Saturday, April 2, 2011
His Family: A 1916 Shocker
Interior Green Street by Daniel Garber. I imagine the Gale house in 1916 Manhattan with this ambiance--dark.
From the wiregrass country of Georgia in the 1850s, I zoomed up to New York City, time: 1916, with a reading of His Family by Ernest Poole. This book won the first Pulitzer Prize given for a novel.
Here on the verge of U.S. entry into World War I, Poole tells the story of an upper-middle-class widower, Roger Gale, as he attempts to hold together his family of three very different adult daughters.
His oldest is married with four children and pregnant with her fifth when the story opens. Edith is concerned, we are told, about 150 percent of the time with her children, and their well-being is the prism through which she sees the world. She is racing toward the suburbs, in terror of the tall-rise apartment buildings replacing the brownstones.
His next child, Deborah, is a school teacher in the tenement slums of New York City. "Down in my school we have a family of about three thousand children," says Deborah. Her ideas are painted in the most favorable light in the book.
The third sister, Laura, is rushing toward the flapper age and beyond as fast as her silk-stockinged legs can carry her. "What do you think the girls over there [in Europe] are going to do for husbands, with half the marriageable men either killed or hopelessly damaged? They're not going to be nuns all their lives!"
You can see that Roger has a real job on his hands. As each of these women are drawn by Poole, they represent a type rather than a fully developed character. Since their reactions are true to type, the novel is less of an exploration into the human heart than a dialogue of the views clashing in the cities during the second decade of the 20th century.
Poole's cleaving to ideas makes the book an eye-opener though. It is one thing to read history books about the avant-garde ideas emerging during the period before the Great War. It is another thing entirely to watch those ideas wreak havoc with a family. Since Edith is a reclusive mother, with little social involvement except that useful to social-climbing, she is regarded by both her younger sisters as a paragon of reactionary Victorianism, a despised burden on the family, and on humanity--even if her children might occasionally be enjoyed. (Somehow in the 20th century, motherhood must have made a comeback before it got knocked down again by Betty Friedan et al.)
Roger is a good man and vaguely an atheist, whose religion becomes distinctly Feuerbachian as the book proceeds: The great human family, which includes his own, becomes his highest universal. Neither he, nor the author it seems, notices that his lack of religious faith severely limits his ability to intervene successfully with his children.
With Deborah -- suffragette, volunteer social worker, and crusader for the poor -- and her friends, we see ideas that today we think of as being post-1960s, which are presented in a beneficent light:
Euthanasia--mercy killing, with or without the permission of the sick--should be permitted and is humane.
The old God of the religions is dead.
"Humanity" is the new god, replacing both God and any particular family as the object of devotion and loyalty.
Crimes, including second-degree murder, committed by poor people should not be treated as crimes, but such people should be given a chance, with opportunities in careers. Equality of opportunity and equality before the law are less important than economic equality.
Domestic life is not worthy of attention.
Motherhood must change: "All such mothers as you [Edith] are out of date and have got to change! ... We're bound together--all over the world--whether we like it or whether we don't! And ... if we want to keep out of war, we've got to do it by coming right out of our own little homes--and thinking, Edith, thinking," rages Deborah [emphasis not added]. Never does Deborah believe that the widowed Edith deserves a minutia of respect for the very difficult sacrifices she makes for her children. She and her brood are packed off for permanent residence in the country.
Poole frowns upon the rise of fascism in Italy and nails its goals accurately: "She [Laura] did not consider the war wholly bad.... It was clearing away a lot of old rubbish, customs, superstitions and institutions out of date. Musty old relics, she called them... She threw out hints about the church and even Christianity, as though it were falling to pieces. She spoke of a second Renaissance, 'glorious pagan era' coming.... She talked about a world for the strong, bits of gabble from Nietzsche and that sort of rot; she spoke blithely of Rome reborn, the 'Wings of the Eagles' heard again." Later, Roger reflects on his youngest: "She had hit it, struck the keynote of this new age. Rome reborn, all clean, old fashioned Christian living swept away by millions of men at each others' throats like so many wolves. And at last quite openly to himself, Roger admitted that he felt old. Old and beaten, out of date." Laura waltzes off to Europe.
Deborah--although in somewhat modified form--is the future, Poole seems to tell us. He was, not surprisingly, a socialist, and a journalist, who reported first hand on the Russian Revolution. His Pulitzer is, I think, an acknowledgment not of his artistry, but of his ability to write a book that mirrored his time and place. In this way, His Family puts the social issues of our own day in an interesting perspective.