and partially taking over his life.

The ability to go from dead body to dead body is the defining feature of the book and animates the satire. Bird constructs the reanimation so that when Shepard Lee enters the body of the dead person he only partially controls it, the rest comes from the formerly dead person, who magically returns to life and resumes his life as before. Letting the dead person live his life lets Shepard Lee both comment on the strangeness of the life and see how that person lived his life. While Bird doesn’t stick to the device completely and Lee seems to be in control at times, the device is clever and lends itself well to the satire.

Once Lee takes over the body of the hunter he finds he is a rich man, which thrills him to no end. Quickly he realizes, though, that being rich isn’t everything. The man has painful gout and has a combative wife. Lee spends little time in the man’s body, which is fortunate, because the satire in this section of the book isn’t particularly interesting, especially the relationship with the wife. How many henpeck husband jokes can one take, really? However, it does introduce us to Sheppard Lee’s first of many disappointments as he learns that lives are seldom as they appear.

He next reanimates a young dandy and Lee is excited to live the life of a young, handsome man. If Lee wasn’t so rash with his choices, though, he might have thought twice before entering the body of someone who has just commuted suicide. But Lee doesn’t think about those things and when he returns home he finds himself surrounded by creditors. He tries to convince them he is going to get married soon and will be able to pay them all off, and for the remainder of the dandy section his only goal is to get married to a wealthy woman. The dandy is one of the better pieces of the book and in it you see the conflicting impulses of the young country. On the one hand you have the dandy, a man who is too good to work and yet has no money and spends all his time trying to figure out ways to marry into wealth. It is quite reminiscent of Vanity Fair, especially the chapter How to Live on Nothing a Year. On the other hand the dandy’s uncle is a country bumpkin and a rich man, but who at the first opportunity to enter society is willing to spend his fortune on clothing, houses, and carriages all because that is what one has to do. Bird takes great pleasure in showing all these people, the dandy with his hustler like mentality, and the new rich with their over whelming desire to buy respectability, as either selfish or gullible, the dark side of the wide open society of the United States.

In another funny section, Bird gives us the Quaker philanthropist, which he uses in the broader term of do-gooder. The philanthropist is a man who always believes there is good in man. The bad are just victims of society and need a second chance. The philanthropist, of course, takes it on himself to provide these second chances to everyone. His only interest in life is in helping people and he drives great pleasure from this, something the Sheppard Lee, after a series of miserable hosts, takes  delight in. However, the philanthropist is not much of a realist and everyone he tries to help either turns against him or cheats him. In one chapter he summarizes his failures:

I. Beaten by a drunkard whom I had taken out of prison, and bailed to keep the peace.

II. Mulcted out of $100 surety-money, because my gentleman broke the peace by beating me.

V. Rolled in the mud by the boys of my own charity-school, who I had exhorted not to daub the passers-by.

XI. Whitewashed and libeled on my own back by the stone-cutters, for buying wrought marble out of the prison.

The philanthropist always wants to help, but his help is either an unwanted intrusion in other people’s affairs, or is rejected by ungrateful people who want something better than the paltry sums he hands out. Shepard Lee realizes that it doesn’t pay to help anyone and the satisfaction the philanthropist gets when he helps people is just a selfish desire to feel good. It is a funny and probably the best section of the book. Bird’s take on selfish hucksterism of city life leaves few people unscathed.

The philanthropist is then captured by fugitive slave catchers and taken to Virginia. He is a wanted man because he has helped too many slaves escape. Just as he is about to be lynched by a mob in Virginia Lee sees a slave fall from a tree and die. At that moment he reanimates the slave’s body. The depiction of slavery Bird gives is something along the lines of my old Virginia home, where the master is a happy and generous man, and the salves are well fed and contented. Trouble only comes when the slaves find an abolitionist pamphlet in some goods they are unloading and begin to learn they are captives. Worse, Lee reads what the paper says and makes them even more dissatisfied. The salves then plan a revolt and in the process kill members of the master’s family.

The slavery potion is the worst part of the book and obviously the most dated section. Bird is almost an apologist for slavery here, essentially saying that the slaves are happy and contented as long as they don’t know anything about their servitude. In certain contexts the notion that knowledge is disturbing might be interesting, but here it elevates slavery to some exalted type of paternalism, a better form of philanthropy that is best left as it is. Throughout the book Bird doesn’t hesitate to show people as greedy, selfish, misguided, and yet the only people who are not that way are the masters and the slaves. At best it is a weakness of the story, but I think it reflects a way of thinking that is racist. The plantation was not the garden of Eden and to paint is as one even in satire is ugly. Had the satire actually shown the dark side of slavery, in much the same way that he takes on stock trading, for example, then the slavery section might be interesting. As it is, it is a legacy from a darker time in the young United States.

Sheppard Lee Written by Himself is a book that takes great pleasure in making fun Americans as they strive to remake themselves and often find they are making hypocritical and self defeating decisions. For those who wish to make money or enter high society, Bird places even more scorn, holding, instead, the life of the gentleman farmer, as Sheppard Lee eventually learns, in high esteem. It is a conservative position, a throw back to Jeffersonian in the age of Jackson. Part of the fun of the book is to see just how rambunctious the schemes to get rich are, and it presents an America, at this distance, that is rough and wild and even though some people strive to make themselves respectable, it is impossible to escape that striving character. It obviously has problems when questions of race and slavery come up, but otherwise it is a highly readable and funny satire about the early United States.

Vertigo – A Graphic Novel In Woodcuts by Lynd Ward – A Review

Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts
Lynd Ward
Dover, 320 pg

Lyn Ward’s Vertigo is a beautiful work of wood block artistry and wordless story telling, and is hailed by many as his master work not only because of its sheer size (over 200 wood block) but its ambition. Set during the Great Depression it tells the interlocking stories of three characters simply named the Girl, the Boy, and an Elderly Gentleman, each one feeling the affects of the turbulent and uncertain times. Although it may seem rooted in its time, the art work is compelling and expressive, capturing movement, isolation and the vastness of the urban world.

The book begins with the story of the Girl. She is an aspiring violinist with a boy friend who she hopes to marry. Lynd builds the early part of her story as a march towards progress where her boyfriend grabs the brass ring on the carousel. Yet two panels later a storm opens up on the people at the amusement park, signaling the coming Depression. From then on everything in her life turns dark: her boyfriend goes away to work and doesn’t write back; her father is laid off and in desperation attempts to shoot himself, but only manages to blind him; and she is left jobless. It is a bleak world and the light and hopeful drawings that showed the girl’s face full of energy and promise, now recedes to the shadows where the hopelessness intrudes. Lynd uses his drawings to show the changes in her fortunes through his ability to control negative space, the black sections of the drawings. He doesn’t just fill the drawing with light, but highlights the features of his characters to show these changes in mood.

In the second story Ward presents an Elderly Gentleman. He is a lonely and frail man, emphasized early on with a drawing of him standing naked in front of a mirror, the folds of his skin hanging loosely. As a physical being he is almost powerless, and as the story continues it is obvious he is dying. Yet despite the physical weakness, he is a powerful man, one who runs a large corporation and will stop at nothing to make it profitable, whether that is breaking up unions, cutting wages, or paying thugs to attach workers who won’t go along with him. In his desire for profits he lays off the Girl’s father, thus, setting off the spiral of misery in their lives. The Elderly Gentleman, though, is a proud contributor to society, paying for memorials to World War I, buying art, giving to the poor on Thanksgiving. Yet all of this for not and he lives a pitiful life. Ward emphasizes the solitariness with the faces of the character who surround the man. Each one is stark, angular, almost statue like, and always hovering over him as if they are waiting for his death. There is no emotion here, just mechanics of living.

In the final story of the Boy, Ward draws the story of a young man who is out of work during the height of the depression, traveling across the country looking for work. The boy goes from hopeful fiance to a man desperate enough to contemplate a mugging. Ward takes the opportunity with the Bo to leave the city, and here is art has a bit of the Thomas Heart Benton quality, with a liquid sense of movement. The Boy, although proud, is ultimately reduced to giving his blood to the Elderly Gentleman so he can take the Girl back the the amusement park. The last seen of the book is the two of them on the descent of a roller coaster, her face buried in his chest, his eyes wide with fear. The final image is a clear indication that the future is still uncertain and at best things may only get worse. While the book is without hope, it reflects its moment, 1937, when the Depression had already lasted for seven years.

Vertigo is a masterpiece of wood cut art, a true stylistic achievement. The story that within the book is also quite strong and his use of image to tell a dialog free story is impressive. He is able to capture a wide range of emotion and feeling in the story. His take on the depression is squarely amongst the disposed, and is similar in theme to other works from the time by writers such as Steinbeck, Odets, Di Donato, and to some degree Dos Pasos.  In some ways the book seems more interesting, in part because the emotions of the characters are physical, not mental states. One doesn’t have to read old metaphors, one can see the faces of the characters. Moreover, the images reflect the photos of the time, something that is frozen in time. The politics and motivations of the characters, though, can seem awkward at best in so of the works I mentioned, especially Di Donato who had characters as mono dimensional as Snidely Whiplash.

My only quibble with the book and Ward is I wish the images were larger. Some are no more than two inches square. He packs a wealth of detail in them, but I wanted more. (The book does come with a good introduction by David Beronä). Otherwise, Ward’s Vertigo is a Graphic Novel any fan of the genre should read. It is also a book anyone interested in  American in the 30’s should read.

Two Lebanese American Novels Reviewed at The New York Review of Books

In Colm Tóibín’s The Anger of Exile at The New York Review of Books he reviews two novels by Lebanese exiles living in the North America. They sound like they have some promise.

About Rabih Alameddine’s book he writes

The Hakawati offers a set of competing narratives, some fabulous, some filled with memory and desire; it allows what we might call geopoetics to flow over geopolitics. By refusing to permit a single perspective or a single story or style to dominate, it offers, almost despite itself, a paradigm of mingling images and rich difference living in a panoramic, harmonic disunity. Alameddine suggests with some subtlety and much exuberance how this tapestry might come to the aid of the very world that the book explores.

About Hag’s novel he writes

In scene after scene our narrator mocks the very idea of the ordered self or the ordered society. He makes racist comments about other immigrants, calling them “welfare dogs” and forcing the reader to side with him or hate him all the more. His deep dislike of a poor émigré Algerian professor is irrational and fierce. He is an affront to all types of decency. The fact that he is writing this in Canada, a country that rightly is proud of its policy on immigration and ethnic diversity, adds a comedy to the book; the sound of the hand that feeds being bitten sharply offers a rhythmic energy to the prose and removes any possibility of easy self-pity from the tone.

Cockroach is all voice, and it depends on the holding and wielding of tone. The problem is that it is also a novel and thus Hage works a number of plotlines through the book, some more convincing than others.

The BBC’s American Archive

Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes points out that the has a series of shows on the BBC with interviews with American authors. The interviews were recorded over a ten year period and all shows are about 30 minutes long. Here are some of the authors featured.

  • Playwright Edward Albee discusses his career.
  • Patricia Cornwell discusses her life and her career as a crime writer.
  • Don DeLillo author of Libra, Underworld and Cosmopolis.
  • E L Doctorow talks about novels including Ragtime and Homer and Langley.
  • Dave Eggers author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius talks to Mark Lawson.
  • Ellroy talks about Blood’s A Rover, which completes his Underworld USA Trilogy and why he has to shut himself away to write.
  • John Irving author of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules.
  • Stephen King discusses writing horror
  • Norman Mailer speaking in the last major broadcast interview of his life.
  • Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison talking to Mark Lawson at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.
  • Walter Mosley books include a series featuring Private Investigator Easy Rawlins.
  • Joyce Carol Oates author of over 50 novels including Blonde and Black Water.
  • Marilynne Robinson author of novels including Housekeeping and Gilead.
  • Philip Roth speaking as he published his last novel featuring the character Nathan Zuckerman Exit Ghost.
  • John Updike speaking on his 70th birthday.
  • John Updike speaking in his last recorded interview.
  • Gore Vidal discusses writing and politics.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five, speaking as he publishes a memoir called A Man Without a Country.
  • Playwright August Wilson discusses his attitude to writing.
  • Tom Wolfe explains the ideas behind new journalism.
  • Tom Wolfe discusses new journalism and a novel depiciting sex amongst college kids; I Am Charlotte Simmons.