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.

Book Review: The Third Son, by Julie Wu

Julie Wu’s The Third Son is economically written, powerful, and unsentimental. The latter virtue keeps it well clear of the saccharine exoticism that taints many depictions of Asia, particularly of Asian family life. The protagonist, Saburo (a Japanese name often given to third sons), is low in his family’s hierarchy and is treated appallingly by his parents and oldest brother.

The story includes a superlative panorama of Taiwanese history of the mid-twentieth-century and would make an excellent college-course reading-list adoption for this reason; yet only its first part is set in Taiwan, for Saburo makes his bid to escape his dim prospects via higher education in America. The novel’s subject thus changes from Taiwan to the Taiwanese diaspora.

The Third Son is therefore a freedom story, and America is depicted as the promised land of Saburo’s salvation; yet America too is shown warts and all, its promise offering Saburo only a toehold, which he must struggle to maintain and improve. There is little sense in this book of a culture clash between the old world and the new. A fine rebuke to coercive tradition is indeed delivered by an American, as in: “‘Filial piety,’ I [Saburo] said. ‘You Americans obviously don’t know anything about it.’ ‘We do,’ he said, “and we reject it.’” [p. 184] However, the urge to escape to the US is implanted by a cousin back on Taiwan, who calls America “‘a country founded on principles, on personal freedom’” [p. 24] and who later advises Saburo, “‘You have only one life. Fight for it.’” [p. 79] Both Taiwan and America exhibit similar patterns of corruption and institutional hindrance, which Saburo must overcome. (An America that brings out the best in people by constantly challenging them is a strange sort of paradise.) It is in America, however, that Saburo is (nearly) free from the wanton meanness of his kindred, and it is on that freedom that he pins his hopes.

The Third Son is fast-moving and compelling. The reader will not be able to put it down.

Book Review: Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

The protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is so congenitally rational that he manages to justify every aspect of his suffering. Interned at the Zeitz labor camp during World War Two, Georg Koves at one point drops a bag of cement.

The bag’s paper had burst and the contents spilled out, leaving a heap of the material, the treasure, the costly cement, powdering the ground. By then he was already on me, I had already felt his fist on my face, then, having been decked, his boot on my ribs and his grip on my neck as he pressed my face to the ground, in the cement, screaming insanely that I scrape it together, lick it up. He then hauled me to my feet, swearing he would teach me: [‘I’ll show you, asshole, shithead, goddam Jew-dog,’] so I would never drop another bag again in the future. From then on, he personally loaded a new bag onto my shoulders each time it was my turn, bothering himself with me alone; I was his sole concern, it was me exclusively whom he kept his eye on, following me all the way to the truck and back, and whom he picked to go first even if, by rights, there were others still ahead of me in the queue. In the end, there was almost an understanding between us, we had got the measure of one another, and I noticed his face bore what was almost a smile of satisfaction, encouragement, even, dare I say, a pride of sorts, and from a certain perspective, I had to acknowledge, with good reason, for indeed, tottering, stooping though I might have been, my eyes seeing black spots, I did manage to hold out, coming and going, fetching and carrying, all without dropping a single further bag, and that, when it comes down to it, I would have to admit, proved him right. (169-170)

The tortuous interrupters throughout Georg’s narrative – “I have to admit,” “unless I’m mistaken,” “truth be told,” etc. – are typical of his overriding devotion to objectivity. Seeking always to accept any given situation as reasonable, Georg is incapable of influencing it. Indeed, his resistance to impulsiveness is absolute. When, shortly after his initial arrest, he might have had a chance to slip away, he decides against it:

I became alive to the sudden flash of a piece of yellow clothing up ahead, in the cloud of dust, noise, and vehicle exhaust fumes: it was ‘Traveler.’ A single long leap, and he was off to the side, lost somewhere in the seething eddy of machines and humanity. I was totally dumbfounded; somehow it did not tally with his conduct at the customs post, as I saw it. But there was also something else that I felt, a sense of happy surprise I might call it, at the simplicity of an action; indeed, I saw one or two enterprising spirits then immediately make a break for it in his wake, right up ahead. I myself took a look around, though more for the fun of it, if I may put it that way, since I saw no other reason to bolt, though I believe there would have been time to do so; nevertheless my sense of honor proved the stronger. The policemen took immediate action after that, and the ranks again close around me. (55-56)

Georg is a prisoner of his own nature or perhaps his fate. Later in the book, Georg suggests that fate is the opposite of freedom. “If there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible….If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate.” (259-260)

So why is the book called Fatelessness, when it seems to be about fate? Perhaps the implication is that the latter is only an excuse for the former. When Georg says, “I took the steps, no one else, and I declared that I had been true to my given fate throughout,” (259) is he admitting that his “declaration” had always been false, that he took all of his steps freely, even as each step took him closer to Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald?

“We ourselves are fate, I realized all at once….All that was needed was to admit it, meekly, simply, merely as a matter of reason, a point of honor.” (260)

A Meditation on Freedom and Equality, Inspired by The Last of the Wine

Though freedom and equality are the warp and woof of American life, some difference of opinion exists as to how to they are related. For example, the argument between the political left and right may be viewed as one of ends versus means, with those on the left believing that equality is the key to freedom and those on the right believing the opposite.

In Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a remark made by Lysis suggests another relationship between freedom and equality:

I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are.

In other words, equality is a subset of freedom: the freedom to recognize our equals (and betters) without having them recognized for us.

It’s interesting that while searching for his equals and betters, Lysis mentions no inferiors. Perhaps he is conscious that he lives surrounded by people possessing talents he lacks, and that absent an unfree system of imposed social classes, designed to denigrate most talent as menial, the notion of inferiority is meaningless. Thus does Melville’s Ahab, in contemplation of his ship’s carpenter, lament, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!” More acceptingly, I reflect that when I summon a plumber to my house, the very reason for my doing so is that he can do at least one thing I cannot. In him, therefore, and in enjoyment of the freedom imagined by Lysis, I see only an equal or a better.