Thursday, September 15, 2011

Phyllosophy: 9/11 and Harriet Beecher Stowe

I'm a fortunate library director: I have a book club. Called the Nevermore Book Club, it meets once a week, on Tuesday. Its name comes from its raison d'etre, which, besides discussing books and reading, is to eat doughnuts doughnated by the nearby Blackbird Bakery. The name was the brainchild of crackerjack librarian Jeanne Powers, whose lightning chain-of-thought went something like "Blackbird-raven-Poe-Nevermore." It just had that incredible rightness of being about it.

The format is a departure from the usual everybody-read-the same-thing book club. Anybody can come. We sit around the table and talk about what we've been reading that week. I use the occasion to bring new books to the table and make a modest effort to connect a book and a reader. (So many worthy books! Why can't they be advertised during the 6:30 news instead of pharmaceuticals?)

But if Nevermore (as we call it for short) has a food metaphor, it's not the doughnut. It's baklava, because of the layers and layers of serendipity that occur every week. Call it phyllosophy.

E.g.: I've been pushing Grapes of Wrath for months, saying it's really a timely book given the state of our economy. One member has tried and tried to read it, but can't get past the dialect in the dialogue. She was raised in Memphis and just knows they didn't talk that way; it makes them sound stupid, and nothing I could say would change her mind. The point was unassailable. (It helped me understand the damning reaction of African-Americans to Kathryn Stockett's rendering of Mississippi diction in The Help--another book I've been pushing pretty hard.) But I was unwilling to surrender. I insisted that she owed it to herself at least to read the ending of the book. The following week she read the ending and came back to share a connection that she--an art history major in college--was able to make that no one else in the group knew about: Roman Charity, a classical legend of a man saved from a sentence of death by starvation when his daughter nurses him, an act that wins her admiration and his release, and which became a set-piece for such artists as Rubens and Caravaggio. Then another member said that he'd followed Grapes of Wrath with Room, which has its own set of lactation issues. We could've segued into a meeting of La Leche League without missing a beat.

Phyllosophy. I've always thought this was why libraries are so great. But it's even moreso when people share it.

I decided to take the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to Nevermore. I needed help with it. Garry Trudeau's B.D. had convinced me to lay low, and then there was a column at by Laura Miller, about why there can't be a good novel about 9/11, that shared B.D.'s sentiment. Which is, in Miller's formulation: it was senseless to start with, and it's been compromised by our tragically irrelevant reaction, so best just shut up about it: "Silence, too, can be eloquent."

But. But. But. Every "but" a layer of phyllo.

Since we were a book club that discussed novels quite often, we could start with Miller's nice working definition of the novel: The novel is "about what matters to an individual and the way ... he or she chooses to live." The novelist's job is "to explore life as it is lived instead of how it's talked about or photographed or editorialized or TV-movied." When novelists do this well, they "shape and influence human consciousness."

Miller indicates the novelist Don DeLillo has pretty much consigned his novelist's job to terrorists, whom he believes to be more influential these days. (Funny thing: I'd have said pharmaceutical companies.) But Miller seems to hold out some hope. After all, she says, McVeigh and Kaczynski were terrorists, but their influence will be nil: "Harriet Beecher Stowe they are not."

Nevermore laughed at this. They laughed because I've been bringing Harriet Beecher Stowe (henceforth HBS) to every Nevermore meeting for months now.

I read Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time this summer. I expected a superficial, preachy melodrama with a tedious plot carried out by paper cutout characters. It turns out I had to wait to read Gone with the Wind (which I did next) before I got that--and GWTW came complete with a white supremacist world-view as a bonus! Then I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which helped neutralize GWTW and restore my faith that there had been maybe one white person with a shred of dignity in the 1960's. "In your white person dreams," say many blacks: The Help repeats the same stereotypes as GWTW, and these stereotypes are the fault of HBS. According to this view, HBS was the Dr. Frankenstein of all the monstrous literary lawn jockeys that have been used to simulate black characters in novels ever since Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Accordingly, for months now at least part of every Nevermore meeting has been an attempt by me to get HBS across a color line of sorts, to free her from the slavery of stereotypes that her characters may have engendered.

So when Laura Miller writes of HBS's influence, it gets a laugh in Nevermore because, sadly, the irony of HBS's influence is that it no longer exists. At least, not in the way she intended.

It is no longer the humanizing influence that once challenged people to understand slavery through the daily lives of enslaved people. It has become its widely spun-off legacy of blackface "Tom shows" that reduced a strong, thoughtful, intelligent, moral, Christian martyr into the pitiful butt of a bad racist joke. It's not what HBS intended; it's not what that first generation of readers understood. But it's what we today are left with.

In effect, HBS's legacy got sucked into the wake of influential novelists whose agenda was very different from hers: novelists like Thomas Dixon and Margaret Mitchell. Dixon believed the African strain in America was a taint that should be extinguished; it was he who wrote the story behind the hugely popular KKK epic film Birth of a Nation. That's right: hugely popular. As for Mitchell, need anything be said? The meta-narrative of GWTW is that servitude enables blacks to realize their exalted destiny as the conscience of white families.

Which brings us to Stockett and what I feel is her damning portrayal of white attitudes in apartheid Mississippi. She uses characters where Mitchell used stereotypes. But there remains the problem that Stockett's black characters still seem to have the same exalted destiny as Mitchell's.

How much of a problem is that? This is where we come back to 9/11. I remember one of the oft-repeated questions in the aftermath: "why do they hate us?" That would seem to be a good question for a novelist to try to answer, but I have a feeling that we wouldn't want to confront it. A good novelist would go ahead anyway. Did the U.S. want to confront slavery in the 1850's? No, but HBS made it happen. (And here I must say on Stockett's behalf: do white Americans want to confront the excruciating injustices and injuries of Jim Crow apartheid? No, they want to say it's water under the bridge. But Stockett makes us swim in it.)

There is still a color line in America. We are a divided country. Randall Kennedy has a new book about it that will no doubt shed light on it, but judging from reviews one of the thing it attests to is that you can't enforce the reality of racial apartheid for centuries, nor can you believe in the inferiority of another race and actively pursue a society based on that belief, and then just walk away from it like it never happened. Isn't it reasonable for a black person in a theatre showing Birth of a Nation to respond by wanting to kill whites? If it isn't, why not? There are questions that need to be answered. There are novels that need to be written. Silence is not an option. Silence is what the terrorists want.

As for HBS, I last encountered her purely by accident in a book about Paris by David McCullough that the library just received. She exults in the beauty of the city and rues (there are lots of rues in Paris) her severe New England upbringing devoid of any sense of the value of beauty. I wish she could meet a concierge of aesthetic proclivities in the Tuileries gardens. But at least she sits for a portrait with Hilaire Belloc. Regardless of the success of his portraiture, he captures the beauty of her work when he says that its success was due to the fact that it had in it more genuine faith than any other book.

If only that could be her legacy.


  1. I don't guess it's a novel *about* 9/11 per se, but have you read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer? It's amazing, and I think it's on a bookshelf at home somewhere.

  2. Yes, I have read it, and I really enjoyed it! (It led me to Everything is Illuminated, which was actually written first(?)) Laura Miller mentions it in her column, but kind of dismisses it as being an overly sentimental response. I didn't think it was. Things like 9/11 make us be more "sentimental" in lots of ways. It's just that Foer's style isn't melodramatic, and anybody holding up terrorists and HBS as exemplars of style wants something melodramatic haha.