Friday, May 29, 2015

Class conflict & reading Henry James and Malcolm X

After 5 1/2 months of no posts, this sudden appearance of a long piece might seem odd. I simply want to post it, and I have no other place that seems appropriate. Do not feel obliged to read it, oh dear and old friends! If it interests you, then by all means, please do! :)

Please understand that I do not see African Americans as the only oppressed ones!

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How can a person read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time and a novel by Henry James, concurrently? Of course it's possible to simply read the words on the page, to continue with one's program of reading through all of James's lush 19th century novels about Americans and Europeans in sequence, and to also read the story of one of America's tragically eloquent sons who found himself at the bottom of society's ladder, the same ladder where James's characters enjoy a leisurely view from the uppermost rungs. But reading is not simply traversing. It is pleasure. It is also acquisition, assimilation, reflection, and answering a desire to understand.
The next novel in my reading-through-James program after starting Malcolm X's autobiography was The Princess Casamassima. I had encountered the mercurial title character in James’s previous novel Roderick Hudson, and while that book presented characters from opposite ends of America's and Europe's class structures, it still reveled in the delights of long leisurely months exploring Rome and Venice by individuals who didn’t lift a finger to earn their keep. Only slightly did James ask me to sympathize with someone poor — the artist Roderick Hudson — who nonetheless was endowed by a wealthy American friend, thus able to sustain a dissipating life.

Out of desire and shame, I had also begun reading through a list of African American must-reads. I had gotten my bachelor’s in English literature before diversity lit was required as it is rather universally today, and since I advise students in the same department where I earned my degree, my sense of this reading gap grew until I just had to bridge it. I began with Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and then The Color Purple by Alice Walker. My intention was to read one AA book, then another James novel, and keep alternating through the lists. Please don’t judge me for my tardiness.

I tried, tried and tried again to dive into The Princess Casamassima while immersed in Malcolm X's story, he who was raised so close to where I live, in Lansing and then in mostly-white Mason, Michigan, in the home of a foster family. He moved on to a dreadful but fascinating life on the streets of New York and Boston to, in his words, find “some kind of hustle to survive” and “to stay high in some way to forget what [we] had to do to survive.“ I kept telling myself in opposing parts of my brain that there is great value in James’s writing, reminding myself of the many times I had already been informed by the thought processes of his characters. Weighing pros and cons in complicated situations in my job or personal life, I kept turning to him, like a counseling friend or professor. But the lifestyle, the wealth beyond imagining, the goods and comforts and delights of the upper crust! How could I reconcile these with the violence, poverty and systemic obstruction of black people in my country, suppressed beneath even the poorest white folks, treated as less than human?
Whatever I told myself, I just couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t only that I tried reading them together. It was that I was asking myself to resolve the distinctions, to bridge them in meaningful ways, to live with them, because I recognized myself as a person born to white privilege in a context of still-horrifying racial conflict.

While this reading struggle took place, massive protests in Baltimore were erupting over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police. Simultaneously with Malcom’s description of the death of a black Harlem man after police shot him in 1943, I read media coverage of the same country in 2015 rising to fever pitch over the same abusive police practices in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and virtually everywhere else. How could anyone believe that much has changed?

Then one night in bed with my iPad Kindle app I got past the first few pages of The Princess Casamassima and realized that the hero of the novel, Hyacinth Robinson, is dirt poor. Not only that, the novel is actually about the remarkable class struggles in England mid-19th century, and how the Princess Casamassima becomes involved. (I refuse to read summaries of these books before reading, because of spoilers.) Here was a topic congruous with the struggles of Malcolm X!

The truth is, like James’s hero, poor Hyacinth Robinson, I love living vicariously in the cool, sophisticated salons of wealthy aristocrats. Gorgeous art, polished furniture, windows the size of walls opening out onto serene lawns, bibelots arranged on tables that cost a common man’s annual wages, rustling silk, shuffling servants — I find it all bedazzling. When the Princess Casamassima renounces her monumental possessions and turns to a London ghetto homestead for the cause of a rebellion against nobility, I feel a certain pleasure flicker and fade. Now whose splendor will sparkle through the rest of the book’s pages? Am I kidding myself that I want to read James for his characters’ wise and deep critical thinking processes? Am I really more smitten with their private landscapes, vast halls dressed in mirrors and paintings, their delicate teacups, spotless gloves and elegant manners?

I have not finished either book. I interject these reflections as a sort of album of snapshots mid-way. I just read a lovely piece by Adrian Nicole Leblanc in The New Yorker about the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who just died. The author's perspective reminded me of my own feelings reading the books I write about here. Is it possible to live in a world of ugliness, poverty, shame, degradation, violence, and find humor and warmth as photographer Mark did, to bring elegant thought and beautiful egoless observation and action into scenes of tragedy?


  1. All I can say, Ruth, is that you're brave to face these dichotomies, let alone write about them. I never get past "WHY?" and "There are no answers!"

    1. Yes, I hear you, Boots. The more I read and "learn" the less I seem to know. Maybe understanding that is the thing.

    2. Is it possible to live in a world of ugliness, poverty, shame, degradation, violence, and find humor and warmth as photographer Mark did, to bring elegant thought and beautiful egoless observation and action into scenes of tragedy?

      yes, it is possible. and indeed it is absolutely necessary. to not do so is to, in the words of jack gilbert from his poem - A Brief For The Defense, "...praise the Devil."

      strangely enough, recently i found myself inside of what might have been considered an argument (if i'd have participated, but instead i stood and let the racket of the attacks fall empty around me) about this very issue. someone i know and respect for his life's work as a social activist does not believe what you propose as possible, or perhaps more rightly, as laudable.

      we are talking about prime axioms, or first thoughts, how it is we want to approach the world. there is choice here at this point. i choose a world where, even when it is difficult, especially when it is difficult, to ply my paltry being and move toward joy. even jeffers, who spent his life on the outside of mainstream society, arrives at this very decision in his poem Going To Horse Flats.

      again and always, decision, choice. while we can not choose the world we move into, we can choose how we move into it and thereby influence what the world becomes.

      otherwise - i have to wonder, why live.

      it seems living is a crucible; we come into contact with such elements and forces. if we lean too far in any one direction we spend ourselves recklessly. somehow if we can extend ourselves in all directions, come into contact with all possibilities, being aware, acting thoughtfully, allowing goodness in horrific times, being humble (through awareness of the world's complexities and tragedies, and man's travesties) in times of good and plenty, the best outcome might result. don't we want to try to work toward the best outcome? sometimes i have to wonder...

      keep reading those best works on either end of the spectrum, ruth. touch all that you can and be touched. how fine it is to read how you are moved. moved, such an active word.)))

    3. Dear Erin, you remind me how connected we are, how we vibrate in this life together. The strength of your mind and heart are always here, and I so need them.

      It is a delight to share these thoughts together with you, and believe we are never separate.

    4. Erin, thank you for the poems, which I've read once and feel inside me, glowing. They are mine now.

  2. Here are some related thoughts from Rob Brezsny:

    Here are three of our deepest spiritual aspirations, which we invite you to
    steal for your own use:

    1. to develop the capacity to thrive in the midst of raging contradictions;

    2. to be discerning as we protect ourselves from people's flaws while at
    the same time being generous as we celebrate their beauty;

    3. to refrain from dividing the world into two groups, those who help and
    agree with us and those who don't

    + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

    "I've been practicing radical authenticity lately," my friend Brandon told
    me. "I'm revealing the blunt truth about unmentionable subjects to
    everyone I know. It's been pretty hellish -- no one likes having the social
    masks stripped away -- but it's been ultimately rewarding."

    "I admire your boldness in naming the currents flowing beneath the
    surface," I replied, "but I'm curious as to why you imply they're all
    negative. To practice radical authenticity, shouldn't you also express the
    raw truth about what's right, good, and beautiful? Shouldn't you unleash
    the praise and gratitude that normally go unspoken?"

  3. Gosh, as ever, so much to reflect on. Yes, the enticing, enchanted world of James - and money. The sadness and violence of so much African American life - now as then.
    So many impossible contradictions...
    How well you frame the questions we must/might ask.
    Rather like a snow globe - everything jumbled and tumbled.
    I inhabit the world of wealth and privilege (well, only just!) and profess to be a socialist. Bernie Sanders is the only politician who seems to make the least bit of sense.
    America is indeed "the land of the almighty dollar".

    Anyway, your reflections made me want to reflect more -and read more Henry James.
    Summer greetings.

    1. Elizabeth, thank you for reading, feeling and responding. When I see your IG photos, I relish that world you inhabit and love to see it through your eyes. I love Bernie Sanders. He may not ever be president, but he will help direct the conversation. This is so important. He is important.

      Always so good to connect with you. Maybe one day we'll meet in that world you inhabit.

  4. Superbe texte d'une grande puissance d'évocation. Beaucoup d'émotion ressentie à sa lecture. Merci pour ce partage.


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