Sunday, January 4, 2009

Are We Still Neighbors?

Fastidiousness can be hard on children...

This is the question that sadly came to my mind, when I read The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield. First published in 1924 and reprinted by Persephone Books, the novel concerns a fastidious housekeeper, Mrs. Knapp, who has three children, one of them unruly. She is praised by one and all for her spotless home, nutritious meals, clean children, and style, but she and her family are unhappy.

Her husband has a poetic nature and does poorly as a store clerk in the town dry goods store. On the day that he is fired from his job and contemplating his total worthlessness, he has a serious accident while helping a neighbor put out a house fire and permanently loses the use of his legs.

Living before the days of the New Deal or the Great Society as they do, the Knapps have to fend for themselves. Mrs. Knapp seeks employment and finds a job as a clerk in the same store that had employed her husband. Her style, dress, courtesy, and attention soon make her the top clerk, and a happier Mrs. Knapp soon becomes a manager.

Mr. Knapp, meanwhile, begins to emerge from his mental depression and take charge of his children, advising them from his bed downstairs on how to get out of the house and off to school, helping them with their homework, and making fatherly contact with his youngest rascal who begins to calm down under his father's attention. The Knapps are a happier family than at the book's opening.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: quite a lady

As a story, I found the plot a bit didactic. However, as a glimpse into the world of the first quarter of the last century, The Homemaker is interesting--especially in its depiction of the generosity of neighbors and friends when the Knapps are in greatest need.

Several weeks after Mr. Knapp's accident, "When the sick man began to improve... there were hours when the round of neighbors and helpers thinned out, when he was left in his bed in the dining room, a glass of water, a book, something to eat and the desk-telephone on a table by his side, with instructions to telephone if he needed anything.
"Don't you hesitate a minute now, Mr. Knapp," said old Mrs. Hennessy heartily; "if it's no more than to put a shovelful of coal on the kitchen fire, you call 14 ring 32 and I'll be right over."
"And when Stephen gets to acting up, just shake the window curtain real hard and I'll drop everything to come over and settle him," said Mrs. Anderson zestfully.

Later, the oldest of the children, Helen, explains to her aunt, how they have survived: "Oh, we manage all right. Father and us children keep the house.... He's able to be up in a wheelchair now. The janitor of the store's old father had a wheelchair and they didn't sell it after he died and it was up attic and he brought it to Father. He said Father had helped him out at the store when his little boy was sick. Oh, lots of folks from the store have come to help out. The delivery driver, he said he couldn't ever forget what Father did for him one time. He won't tell what it was because he's ashamed. Only he wanted to help out, too, and as long as we had to have a furnace fire he came in every morning and night to look out for the furnace. And he steps in daytimes now, when he's going by, to see if everything is all right. And old Mrs. Hennessy, she's the cleaning woman, she kept coming all the time to help and bring in things to eat, pies, you know! She came in nights and mornings when Father was so bad to do up the work and wouldn't take any pay for it."


willow said...

I had a fastidious mother. Maybe that's why I'm so layed back?

Linda said...

My mother was fairly fastidious but not oppressively so. I am bipolar--When I clean I really clean and I try for a while to keep it that way, then it disintegrates, especially if am working hard, but generally disintegrates, and then I go into a new cleaning frenzy and get it real clean again, and so on and so on. Mrs. Knapp, though, was focused on clean bath water and not the baby.

Linda said...

PS Who was the real homemaker?

Christina said...

In answer to your question, I would say that Mr. Knapp was the real homemaker, if the children were happier and more relaxed. Children need a modicum of order but not too much. As a mother and homemaker, I am challenged by the need to keep a balance between order and the frantic drive for order through cleaning and straightening up. I try to remember that peace, love, security, and mutual support are the characteristics of a happy home, and to limit my cleaning if it interferes with any of the above.

Christian said...

I have not read this book, but I was very struck by your description of it. It seems to suggest that people should find work that suits their gifts and personalities, not their genders. Now, I am not a feminist, but this book seems to make a strong case for a underlying tenent of feminism. Did you read it this way? And if so, what did you think of this message?

Linda said...

Thanks for your comments and questions. I have read short stories by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and do not find her to be a feminist in that way, in that she is not opposed to domesticity or to the domestic arts at all. I thought the character of the father was far more interesting and drawn in greater depth than the character of Mrs. Knapp, who seemed remote and who had no insight into her children. She blossoms in some way in the store but her personality does not really change; she is happier with this arrangement though. So I thought the plot was simplistic. I found it more interesting as a glimpse into other aspects of the early 20th century. She draws a very interesting portrait of the store owner also. As for gender roles not making a difference, many women want to have children and upon having them, want to stay home as much as possible with them. Other women are very unhappy at home, for whatever reason. Whether a woman wants to work at home or go out to work full or part time is to my mind a personal decision that she and her husband can make. Many single women have no choice unless they want to live on welfare--which I think is a poor choice. I do think that to have a loving mother who is happy is the best condition for raising children who feel secure and loved. So just as I do not think that women should be driven out of their homes to work by feminist domination or by their husbands, so I do not think that women should be forced to stay at home when their temperaments make it a misery to them.
What I think is that the domestic arts should be recognized and pulled out from under the heap of rubbish piled on them by the feminists. The domestic arts are important and are a civilizing force in society, not to mention the importance of the family.
I think this book is also very interesting as showing how Christianity and morality shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition in this country shaped culture and that charity was a norm--whereas today, we relegate charity to the care of bureaucrats, who do a very poor job of it.