Ralph Ellison

“Jed Wilson hollered, ‘What you say there, nigger?’ And it came back through the flames in his nigger voice: ‘Will one a you gentleman please cut my throat?’ he said. ‘Will somebody please cut my throat like a Christian?’ And Jed hollered back, ‘Sorry, but ain’t no Christians around tonight. Ain’t no Jew-boys neither. We’re just one hundred percent Americans.'” (2384)

“The other day I was down to Brinkley’s store, and a white cropper said it didn’t do no good to kill the niggers ’cause things don’t get no better. He looked hungry as hell. Most of the croppers look hungry. You’d be surprised how hungry white folks can look.” (2386)

The two most important and illuminating quotes of the story. The first is important because of the scathing criticism it shows of America during the time Ellison wrote it. A lot was made during the pre-Civil Rights era (and still is) about how America is a country based in Christian values, like loving your neighbor and refraining from little things like killing people. Ellison’s question about that is, “Where were these Christians during the systematic, violent oppression of African-Americans?” That’s basically what’s going on in that first quote; the black man being burned alive is begging for compassion and mercy, but Jed says that’s not a part of the American make-up, at least concerning black-white relations. For Ellison, there is nothing Christian about the cruel acts done in the name of racism, and that, in the long view, that oppression is more an indicator of America’s true identity rather than any religious identification. It’s not without truth; after all, we didn’t establish the boundaries and ruling bodies of our nation without first slaughtering and disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans already living here.

But why are the white people in the story doing what they’re doing, and is that truly just an “American” thing? I think the second quote helps us to approach some answers to those questions. The main character speaks to a “white cropper”, starving and disgruntled, who bitterly comments that things don’t get any better for the whites no matter how many black people they kill. They’re still as worse off as they were before. What I think this is essentially saying about the white people in this story, and, by extension, any group of people actively oppressing another group, is that they’re motivated by a need to feel better about themselves, and just plain-old fear. If the white croppers can feel in control of something when everything else in their lives is terrible by “controlling” the blacks around them, then it helps their self-esteem. It helps them have a sense of superiority, and it helps them to blame another group for their troubles rather than painfully pointing the finger at themselves for their troubles.

I think this is what happened to the White South after losing the Civil War and why the Reconstruction failed to uplift blacks to a level of social equality they’d been deprived of before. The White South felt horribly shamed by their loss, and, rather than trying to consider if their previous practices and beliefs had been entirely wrong or misguided, they reinforced their sense of “white, Southern pride” and shifted the blame for all their troubles onto the Southern blacks. It was a bitter pill to swallow, having their economical structure being destroyed by the abolishment of slavery, and being told that their views of blacks were ignorant and completely wrong. Their only recourse to avoid having their identities and beliefs shattered was to dig in their heels and believe in their righteousness, displacing the blame onto the African-Americans by committing acts of violence and oppression against them.

Fear also plays into it. By keeping the blacks down, there’d be less chance of them shifting the balance of power and possibly oppressing the whites in return. As Ellison writes, “They had to kill another nigger who tried to run out of the country after they burned this Bacote nigger. My Uncle Ed said they always have to kill niggers in pairs to keep the other niggers in place. I don’t know though, the folks seem a little skittish of the niggers” (2386). The blacks are killed because the whites are afraid of them. Their murders are an attempt to control an element that they don’t truly understand and therefore fear. What’s more, I think this need to identify a group as the “Other” and to maintain superiority over them, and the fear of the “Other,” all of this comes from failing (or simply not attempting) to understand or empathize with people that are supposedly “different.” And to answer a previous question, this is not something that’s only “American”: I think it’s a flaw that’s entirely human. It rears its ugly head constantly throughout history. For example, America wasn’t the first country to employ a system of slavery, and it won’t be the last. Before the first Americans came to America, they were trying to escape social oppression in Europe.

World War II? It started after Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist party came into power by playing on the shame, pride, and fear of the German people at that time. The people were ashamed to have lost World War I, they had their pride trampled on by having their economy ruined and the blame for the war set squarely on their shoulders with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and their fear was taken advantage of by casting the Jewish people as an evil bogeyman to be blamed for their troubles and to be oppressed to prevent the German people from being taken over by them. They were basically the post-Civil War American South, but on a far grander and deadlier scale.

We’re still not free of this instinctual need to “Other” to protect our group that we identify with as the one that’s in the right and being threatened, especially in the racial/ethnic sense. With that in mind, you can’t tell me that all that ridiculousness about Obama and his place of birth had NOTHING to do with his ethnicity. People can argue that it didn’t, but why hadn’t any other president before in the history of the U.S. (as far as I know) had that question so relentlessly and endlessly asked about them as it was of Obama? And why do people still believe that he’s some radical Muslim extremist (while we’re supposedly fighting against Muslims that want to murder us all, no less) that’s intent on destroying “traditional America”? It’s just really disturbing to me, even as somebody that identifies as an Independent and finds entrenching himself as either a Democrat or Republican inherently uncomfortable. The fact that his politics and policies can’t be argued against without fervently portraying them as “anti-American” just feels…off. There’s just an “us vs. them” mentality completely independent of simple political differences that I keep seeing in the national discussion involving our president that I can’t dismiss as paranoia on my part.

What I feel that Ellison is trying to move toward is a society or consciousness that resists the temptation to separate and segregate based on differences. He realizes that self-identifying with superficial or meaningless bullshit like skin color or ethnicity or nationality can only lead to harmful extremity. It’s what leads to nations enslaving others; to people burning others as a sort of sacrifice to fear and impotence; to ramming planes into towers and killing thousands of innocent people out of a sense of righteousness. That sort of exclusive, close-minded, tribal feeling leads to thoughts and ideas like this beautiful string of words:

“There is a race war against whites. But our people – my white brothers and sisters – will stay committed to a non-violent resolution. That resolution must consist of solidarity in white communities around the world. The hatred for our children and their future is growing and is being fueled every single day. Stay firm in your convictions. Keep loving your heritage and keep witnessing to others that there is a better way than a war torn, violent, wicked, socialist, new world order. That way is the Christian way – law and order – love of family – love of nation. These are the principles of western Christian civilization. There is a war to destroy these things. Pray that our people see the error of their ways and regain a sense of loyalty. Repent America! Be faithful my fellow believers.”

This is what’s posted on the Ku Klux Klan’s website by their “National Director of the Knights,” Thomas Robb. I can’t tell you how hilariously amusing I found that puppy, and the hilarity only escalated when I realized they also had an online shop where they sell things like t-shirts with “White Power” emblazoned on them. THAT is the type of delusional thought that can happen when people devote themselves to prejudice and arbitrary difference-making, rather than focusing on empathy and understanding and the commonality amongst us all. THAT is what Ellison is writing and warning us about in “A Party Down at the Square”.

 

James Baldwin

“‘Well you know,’ he said, impatiently, ‘why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.’

‘But we just agreed,’ I said, ‘that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to–take it?’

‘But nobody just takes it,’ Sonny cried, ‘that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to. You’re just hung up on the way some people try–it’s not your way!'” (2562)

“‘It’s terrible sometimes, inside,’ he said, ‘that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out–that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.'” (2562)

One of my favorite short stories we’ve read. I liked it because of it’s connection to music and because I think it speaks a lot of truth.

I think the story on the whole is an affirmation of the power of expression through literature, art, music, whatever, how it’s possible to transmit any emotion through them, and emotional torment is always a popular one. It reminds me of W.E.B. DuBois and his discussion of the Sorrow Songs, how it was a vessel for the suffering of the enslaved African-Americans, how it was blended together with the pleasurable medium of music. They were a way for them to express that suffering, to get it out of them like Sonny said he has to do in order to keep functioning. His heroin abuse was another way of dealing with that pain inside of him.

It’s actually amazing just how many musicians have dealt with heroin addictions, or addictions to other drugs, and how many of those also dealt with painful lives or situations (It’s not necessarily only musicians who’ve abused substances to cope; novelists and artists are just as susceptible, but I’ll stick with musicians because that’s what the story deals with). If you named twenty popular bands from the last fifty years, I’m willing to bet at least half of them had a member that had a heroin problem. There just seems to be a connection between people that are artistically-inclined, and therefore more emotionally-sensitive than the average person, and a susceptibility to substance abuse as a way of coping. At the same time, for those that paint more easily from their own feelings and emotions, you can hear that suffering in their music.

As a starting example, Sonny’s favorite jazz artist, Charlie Parker, was addicted to heroin too. Parker died at the age of 34 because of all his hard drug and alcohol use, and his body was so deteriorated because of it that the coroner thought it was the body of a 60-year old man. Staying in the jazz genre, Billie Holliday, arguably the most famous and influential jazz singer of all time, died ten years older than Parker, also because of heavy heroin and alcohol use. It’s understandable why she turned to those things, though, because she had a horrible life. Her poor, single mother gave birth to her at the age of thirteen. At the age of 11 Billie was found being raped by a neighbor in their home, and at the age of 14 she was working as a prostitute with her mother for five bucks a pop. You could hear that pain in her music, something that will also be apparent in the other musicians I’m going to bring up.

One of Eric Clapton’s most famous albums, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”, was an entire collection of songs inspired by the soul-tearing torment caused by his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, whom he was introduced to by his friend (and her husband), Beatles guitarist George Harrison. He got the name for the album from a classic Arabic tale called “Layla and Majnun”, which is unsurprisingly about a dude that literally goes insane because he cannot be with the titular woman. That unrequited love resulted in that album and Clapton turned to heroin as a way to numb that pain. I would slap the album’s title track onto my post, but I’m sure you’ve heard it no less than 5,246,378 times, so instead I’ll go with another song from it.

I think that song is also a great example of how suffering of that caliber can be trapping: the person going through it wants to escape it, but at the same time doesn’t see any way out of it, or doesn’t want to get out of it. Clapton despised every second of being in love with Boyd, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t walk away from her.

That inability to move past the torment is something I see Sonny, and even his older brother, dealing with. They are both in pain, yet it’s extremely difficult for them to relate and find a common avenue through which they can properly communicate their inner selves to one another. They want to express themselves to one another, but they aren’t really listening, or they don’t believe the other person is listening or can truly understand, which really amounts to the same thing. Oftentimes I think that leads to that self-destruction, that belief that nobody can help. But even with that lack of care for one’s life or even outright suicidal determination, those expressions we see in things like music, which is what Sonny uses to get his feelings out, still act as a sort of grasp for anything to keep going, “any reason”, as Sonny says himself. So more often than not, I do think Sonny is correct in saying that people don’t truly want to kill themselves, but at the same time, they can allow situations to develop that could kill them. They may not be actively inviting Death in, but they’re undoubtedly leaving the door unlocked.

A few years ago I found myself in a Jimi Hendrix phase, listening to his music and reading about his life, and what I listened to and learned about is a perfect example of that death-daring. For the last year or so of his life, before he died in the latter half of 1970 at the age of 27, he’d been going through tough times and basically fell into a depression. He was stuck in a terrible contract, and various other things were also biting off pieces of his happiness that I can’t remember specifically at this moment in time. Regardless, all those things combined to make his life hell, at least to him. What’s crazy about it is that I think you can really hear it in the music he performed in that last year. I honestly believe you can hear his death coming, and it shocks me that his friends and family didn’t step in and try to help out in a stronger fashion.

He performed this one on New Year’s Day, 1970:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLpFMDmBo9s

I’m going to double-dip again with another performance of his. This is actually my favorite live version of his song “Red House”, which I had posted in my post of DuBois and his Sorrow Songs as an example of “happy blues”. This version is not happy. It was performed two months before Jimi died:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0u6nUSN72k

On September 18, 1970, he was found dead. He asphyxiated on his own vomit in his sleep after accidentally taking too many sleeping pills. Even if it was accidental, I think there was still an element of carelessness there. Apparently Jimi took nine of the pills when the average dosage is one. He was completely unfamiliar with the strength of those specific pills, but the point is that he didn’t take the time to make sure that what he was taking was stronger than normal. He took them and didn’t give a thought to it. He was stuck in that reckless mindset caused by the crap he was going through. What I can’t help thinking about it all, though, is that someone should have picked up on his struggles and seen how seriously they were affecting him and intervened.

So, now let me attempt to bring all of this together into some sort of coherent opinion or reaction….I pretty much agree with what Sonny is saying, with a couple of my own wrinkles thrown in. I agree that more people should try to listen and be empathetic to others and their suffering, and not be so readily dismissive of them. I think that directly applies to any art produced that expresses a particular experience or viewpoint by any group of society: male, female, black, white, etc. I think all anybody really wants is to be understood, to have a sense that people actually care about what they’re experiencing. It can be a hard thing to do, to not let your own feelings or experiences close you off and deny others’, but it’s important to do. At the same time, those who are doing the talking/expressing have to be willing to step away from the self-destructive tendencies and habits and listen to the people trying to help them, or else nothing will be changed for the better.

I think the ending of “Sonny’s Blues” is ultimately positive, though, because Sonny’s older brother finally comes to an understanding and acceptance of his younger brother’s life and struggles, and sees how this empathetic attitude is the only way to truly deal with the blows we take from life. A closed-off attitude, however, can only lead to deeper misery and death. And I think this is important in the broader sense of human relations too: understanding and empathy is the only way for all of us to work towards peace and away from strife.

 

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“and I am waiting/for Alice in Wonderland/to retransmit to me/her total dream of innocence/and I am waiting/for Childe Roland to come/to the final darkest tower” (2605)

“and I am waiting/perpetually and forever/a renaissance of wonder” (2606)

I’d have to say Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” is one of my favorite poems we’ve read this semester. It focuses on changes the narrator is “waiting” on to happen in America, and he employs different American cultural landmarks in different parts of his poem to deliver that message. What I found really interesting was how he mixed “pop culture” with “high culture,” name-dropping Elvis Presley and songs like “Ole Man River” alongside the titular character of Robert Browning’s poem “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and the lovers on Keats’ “Grecian Urn”. I thought it was appropriate on his part, because I believe that pop culture is the unifying culture of America (not to imply that it’s an entirely negative thing, as I think you can still find meaningful expressions in them if you’re receptive enough). His use of those pop culture references was also refreshing, in the sense that we’re so used to poetry (and literature, to a lesser degree) focusing on “big and sophisticated ideas” while typically excluding anything born of that pop culture as worthless. It just made for a poem with a different feel to it, something that was, I think, far more accessible to the average reader without sacrificing the urgency of the poet’s thoughts and ideas.

Those thoughts and ideas are concerned with waiting for change or progression in a society and culture that he finds to be stagnant, or even regressive. It’s inability to change for the better has resulted in the poet’s yearning for that “renaissance of wonder”, that sense of being in a time and place of positive action and progress. He wants America (and arguably, by extension, the world) to break free from its bad habits and traditions. He wants “the atomic tests to end” (2603), “the meek to be blessed/and inherit the earth/without taxes” (2603), “the deepest South/to just stop reconstructing itself/in its own image” (2604). On the global scale, he wants “to destroy all nationalisms/without killing anybody” (2604). He just wants humankind to break out of the self-destructive, ignorant actions it has been repeating ad nauseam throughout history, and he’s expressing that dissatisfaction through the prism of America.

I also think that this type of complete desire and hope for change is something that wouldn’t necessarily be as strongly spoken by a person from another country, and that’s because of the idea inherent in the American myth that it is a place of freedom and equality, and that it’s acting as the light pointing all the other nations toward progress and the future. It’s also why Ferlinghetti sounds so displeased with what he sees, because it’s so discordant with what he believes America can and should be, at least as promised by that implied myth.

Flannery O’Connor

“The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought that she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.” (2573)

I thought this was a funny scene; the grandmother’s embarrassment at having forgotten the house she wanted her family to visit was actually in a different state entirely was enough to cause their vehicle to crash. Like, the gap between the cause and effect of the situation is so gargantuan that it’s ridiculous. It’d be like if you were meeting the President in the Oval Office, and you were so nervous that when you shook his hand, you passed just a tiny bit of gas and the whole damn building just blew sky-high as a result.

Also hilarious is how she hopes that she’s hurt enough so she’ll engender some sympathy from her son for having accidentally led them on a wild goose chase…which also led them right into the hands of the Misfit and causes all their deaths.

The whole situation can be seen pretty comically, but it also has that dark undercurrent to it that you can’t really ignore, especially when the Misfit walks on stage. I guess the quote does a pretty decent job of keying us into the grotesqueness, the comedy/darkness of the story, by being the transition point from “mostly comical” to “mostly dark.”

“‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'” (2578)

Essentially the culmination of the message that O’Connor was trying to communicate through this story: the only right way to live is by following the Word of God precisely and without pride, and the only way to maintain such an attitude is by having your sin and guilt reminded to you every day. I disagree with her.

First off, what an impractical thing to do. This is how the Grandmother’s life would’ve been different if somebody really had been there every day to shoot her and remind her of what it means to be a “good Christian”:

Grandmother: “Oh, how I hate these kids and my family, they are so disrespectful to me, I’m an awesome person and have to cover up my foibles in order to maintain those prideful airs–woops, that pride ain’t very Christian-like of me! Bailey, come in here and give your dear mother a shot of humility!”

*Bailey walks into the room, coolly raises his snub-nosed .32, and launches a piece of lead directly into one of her limbs.*

“SWEET GLORY! Thanks, honey, you don’t know how much I needed that! Now be a good Christian and take me to the hospital!”

Ridiculous, right? I think it’s a poor analogy for guilt, much like I think that the Misfit is a poor metaphor for the wrath of God since he was formerly a part of the church “system” and it didn’t work for him. Moreover, he rues the fact that it didn’t and spends his victims’ last living moments expounding on his own theological musings and wishes to believe in God, which to him would be far more meaningful than leading a nihilistic life. The thing is, he can’t. Christianity just doesn’t mesh with the things he’s learned and seen in life. He may be punishing the Grandmother for her sinful pride and pomposity, but he wants to be more of a good Christian than she does.

I think what bothers me the most about this story is how aggressively judgmental it seems to me. It didn’t seem that way when I first read it, but I’m starting to pick up on it more now that I’m actually trying to consider O’Connor’s intents and beliefs. It’s like she’s saying, “Live as a certain type of Christian or God will forsake/punish you, and if you happen to struggle with/reject the idea of God, you will see only immorality and meaninglessness in the world and will most likely become a mass murderer!” There’s no room for argument or differing opinions, it’s either/or, good or bad. Frankly, it’s a little insulting.

It reminds me a little of “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand, which is one of the few books in life I gave up on before finishing. I got almost 800 pages into it when I just closed the book, set it down, and was like, “I think I’m done now.” If you haven’t read it, let me save you the trouble. It was less a book and more of a rant about Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which essentially promotes and praises selfish geniuses that favor cold logic over any form of human empathy, and believes that they should be allowed to thrive and profit in a system of laissez-faire capitalism with no interference allowed by the government or “victims” (a.k.a. anybody that asks for any form of help from the government). All the heroes and heroines of the “novel” were written as faultless industrialists who kept society going with their genius and hard work, while the government and the dumb public worked to bring that society down by trying to regulate their businesses and such in favor of a socialist society that asks nothing of its citizens in terms of production or industry. Anytime one of the heroes opened their mouths, it was to proclaim how important and smart they were, and how contemptuous they were of the weak public and governmental parasites. None of them were characters so much as symbols of a certain belief system that allowed itself to be reinforced by their words and actions. One side was obviously righteous, the other was not. Like I said before, it was a philosophical text gussied up with the tools and elements of a novel, but it wasn’t really a novel. That’s what turned me off the most about it, and what ruined any valid points that were made or were thought-provoking: it really made no considerations to reality, and made people and ideas into black-or-white things that allowed for no human complexity. It didn’t even consider the validity of opposing viewpoints. Honestly, the chick should’ve just written a philosophical manifesto and saved everybody the trouble of reading a gargantuan book thinly and ridiculously veiled as literary entertainment. A close-minded, pompous philosophical manifesto, at that.

If you stared at that big block of ranting text and decided to skip it, I’ll let my good friend Officer Barbrady give you the short and sweet version:

Thank you, Officer Barbrady.

It’s really that contemptuous, my-way-or-the-highway vibe that I got from those two texts that kind of pushed my away from them. I don’t believe I would have liked either of these authors in real life, and I can’t see how anybody else would have been able to withstand their self-righteous judgments. I know for a fact that Ayn Rand died with little or no friends left, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if O’Conner went the same way. They just forsook humanity for a cold ideal.

And sweet baby Jesus, here I am, judgmental and crazily ranting myself. I guess people were right when they say that too much reading will get you sick and drive you insane. Where’s the remedy, Dr. Metherd?

William Faulkner

“‘Pretty and white, ain’t it?’ he said. ‘That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it.'” (1709)

“There was something about his wolflike independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay in his.” (1706)

Thinking over the character Abner Snopes after reading “Barn Burning” and hearing everybody kick around their ideas and opinions concerning him and Colonel Sartoris, his son, in class, I’ve decided that Abner was a complete sociopath and that Colonel ratting his father out and running off to start a new life was the most positive action he could’ve taken. I really cannot envision any life with his father as having a better ending than one in which Colonel runs away and tries to make it on his own. Abner literally has no redeeming qualities: he beats his wife and probably his children, he can’t hold down a steady job, he burns peoples’ barns down, he lies about fighting in the Civil War when all he did was go around and steal things, etc. All this he does with no compassion or empathy for others. I believe the guy is literally a sociopath and cannot understand others’ emotions nor comprehend that his mean actions have consequences. He has that “wolflike independence” because he is truly incapable of connecting to other people in any other meaningful sense, other than his ability to manipulate them. He wouldn’t have a family or be able to weasel out of all his crimes if he didn’t have some glamour or charm about him. And it’s extremely hard to pinpoint just what he believes in or feels about other people. Like in top quote, he complains about Major de Spain and the fact he used “Nigger sweat” to make something (his house? his fortune? his rug?), but simultaneously shows utter disrespect to the black servant inside the house. He doesn’t seem to act with any sort of compass, moral or otherwise. It’s almost like he does things just to do them.

You know who Abner reminds me of? Charles Manson. The guy gathered people around him and got them to believe that they were the chosen few, selected to survive the coming race wars detailed by the Beatles in their song “Helter Skelter” (which is what he also called the coming racial apocalypse). He convinced them that they had to spur on this war by randomly killing people and using their blood to write things on their walls. It’s obvious that his logical reasoning and evidence to support what he was feeding his followers was lacking. He was basically just spouting gibberish.

But what is crazy about it is that it worked. He was able to find people that were willing to follow him, or too scared to break off from the group. Not only that, but he got them to murder innocent people for nothing. The guy just did things to do them. There is no discernible emotional or logical connection he has to the outside world and what he does.

And honestly, that’s how I see Abner, and that’s why I think it was simply praiseworthy that Colonel Sartoris decided to rip himself out of that situation. Abner was essentially walking chaos, with no rhyme or reason to him. If his son had stayed with him, I believe his chances of breaking that cycle would have been nil. It felt like a binary choice to me: life or death.

John Steinbeck, Pt. I

“‘God, you’re a lot of trouble,’ said George. ‘I could get along so easy and so nice if I didn’t have you on my tail. I could live so easy and maybe have a girl.'” (7)

George talking to his mentally-handicapped companion Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” We talked a little about why George still takes care of Lennie despite all the extra hardships he adds on to George’s life. Some of them we went over in class included a sense of shame and guilt that needed to be expurgated after George forced Lennie to swim when they were younger and almost drowned him; how Lennie helps protect George from being lonely; that Lennie is a way for George to exert some power over somebody/something in a life that’s defined by powerlessness. While I agree with the first two and partly agree with the third, I feel there’s a wrinkle to the last one that wasn’t brought up. I also think that George protects Lennie because the larger man’s definite vulnerability and weakness in society (despite his overwhelming power) are traits that George sees within his own life: he’s a migrant worker, a marginalized slice of society further pushed down the socioeconomic ladder because of the shift caused by the Great Depression. Because of his position, he can sympathize with Lennie’s marginalization, and it makes him want to fiercely protect the gentle giant. It’s like George is acting as the guardian and protector to Lennie that he wishes he himself had in life to help him through the difficult times.

“George said reverently, ‘Jesus Christ! I bet we could swing her.’ His eyes were full of wonder. ‘I bet we could swing her,’ he repeated softly.” (60)

In this scene, George, Lennie and Candy are deciding to pool their resources together in order to purchase the dream farm George and Lennie had been working toward. George and Lennie mention it repeatedly throughout the story. Even though George claims he tires of describing the farm and the life they could lead there if he and Lennie owned it, he has no problem giving into Lennie’s or anybody else’s demands to hear about it. The quote above is George at his most enthusiastic because that far-fetched dream is starting to actually seem achievable now that they have Candy financially backing them. What was interesting to me before this subtle change was the feeling that all the previous expressions of this dream appeared to be tinged by desperation or hopelessness. Sure, it was a nice dream, but you got the sense George kept telling it only out of a need to have something to keep him going in the hard times they were in.

The dream of the farm also relates to another theme of the novel, that of loneliness. I think having a farm would give them an anchor of belonging to a family, something that’s fairly foreign to them as migrant workers. They work on a job for a time, then move on to the next one, leaving behind any friends or acquaintances they may have made. It’s chasing the dollar at the expense of setting roots, and for not many dollars, either. If George and Lennie got their own farm, they wouldn’t have to worry about all that: they’d have a set location where they’d work for the rest of their lives. They wouldn’t have to be surrounded by loneliness anymore. There’s a reason Steinbeck set this story “A few miles south of Soledad” (1), which is Spanish for “solitude.”

Nella Larsen

“There had been, even in those days, nothing sacrificial in Clare Kendry’s idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire. She was selfish, and cold, and hard. And yet she had, too, a strange capacity of transforming warmth and passion, verging sometimes almost on theatrical heroics.” (“Passing,” pg 1858)

Came across this passage while looking through the story again to find something to write on. While the first half of the passage was an aspect of Clare’s character that I saw as relatively apparent, I think I saw the second bit as sort of a false trait of hers that she used in order to satisfy her selfishness. She constantly acts lovingly and affectionately toward Irene, but all her actions and all the rumors about her life while she was MIA neutralize that “warmth” and paint her in a contrary light. Her personality is described repeatedly as “having” by Irene, and that’s seen throughout the story. She worms her way into Irene’s life despite the former’s wishes against it; she marries an affluent white man who also happens to be a virulent racist, and is “passing”; and it’s still my opinion that she’s having an affair with Irene’s husband, Brian. Clare even tells Irene herself that she’s “not safe” (1901). Clare says, “Can’t you realize I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away” (1901).

Yet despite all this, she has this other side to her personality that’s…different, and pops up randomly from time to time. It happens immediately after she says the previous quote to Irene: she cries “for no reason that Irene could discover” (1901). It shows a side of her that’s shattered and guilt-ridden and helpless, but it’s hard for us to tell which of these distinct personalities is the “true” one, or even if they’re both honest parts of her or if it’s just developed to the point where even she doesn’t know anymore. A good example of this enigmatic personality flip-flopping comes when Irene describes Clare’s reaction to the death of her father, a violent and alcoholic man. Irene says that “Clare…had just stood there with her lips pressed together, her thin arms folded across her narrow chest, staring down at the familiar pasty-white face of her parent with a sort of disdain in her slanting black eyes. For a very long time she stood like that, silent and staring. Then, quite suddenly, she had given way to a torrent of weeping, swaying her thin body, tearing at her bright hair, and stamping her small feet. The outburst had ceased as suddenly as it had begun” (1858). What makes Clare more mysterious and unsolvable to me is the fact that we never truly get into her head like we do in Irene’s. That coupled with the disparity between these personalities makes me much less certain of Clare’s character than I was after my first read.

“Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away.” (1901)

We spent part of our class-time discussing how Irene and Clare were really a lot alike, basically mirror images of each other, and I thought this quote I used in the previous writing for this post helped to illustrate that. The quote is important because Clare is totally wrong in her assessment of Irene: they are EXACTLY like each other, and Irene is just as willing as Clare to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants and to protect it. The God that Irene praises and worships and yearns for beyond any other thing on the planet is Security. She believes that “security was the most important and desired thing in life. Not for any of the others [happiness, love, etc.], or for all of them, would she exchange it. She wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband” (1916). Later she says, “Strange, that she couldn’t now be sure that she had ever truly known love. Not even for Brian. He was her husband and the father of her sons. But was he anything more? Had she ever wanted or tried for more? In that hour she thought not” (1916). Irene is just as cold and selfish as Clare. It makes it easy for me to believe that she, in Clare’s words, “throw anything away” to secure herself, and that she’d toss Clare out of a window in order to do that. I guess because the two women are reflections of the other, knowing Irene and her thought processes allow us to also (indirectly) understand Clare, something I didn’t think was possible just a handful of lines ago in this post.

Claude McKay

“Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,/And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!/What though before us lies the open grave?” (“If We Must Die,” pg. 1848, lines 10-12)

A stark contrast to Langston Hughes. If there is any hope for the black people to gain acceptance and equality in white America, it is infinitesimally small and shouldn’t be counted on to actually happen. McKay sees their position as untenable and temporary; they cannot last long against the deleterious effects racism and segregation is having on them. “What though before us lies the open grave?” McKay asks, meaning, “What other ending can we arrive at other than ultimate death?” Since that’s the inevitable conclusion, McKay argues the only thing African-Americans have left for them is to fight against this hatred to the last man, to at least make their deaths meaningful rather than passively dying. To McKay, it would be all worth it if they could just “deal one deathblow!”

“His father, by the cruelest way of pain,/Had bidden him to his bosom once again;/The awful sin remained still unforgiven.” (“The Lynching,” pg. 1849, lines 2-4)

These first few lines are talking about the hanging body of a black man murdered by a lynch mob. They also make a comparison between the anonymous man and Jesus Christ, who himself was unjustly killed by a mob. A fairly straightforward and powerful poem on the whole, but one line troubles me: “The awful sin remained unforgiven.” I have no idea what that is referring to, and what makes it worse is that I’m uncertain whether it’s supposed to be related to the death of Christ or the death of this black man. To add onto the confusion, the first line talks about “His Spirit,” with “spirit” capitalized, which to me seems to imply it’s the soul of Jesus Christ; but “father,” “him,” and “his” aren’t capitalized in reference to God and this soul. If “the awful sin” is considered with Christ as the subject, then it could be talking about the “sin” of humanity that Christ washed away with his self-sacrifice, but that it hadn’t been forgiven just yet…which confuses me even more because I’m not sure how that would connect with the rest of the poem. And I don’t see how “the awful sin” could belong to the hanged. Perhaps the sin is the sin of being black, and it’s unforgiven because the racist lynchers can’t move past their prejudices or can’t possibly lynch, and thereby remove, every black person in the United States?

Langston Hughes

“I’ve known rivers:/I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of/human blood in human veins./My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” pg 1774, lines 1-4)

We spent a nice chunk of time discussing this poem in class, mostly kicking around the ideas that it’s about the strength and resiliency of the African-American people, or how Africans have built most of the great projects of history by the sweat of their brow, including America itself. After thinking about the poem more and its focus on rivers, I began to feel that what they symbolized was hope and relief from the never-ending toils the African people had to endure. He names rivers in places that are all exceedingly hot: Iraq/Syria, the Congo, Egypt, Mississippi. All can be horribly hot when doing nothing, but even more so when you’re doing back-breaking work like the slaves did. I can only imagine having a cool river nearby would be both refreshing and tempting, and that’s where I got my basis for the rivers as hope/relief from the toils/struggles (symbolized by oppressive heat and work). So within this interpretation, when Hughes says that his “soul has grown deep like the rivers,” he’s saying he’s been filled with hope for relief for his people.

“Death is a drum,/A signal drum,/Calling life/To come!/Come!/Come!” (“Drum,” pg 1775, lines 13-18)

I find it interesting that Langston Hughes seems to be so positive and hopeful for the future of blacks in America. This poem in particular makes me feel that he had an unwavering belief in the transformative power of thought and art, and how applying those two things could enact change in a society. Another thing he believed in was the value of action, of working actively to change things. His awareness of death in other poet’s hands would symbolize futility, but for Hughes it’s quite the opposite: it’s a call for action, to live life to the fullest because it won’t always be in your possession. It contrasts with other leaders of black thought, like Malcolm X or Richard Wright, who were more cynical and focused on the positions of weakness and degradation African-Americans were subjected to during their times. Hughes seems to definitely be more in the mold of Martin Luther King, Jr., who emphasized uplifting messages as a way to change things.