Book Review: Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy

William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee reads like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which I have not read), with the first twelve chapters resembling an innocent rhapsody and the latter fifteen a world-weary dirge. The turning point comes with Percy’s father’s involvement in politics in 1910-12, with World War One, conflict with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 making any return to Innocence impossible. Adding a jarring element to the chapters on Experience is Percy’s rather defensive discourse on race relations.

(As for the supposedly unique traits of a certain subset of the Mississippi population, listed in the aforesaid discourse, I find them to be rather universal. For example:

The last time I saw Mims I asked him how he and his wife were getting along. He poked out his mouth: ‘Pretty good, pretty good, I reckon. Cose I always goes up the front steps whistlin’.’

I praised his cheerfulness.

‘That ain’t it, Mr. Will. I want to give anybody what’s in the house and don’t belong there time to git out the back way. You know I never did like no rookus.’ [pp. 301-302]

The same principle is outlined by Fielding:

It hath been a custom long established in the polite world, and that upon very solid and substantial reasons, that a husband shall never enter his wife’s apartment without first knocking at the door. The many excellent uses of this custom need scarce be hinted to a reader who hath any knowledge of the world; for by this means the lady hath time to adjust herself, or to remove any disagreeable object out of the way; for there are some situations in which nice and delicate women would not be discovered by their husbands. [Tom Jones, X/ii])

I liked the first part, concerning Innocence, much better. It’s amazing that Percy, writing at the experienced age of fifty-five, is able to recreate so pristinely the intoxicating wondrousness of his youth:

To climb an aspen sapling in a gale is one of those ultimate experiences, like experiencing God or love, that you need never try to remember because you can never forget. Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in still weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell. The trees around you will thrash and seethe, their white undersides lashed about like surf, and sea-music racing through them. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane; you will know what it is to have leaves sprout from your toes and finger-tips, with satyrs and tigers and hounds in pursuit; you will never again need to drown under the crash of a maned wave in spume and splendor and thunder, with the white stallions of the sea around you, neighing and pawing. (p. 55)

While looking back, again, with a seamless fidelity to youthful feeling, on how he expanded his consciousness in youthful Arcadia (meaning the liberal arts), Percy is conscious, with the advantage of hindsight, of Arcadia’s true meaning:

Neither from experience nor observation can I quite say what they learn in their Arcadia, though they gad about freely with books and pads. Indeed, many of them attempt to assume a studious air by wearing black Oxford gowns. In this they are not wholly successful, for, no matter how new, the gowns always manage to be torn and insist on hanging from the supple shoulders with something of a dionysiac abandon. Further, even the most bookish are given to pursuing their studies out under the trees. To lie under a tree on your back, overhead a blue and green and gold pattern meddled with by the idlest of breezes, is not – despite the admirable example of Mr. Newton – conducive to the acquisition of knowledge. Flat on your stomach and propped on both elbows, you will inevitably keel and end by doting on the tint of the far shadows, or, worse, by slipping into those delightful oscillations of consciousness known as cat-naps. I cannot therefore commend them for erudition. So it is all the more surprising that in after years the world esteems many of them learned or powerful or godly, and that not infrequently they have been the chosen servitors of the destinies. Yet what they do or know is always less than what they are. Once one of them appeared on the first page of the newspapers because he had climbed with amazing pluck and calculated foolhardiness a hitherto unconquered mountain peak, an Indian boy his only companion. But what we who loved him like best to recall about that exploit is an inch cube of a book he carried along with him and read through – for the hundredth time, likely – before the climb was completed. It was Hamlet. Another is immortal for cleansing the world of yellow fever, but the ignorant half-breeds among whom he worked remember him now only for his gentleness, his directness without bluntness, his courtesy, which robbed obedience of all humiliation. Still others I understand have amassed fortunes and – to use a word much reverenced by my temporal co-tenants – succeeded. That success I suspect was in spite of their sojourn in our greenwoods. The Arcadians learn here – and that is why I am having such difficulty telling you these things – the imponderables. Ears slightly more pointed and tawny-furred, a bit of leafiness somewhere in the eyes, a manner vaguely Apriline – such attributes though unmistakable are not to be described. When the Arcadians are fools, as they sometimes are, you do not deplore their stupidity, and when they are brilliant you do not resent their intellectuality. The reason is, their manners – the kind not learned or instilled but happening, the core being sweet – are far realer than their other qualities. Socrates and Jesus and St. Francis and Sir Philip Sidney and Lovelace and Stevenson had charm; the Arcadians are of that lineage. (pp. 100-101)

Apparently, Percy is drawn to trees, especially the familiar species of his youth, and when among them, he is drawn to the second person! However, when among scenes of foreign beauty, as on his year abroad, the familiar second person is beyond his reach, and thus he discovers a superlative form of loneliness. (This is a real 於我心有戚戚焉 for me, who discovered loneliness on the coastal highways and in the art museums of remote realms, desperately missing a sharer or co-appreciator of all the beauty I found):

At the sight or sound of something unbearably beautiful, I wanted desperately to share it. I wanted with me everyone I’d ever cared for – and someone else besides. (p. 112)

There are racist words in this book, so don’t read it.

Book Review: The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce, the protagonist of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, is motivated by a desire to prevent the following nightmare from becoming reality:

It takes place in sort of a vast hall, in the center of which sits a girl behind a desk….The closer I get to this girl, the older she becomes, until she turns into a middle-aged spinster librarian. Then I see that it’s me. People keep coming up to her from every direction asking her for books. They are all going somewhere….Everyone is in a hurry. They are all going somewhere except me. I’m trapped….When I awaken…my space urge is upon me stronger than ever. (pp. 198-199)

The urge for space and motion might have compelled SJG to join the French Foreign Legion, but alas she settles for immersion in superficiality, which, I guess, is a pretty good way for her to avoid getting involved in anything heavy. Her escape does in fact proceed through France, but it is the France of the floating, expatriate fashion show, where the insipid competition for status is de rigueur. The following passage is typical:

We were driving along toward Saint-Germain. Jim asked me if I wanted to stop off and have a drink there. Would I rather have a drink there, was the way he put it. I saw what he was getting at, of course. The subtle distinction between the cafés of Saint-Germain at l’heure bleue, and his own preferred watering hole, the Select in Montparnasse, was not lost on me. Saint-Germain is only five minutes away from Montparnasse, and they are both everything that is meant by ‘bohemian’ and ‘left-bank,’ but they are not interchangeable. Ho-ho. Far from.

[Ooh la la!]

The floating Saint-Germainian – and by that I mean the type of expatriate we were likely to run into, not the rooted French Intellectual who is too protectively colored to be winkled out – was cleaner, shrewder, smarter, more fashionable, more successful, more knowing; in brief more on the make, than his Montparnassian contemporary….What Jim was trying to find out by this question was if I was that sort of person. I decided for the time being that I wasn’t. (pp. 84-85)

Mon dieu. Thanks for clearing that up.

All right. I can see that the distinction between Saint-Germain and Montparnasse is of critical importance in this refugee librarian’s world and that its importance conveys a lot about her world, but it still isn’t important to me or, I daresay, at all.

En fait, all this is very New York, très, très New York – so New York that it’s let’s-not-even-bother-to-think-of-an-adjective New York.

Vous pensez que j’exagère?

It was really funny to see how his well-here-I-am-let’s-see-what-this-little-old-burg-and-its-natives-has-to-offer attitude was quickly caught by the natives and just as quickly resented by the natives. (p. 89)

Pfui!

Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is exquisitely written and filled with poignant truths. Here’s one concerning the resentment of children toward dutiful parents:

Through a storm of tears that did not reach his eyes, he stared at the yellow room; and the room shifted, the light of the sun darkened, and his mother’s face changed. Her face became the face that he gave her in his dreams, the face that had been hers in a photograph he had seen once, long ago, a photograph taken before he was born. This face was young and proud, uplifted, with a smile that made the wide mouth beautiful and glowed in the enormous eyes. It was the face of a girl who knew that no evil could undo her, and who could laugh, surely, as his mother did not laugh now. Between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes caused him to hate her. (p. 22 of 1963 Dial Press edition)

Here’s one concerning the resentment of wives toward dutiful husbands:

Sometimes it occurred to him to do the Saturday shopping on his way home, so that she would not have to do it; in which case he would buy a turkey, the biggest and the most expensive he could find, and several pounds of coffee, it being his belief that there was never enough in the house, and enough breakfast cereal to feed an army for a month. Such foresight always filled him with such a sense of his own virtue….She would sit in the kitchen, cold with rage and staring at the turkey, which, since Frank always bought them unplucked and with the head on, would cost her hours of exasperating, bloody labor. (pp. 93-94)

Upon the whole, though, the book is dominated by the binary relationship between sin and salvation. “‘You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that, Ma.’” (p. 25) Somewhat monotonously, few characters in the book do know better than that. The existence of a third way is hinted at very occasionally, as in “Perhaps his life had been wicked, but he had been very good to her” (p. 177); but Baldwin never suffers his characters to elaborate upon it, nor does he ever do so as narrator, for the result, no doubt, would be didactic. Rather, Baldwin lets the binary stand, leaving it to the reader to lament.

Even if the fork in the road offers only two choices, one path should lead to redemption…shouldn’t it?

Book Review: Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy is a portrait of slavery and its aftermath in mid-19th century America. It focuses on two protagonists of mixed race, the mother and daughter Marie and Iola Leroy, to illustrate the absurdity of American slavery: One moment, the two light-skinned women are paragons of gentility – with Iola going so far as to defend slavery at her Northern girls’ school – the next moment, they are slaves.

Covering the Civil War and emancipation, Iola Leroy is an inspiring story of liberation. As Harper narrates, “The lost cause went down in blood and tears, and on the brows of a ransomed people God poured the chrism of a new era, and they stood a race newly anointed with freedom.” (p. 138)

As one of Harper’s characters recounts:

‘When de war war ober an’ de sogers war still stopping’ yere, I made pies an’ cakes, sole em to de sogers, an’ jist made money han’ ober fist. An’ I kep’ on a workin’ an’ a savin’ till my ole man got back from de war wid his wages and his bounty money. I felt right set up an’ mighty big wen we counted all dat money. We had neber seen so much money in our lives befo’, let alone hab it fer ourselbes. An’ I sez, “John, you take dis money an’ git a nice place wid it.”’

(In fact, Aunt Linda and husband John do manage to buy a plot of land from some friendly Jews.) (pp. 154-155)

A third observer is “delighted at the thrift and industry” well in evidence in the postbellum South, as its people taste their first draft of freedom. (p. 153)

However, even as the freedmen adapt to liberty with manifest “thrift and industry,” Harper’s more elite protagonists remain convinced of their need for shepherding. At a meeting of self-appointed black leaders, described in the chapter called “Friends in Council,” one speaker laments “‘the fearful grinding and friction which comes in the course of an adjustment of the new machinery of freedom in the old ruts of slavery.’” (p. 255) Another poetizes, “‘Oh, children of the tropics, / Amid our pain and wrong / Have you no other mission / Than music, dance, and song? / When through the weary ages / Our dripping tears still fall, / Is this a time to dally / With pleasure’s silken thrall?’” (pp. 251-252) Discussing the possibility of freedmen emigration, yet another speaker warns against “‘emptying on the shores of Africa a horde of ignorant, poverty-stricken people.’” (pp. 246-247) More than one participant at the meeting voices alarm at the freedmen’s susceptibility to drink, an ironic echo of the argument against black enfranchisement then being made by the unreconstructed.

Naturally, these intellectuals see themselves as the rectifiers of their people’s supposed defects. “‘I do not think,’” says one, “‘that we can begin too early to teach our boys to be manly and self-respecting, and our girls to be useful and self-reliant.’” Iola agrees: “‘We must instill into our young people that the true strength of a race means purity in women and uprightness in men.’” (pp. 253-254) Another concerned person characterizes this civilizing we as “‘a union of women with the warmest hearts and clearest brains to help in the moral education of the race.’” (p. 254) This note of paternalism (or maternalism) is sounded with breathtaking self-confidence and presumption, in ways that harken (again, ironically) to the old paternalism of the planters.

It is the opinion of the reviewer that the new birth of freedom in the mid-19th century, which affected not only America but also such places as Russia (where serfs were emancipated in 1861), inspired great panic on the part of the elite. On the one hand, deposed masters such as the gentry of the American South contrived to recover their position. On the other hand, intellectuals, often the same people who had welcomed servile emancipation, now regarded the newly liberated masses (or newly enfranchised masses like Irish immigrants) as unfit for self-rule. They either looked the other way when the aristos returned to power or, more adventurously, sought to take the aristos’ places under the guise of enlightened (or even revolutionary) leadership.

Iola Leroy is a case study of this latter approach. Civil War liberation epic that it is, Harper’s novel actually becomes rather preoccupied with the reimposition of hierarchy; it is more representative of the thermidorian reaction of the postbellum Reconstruction or Gilded Age years, when new elites sought to supplant old. The book was published in 1892. Significantly, one of its characters, during the above-mentioned friendly council, takes stock of the recent years’ broken chains in a somewhat dispirited way (““Millions of slaves and serfs have been liberated during this century, but not even in semi-barbaric Russia, heathen Japan, or Catholic Spain has slavery been abolished through such a fearful conflict as it was in the United States.’”) before turning his attention to alcohol (“‘The liquor traffic still sends its floods of ruin and shame to the habitations of men.’”), implying that the freedman remains in a degraded state, from which only a redoubled effort, no doubt by those with the warmest hearts and clearest brains, can redeem him (for as yet “‘no political party has been found with enough moral power and numerical strength to stay the tide of death.’”). (p. 250) The reader will have noted that ordinary freedmen are shown by Harper to speak in dialect, while their aspiring redeemers orate in formal English, as though the author were suggesting almost-organic differences between them, justifying the need for guidance.

Even before the friendly council, Harper’s heroine aspires to fill the need. She hopes, in plain language, to become a teacher, but she spreads her enthusiasm a bit thick:

‘To be,’ continued Iola, ‘the leader of a race to higher planes of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material prosperity and fill every home with sensuous enjoyment.’ (p. 219)

In fact, Iola feels well qualified for the role. “‘I should be very glad to have an opportunity to teach,’ said Iola. ‘I used to be a great favorite among the colored children on my father’s plantation.’” (p. 145)

Thus does yesterday’s mistress become today’s missionary, retaining her seat at the head of her constituency, with the relation of superior to subordinate preserved.