Tag: David Roediger

“What William Faulkner implies, Erskine Caldwell records”

A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune made that comparison, and it feels apt, whatever one takes the difference between “recording” and “implying” to signify. Caldwell and Faulkner do seem to be doing something strikingly similar, even if they go about it so very differently. While novels like Sanctuary are as close as Faulkner comes to producing “the South” as the lurid object of the reader’s voyeuristic gaze, the calculated way that Caldwell produces voyeuristic fantasy after fantasy would seem to take this to a whole other level.

Peer through that hole in the fence, for example, at a typical sex scene in God’s Little Acre:

“Take me, Will-I can’t wait,” she said.
“You and me both,” said he.
Will got on his hands and knees and raised Darling Jill’s head until he could draw her hair from under her. He lowered her pillow, and her long brown hair hung over the bed and almost touched the floor. He looked down and saw that she had raised herself until she was almost touching him.
He awoke to hear Darling Jill screaming in his ear. He did not know how long she had been screaming. He had been oblivious to everything in the complete joy of the moment.
He raised his head wide after a while and looked into her face. She opened her eyes wide and smiled at him.
“That was wonderful, Will,” she whispered. “Do it to me again.”
He tried to free himself and arise, but she would not let him move. He knew she was waiting for him to answer her.
“Will, do it to me again.”
“Damn it Darling Jill, I can’t right now.”

I’m struck, in such scenes, by the bizarre way Caldwell manages to be both very explicit and completely coy in describing what’s going on, the way the “camera” both does and doesn’t “cut” away from the scene. Look at the attention to mechanical detail-what to do with Darling Jill’s hair, for example, or the problem of maneuvering their bodies vis-a-vis the pillow and bed. And yet there’s a jump between when she raises her body to almost touch him and when he “awoke to hear Darling Jill screaming in his ear” that feels glaringly incongruous. How can a sex-scene include lines like “Take me, Will” and “Do it to me again” but so woodenly avert its gaze from the actual sex scene itself? There’s something something very weird about directly referring to “the complete joy of the moment” and then cutting that moment out of the scene itself.

So I go back to the evocative distinction between “implying” and “recording.” I’m not sure it serves as a useful way of distinguishing between Caldwell and Faulkner in any broad sense, but the way it problematizes the issue does signals what I think is at stake: how to negotiate between showing and telling.

On the one hand, Caldwell is explicit in a way that’s almost more graphic than actual pornography. As Dwight Garner, writing for Slate, puts it, reading Caldwell is still a sort of startling experience: “Caldwell’s id-his naked obsessions with sex, class, and violence-cuts the surface of every page like a dorsal fin. You can’t stop turning the pages, because you want to see how much further your jaw can drop.” Yet there’s also a careful prudishness about actually describing what is happening that seems counterintuitive. What can we make of an author both calculatedly shameless and carefully self-censoring?

The easy answer might be that he could explicitly imply but not explicitly show (if that makes sense) because he wouldn’t want to be charged for producing pornography. Maybe. I don’t really understand the laws regulating the printing of obscenity in 1933, but that’s not just because I’m a dilattente; it was in that year that District Judge John Woolsey ruled that Ulysses could be admitted to the United States, but his reasoning for that decision is wonderfully hard to follow. This, naturally, is par for the course where lines drawn around indecent material are concerned. As the cliché goes, obscenity is thing that “I know it when I see it,” but the right words to describe are incredibly difficult to find. Or, to put it another way, it is something better shown than told. And Judge Woolsey seems to adjudicate according to that principle: while Ulysses is a work of “unusual frankness,” it could be admitted because he did not “detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist.” In other words, it makes all the difference that Joyce tells (however explicitly), without explicitly showing.

I think that’s a useful way to understand what’s going on in Caldwell as well. He is utterly explicit in telling but inversely cautious in what he is willing to show. Take this bizarre scene from his novel Tragic Ground, in which a father walks into his daughter’s room, unexpectedly finding her in bed with some guy:

…Spence opened the door and walked in. The shades had been drawn over the windows, and at first he could see only the dim shadow outline of the room. He went forward several steps and stopped.
“Libby?” He called apprehensively. He held his breath while he waited for her answer. “Libby?” he called again. By that time he realized he could not even hear the sound of his own voice above the music coming from the radio. He went to the nearest window and pulled back the shade. “Libby, what in the world–” he said, reaching for the radio.
Without taking his eyes from her, he found the knob and switched off the music.
“What’s going on, Libby?” he asked slowly. He went to the foot of the bad.
“Papa! Get out!” she said crossly when she realized he was in the room. “Go on out, Papa!”
Spence’s mouth fell open as he stared at her. She was in bed with a man who had a long purple scar on his shoulder that looked like a bayonet wound. As Spence leaned over the foot of the bed and stared at him, he was surprised to see that the man’s face looked familiar. He appeared to be about twenty-five years old, or at least several years older than Libby, who was twenty, and he had thick muscular shoulders and a broad weather-beaten face. The purple skin over the would was recently healed. He looked up at Spence and smiled friendlily. Spence stared back at him uncertainly. He did not know whether to smile at him or to scowl. It was the first time he had ever seen Libby in bed with a man. He chewed the tip of his tongue, wondering what to say.
“Papa, please go on out!” Libby said uneasily. Spence leaned over the foot of the bed and peered searchingly at the boy’s grinning face.
“It’s Jim Howard Vance!” spence shouted gleefully. He went around the corner of the bed in two strides. “Dogbite it if it ain’t! Where in the world did you come from, Jim boy?”

Note, again, how carefully Caldwell orchestrates what his reader is able to see and what is merely implied. Initially, we share in Spence’s unseeing: he walks into a dark room and while his eyes are still adjusting, we stare into the darkness with him, equally thwarted in our gaze. But while his eyes adjust at some point (and opening the window shade lets in some light), he takes in the scene before him without sharing that gaze with us; the words “Without taking his eyes from her” indicate that he has seen something we are not allowed to see. To use Woolsey’s phrasing, the “the leer of the sensualist” is absent.

If we think of censorship in purely negative terms, none of this is surprising, or even all that interesting. Caldwell was maybe the first big mass-market paperback writer in the United States (his book jackets proudly proclaim him to be “America’s most popular writer”), and even though the Modern Library placed Tobacco Road on their list of 100 Best Novels in the English Language , he increasingly geared his writing to fill the marketing niche he found himself occupying, a kind of pornographer of the South. I use this term advisedly, though. As I’ve shown, the lengths he goes not to cross the line indicates that Caldwell is careful to not be a pornographer in any literal sense. Instead, I’m using the term the way David Roediger (in turn citing George Rawick) uses it in Wages of Whiteness to describe blackface minstrelsy. Roediger writes:

“…blackness came to symbolize that which the accumulating capitalists had given up, but still longed for. Increasingly adopting an ethos that attacked holidays, spurned contact with nature, saved time, bridled sexuality, separated work from the rest of life and postponed gratification, profitminded Englishmen and Americans cast Blacks as their former selves … All of the old habits so recently discarded by whites adopting capitalist values came to be fastened onto Blacks. As Rawick wonderfully puts it, Englishmen and profit-minded settlers in America “met the West African as a reformed sinner meets a comrade of his previous debaucheries.” The racist, like the reformed sinner, creates “a pornography of his former life…In order to insure that he will not slip back into the old ways or act out half-suppressed fantasies, he must see a tremendous difference between his reformed self and those whom he formerly resembled”

This kind of metaphor is, I think, just as apt for describing the type of voyeuristic stories that Caldwell peddled so successfully. As with blackface, the “back road” story as a genre portrays a fantasy of the South as a pre-industrial society, a place where one can still peer in and view unbridled sexuality and close-to-nature living. The paratextual apparatus of the books themselves strongly suggests this kind of interpretation, in fact. Note how each of these covers invites the reader’s gaze to gaze in at something which was previously hidden from sight:

Caldwell cannot, in 1933, actually show coitus in more detail than he does in these novels, so he doesn’t. But, to wax Foucaultian for a moment, the fallacy of conceptualizing censorship in purely negative terms is that it overlooks the ways censorship informs and directs, rather than inhibits, the manner in which a story is told. And I’m struck by the ease and aptness of a cinematic language for describing the ways Caldwell negotiates what he can and cannot write. As I was writing, I found it difficult to paraphrase how the narrative works in that scene without referring to “cuts” and “cameras” and “off-screens,” which makes me wonder if Caldwell is thinking in those terms as well, if he too is “blocking out” these scenes in his mind.

With respect to the film industry, we tend to talk about “pre-code” and “post-code” films, referring to the effort in 1930 to formalize A Code to Maintain Social and Community Values in the Production of Synchronized and Talking Motion Pictures. But the need to avoid offending the audience was, in practical terms, less a matter of externally imposed censorship than a continuous part of the long process of self-regulation that movie-makers put themselves through as they struggled to create something that would sell. In other words, while authors and studios might rhetorically cast themselves as the victims of repressive pressure from outside, they maintained control over their product by treating censorship like a generic convention, writing to it the same way a scripted comedy had to be written to conform to the rules of the comedy genre. It’s worth noting, therefore, that the best genre criticism doesn’t treat genre as a constricting, repressive mechanism, but understands the function of genre as an enabling system of signification, a convention that gives the narrative its shape. I think the pressure of systemic censorship need to be understood the same way here: it makes the narrative what it is, a precondition for its signification rather than a limiting factor.

In this sense, calling Caldwell’s style “cinematic” means something quite vexed. On the one hand, the way it interpellates its readers as voyeurs (via devices like the covers) encourages a pose of spectacular detachment, the way that an Adorno and Horkheimer, for example, rail against the effects of mass entertainment as produced by the mode of reception. Precisely because the mediating objects between are given so much prominance, the viewer is alienated from the subject, and “the South” becomes purely an object of scrutiny and analysis, not of identification. Yet at the same time (as Roediger and Rawick recognize) the audience needs these layers of mediation precisely because the act of gazing encourages identification: if telling respects the difference between subject and object, then showing has the tendency to blur those boundaries, to draw the audience into feeling what the object of their gaze feels. Far from being determined and foreclosed by these pressures, therefore, the narrative orchestrates and navigates these two opposing desires, for distance and for intimacy, in the same ways a film like It Happened One Night (1934) is simply a string of raised and deferred expectations of sexual climax.

As it happens, what I would call the Caldwell’s “cinematic” qualities were the thing that translated least well into the film versions of his novels. John Ford’s 1941 Tobacco Road, for example, is a disaster; all the interesting stuff that Caldwell is able to do in the turnip scene (which absolutely begs for a psychoanalytic reading) disappears as the film tries to turn it into a version of his previous The Grapes of Wrath, and fails. It’s a shame, really, because Ford seems like the director you’d expect to do well with this material. His best films succeed precisely because they do what Caldwell’s Tobacco Road does, but which Ford’s particular version does not: carefully negotiate between the power of showing to draw the viewer in and the power of telling to hold the reader back.

The particulars of Ford’s career, as it happens, make this even easier to illustrate. A premier director during the silent era, Ford was also one of the few to make the transition to talkies and thrive in the new medium. And while his silent films were (by most accounts) hampered by an overreliance on dialogue, his talkies are notable precisely for their visual storytelling style: a good Ford film is usually good because it doesn’t tell, it shows. Or rather, because it tells by showing, there’s a dynamism within Fordian images produced by the interplay between looking at and talking about, between distancing oneself from the object of gaze and being drawn into identifying with it.

Caldwell’s best voyeuristic pornographies, it seems to me, work the same way, yet they not only manipulate the audience’s response according to this dynamic of attraction/repulsion but they do so with a bluntness that calls attention to itself. Take this delightful bit of dialogue from Tobacco Road, for example:

“Ellie May’s acting like your old hound used to do when he got the itch,” Dude says to Lester. “Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May’s making, too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don’t it?”

While we, the reader, are obviously being urged to gaze voyeuristically at the scene before us, our response is more likely to be a Kurtzian “The horror” than the film version (for example) was willing to allow. This is, after all, one of the most Faulknerian passages I can imagine, and also one of the least. As with Caddy, the operative idiom is the threat that sexuality poses to Southern womanhood (and there are even black laborers standing by watching, to make the parallel complete). Yet the ludicrously heavy-handed naturalist metaphor goes so far beyond Caddy’s “soiled drawers” as to make the comparison almost impossible, as to specifically deny that a comparison is even appropriate. So much is here recorded, perhaps, that implication can only devolve into farce.

Making Autobiography and Racial-Self-Making

David Roediger opens his brilliant The Wages of Whiteness with a bit of autobiography: growing up in Cairo, at the point where the Ohio river meets the Mississippi, he was educated to a knowledge of racism and white supremacy that was hardly hindered by the fact that he, personally, didn’t actually know any black people. The implicit point (which becomes more explicit later on) is simple: white supremacy, as he experienced it, is not really about black people, it just uses them as its object, on its way towards something else.

His book is therefore in sharp disagreement with someone like Winthrop Jordan, for whom “race” is a given (and for whom there are very basic psychological reasons why white people feared, then hated, and then despised black people, a point Jordan illustrates in White over Black at great and intimidating length). In Jordan’s narrative, in other words, racism begins when different races met each other, “race” being an existing precondition, and a thing which (it is implied) will continue in some form as long as they are in contact. For Roediger, on the other hand, “white” and “black” are very much in quotation marks; what they mean is neither a given, nor are they terms that mean anything in a permanent sense: race is a thing which is always being practiced and made according to social necessities, and as these practices and necessities change with changing society, so too does “race” change, fundamentally. That, you see, is an empowering gesture: in contrast to the kind of fatalism implied by the “race is forever” argument of a Winthrop Jordan, Roediger’s conception of race as a formation, a construction, or a production allow for the possibility that it might be made in different ways, or even unmade altogether. The title of Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race makes this point explicitly, and takes direct aim at the weaknesses in Jordan’s book to argue, again, that race is thing that must be made. And as Roediger’s more recent work (Towards the Abolition of Whiteness) argues, it is also a thing which must be un-made.

As a sidenote, this intellectual debate is related to one of the ways that Edward Said (of the previous post) can be usefully critiqued. One problem with “Orientalism” as a framing paradigm is that it conflates the kinds of orientalizing gazes that Europe used to understand the other it was Crusading against in the middle ages with the radically different ways an explicitly imperial Europe understood its colonial others in places like India (and with, as a bonus, the ways that “The West” has taken in recent years to understanding “the Muslim world”). Said has a tendency to run all these things together, to produce (ironically) a timeless and unchanging “Orientalist,” a figure who who continually re-imagines and reproduces a timeless and unchanging “Oriental.”

The trouble is, though, there is a kind of continuity between the ways that wars with the Saracens were understood in medieval Christiandom and the style of contemporary doctrines of “preemptive war,” as Bush’s revealing lapses into “crusade” rhetoric occasionally indicate. By the same token, for all the limitations of Winthrop Jordan’s work (and some of the psychoanalysis seems particularly sketchy to me), it is also true that colonial-era attitudes towards African slaves and free-men are part of the same history that informs the ways Barack Obama can and cannot run for president. Roediger wouldn’t deny that, of course; his work as an engaged historian indicates precisely his belief in the past’s relevance to present struggles. And how to navigate historical continuity and historical change, at the same time, is one of the most difficult rhetorical and conceptual problems that a historian has to grapple with. I personally favor Raymond Williams’ notion of “structures of feeling”: as he observes in the dazzling opening to The Country and the City, the difference between rural and urban in medieval England was completely and totally different than it was in industrializing England, and neither has a nearly strong enough empirical corellation with how urban and rural are integrated today. These terms, “urban” and “rural,” simply mean different things. And yet, he notes, the fact that we continue to use the same words even as we reinvent them indicates that our feelings about urban and rural have a certain continuity of structure, a fact which gives the social scientist something to grip on to as everything else changes.

I tend to be quite skeptical of the autobiographical gesture. W.E.B. DuBois, the patron saint of The Wages of Whiteness (and this blog, sort of) once claimed that “autobiographies have had little lure; repeatedly they assume too much or too little: too much in dreaming that one’s own life has greatly influenced the world; too little in the reticences, repressions, and distortions which come because men do not dare to be perfectly frank” and my dissertation will make a certain amount of hay out of the fact that he wrote five or so autobiographies. But in moments like this, DuBois was his own best critic, and he always cast a critical eye on the ways that “autobiography” could function as a technology of the self, to use a terminology not his own; likewise, the autobiographical gesture in The Wages of Whiteness also functions as a way of asserting a kind of control over history and personal history, a kind of place to stand from which the world can be moved. As Roediger explains it,

“Until very recently, I would have skipped all this autobiographical material, sure that my ideas on race and the white working class grew out of conscious reflection based on historical research. But much of that reflection led back to what my early years might have taught me: the role of race in defining how white workers look not only at Blacks but at themselves; the pervasiveness of race; the complex mixture of hate, sadness and longing in the racist thought of white workers; the relationship between race and ethnicity.”

This claim seems to me at least very optimistic, and perhaps somewhat of a delusion: the idea that one can transcend one’s history by looking back over it, by transforming the formative experiences of one’s life into “teachings” that can be discarded or retained, depending. I guess it’s just that I’m a believer in the nature/nurture debate: we are what we are, and whether that being is more determined by the stuff we were born with or by the experience we have been blessed to receive, there is no self that can make itself without reference to that formative experience. This is far from an argument for fatalistic acceptance of the status quo, of course; as Roediger puts it, “the complex mixture of hate, sadness and longing” is a volatile mixture, offering many choices and possibilities. As historians put it, beware monocausal outcomes, and this is just as true with personal histories: the overdetermination of the self means that we’re not so much determined by some singular identity as we are racked by conflicts between the many different and contradictory parts of ourselves that make us up.

So maybe there’s nothing necessarily so wrong with an optimistic delusion or two, and maybe it’s okay to occasionally assert, against all the available evidence, that “Yes we can.” And the gesture of Roediger’s authorial position, the claim that he could grow up amidst a culture of white supremacy and race hatred, and yet transcend that origin, to claim that we make race instead of being made by it, that we make ourselves instead of the reverse, well, I find such a claim as logically unconvincing as I find it emotionally necessary.

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