Tag: the other

Henry James, “The Great Condition” (1899)

henry james the great condition

From Jules et Jim.

Smack into Downton Abbey syndrome again–the angsts of wealth, uncertain pasts, unsurely marriageable futures. These are contrived problems of course, hard to sympathize with their sufferers or to associate the word suffering with them. But the suspension of disbelief also requires the suspension of prejudice however justified. Within that world, James is mordant: This is about “the rich, the bloated Braddles,” Bertram Braddle in particular. He and his friend Chilver had spent 10 weeks in what sounds awfully like a hunt for American women before returning, disappointed, to England. It’s only on the way back that they meet one worth celebrating: “She was a person to whom they couldn’t possibly have had a letter; she had never in her life been to Newport; she was on her way to England for the first time; she was, in short, most inconsistently, though indeed quite unblushingly, obscure.” But Chilver falls in love with her, although Braddle has “joylessly” claimed her.

James is at least derisive of the useless men’s lifestyle: “Henry Chilver had found it salutary to sit and imagine himself ‘reading’. But Braddle had always been, portentously, a person of free mornings – his nominal occupation that of looking after his father’s ‘interests’, and his actual that of spending, though quite without scandal, this personage’s money, of which, luckily, there seemed an abundance.” They try to figure out the woman’s past. Chilver supposes that Braddle being in love lights the way to her past.

“For reading her clear?” Braddle broke in. “How can you ask – as a man of the world – anything so idiotic? Where did you ever discover that being in love makes a searching light, makes anything but a most damnable and demoralising darkness? One has been in love with creatures such that one’s condition has lighted nothing in the world but one’s asininity. I have at any rate. And so have you!”

So they try to figure out her deep dark secret, her “slips,” if she’d had any–or more than one. “She hasn’t really any references,” the distraught Braddle says as if on the slave docks of Montgomery, eliciting the, at least somewhat, proper response: “it’s not as if you were engaging a housemaid.” Of course that’s exactly what it might as well be for these gentlemen. Braddle speak of her hidden past as fact, indicting her as a man never would be for whatever might lurk in his rotten closets. She had a past in California and the Sandwich Islands. “I don’t fancy a Sandwich Islands past,” bigoted Braddle says. She had a husband and a little girl. They died. He doesn’t sympathize with her loss. He blames her for having no mementos of either. Dripping with distastefulness, he also blames her for having given piano lessons “on account of some of the persons she may have given them to.” This woman should run from Braddle at the speed of western winds. So then these two idiots figure that if Braddle asked her to marry him, he could find out all about that wretched past. Oh, the romance, the originality. (Clever Chilver: he might be trying to scare Braddle off, if he finds out what he doesn’t want too much know. Not to have the woman for himself, but maybe because he is really after Braddle. These boys.)

It then turns into something of an Abbot and Costello routine. Mrs. Damerel makes a marriage to Braddle conditional on a six-month embargo of revealing her secret. He can’t wait. He goes off traveling, stalking her past. The engagement is off. Chilver marries her. Braddle is incensed–not at the marriage, but that Chilver has neither asked of her secret nor is he telling him, or willing to tell him, about it. Chilver doubled the embargo, telling Damerel he’ll wait a year, if he’d ask even then. Braddle is disbelieving. The two friends almost break up. But Braddle is too addled to the mystery to break off. He’ll wait the year. Fifteen months later he shows up at Mrs. Chilver’s. Mr. Chilver still hasn’t asked to know the secret–so Mrs. Chilver tells Braddle in their first encounter since the dis-engagement. Of course he’s again beside himself.

But she reveals the obvious, with a condition: that he never tell anyone:

 “Then I invite you to make the inference most directly suggested by the vanity of your researches.” He looked about him. “The inference?” “As to what a fault may have been that it’s impossible to find out.” He got hold as he could. “It may have been hidden.” “Then anything hidden, from so much labour, so well—” “May not have existed?” he stammered after she had given him time to take something from her deep eyes. He glared round and round with it – seemed to have it on his hands before the world. “Then what did you mean—?” “Ah, sir, what did you? You invented my past.” “Do you mean you hadn’t one?” cried Bertram Braddle. “None I would have mentioned to you. It was you who brought it up.”

There is justice in the end. She’s made a fool of Braddle’s assumptions, and James teaches us a lesson about idle imagination, so much of it premised on the idiocy of class and male pretensions. There never was anything. Mrs. Chilver’s gift to her husband, James would have us believe, is to let him keep thinking there was something and to think himself delicate for not asking about it: she is protecting his ideal. The story couldn’t have found a better first home.

The Anglo-Saxon Review, June 1899

Welty, “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden” (1940)

Eudora Welty. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

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.”

New Directions in Prose and Poetry, 1940

Malamud, “Steady Customer”

Four waitresses in a restaurant are crying. Their 28-year-old colleague Eileen had just died during a gallbladder operation. None of them wants to take over her lucrative section. The owner, Mr. Mollendorf, recruits a new waitress, Rose, from the agency, and the four girls agree to give her the section—except for one table: that of the steady customer who’d been Eileen’s for two years. The two were’t yet going together, but the waitresses were under the impression that they were going to start. Ant least that’s what they tell Rose. One of the waitresses decides to keep that table. The customer comes in, orders his usual. Doesn’t ask about Eileen. The girls are furious. The witness decides to tell him outright. All he says is: “I—I see,” his voice “curiously uncontrolled. ‘I’m sorry.’” The girls are still more furious. “They’re all alike,” one of them says. They stare at him. Customers begin starring at him:

The girls don’t know if he left because he was overcome by the news or because he was upset at the way he’d become an object of their scorn. “I’m convinced he really and truly loved her,” one of them says, closing the story.

New Threshold, August 1943.