To Updike, predators everywhere in Morocco. (Heather Cowper)
I’m sure I’ve read a more repulsive Updike story. Right now I can’t recall one more repulsive than “Morocco.” Repulsive for its overt orientalism, its equally overt indulgence of racist tropes and travel writing’s laziest stereotypes.
The New Yorker rejected “Morocco” when he sent it in at the end of November 1978. He revised it, resubmitted it two months later, the New Yorker rejected it again. The Atlantic ran it in the November 1979 issue. He couldn’t bring himself to collect it in his next short story books, finally including it–as the very first story–in “My Father’s Tears” in 2009, three years after his Arabophobe “Terrorist.” Of course it’s not a story. It’s a travelogue of the trip he took with his wife and four children to Morocco in 1969. “A two-part Easter holiday began in Morocco, where they made an exhausting five-hundred-mile dash in a rented car from Tangier to Agadir,” Adam Begley writes in his biography; “they then flew to Paris for two days, but were too weary of living out of suitcases to enjoy it much.” Begley doesn’t mention the “story” that came out of it. I was looking around the web to see if I was reading something that wasn’t there. The story isn’t anthologized or referred to much, but I happened by a Maghrebi writer’s identical reaction.
Made up fears start in the first lines. Updike (let’s not pretend it’s a fictional dad) is afraid to stop his car anywhere. “What were we afraid of? A trap. Bandits.” It devolves from there. Nothing he sees, nothing he smells or feels elevates. Somehow, in one of the more sublime parts of the world, every mile, every sight is “the bleak plazas, the boarded up arcades” (though I could have been reading about Daytona Beach). One of his daughters, apparently blond, “attracted stares from native men everywhere.” The predatory Arab man trope appears on the second page of the story, as if the very same girl would not attract stares from Updike’s country clubs everywhere back home, as if Updike’s own predatory stares after nubile girls (how many times does the word “nubile” appear in Updike works?) doesn’t heave through his pages. He tries to add a comic element here and there (“Allah be praised”) but it falls flat. On a beach in Agadir, another predator: a man not far from the family is masturbating. They escape, go to a hotel and its private pool “where all the Europeans were swimming and tanning safe from the surrounding culture.” Could the bigotry be more explicit? He’s reveling in it now, in the superiority of it, writing like a supremacist colonialist of the 1800s. They don’t leave Agadir. They “escaped.” He blows through a red light and doesn’t stop when a cop hails: more western contempt for Arab laws. And again, “We had escaped.”
When Updike is more objectively reassessed for the distastefulness of morals and judgments behind the gilded style, this “story” will figure prominently.
Here’s how it opens: “This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him. Incidentally, it concerns a Jesuit priest who had never been known to lie. He was an appurtenance, and a very necessary one, to the Yukon country; but the presence of the other two was merely accidental. They were specimens of the many strange waifs which ride the breast of a gold rush or come tailing along behind.”
The couple is Edwin Bentham and Grace Bentham. Edwin is a loser. Grace is a noble soul who makes her husband shine, though he doesn’t deserve it. Grace falls for a man called Wharton. They prepare to elope. The Jesuit priest who cannot lie warns her not to, evoking the prospect of her giving birth to a bastard son. She changes her mind. Just then her husband shows up at Wharton’s door. The priest lies to protect her hiding place. She goes back to him. It’s a strange story, the focus being more on the lie of the priest allegedly to protect her than on the lies he makes up to claim that she’d ruin her life if she runs off. Or are we meant to see both lies? Either way, the priest is all about oppressing women. He’d be an Eye in The Handmaid’s Tale.
In a December 2016 interview in the Nashville Review Danielle Evans said: “For a lot of the characters there’s that moment when they consider the decision, consider the possibility of a different course of action, and move forward anyway. It was important to me, especially in thinking about adolescence and particularly female adolescence, to write characters whose problematic behavior came from complexity and not from lack of comprehension. Sometimes that tendency to hurt themselves is a way of reconciling trauma. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to choose between what seem like only bad options, so that at least they have the dignity of knowing in which way something will hurt. Sometimes it’s a drive to punish themselves for something else that seems like it should have hurt more.” That sums up Claire in “Boys Go To Jupiter,” a flawed but absorbing story–flawed because it’s more of a topical study along Evans’s purpose than a story breathing on its own, free of the necessary contrivances Evans builds into the plot. One of them seems untenable: that Claire, the central character, is capable of wearing a confederate-themed bikini (the bikini that somehow ends up snapped onto somebody’s social media page, triggering the scandal she faces in college when a dorm mate sees the picture) even though her best friend growing up had been black. Then again, the severing of that friendship by two dramatic shocks (both girls’ mothers have cancer, but Claire’s dies, her friend’s mother does not), and Claire’s car crash with the girl’s brother, her occasional lover (he is killed, she is not) may be the reason Claire is so foolishly exploring the self-hurt of going far beyond wearing the confederate bikini. Along the way Evans captures the language and often contradictory sanctimony of social and racial correctness and the lurid expediency of those who will brandish a racist cause behind the cloak of free expression. I kept thinking of The Human Stain. The story’s artistry almost chokes from its heavier polemic but for Evans’s remarkably assertive and lucid style. More on Evans here.
Sewanee Review, Nr. 4, 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. Roxane Gay
Millfield, Athens County, Ohio. (Southeast Ohio History Center and the City of Athens Historic Preservation Commission)
The longest so far in the collection, written in a mostly traditional narrative style, “Godliness” is a story of fanaticism, loneliness, a touch of madness in Jesse Bentley–but isn’t that always the case with fanatics–and the effects of an industrializing America. Written in four parts, the story goes multi-generational, from grandfather Jesse to grandson David Hardy, son of Louise Bentley, the unloved daughter of Jesse. He’d wanted a son. The first part is about Jesse, “a man born out of his time and place and for this he suffered and made others suffer. Never did he succeed in getting what he wanted out of life and he did not know what he wanted.” He is a brutal man driven by the fixation of serving god at the expense of ignoring and hurting everyone else around him: a pitifully conventional man in that regard. “It is God’s work I have come to the land to do,” he claims, the typical abrogation of all other responsibilities. God is not love in Jesse’s interpretation, but Old Testament vengeance, wrath and sacrifice. He has a lust for violence and blood. He channels it in his work and his indifferent hatred of those around him, his daughter in particular, who grew up studios, unloved, and ultimately strayed into brief promiscuity in her lunge for a love unrequited by her husband: “You never wanted me there and of course the air of your house did me no good,” she tells her father. “It was like poison in my blood but it will be different with him.” After failing to make him understand what she needs in a year of hills like white elephants, she becomes mean to her husband, at times mad, not much caring for her son as she would have been of her daughter: “It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway,” she said sharply. “Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.”
The story is framed in the country’s rapid changes and how it affects Jesse:
It will perhaps be somewhat difficult for the men and women of a later day to understand Jesse Bentley. In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the inter-urban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America. Books, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household, magazines circulate by the millions of copies, newspapers are everywhere. In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.
The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him. The greedy thing in him wanted to make money faster than it could be made by tilling the land.
But the story fails to convincingly connect Jesse’s increasing materialism with his fanaticism as much as it does to his inability to keep even the closest thing to a person he’s loved, David, close to him. One day when David is 15 Jesse wants to sacrifice a lamb to god. David is frightened by his grandfather rushing him with a knife, though Jesse was only rushing for the lamb David was holding. David runs off and fires a sling shot at his grandfather, knocking him out cold. David, having felled Goliath, thinks he’s killed him. He runs away, never to return.
The story did not appear in a magazine before publication in “Winesburg, Ohio” in 1919.
Steve and Max, white men in Mississippi, are improbably walking and talking together toward Little Lee Roy’s house as Steve tells Max of the not-too distant days when he (Steve) was a circus caller and Little Lee Roy a clubfooted black man who’d be dressed up as an Indian girl called Keela, made to eat live chickens, growl and act as beastly and freakishly as possible for circus-goers’ enjoyment. The freak show is an old, deplorable American tradition that long predates Trump rallies and NRA conventions.) Max is a saloon-keeper. It’s not clear what Steve is doing, if anything. Little Le Roy is on his porch, surrounded by chickens, when the two men appear and continue conversing as if he weren’t there except for a couple of asides by Max. Steve still calls Little Lee Roy “it.” And who calls him Little Lee Roy, itself an abusive, demeaning term for a grown man and father of an unknown number of children? We don’t need to be told: in Welty, white society’s presumptions don’t have to be explained.
Steve speaks as if he were regretful of his days as the caller outside “Keela”‘s tent, though “I reckon I seen it a thousand times,” he says of the freak show: more than enough times to known that he loved it, and even now, to retell with a touch of relish every detail of the atrocity Lee Roy, once kidnapped into slavery at the circus, was made to endure: Welty devotes a full page to the recounting, which–anachronism aside–reads, at least in its raw, pornographic expository nature, almost like reports from Sabra and Shatila after the massacre, but limited to one man: the revelry of atrocity at the expense of human lives is the same. Yet Steve is trying to atone: “It’s all me, see,” said Steve. “I know that I was the cause for it goin’ on an’ on an’ not bein’ found out–such an awful thing. It was me, what I said out front through the megaphone.” Or through Monday morning’s quarterbacking: his guilt is hollow, as is his claim that “none of us knowed it could talk.” None of them asked, none of them had a conversation with him, none of them is willing to have a conversation with him even now. A physician uncovers the truth, saves Lee Roy, and has the real circus freaks, the only circus freaks–its managers–arrested. Steve and Max talk about responsibility: “You wouldn’t of knowed it either!” Max has already staked out his role. He listens to his jukebox. He doesn’t listen to anything else. He’s the complicitly dis-informed Southerner, wearing his ignorance like a shield to a reality he’d rather not confront, let alone contend with. It was the South of Welty’s surroundings.
I came across this undated, un-authored but worthy analysis from someone at Owensboro College:
The circumstances in ‘Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden’ strain credibility, and the device of having a conscience-tormented young man force his story upon a cynical tavern-operator while the object of the tale looks on does not seem very plausible. Yet the basic story was true; Welty heard it from a man who was building a booth at a county fair during her WPA travels. As she told an interviewer in 1942, `I guess if you read it you must have known that it was true and not made up – it was too horrible to make up’. ‘Keela’ was her attempt to explore `how people could put up with such a thing and how they would react to it’ (CNVRS, pp. 5, 157). At the same time she was very subtly commenting upon the symbolic place of women and racial minorities in Southern life.
Welty returned to the story years later in December 1964 when she delivered a large public lecture at Millsaps as part of her contract with the college. The previous summer had seen the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the firebombing of forty black churches, and the white Citizens’ Councils’ intimidation of whites known to have “moderate” sensibilities, intimidation that had not ceased. In her lecture, entitled “The Southern Writer Today: An Interior Affair,” Welty delivered comments that she would later publish as “Must the Novelist Crusade:” Here, she rejected an ostensible political purpose for fiction, arguing that “there is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer,” that fiction is concerned more with the complexities of human experience than with proposing solutions to human difficulties. But she also asserted, “What matters is that a writer is committed to his own moral principles. If he is, when we read him we cannot help but be aware of what these are. Certainly the characters of his novel and the plot they move in are their ultimate reflections. But these convictions are implicit; they are deep down; they are the rock on which the whole structure of more than the novel rests.” The great novel, she argued, is grounded on the bedrock of principle, the very principle for which the crusader speaks. What a lesser novelist’s harangues would have buried by now, the great novelist”s imagination still reveals, and revelation of even the strongest forces is delicate work. Welty followed this address with a reading of “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” which, appropriately, examines the complexities of human relationships. The story, written in 1938, describes a crippled black man who was once kidnapped into carnival work as a geek called Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, and who, notwithstanding the horror of his past, feels nostalgic about the carnival experience in which he was noticed as now within his own family he is not. The story further deals with the guilt felt by Steve, the carnival barker, and with his inability, nevertheless, to overcome the separation of race, and finally, the story depicts a bystander’s courting of detachment from the horror and guilt Keela represents.
Steve punches Max for being doubted, insulting his sexuality and his intelligence–“I could tell a man from a woman and an Indian from a nigger though–and Max doesn’t take it badly: he offers Lee Roy some alms and Steve him free food back at his joint. Lee Roy tells his children of the encounter, but they tell him to hush. It’s open to interpretation: they may not want to hear about their father’s humiliating days again. They may not be listening to their father any more than those two men were. He is marginal, even in his own house.
In the August 16, 2019 New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes: “About a forty-minute walk away is the Bronx Zoo. In 1912, it was called the New York Zoological Park, and it was run by a patrician named Madison Grant from an old New York family. Though he and Du Bois lived and worked within a few miles of each other for decades, I don’t know if the two ever met. As much as anyone on the planet, Grant was Du Bois’s natural enemy. Grant favored a certain type of white man over all other kinds of humans, on a graded scale of disapproval, and he reserved his vilest ill wishes and contempt for blacks.
As Du Bois would have remembered, in 1906 the zoo put an African man named Ota Benga on display in the primate cages. Ota Benga belonged to a tribe of Pygmies whom the Belgians had slaughtered in the Congo. A traveller had brought him to New York and to the zoo, where huge crowds came to stare and jeer. A group of black Baptist ministers went to the mayor and demanded that the travesty be stopped. The mayor’s office referred them to Grant, who put them off. He later said that it was important for the zoo not to give even the appearance of having yielded to the ministers’ demand. Eventually, Ota Benga was moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, in Brooklyn, and he ended up in Virginia, where he shot himself.”
Yochna is a pious, homely, rather fat girl. She is arrangedly married to a pious man, Shmelke. They go through all the rituals, down to ensuring their heads are covered even in their most private moments. They copulate once, then Shmelke decides he has to go off to see rabbis, and dies in a terrible accident. His body is carried off by a torrent. Shmelke can’t remarry if his body isn’t found. She had loved him sight unseen, and now must live with him unseen forever. “Her luck had glowed briefly, then been extinguished. What had she done to be so afflicted?” She accepts her fate. She is pregnant.
A well enough told story but more fit for children than much else: the moralizing, The piousness, is syrupy and ultimately unrelated to anything but piousness for its own sake.
The brief story of Ann Hutchinson, who couldn’t abide the rigidity of Plymouth Colony. Wikepedia: “Anne Hutchinson (née Marbury; July 1591 – August 1643) was a Puritan spiritual adviser, religious reformer, and an important participant in the Antinomian Controversy which shook the infant Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1636 to 1638. Her strong religious convictions were at odds with the established Puritan clergy in the Boston area, and her popularity and charisma helped create a theological schism that threatened to destroy the Puritans’ religious community in New England. She was eventually tried and convicted, then banished from the colony with many of her supporters.”
The story includes this good passage about what could be interpreted as America’s origins founded in groupthink, submission, dogma, not liberty, let alone liberty of thought, if it’s puritanism we’re looking at: “These proceedings of Mrs. Hutchinson could not long be endured by the provincial government. The present was a most remarkable case, in which religious freedom was wholly inconsistent with public safety, and where the principles of an illiberal age indicated the very course which must have been pursued by worldly policy and enlightened wisdom. Unity of faith was the star that had guided these people over the deep, and a diversity of sects would either have scattered them from the land to which they had as yet so few attachments, or perhaps have excited a diminutive civil war among those who had come so far to worship together.”