“Black Boy” by Richard Wright

Black Boy

Black Boy was an instant best-seller when it was published in 1945, and has remained one of the best-selling books by the pioneering African-American writer, Richard Wright, who lived from 1908 until 1960. It is classed as an autobiography but it reads more like a novel. Wright was already famous as a writer of stories and essays, and his first novel, Native Son, had been an immediate best seller when it was published in 1941.

Notably, the version of Black Boy that became the best-seller is not the book we read today. Wright composed the book in two parts. Part One, called “Southern Night,” covers his youth in the South, and Part Two, called “The Horror and the Glory” and only half as long, covers his young adulthood in Chicago. Wright’s major point is that life in the South did not prepare him for life in the North; he had to go through a second childhood to learn the ways of the city.

The two parts are very different. The first part strives for mythic status; Richard presents himself as a stand-in for every poor black boy in the South who wanted to be respected as an individual. The second part is increasingly specific to his own life and loses its mythic status, as Richard tries to understand and justify his actions in Chicago. Because of this, his publisher persuaded him to release the first part on its own in 1945. This is justifiable on the grounds that it is a coherent and complete work of art, but for Richard it meant that his story was brutally truncated. In the 1990s, Wright’s original work was published whole as he had intended, and that is the version people read nowadays.

The book’s full title is Black Boy (American Hunger), and in it, Wright depicts spiritual and emotional hunger as well as the constant physical hunger of his youth. One of his major points is that racial discrimination deprives African-Americans of opportunities for self-realization and self-respect. He asserts that racism limits the emotional and cultural development of black people, so they have no idea of their own worth. Fortunately there has been enough progress toward equality that Wright’s depiction of racism in the South in the first half of the 20th century seems dated now, but in its time, it was incendiary because it was shocking to see a secret aspect of American society depicted so vividly.

Racism is not the book’s only subject. The boy Richard was permanently scarred by a peculiarly nightmarish childhood that deprived him of any form of worth. He defined the problem as one of racial discrimination, but I think his warped family situation made him dwell on this issue.

As a child, Richard is almost completely deprived of love and support. His closest relationship is with his mother, who routinely slaps him for asking too many questions or bringing up forbidden subjects. After she suffers a series of paralyzing strokes, the best she can do is to nag him weakly to do his best in school. As she becomes more helpless, he loses his sense of connection with her. Richard’s father abandons the family when Richard is 6, leaving them in abject poverty. His mother’s family takes them in, but they treat Richard like a little heathen.

The most excruciating part of his situation concerns religion. Richard’s grandparents and an aunt who lives with them are ardent 7th-Day Adventists who insist on a host of forbidding rules and are determined that Richard join their sect. As a boy who had experienced little in life beyond hunger and disrespect, Richard can’t accept any religious belief. Long passages are devoted to the Adventists’ efforts to recruit him, and the thoughts he has about spiritual beliefs as a child. In fact, one of his earliest experiences of self-realization is his unwillingness to accept their beliefs, and his inability to pretend that he does in order to fit in. This condemns him to total rejection by his mother’s family. After his mother converts to Methodism, she too tries to save his soul, and resorts to emotional pressure to get him to be baptized, but he soon returns to bitter skepticism.

Richard’s family sees him as a wayward boy whose actions are always bad, and you can see their point. At the age of 4, he burns the house down. Soon after, he kills a kitten. At age 6, he becomes an alcoholic. He learns to talk dirty before he learns to read. He taunts the Jewish store owner with the same kind of prejudice he is subjected to. He is paralyzed by shyness in school. He unwittingly sells racist tracts. He refuses to be punished for things he didn’t do, and uses a knife or straight razors to protect himself from his abusive relatives. When he graduates from 8th grade, he insists on giving the Valedictorian speech that he wrote himself rather than the one the principal wrote for him. As he grows older, he wants to read novels and write stories, the work of the devil in his families’ view. He wants to work on Saturdays, a holy day for the Adventists. After he gets old enough to work full time, he finds he will never be able to save enough money to escape North, so he resorts to participating in a scam for extra money, and finally engages in theft to get a stake. Wright presents all these incidents in novelistic detail, including his thoughts and feelings at the time.

His extreme poverty forced Richard to seek work at a very young age, and this is when he begins to encounter racial prejudice. Wright catalogs every sort of racial indignity that a boy could experience in the heart of the South, and he analyzes just how these experiences affected his development. White people expect black people to be totally and smilingly subservient, like slaves. No matter how hard Richard tries to conform, he seems uppity to the whites, who frequently bully him into leaving his job.

Wright’s childhood was so deprived— emotionally, spiritually, and economically—that his pursuit of knowledge and self-realization seems miraculous, totally inexplicable. He becomes an ardent reader despite the disapproval of his family and the scarcity of reading materials. His formal education is patchy due to poverty, but he is passionate about seeking knowledge, and adventure as well, through reading. Where did he get that passion? Where did he get the massive intelligence to digest all that material? Wright shows very few positive influences on his life.

Not surprisingly, Wright’s adult life in Chicago is considerably more complicated than his childhood in the South. No longer can he encapsulate his experience into a string of deftly drawn episodes; various aspects of his life overlap and intersect, and learning takes place over longer arcs. On the plus side, there is less public racial discrimination; he can sit anywhere on public transportation, and he doesn’t have to defer to white folks. But racial prejudices remain at a deeper level. This is true for Richard as well, who notices that even when white people try to treat him respectfully, he still assumes they are the same as white people in the South. His personality is so hardened that it is hard for him to form relationships.

Career-wise, Wright does rather well, though he never acknowledges this. He starts out as an errand boy and dishwasher, but he soon passes the exam for postal clerk. Meanwhile he reads all the important novels of his day and tons of sociology and psychology. During the Depression he becomes an agent for insurance and burial societies, discouraging work that nevertheless gives him access to the lives of a wide variety of poor black people. When that job dries up, a relief organization assigns him to be an orderly in a medical research institute. Finally he gets a job with the South Side Boys’ Club that he finds deeply engrossing. Later he is assigned to do publicity for the Federal Negro Theater, which is a writing job, at least; when that fails, he is assigned to do publicity for a white experimental theatrical company.

What really muddies his narrative is his relationship with the Communist party. Richard finally meets some people with similar social and philosophical views, and through them he gets drawn into the John Reed Club, a group of artists and writers which was associated with the Communist party. At first the theory of Communism, and its version of history, enthrall Wright, but he realizes the idealistic Communist activists are deeply ignorant of the life of ordinary black people. He is suspicious of them, but he is drawn in when they offer to publish some of his stories. From this point, his memoir becomes a messy recital of political manipulation, group rivalries, and Communist tactics as he is unexpectedly propelled into a leadership position in Chicago’s Communist party and just as unexpectedly demoted and reviled, as the international party becomes more rigid. After two chapters of ups and downs in the party, his relationship is finally ended definitively, and he concludes the book in a state of deep disillusionment, though nevertheless determined to continue writing.

In addition to racism, Wright struggles with rampant anti-intellectualism. His ardent and wide-ranging self-education plays a painfully ambivalent role in his life. On the positive side, reading is his only escape from his frustrating life; on the other, it automatically makes him unusual and suspect, not only among his family, but also his friends. As an adult, he talks like a person with a college education. This is an advantage in building his career, but it makes him suspect among other Negro members of the Communist party, who are mostly unlettered new arrivals to the North, because it identifies him with their white oppressors.

The first time I read this book, I was disdainful of the long passages of explanation and analysis, considering them to be artless. But the second time, the composition sounded seamless, and I realized that the development of the author’s understanding of life is an important part of the story. Wright desperately wanted to understand himself and to make himself understood, and his voice rings with probing sincerity in every word. Many critics believe Wright helped change racial relationships in America.

Black Boy
Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication Date: March 2007 (first published in 1945)

Contributor: Jan Looper Smith is an art educator who writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”

“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Clock Dance

Willa Drake—the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Clock Dance—is a self-defeating, self-effacing wimp.

Tyler divided Willa’s story into two parts. The first part consists of three situations in which Willa made self-defeating, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, type choices.

When she is eleven years old, Willa rejects both her parents in a prolonged pre-teen pout. It’s easy to see why she rejects her mother: she’s a moody person who sometimes leaves her family to fend for themselves, and then returns pretending that nothing has happened. Willa’s anger at her mild-mannered, even-tempered father, is harder to fathom. She seems to deliberately take offense at something he says in an effort to comfort her while her mother is gone. The reader is left to wonder the real reason she gets angry and refuses his love. Is it because he is too passive to confront her mother? Because he goes along with the pretense that everything is fine? Or is it because he doesn’t take seriously Willa’s effort to fill the gap?

By the time she is 21, Willa is so far gone that when the passenger on one side of her in a jet airplane threatens her life with a gun, she doesn’t react in any way. She doesn’t scream; she doesn’t question the guy about what he wants; she doesn’t alert her boyfriend on the other side of her; she doesn’t alert the stewardess who comes by. Her will is paralyzed. When she later tells her boyfriend, he is incredulous and discounts her story.

She and her boyfriend, Derek Macintyre, are flying to visit her parents because Derek wants to marry her. Where Willa is weak, Derek is willful and assertive. Willa wants to wait until she has finished college, but he wants to marry in the summer coming up and move to California to start his career. His plans are more important to him than her plans, which he discounts. Toward the end of their week-end visit, he announces their engagement to her parents. Her mother says all the right things: she points out that he isn’t looking at Willa’s side of things and what Willa would have to give up for him. And she particularly notes that Derek had brushed off Willa’s story of being threatened on the airplane, because it shows how he disrespects her. Derek confronts her mother in a way that her father never could, and calmly tells her off. Instead of being strengthened by her mother’s support, Willa reacts against it, and against her own best interests, by giving into Derek.

After 20 years of predictable life with Derek—giving up college to raise two sons, being the sort of dependable mom she wishes her mother had been—Willa is suddenly left to her own devices when Derek is killed in an accident caused by his own road rage. She feels helpless and incompetent, which is the way he had always treated her. She begins to wonder about the purpose of life, or simply ‘why bother?’ She had always wanted to be so reliable that her sons could take her for granted, but now she finds that being taken for granted is not very satisfying. She still longs for someone to take care of her, and to boss her around.

The real story, Part II, starts when Willa is 61 years old, and it opens with a call to another life, an offer she can’t refuse. It takes the form of a phone call from someone who mistakenly assumes that Willa is the grandmother of an 8-year-old girl whose mother had been shot in the leg, in her neighborhood in Baltimore. She wants Willa to take care of the girl, Cheryl, while her mother, Denise, is in the hospital. Willa is now married to Peter, who is the same type as Derek, and is living the same arid retirement life in Arizona that she would have had with him. Uprooted from her world in California, Willa feels her life is meaningless and boring. When she hears of a child in need of a grandma, she can’t resist the temptation to play the role. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she spontaneously makes a major decision, without consulting Peter, and books her flight to Baltimore. Her bid for independence is somewhat muted by his decision to accompany her, condescendingly assuming she can’t handle the flight by herself.

Peter is fairly helpful, or at least non-interfering, but his attention is still on his own world, his business associates and golf buddies. Willa adapts to her role as grandmother, which includes adapting to a colorful cast of characters in the poor but respectable neighborhood where Cheryl and Denise live. She becomes so engrossed in her new life that she barely notices when Peter goes back to his world in Arizona. Meanwhile she is developing self-reliance—learning to drive a strange car around a strange town, learning to make decisions and choices on her own, learning to appreciate ‘everyday people,’ learning, for the first time, to enjoy the absence of a man to dominate her life. And the reader keeps thinking she ought to go back to her husband. Or should she?

My usual preference is for novels that are intellectually challenging, with a difficult vocabulary and complicated sentences, with big ideas and heavy drama. But sometimes I need a vacation from all that, and then I turn to Anne Tyler. Clock Dance is her 21st novel, and I have read about half of them. Her themes are positive and life-affirming, but her stories don’t reek of sentimentality and preachiness because her style is so spare and understated. It’s like Quaker wood furniture—functional but not fancy, well-crafted but plain. Tyler is generous with homely detail and engaging minor characters, but she is spare in her depiction of Willa’s inner life. By leaving a lot unsaid, she forces the reader to use their imagination.

For me, Anne Tyler is consistently good, but never great. But that’s okay. It’s like simple home cooking compared to gourmet meals—sometimes that’s just what I need.

Clock Dance
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: July 2018

Contributor: Jan Looper Smith writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird

Recalling her reaction to reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, my friend said, “When I finished it, I just wished that everyone could be like Atticus Finch, or at least try.” Indeed. If only everyone could be decent and virtuous through and through. If only everyone would treat others with respect, regardless of their place in society. If only everyone could retain their faith in humanity in the face of prejudice and ignorance, in the face of threats against himself and his family. If only every parent could be gentle and understanding while setting firm limits. If only every man who was a dead-eye shot could avoid using a gun except when it is necessary to defend the community from a clear-cut danger.

Harper Lee intended for readers to long for decency. Not only that, but she spelled out exactly what she thought ‘decency’ and ‘right living’ means on a wide range of issues from large to small: what is justice, what is honor, what is duty; what is sympathy, what is courtesy, what is tact; what does it mean to love one’s neighbor; how does a reckless child learn to be a responsible adult? She demonstrated her code through both the actions and the words of her characters.

Far from being the utilitarian and sentimental potboiler that I expected, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of fiction. Harper Lee unfolds her stories in such a homely and leisurely manner that you don’t realize you’re taking in a systematic moral treatise at the same time.

The literary device that enabled the author to reveal the setting, the plot, and the characters slowly, in tiny easily digestible units, was using the viewpoint of Atticus’s daughter, a precocious little girl, in her eighth and ninth years, called Scout. Lee didn’t attempt to create a childish voice, but she depicted events in the way that Scout experienced them.

In order to deal with themes of racism and justice, the major plot has to do with the trial of a handicapped black laborer, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned by the judge to defend Tom, and he makes a very convincing case for Tom’s innocence, while knowing that the jury would never take the word of a Negro over that of a white man. When a mob threatens to lynch Tom, Atticus is prepared to defend him without using a weapon, sticking by his principles at the risk of his own life.

The subplot concerns a reclusive neighbor, known by the children as Boo. When he was a young man, Boo, whose real name is Arthur Radley, got in trouble with the law while hanging out with a gang of ruffians. His parents’ response was to keep him hidden at home. After 15 years of isolation, Arthur casually stabbed his father in the leg as he passed by. It is evident that he needs some kind of help, but his father refuses to let him go to an asylum, so he ends up back at home, even more isolated. When his parents finally die, his older brother Nathan moves in and continues Boo’s confinement.

Scout and her brother Jem, who is about 4 years older, and their summertime friend Dill, who is 8-10 years old, make the mysterious Boo into a dangerous monster. Sometimes they are afraid to pass his house; other times, they try to provoke him to show himself. Although they manage to rile his brother Nathan—who takes a pot shot at them when they enter the Radley place late at night in an effort to leave Boo a friendly note—Boo sees their gesture as friendly play, as it was intended. He responds by leaving tiny keepsakes in a hole in an oak tree, but mean Nathan cuts off that form of contact by filling the hole with cement.

The way these two plots are intertwined is a marvel to behold.

The man who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape is a shiftless, no-account white man, named Bob Ewell, who lives on welfare with a ragged bunch of motherless children next to the dump—quite literally ‘poor white trash,’ but still higher in the social pecking order than the lowly Negroes. His eldest daughter, Mayella, age 19—friendless and isolated, like Boo—becomes attracted to Tom Robinson when he passes her house each day on the way to and from his job working as a laborer on a nearby farm. Although his left arm is damaged and hangs useless, he is young and strong. His only fault is sympathizing with Mayella’s situation. He sees that she totally lacks support from her father and the younger children in the family, and he instinctively comes to her aid when she asks him to help with some task. When she takes advantage of the situation to kiss him and hold him in her arms, she seals his doom. Her father observes the embrace through a window and totally freaks out. He enters the house raging, and when Tom quickly departs, he proceeds to whack Mayella about the head and neck, not stopping until she is on the floor. Then he covers up his violence by accusing Tom of rape, and Mayella goes along with this in order to hide her shame.

The courtroom scenes where Atticus reveals the Ewells’ squalid life and the flimsiness of their accusations through patient and respectful questioning are great set pieces of sustained drama. The children look on from the balcony among the black community, who are stunned that any white man would put so much of himself into defending a black man. The raucous white people on the floor are temporarily subdued by doubt and suspense. After unexpectedly long deliberations, the all white male jury finds Tom guilty and sentences him to death. The injustice of the verdict hits the children and the reader like an anvil falling to the floor.

Though Bob Ewell gets his way in court, he is humiliated by the experience, and he vows to get Atticus if it takes the rest of his life. Instead of going directly for the attorney, he attacks Scout and Jem on Halloween night. Scout is saved by the chicken wire in her ham costume and rolls comically out of danger, but Ewell succeeds in twisting Jem’s arm behind his back and is on the verge of delivering a fatal blow with a jack knife, when he is overpowered by Boo, who stabs him to death with a kitchen knife. It is unclear to the children who saved them: Jem passes out and Scout’s vision is impeded by her awkward costume. When Sheriff Tate arrives on the scene, he quickly figures out what has happened, but he chooses to cover up the truth—by saying Ewell fell on his own knife—because saving the children’s lives would make him a hero in the small town, and he figures Boo would hate being the center of attention—it would be a kind of punishment.

The issue of killing mockingbirds is mentioned early in the book, when Atticus gives Scout and Jem air rifles for Christmas. He tells them never to point a gun indoors, and never to shoot a mockingbird, because killing a mockingbird is sinful. A friendly neighbor explains why: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” At the end, when Sheriff Tate decides to hide the truth about how Bob Ewell died, he explains: “To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin.” Scout understands this. She says, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” There’s a time for justice, and a time for mercy.

All this drama and high seriousness is interwoven with comical scenes, such as the hilarious Halloween pageant featuring children dressed as the agricultural products of the region. Or the meeting of the ladies’ Christian group that earnestly discusses the plight of some happy heathens, while freely engaging in un-Christian prejudice against members of their own community. Or Scout’s first day in school, when her teacher is reduced to tears by her own ineptitude and one of the younger Ewell children, who sasses her and walks out of school. Or Jem’s attempt to use a fishing pole to get a message to Boo in the middle of the night, and losing his pants in the process.

As appealing as this story is—full of homely detail, childish innocence, and colorful anecdotes—it is tempting to take it literally, but it is not a documentary, it is a story, a constructed piece of fiction. In fact it is a parable—a story with a moral. The characters have been idealized and simplified to illustrate certain principles.

I read this book because I wondered why it kept appearing on so many lists of best books and favorites. It appeals to our longing for basic human decency with subtle and refined artistry.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Publication Date: July 1960

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.

“Three Lives” by Gertrude Stein

Three Lives.jpg

Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives is a literary masterpiece that everyone admires, and no one reads. Of those who do read it, few understand it. The reason is that it is innovative on many levels, and innovations have the big drawback of being shocking and disorienting. The most shocking aspect is that the novel depicts women of the servant class with respect. The innermost lives of women who are generally overlooked and undervalued are studied with care and sympathy. The humble are raised up. In addition, Stein shows how being in service constricts their opportunity to develop a sense of self, and their lack of self-hood makes their lives futile.

The true subject of the novel is selfhood or authenticity; it’s about free will and self-awareness. The three lives represent three unsuccessful stages of development of self-awareness, not culminating in fulfillment. Stein embodies these stages in fully-drawn characters, and then immerses these protagonists in detailed renderings of their social scene, peopled by vivid minor characters.

The first story is called The Good Anna. Anna represents the perfect servant, according to certain parts of the German-American community who adhered to old world traditions in the early 1900s. She devotes herself to service, both in her job and in her private life. She lives by an elaborate set of rules and strives to control everything around her. Anna’s life story is told through her relationships with others. We learn the complete life histories of her dogs, and we meet the under-servants that she scolds constantly, but her principal relationships are with her employers. First there’s Miss Mary Wadsmith, “a large, fair, helpless woman, burdened by the care of her brother’s two children.” She manages that household for several years, until the girl gets married. Then Anna goes to work for Dr. Shonjen, a jovial bachelor doctor. When he gets married to a social-climbing woman, Anna goes to work for Miss Mathilda. This was the happiest period in Anna’s life:

With Miss Mathilda Anna did it all. The clothes, the house, the hats, what she should wear and when and what was always best for her to do. There was nothing Miss Mathilda would not let Anna manage, and only be too glad if she would do.

Anna’s only family is a half-brother, a wealthy fat baker, and his sharp-tongued wife. Anna does her duty, as she sees it, by their family, but she doesn’t really care about them, nor they about her. The romance in Anna’s life is Mrs. Lehntman, a widow who supports her two children by working as a midwife. Anna is entirely “subdued by her magnetic sympathetic charm.” Romance, Stein explains, is the ideal in one’s life. The way this plays out is that Anna helps Mrs. Lehntman in all her endeavors—especially tending to poor young girls who are pregnant and alone. The two remain friends for many years, though Anna disapproves of some of her friends’ actions and gradually gains a more realistic attitude toward her. Anna’s other friends are all needy and dependent. She spends all her spare income helping people who are sick, who have bad luck, who are too ignorant to care for themselves, who long to follow their dreams. She makes no effort to plan for her own future or to care for her own health.

Anna complains constantly about the failure of the people in her life to meet her high standards of behavior, but generally she finds both success and contentment in her work as a servant. But service is the only way of relating to people that she understands, and it is the basic rule of her life. When she comes to a point in her life when she can no longer work as a servant, she opens a boarding house, and basically works herself to death in the service of the poor young men who live with her. All of Anna’s employers and friends urge her to take better care of herself, but Anna is not really aware of herself. That is the problem: no sense of selfhood.

The third story is called The Gentle Lena. Lena represents a person who is totally lacking in self-determination; she is a good girl, meaning a good maid who does as she is told without complaining. Her passivity causes her to be pushed about; her lack of will or self-assertion condemns her to a short, unhappy life, ending in gray and miserable dissolution. Stein represents Lena’s sweet and gentle nature in a lovely passage:

Lena’s german voice when she knocked and called the family in the morning was as awakening, as soothing, and as appealing, as a delicate soft breeze in midday, summer. She stood in the hallway every morning a long time in her unexpectant and unsuffering german patience calling to the young ones to get up. She would call and wait a long time and then call again, always even, gentle, patient, while the young ones fell back often into that precious, tense, last bit of sleeping that gives a strength of joyous vigor in the young, over them that have come to the readiness of middle age, in their awakening.

When we first meet her, Lena’s life is an easy routine of housework and childcare, with an “unexacting mistress,” and she is fairly content. But Lena totally lacks will or self-determination:

Lena always saved her wages, for she never thought to spend them, and she always went to her aunt’s house for her Sundays because she did not know that she could do anything different.

Several times, the author describes her with this phrase: “She was always sort of dreamy and not there.” Her downfall starts when her bossy aunt succeeds in marrying her to an unaware gay man named Herman who appears to be as bland and obedient as she is, despite the fact that neither wants to marry. Herman is a tailor. He works for his father and lives with his parents in the house next door. Though the family is prosperous, they are stingy with money and lax in their grooming.

Lena began soon with it to look careless and a little dirty, and to be more lifeless with it, and nobody ever noticed much what Lena wanted, and she never really knew herself what she needed.

The worst part of living with Herman’s parents is that his mother harangues Lena constantly for not having their same stingy ways. Lena has no reassuring contact with old friends, who might come to her defense. Always dreamy, she becomes ever more absent and dull. When she gets pregnant, she is paralyzed with fear and sickness. The only way Lena gets any relief is through the help of an old cook who intervenes on her behalf and starts a process that leads to Lena and Herman getting a separate house after the child is born. But neither having her own place nor motherhood is enough to lift her out of her despair.

This did not seem to make much change now for Lena. She was just the same as when she was waiting with her baby. She just dragged around and was careless with her clothes and all lifeless, and she acted always and lived on just as if she had no feeling. She always did everything regular with the work, the way she always had had to do it, but she never got back any spirit in her.

Herman’s sense of self is awakened by his strong desire to be a father, and the pair have two more children. Herman takes over the care of the children, while Lena becomes more and more lifeless. Lena’s fourth baby is still-born, and she dies giving birth as well. Except for the ‘good german cook,’ no one cares. In fact, now Herman can raise his family without having to worry about her.

These two stories serve as book-ends or supports for the central story, Melanctha. Melanctha is a seeker. She says she wants to know the world, but what she is really looking for is unconditional love, expressed as unbridled passion. When you dig down into the depths of this story, you learn that she was unloved in childhood, both by her pale, ineffective mother and her absent brute of a black father. A psychologist might say that she never learned to love herself because her parents didn’t show her much love. Early in childhood, she developed a cheery and helpful personality that hid her emotions and prevented her from making authentic contact with people. No one can ever love her enough to make up for her parents’ neglect.

While Stein makes women from German culture represent suffocating tradition, she reaches into the African-American community to create a character on a quest. Her father is black, but her mother is described as a pale yellow colored woman. Stein makes much of the fact that Melanctha is half-white. Her personality combines the stereotypical attributes of the two races: smart and articulate like white people; passionate and wild like black people, all this according to the stereotypes of the time.

When we first meet Melanctha she is in high school and just beginning to explore the world of men. When she gets out of school, she doesn’t seek employment. Just how she gets by is not explained, except to say that occasionally she does a little sewing for people. She spends more and more time hanging about with men; while she might not be hooking, she might be receiving various favors from admirers that help her get by. None of this is stated. Her circumstances are not important to the story. The story that Stein wanted to tell was about her inner life.

After a lot of romantic and sexual adventure, described in very vague terms, Melanctha rises to the point of engaging in a romantic relationship with a serious and virtuous doctor from the black community. The development, culmination, and decline of their romance is rendered with greater intimacy than any other fictional romance I know: we see exactly what Melanctha and the doctor think of each other at each stage of the process. From the beginning, they argue about authenticity. Doctor Jeff is a thinker, and has a lot of ideas about virtuous living that he likes to expound. Melanctha accuses him of ignoring his own principles; she says his behavior is not so virtuous as he likes to think. On the other hand, Doctor Jeff doesn’t quite trust Melanctha; she always seems to be holding something back.

Despite these initial misgivings, the two are attracted to each other. Melanctha grows to like Doctor Jeff’s warm and generous ways. Jeff is attracted by her beauty and her ability to articulate her thoughts, and he is charmed by the sympathetic way Melanctha listens to his incessant ruminations. Melanctha begins to hope he can make her feel secure. Their earliest conversations seem to be very authentic, each one expressing their truth sincerely. Stein allows them months of blissful wandering in nature and enjoyment of each other’s company.

But there is a fly in the ointment, and that is the original question of authenticity. At the peak of their bliss, Melanctha does something, just some random gesture, that reminds Jeff of her other life, her life with other men, the world she doesn’t talk about while she is listening to him so demurely. And in fact, Melanctha is not quite satisfied with Jeff either; she still thinks he is out of touch with his emotions; she secretly thinks he is sort of a wimp, but she has been submissive because she wants to please him. Stein depicts every step in the unwinding of their relationship. In the course of their arguments, they seem to cover every aspect of the search for authenticity that any psychologist ever identified, though they use everyday language, and are not sure themselves just what they are talking about.

Doctor Jeff drives himself crazy with too much thinking, but eventually he figures out that he was right all along. He rejects Melanctha’s claim that he is hypocritical and inadequate; he rejects her neediness that manipulates him into expressing more than he feels; he rejects her inability to talk about her past life. He sees that some place along the way, she quit talking to him sincerely like an equal, and started putting on an act in order to bind him to her. Slowly and painfully, Doctor Jeff backs away, and resumes his quiet, virtuous life.

Melanctha, on the other hand, is unable to learn from the experience. She doesn’t quite achieve a level of self-awareness that would enable her to learn from her mistakes; she is all instinct, driven by unquenchable psychological needs. Generously, Stein allows her to meet the man of her dreams and to have the perfect all-encompassing romance, for awhile; but the man is a gambler, and when his luck runs out, his love fades as well. Players only love you when they’re playing.

The strongest character in Melanctha’s life is Rose Johnson. Rose is described as careless, negligent, and selfish, but she is completely authentic: she always knows what she wants, she always has an idea of how to behave to get what she wants, she always has faith in herself. Melanctha becomes more attached to Rose than to any of the men in her life, and will demean herself with any sort of service in order to be with her. But even Rose eventually rejects her. She too becomes concerned about Melanctha’s other life, her secret interactions with unspecified men. She hates that Melanctha’s self-defeating behavior patterns. She gets sick of her simpering submissiveness, hiding a wild and promiscuous personality. She totally disdains Melanctha’s whimpering threats to end her own life.

Stein handles the rest of Melanctha’s life in summary fashion. She gets very sick, with consumption or something; she gets well after long treatment. She takes an actual job as a servant, and attempts to live a quiet regular life, but her health is compromised, and she dies young. Sad story.

An aspect of the novel that sounds harsh to the modern ear is Stein’s use of stereotypes in building her African-American characters, including the use of the word ‘nigger.’ However, you notice that she uses positive as well as negative character types, and she makes each character rise above type into eccentricity and particular traits. Moreover, her German characters are all stereotypes as well. All the characters conform to some known type, but the way they talk and the details of their lives are highly individualized and convincing.

On top of innovations in subject, theme, and structure, Gertrude Stein invented her own writing style, an elusive style that sometimes serves as a barrier because people reject its lack of conformity. The most obvious feature is repetition—repetition of descriptive phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs. Characters may be described with the same phrase in one situation after another, but each time that phrase relates to new phrases. She treats phrases like shapes that can be repeated in different parts of the picture. Whole anecdotes might be told in the beginning and repeated at the end of a story. For instance, Melanctha’s story opens with an event in a friend’s life: Rose Johnson has a hard time with her baby. That anecdote is repeated toward the end of Melanctha’s story, after we learn a lot about Rose and Melanctha.

This aspect of Stein’s style has been compared to Cubist painting, because it looks at a subject from different angles, and builds up a picture from layers. Repetition of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs also makes it sound like music; repetition is like the chorus in a song. These stories sound a little like long ballads.

For the critics of Stein’s time—who were steeped in the stilted prose of the 19th century and enthralled by the elaborate sentences of Marcel Proust and James Joyce—the ordinary, everyday quality of Stein’s language and sentence structure must have seemed primitive. Stein’s vocabulary is about 6th grade level, maybe lower, the type of words used by the servant class. The most complex psychological concepts are alluded to vaguely by everyday words, vernacular speech for German maids and women in the lower levels of the black community.

Stein also minimized punctuation: no colons or semi-colons, only commas allowed, and only when really necessary. Similarly, no capitol letters: she refers to ‘german’ girls. More remarkable, Stein doesn’t use subordinate conjunctions, like ‘although’ or ‘since’, to show relationships between facts or ideas. She tends to string simple sentences together with ‘and,’ piling up details one at a time. Nor does she use a lot of modifying prepositional phrases, such as ‘despite her reluctance…’ The result is, the novel can be read very rapidly; it sounds like ordinary conversation. Stein’s style is so fluid that she moves in and out of the thoughts of various characters without the reader noticing the changes from one to another. If you let down your resistance, the novel sounds like a long sad song cycle.

Three Lives is a hard book to put down. It sort of seeps into your soul. The only answer is to go on to Stein’s next major work, The Making of Americans, as I plan to do.

Three Lives
Author: Gertrude Stein
First published 1909

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.