Another hot and humid fourth Thursday ZOOM Meeting.  This time we tackled Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel   “The Plot Against America.”        Revelers were Bill Briscoe, Sarona Burchard, Jay Carr, Phil Watts and John Hawn.  John Sturman guided the discussion with great aplomb. 

This novel is an unusual combination of alternative history and fictionalized autobiography told by a very bright “tween” raised in a secular Jewish family in New Jersey during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Alternative history is difficult to write.    While the author has freedom to invent facts and events, the invention needs to be embedded in a factual, realistic universe or the whole project fails.  We agreed that Roth’s granular depiction of family life gave the work a verisimilitude that made it almost believable.  Nevertheless, frequent checks with wikipedia were necessary to keep things straight.  Roth tried to help us out bu giving us a post-script with thumbnail biographies of all the real-life players in the novel.  Tellingly, he did not include Hitler in this collection.

Zeroing in on 1940, Roth’s conceit is that Roosevelt loses the presidential election to the isolationist Charles Lindbergh.  In real life, Lindbergh was the spokesperson for the America First Committee.  He was primarily an isolationist and somewhat tolerant of Hitler.  We thumb our nose today at America First, but Charley was in good company as Sergeant Shriver and Potter Stewart were also prominent speakers for AFC..  The protagonist is immersed in paranoia as anti-semitism seems to be everywhere.  After two years of chaos, Lindbergh mysteriously disappears and after winning a special election, FDR returns to defeat Hitler and save the nation.

KV had one of his characters in “Cat’s Cradle” say:  “and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.”  Roth does include two Hoosiers in this work.One was a former history professor from Wabash College who lost his job due to the depression and was forced to be a very talkative tour guide in our nation’s capital.  The other was the philandering Wendell Willkie from Elwood, IN,  who actually did run against FDR in 1940.  Lindbergh did not run but his name was bruited about as a third party candidate.   We thought that this  book emphasized the value of a close-knit community, something dear to the heart of KV.  

Roth seemed to experience some authorial fatigue as the book ends rather suddenly, just tailing off.    There was some renewed interest in the novel as many saw some parallels between Lindbergh and Trump.  The novel was serialized as a six part TV series on HBO on 2020.  It doesn’t seem likely that there will be a second season.

Philip Roth was a secular Jew who hated religion.  He was dedicated to his writing and considered himself an American.  He had no truck with hyphenated nationalities.  He was known to be a very hard working writer.  His second wife, destined to be an ex, said that he wrote eight hours every day and read four hours every night.   By 2010, he was exhausted as a writer and after completing some thirty novels was pessimistic about the future of literature.  He died in 2018 at the age of 85.

We gave this work an 8.2 on the splendiferous KV ten point scale.  Our next book will be Kate Chopin’s  1899 novel “The Awakening” is a pioneering work of feminism examining the struggles of an unorthodox white woman in the post-bellum American South.  Please join us by ZOOM at 11AM onThursday,  September 23, 2021.  I will send out the ZOOM link as soon as I receive to all on the email list and anyone else who would like to join us.  This is a short work of about 144 pages and is available at little cost on Amazon.  Hope to see you then!

Excerpted from Wikipedia.

 Plot Against America is a novel by Philip Roth published in 2004. It is an alternative history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. The narrator and central character in the novel is the young Philip, and the care with which his confusion and terror are rendered makes the novel as much about the mysteries of growing up as about American politics. Roth based his novel on the isolationist ideas espoused by Lindbergh

in real life as a spokesman for the America First Committee,[1] and on his own experiences growing up in Newark, New Jersey. The novel received praise for the realism of its world and its treatment of topics such as antisemitism, trauma, and the perception of history. The novel depicts the Weequahic section of Newark which includes Weequahic High School from which Roth graduated. A miniseries adaptation of the novel aired on HBO in March 2020.

The novel is told from the point of view of Roth as a child growing up in Newark, New Jersey, as the younger son of Herman and Bess Roth. It begins with aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who is already criticized for his praise of Hitler‘s government, joining the America First Party. As the party’s spokesman, he speaks against US intervention in World War II and openly criticizes the “Jewish race” for trying to force US involvement. After making a surprise appearance on the last night of the 1940 Republican National Convention, he is nominated as the Republican Party‘s candidate for president.

Although criticized from the left and feared by most Jewish Americans, Lindbergh musters a strong tide of popular support from the South and the Midwest and is endorsed by Conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of Newark. Lindbergh wins the 1940 election over incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide under the slogan “Vote for Lindbergh, or vote for war.” Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler is Lindbergh’s vice president, and Lindbergh nominates Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior. With Lindbergh now in the White House, the Roth family begins to feel like outsiders in American society.

Lindbergh’s first act is to sign a treaty with Nazi Germany and Hitler that promises that the United States will not interfere with German expansion in Europe, known as the “Iceland Understanding,” and another with Imperial Japan that promises noninterference with Japanese expansion in Asia, known as the “Hawaii Understanding.” The new presidency begins to take a toll on Philip’s family. Philip’s cousin Alvin joins the Canadian Army to fight in Europe. He loses his leg in combat and comes home with his ideals destroyed. He leaves the family and becomes a racketeer in Philadelphia. A new government program, the Office of American Absorption (OAA), begins to take Jewish boys to spend a period of time living with exchange families in the South and Midwest to “Americanize” them. Philip’s older brother Sandy is one of the boys selected, and after spending time on a farm in Kentucky under the OAA’s “Just Folks” scheme, he comes home showing contempt for his family, calling them “ghetto Jews.”

Philip’s aunt, Evelyn Finkel, marries Rabbi Bengelsdorf and becomes a frequent guest of the Lindbergh White House. Her attendance of a state dinner party for German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop causes further strain in the family. A new version of the Homestead Act of 1862, called Homestead 42, is instituted to relocate entire Jewish families to the Western and Southern United States. Many of Philip’s Newark neighbors move to Canada. Philip’s shy and innocent school friend, Seldon Wishnow, an only child, is moved to tiny Danville, Kentucky, with his widowed mother, Selma.

I

n protest against the new act, the radio personality Walter Winchell openly criticizes the Lindbergh administration on his nationwide Sunday night broadcast from New York and is fired by his sponsor. Winchell then decides to run for president in 1944 and begins a speaking tour. His candidacy causes anger and anti-Semitic rioting in the South and the Midwest, and mobs begin targeting him. While addressing an open-air political rally in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 5, 1942, Winchell is shot to death. Winchell’s funeral in New York City is presided over by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who praises Winchell for his opposition to fascism and pointedly criticizes Lindbergh for his silence over the riots and Winchell’s assassination.

As he is returning from delivering a speech in Louisville on October 7, 1942, Lindbergh’s plane goes missing. Ground searches turn up no results, and Vice President Wheeler assumes the presidency. German State Radio discloses “evidence” that Lindbergh’s disappearance and the kidnapping of his son were part of a Jewish conspiracy to take control of the US government. The announcement incites further anti-Semitic rioting. Wheeler and Ford, acting on the Nazis’ evidence, begin arresting prominent Jewish citizens, including Henry Morgenthau Jr., Herbert Lehman, and Bernard Baruch as well as Mayor La Guardia and Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Seldon calls the Roths when his mother does not come home from work. They later discover that Seldon’s mother was killed by Ku Klux Klan members who beat and robbed her before setting fire to her car with her in it. The Roths eventually call Sandy’s exchange family in Kentucky and have them keep Seldon safe until Philip’s father and brother drive there and bring him back to Newark. Months later, Seldon is taken in by his mother’s sister. The rioting stops when First Lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh makes a statement that asks for the country to stop the violence and move forward. With the search for President Lindbergh called off, former President Roosevelt runs as an emergency presidential candidate in November 1942 and is re-elected. Months later, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the US enters the war.

Aunt Evelyn recounts a theory of Lindbergh’s disappearance, the source for which is First Lady Lindbergh, who disclosed the details to Evelyn’s husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, shortly before she was forcibly removed from the White House and held prisoner in the psychiatric ward at Walter Reed Army Hospital. According to Evelyn, after the Lindberghs’ son, Charles, was kidnapped in 1932, his murder was faked, and he was then raised in Germany by the Nazis as a Hitler Youth member. The Nazis’ price for the boy’s life was Lindbergh’s full co-operation with a Nazi-organized presidential campaign by which they hoped to bring the Final Solution to the US. When Lindbergh informed them that the US would never permit such a thing, he was kidnapped, and the Jewish conspiracy theory was put forward in hopes of turning the US further against its Jewish population. Philip admits that Evelyn’s theory is the most far-fetched and “unbelievable” explanation for Lindbergh’s disappearance, but “not necessarily the least convincing.”

Inspiration[edit]

Roth stated that the idea for the novel came to him while he was reading the unpublished galleys for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.‘s autobiography in which Schlesinger makes a comment that some of the day’s more radical Republican senators wanted Lindbergh to run against Roosevelt. The title appears to be taken from that of a communist pamphlet published in support of the campaign against Burton K. Wheeler‘s re-election to the US Senate in 1946.   The novel depicts an antisemitic United States in the 1940s. Roth had written in his autobiography, The Facts, of the racial and antisemitic tensions that were a part of his childhood in Newark. Several times in that book, he describes children in his neighborhood being violently attacked simply because they were Jewish.

Reception[edit]

Roth’s novel was generally well received. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, exploring the book’s treatment of Lindbergh in some depth, calls the book “painfully moving” and a “genuinely American story.”[2]

The New York Times review described the book as “a terrific political novel” as well as “sinister, vivid, dreamlike, preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible.”[3]

Blake Morrison in The Guardian offered high praise: “The Plot Against America creates its reality magisterially, in long, fluid sentences that carry you beyond skepticism and with a quotidian attentiveness to sights and sounds, tastes and smells, surnames and nicknames and brandnames—an accumulation of petits faits vrais—that dissolves any residual disbelief.”[4]

Writer Bill Kauffman, in The American Conservative, wrote a scathing review of the book and objected to its criticism of the movement of which Lindbergh was a chief spokesperson, which is sometimes referred to as isolationist but Kauffman sees as antiwar, in contrast to Roosevelt’s pro-war stance. He also criticizes its portrayal of increasing American antisemitism, in particular among Catholics, and for the nature of its fictional portrayals of real-life characters like Lindbergh, claiming it was “bigoted and libellous of the dead,” as well as for its ending, featuring a resolution to the political situation that Kauffman considered a deus ex machina.[5]

Many took the novel as something of a roman à clef for or against the George W. Bush administration and its policies,[6] but though Roth was opposed to the Bush administration’s policies, he denied such allegorical interpretations of his novel.[6]

In 2005, the novel won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction given by the Society of American Historians.[7] It won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History,[8] was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award,[9] and came in 11th for the 2005 Locus Awards.[10]

Analysis[edit]

Antisemitism[edit]

The similarities between modern anti-Zionism in western countries and the antisemitic policy decisions of the 20th-century Lindbergh government in the novel are highlighted by Jewish writer Mike Berger.[11] Berger discusses how in both situations, the targeting and ostracization of the Jewish population is masked in government and high society by making the criticism of Jewish people appear reasonable in focusing on their isolation and failure to assimilate with the majority white culture.[11] From this implicit condoning of prejudice against Jewish communities, many antisemitic individuals and groups become emboldened to carry out acts of violence and discriminate against Jews, as seen in the novel.[11]

English Professor T. Austin Graham argues that the gradual escalation of antisemitic government policy carries a lingering, dreadful possibility of full-scale holocaust across the novel.[12] He argues that the novel also shows how many Jewish families like the Roths are also severely affected by the major shift in the “collective American psyche” that leads to wide-scale rioting akin to the events of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany.[12]

Identity[edit]

Mike Berger asserts that Roth captures the “essence” of Jewish identity in the novel with lines that describe the characters’ identities as being “as fundamental as having arteries and veins,” contributing to an understanding of a “deep” identity as being the total merging of the individual and the collective.[11]  

Trauma[edit]

The issue of trauma on a personal and group level is an important theme of the novel, which professor Aimee Pozorski believes is demonstrated by Roth’s use of skewed time- “a kind of traumatic time that conflates the present moment with an unassimilated past”- to create the sense that the novel is a relived experience of a past trauma that may be able to offer new insights on the experience.[13] Pozorski states that the novel juxtaposes America’s founding with the reality of its founding principles being torn apart to tell a reimagined Holocaust narrative.[13]

The novel’s use of a child character as the principal point of view and the filtering of the novel’s horrific events through the child’s lens also highlights how future generations are more heavily impacted by traumatic events.[13] Such an impact could dramatically reshape personal and cultural identities.[13]

Historiography[edit]

Professor Jason Siegel claims that Roth wrote The Plot Against America in order to challenge the linear perception of history.[14] Rather than a single, objectively told narrative where every event serves a purpose, Roth proposes that historiography is characterized by the competition between conflicting “plots” and narratives aiming to forward agendas that suit the interests of those dealing with unresolved conflict in the present.[14] He does this by depicting how the battle between two alleged plots – the Jewish and fascist plots to take over the United States – shapes the course of the nation’s future and impacts the perspective and experience of different social groups in different ways.[14] Roth redefines historical truth as the multiplicity of experiences and narratives of all people, and cautions that American history “remains perpetually unwritten and myriad.”[14]

Parallels to the 2016 Presidential Election[edit]

After of Donald Trump to the US presidency, reviewers noted the presence in The Plot Against America of a character who bears a resemblance to Trump. The cousin, Alvin, the 2016 electiongoes to work for a Jewish real-estate developer whose description closely matches Trump.[15] Roth was interviewed in The New Yorker about similarities between his novel and the election of Trump. Roth responded, “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero … Trump is just a con artist.”

It was a beautiful day here in the Circle City, but we didn’t care because we were indoors, ZOOMING our discussion of Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile.”  Erik went on for 500 pages exhaustively plumbing the diaries and writings of Churchill and his “U” crowd.  Only about half of us made it all the way through.

Big talkers were our discussion leader, John Sturman along with Gene Helveston, Jay Carr,  Mark Hudson, Sarona Burchard, Bill Briscoe, and Dave Young. 

We can’t just keep on reading Kurt’s books, because there just aren’t enough of them.  Over the last 12 years we have tried to stay in his spirit by reading various war novels and memoirs.  Ones we have covered bearing on the WW2 European Theatre of Operations were Catch 22 (January 2012 and August 2016); Citizens of London (October 2019) and In the Garden of Beasts (April 2021).   We have, of course, dealt with Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night multiple times.   Today, we gave Erik another chance to entertain us with his highly detailed and (apparently) meticulously researched tome showing us what was going on with Churchill  during his first year as PM  beginning on May 10, 1940.  A major theme was Churchill’s not-so-subtle attempt to involve FDR in the battle.  It was a delicate balance considering England’s pride and American isolationists, including the former ambassador, Joe Kennedy.   America answered Churchill’s prayers and entered the War in December, 1941.

Gene told us about a somewhat related book “The Sphinx” (1979) by Hugo Vickers.  This is a biography of Gladys Deacon (1881-1977) who was the mistress (and later spouse) of Charles Spencer Churchill, a first cousin to Winston and styled “The Duke of Marlborough.”  Just can’t disassociate that name from Nicotine!

Anyway, this led to a discussion of the way upper-class British women used sex to advance themselves.  This didn’t seem to happen in American politics.  Even though there was plenty of sex the  American women were usually not well rewarded (except for our current Vice-President).

Larson got to KV right off the bat.  In  “A Note to Readers” he opined “The year [Churchill’s first as P.M.] ended on a weekend of Vonnegutian violence, when the quotidian and the fantastic converged to mark what proved to be the first great victory of the war.”   That weekend, May 10, 1941 is captured in Larson’s book, pages 464 to 483.   Hitler ramped up his attacks on England and over 5,000 Brits were killed in the month of May.  Nevertheless, the country held up.  The RAF improved its night defenses and kill rate;  Hitler’s aide Rudolf Hess defected, and Hitler turned his sights onto the Russian front.  Things were looking up.  The Vonnegut scholars among us thought that Larson had KV’s story diagrams in mind.  The arc of the story peaks at the worst time and then the good stuff unfolds.  I guess KV laid all of this out in an essay in “Palm Sunday.”   Somehow this fits into KV’s diagrammed Story Arc #1 – The Man in the Hole.  Anyway, I prefer not to associate Kurt with violence.

John referred to the two reviews:  a favorable one in the New York Times and a very critical review in the WAPO by Gerald DeGroot.  I have attached the DeGroot review to this summary as it is very sobering and speaks to our times when the myths that built America are under attack by another set of myths that sees America as the villain in everything that is wrong in the world.  In my graduate courses in historiography many years ago I learned that history is always written by the winners who are eager to support the myths that make their rule appear legitimate.  History is a tool to motivate and manipulate the masses.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  The masses and the ruling class may have many common interests.  Another set of rulers with their own set of myths would not automatically result in a better society.  There will always be rulers.

England did not prevail just because of the “great man” Churchill and the stiff-upper lipped British aristocracy.  It was the mighty British industrial engine, grimy and brutish,  that ground out the war materiel that frustrated the Luftwaffe.  Lord Beaverbrook, despised as a human being but recognized as essential to keep the factories humming, was a key player.  The real heroes were the deplorables;  the filthy miners, and the besotted assembly workers.  They had no internet, no voice, no champion.  They threw Winston Churchill out on his ass as soon as the war was over.  As H.L. Mencken wrote in “A Little Book in C Major’ (1916): “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

We felt that Larson was too caught up in his sources.  All of those diaries (the Brits seemed to be damned good at writing everything down) filled with minutia could not be overlooked.  So we had numerous descriptions of Churchill rambling about his quarters either naked or in strange sleeping gear while holding a soggy cigar in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other.  All the while, aides and secretaries coming in and out to take orders and dictation. Although his treatment of Churchill was hagiographic, he did not hesitate to show his warts.  Like our 45th President, Churchill loved the adoration of crowds and absorbed their energy.  He loved to take dangerous and reckless motor trips to bombed out villages to cheer on the survivors.  Being of short stature and perhaps unwilling to stand on the seat of his limo, he would often put his signature bowler hat on his cane and raise it far above his head so the people would know he was among them.  Can you imagine Charles DeGaulle doing such a thing?,.

Bill, who knows everything there is to know about Kurt’s old college frat,  Delta Upsilon, informed us that Winston’s maternal grandfather,  Leonard Jerome, was at DU at Union College in the early 19th Century.   And what’s more, Joe Kennedy, who graduated from Harvard College in 1912 was also a DU.  Joe was also admitted to Hasty Pudding, but was black-balled by The Porcelain Club, presumably because he was not White enough for the Porcs.

We ramped up our book choices and are set for the next three months.  On 8/26/21, Bill and Susie Briscoe will lead a discussion on Philip Roth’s dystopian novel “The Plot Against America” (2004 – 362pp)) This is an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election and the ensuing mess gives Roth a chance to rail against anti-semitism.   Then, on September 23 2021, Jay Carr will help us through an early American feminist novel “The Awakening” (1899 – 144pp) by Kate Chopin.  Set in New Orleans it is all about how an unorthodox woman struggles against the ethos of the American South.   Finally, on October 28, 2021,  Dave Young will moderate a discussion of “The Anthropocene Reviewed” (2021 – 274 pp) by our local hero John Green.  This book is derived from Green’s podcasts and comes in 35 chapters rating various icons of American Culture.   These three books are a little shorter than our last work and can be had from Amazon for a total of about $35 bucks.

So, please join us at 11AM on Thursday,  August 26, 2021, when Bill and Susie will lead us through Roth’s “Plot.”  This will be a ZOOM meeting hosted by John Sturman.  I will relay the ZOOM link out to all of our regulars and friends as soon I get it.

Dave Young

*****************************************************

Winston Churchill and the power of English myth

By Gerard DeGroot

Gerard DeGroot is emeritus professor of history at the University of St. Andrews.

February 28, 2020

On Aug. 17, 1940, John Colville, Winston Churchill’s private secretary, was walking in the Sussex countryside when he came upon a downed German bomber. It was, writes Erik Larson in “The Splendid and the Vile,” “an alien mechanical presence” — a rude anomaly lying in “classically English” countryside. He senses a metaphor suitable to the war: brutal German modernity assaulting a serene English Elysium. Kultur attacking Culture.

Appearances, however, are deceptive; they encourage dangerous myth. The English have always promoted that Elysium, carefully hiding away the coal mines and cotton mills that were the real foundation of their strength. William Blake abhorred that dirty secret of industrial power, as did Rupert Brooke. In his poem “Jerusalem” (1804), Blake insisted that the real England was the “green & pleasant Land,” not the “dark Satanic Mills.” That word “England” is itself intentionally exclusionary, since it rejects those from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who do not apparently conform to standards of pastoral civility.

Larson, a neophyte when it comes to British history, falls victim to entrenched English propaganda. His book, which chronicles the period from May 1940 to May 1941, when Churchill supposedly saved “England,” is firmly rooted in that green and pleasant land, conveniently ignoring those dark satanic mills. While war rages, his protagonists attend debutante balls at posh hotels and shoot partridges in the “cool green of the countryside.” “The girls rode bicycles and horses, played tennis, swam, went to the movies, and danced with airmen at nearby RAF bases, occasionally bringing them back for . . . ‘snogging’ sessions in the hayloft.” This was war, but not as most Britons actually knew it.

Churchill was a trickster, a brilliant propagandist who understood the power of English myth. He intentionally played on Arthurian imagery to coax gullible Americans into the war. A common trope was “England Alone,” a vulnerable waif brutally raped by the Hun. The myth of Churchill single-handedly inspiring a country to gargantuan feats remained immensely popular in the immediate aftermath of the war. It was, however, demolished in the 1970s and 1980s by historians like Angus Calder and Paul Addison, who exposed the real nature of Britain’s wartime strength — a strength rooted in her factories.

Larson, sadly, falls for the old propaganda, rendering this a rather old-fashioned book. He carelessly uses England and Britain interchangeably, never bothering to explain the subtle but important semantics of a diverse kingdom. He writes of Hitler’s bombing campaign against England, as if Welsh and Scottish cities were not also attacked. In one particularly atrocious reference, he writes, “It was here in Glasgow that the most important moment of [Harry] Hopkins’s stay in England would occur.” The issue might seem petty to outsiders, but to a Glaswegian it would be grounds for gross bodily harm. It’s well to remember that England is not just a place but an idea, and that idea is alien and offensive to many outlanders.

Larson is also rather fond of that England Alone myth. He’s a storyteller, and it makes for a great plot. In truth, England was not remotely alone. In addition to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, she could call upon the resources of a vast empire of more than 500 million people — Canadians, Australians, Indians, South Africans, etc. Refugees who had fled Hitler’s army also helped out. About 145 pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were Polish, 88 were from Czechoslovakia and 30 from Belgium.

Another prominent component of the English wartime myth was that the working class needed to be taught bravery, their tutors being the posh private-school types who blithely assumed their social superiority. The Oxford professor Frederick Lindemann, an old friend of Churchill’s, predicted that a shortage of tea would break the loyalty of the “least educated and least responsible in the country” — by which he meant the working class. They have, he said, “little stake in the good things of a free democratic community” and would therefore not really mind if Hitler marched in. That same distrust inspired the evacuation of children from working-class areas of London. Authorities presumed that, in an air raid, the workers would be too distracted by the threat to their children to concentrate on their jobs.

Larson, sadly, seems inclined to agree with Lindemann. Churchill, he argues, taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” That, quite frankly, is nonsense. A Durham coal miner did not need to be taught how to be brave. Nor did a fisherman from Peterhead or a welder from the Clydeside shipyards. They were the real backbone of Britain, the men who 25 years earlier had endured unimaginable suffering on the Somme. Even Churchill admitted that he “never gave them courage,” but rather only focused the courage they already had. In any case, there’s nothing particularly British — or English — about wartime resilience. Difficult as it is to admit, German civilians experienced bombings and shortages much worse and more prolonged than occurred in Britain, yet they also stoically endured.

Larson is a superb storyteller who cleverly weaves together the colossal and the mundane. Churchill’s herculean efforts are juxtaposed with very personal family stories — his daughter Mary coming of age, his son Randolph dragged down by alcohol and gambling. There’s lots of sex outside marriage. It’s fascinating and entertaining, but it’s not remotely the real story. “The Splendid and the Vile” reveals the dangers of an author parachuting into a dramatic moment of British history without a full understanding of the context.

Strip away the myths of an embattled England, and a different war emerges. It’s heroic, but not in an Arthurian sense. Those dark satanic factories produced the Spitfire and the Hurricane, two aircraft that consistently outperformed their German counterparts. British workers — male and female — were much better mobilized than in Germany. The Battle of Britain was won in the factories, not in English country houses. We don’t really need another paean to Churchill, nor to that green and pleasant land. The real story is one of pork pies, warm beer and gritty working-class pluck.

**************

Sorry to be so late in getting this out.  After our discussion I was so verklemt that I just couldn’t sit down and do the summary!

We (John Sturman, Sarona Burchard, Bill Briscoe, Gene Helverson, John Hawn, and Dave Young) met via ZOOM to discuss Philip Roth’s 1969 best seller  “Portnoy’s Complaint.”   Dave tried to lead an orderly discussion of a rather disorderly novel.  He even provided a glossary of Yiddish words (see external essays) which Roth liberally sprinkles throughout the book.

Roth was a prolific writer and published over 30 novels in his 85 years, often popping out one a year until he retired from writing in 2012 at which time he could no longer suppress his pessimism about the future of the American Novel.  He died 6 years later.    As is usual with writers, he could be difficult to live with.  His second wife complained that he had no time for her as he wrote 8 hours a day and then read 4 hours each night.  After their divorce, they each wrote novels which were thinly disguised attacks on one another.“Portnoy’s Complaint” was his third novel and a radical departure from his first two works.   Roth lets it all hang out.  Alexander Portnoy’s complaint to his psychiatrist is that he can’t get no satisfaction.  Much of his problem is Oedipal as he traces his sexual development from infancy to about the age of 33.   The development goes through three stages:  masturbation, perversity, and impotence.

The first phase is dominated by his mother,  a stereotypical, overbearing Jewish mom who teaches him how to pee and has an intense interest in his love life.   At college, he breaks away from his family and takes up with a series of gentile females or “shiksas,” and in his young professional life with the hyper-sexual daughter of a Kentucky coal miner, “The Monkey,”  The third phase sends him to Israel where he tries, and fails, to get his mojo back with two Sabra chicks.

It isn’t clear how much contact Roth had with Vonnegut who was eleven years older.  Both attended the University of Chicago and spent most of their working careers in NYC.  Vonnegut liked to say that all of his stories were “jokes” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” is one big joke.   For 247 pages, Portnoy lays out his personal history from infancy to about 33 years to a silent psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvolgel, until he finally breaks down in a primal scream at which time the good Doctor suggests that it is perhaps time to begin the therapy.

The masturbatory phase has a real ick factor.   Portnoy jacks off in a liver which his mother later serves to the family and finds other creative ways to spill his seed.   Portnoy gradually separates himself from his mother and constipated father (pretty much a non-actor in the novel) and makes a big break in college when he goes home to Iowa with a shiksa friend.  Also another opportunity to ridicule goyem in fly-over country.

His mother is not a factor in the second phase except in flashbacks.  The Oedipal situation arises again in Israel when he is impotent with a red-headed Sabra who reminds him of his mother.

This novel, which was on the NYT best seller list and makes several “best 100” novel lists was ground-breaking for 1969 when the sexual revolution was in full swing.  It was banned in Australia but not generally banned in the US although several schools barred it because of the excessive masturbation in the early going.  It was also not received well in parts of the Jewish community.  Roth was seen as a self-hating Jew in the way he portrayed the somewhat autobiographical Alexander Portnoy.  In his personal life, he was a committed atheist who hated all religion.  Although he satirized many Jewish types,  he was equally tough on the goyem.  Roth considered himself an American and did not accept any hyphenated version of American. 

We gave this a not so great rating of 7 on the infamous KV ten point scale.   We doubted that this novel would be published today.   The sex was daring for 1969 but would be old hat by now and the MeToo crowd would make life miserable for any publisher who put out a work so demeaning of women.   Nevertheless, we were impressed enough to put forth two Roth works for future meetings:  “The Human Stain” and the “Plot Against America.”

For our next meeting (unfortunately also by ZOOM) our discussion will be lead by John Sturman.  We were so impressed by Erik Larsen’s “In the Garden of the Beasts” that we just have to follow up with his depiction of Winston Churchill in “The Splendid and the Vile.”   Now that we have taken up history, we just can’t get away from WWII.  Kurt would understand.   Here is the link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86712102698

No good news from the KV Memorial Library.  They are open by appointment for tours, but otherwise most of their stuff is virtual.   We look forward to getting together soon in person.

Dave Young

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Excerpted from Wikipedia:

Portnoy’s Complaint is a 1969 American novel by Philip Roth.[2] Its success turned Roth into a major celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver.[3] The novel tells the humorous monologue of “a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor,” who confesses to his psychoanalyst in “intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language.”[4][5] Many of its characteristics (such as comedic prose, themes of sexual desire and sexual frustration, and a self-conscious literariness) went on to become Roth trademarks.[citation needed]

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Portnoy’s Complaint 52nd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included this novel in its “TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.”[6]

Structurally, Portnoy’s Complaint is a continuous monologue by narrator Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel; Roth later explained that the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by “the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation,” which would “permit me to bring into my fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that […] in another fictional environment would have struck me as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene.”[4][5]

The novel is set primarily in New Jersey from the 1940s to the 1960s. Portnoy is “a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”,[4] and the narration weaves through time describing scenes from each stage of his life; every recollection in some way touches upon his central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism;[citation needed] also, much of his dilemma is that “his sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed.”[4] Roth is not subtle about defining this as the main theme of his book. On the first page of the novel, one finds this clinical definition of “Portnoy’s Complaint”, as if taken from a manual on sexual dysfunction:

Portnoy’s Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature …

The title also alludes to the common literary form of complaint, such as “A Lover’s Complaint“, which typically presents the speaker’s comments on being a spurned lover.

Other topics touched on in the book include the assimilation experiences of American Jews, their relationship to the Jews of Israel, and the pleasures and perils the narrator sees as inherent in being the son of a Jewish family.

Portnoy’s Complaint is also emblematic of the times during which it was published. Most obviously, the book’s sexual frankness was both a product of and a reflection on the sexual revolution that was in full swing during the late 1960s. And the book’s narrative style, a huge departure from the stately, semi-Jamesian prose of Roth’s earlier novels, has often been likened to the stand-up performances of 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce.

The novel is notable for its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver[3] which Portnoy’s mother later serves for dinner.[7]

Writing[edit]

Roth had begun work on Portnoy’s Complaint in 1967, before publication of his novel When She Was Good that year. The piece had its genesis in a satirical monologue Roth had written to accompany a slide show proposed for inclusion in the risqué revue Oh! Calcutta! that would focus on the sexual organs of the rich and famous.

While the slide show would never come to fruition, Roth found part of the accompanying monologue about masturbation salvageable. Roth re-fashioned the material for the novel and sold a chapter of the book, entitled “Whacking Off”, to Partisan Review. Progress on the novel was slow because Roth was suffering from writer’s block relating to his ex-wife, Margaret Martinson, and the unpleasant notion that any royalties generated by the novel would have to be split equally with her. In May 1968, Martinson was killed in a car crash in Central Park. Roth’s writer’s block lifted and, following Martinson’s funeral, he traveled to the Yaddo literary retreat to complete the manuscript.[8]

Responses, reviews and attacks[edit]

The publication of the novel caused a major controversy in American public discourse. The two aspects that evoked such outrage were its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality and obscenities, including detailed depictions of masturbation, which was revolutionary in the late 1960s, and the irreverent portrait of Jewish identity.[5] It sparked an uproar in the Jewish community, even among New York intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Diana Trilling.[5]

Comedian Neal Brennan has acknowledged the book by saying “it’s the best.” [9]

Censorship[edit]

In 1969 the book was declared a “prohibited import” in Australia. The Australian publisher, Penguin Books, circumvented the importation ban by having copies printed in Sydney in secret and stored in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws.[10] A 1967 agreement between the Commonwealth of Australia and its states had put in place a uniform censorship effort against books on the federal banned books list. According to this agreement, books that were imported into the country would be handled by the Commonwealth, while the states would police local publication and distribution, using state laws to prosecute.[11] However, South Australia bucked the system when it came to Portnoy’s Complaint, declaring that it would not prosecute sales of the work made to an adult who made a direct enquiry of the vendor, provided the books were kept behind the counter.[12]

Attempts to prosecute Penguin and any bookseller carrying the book were successful in Victoria and Queensland, but failed in Western Australia (where “works of recognised artistic, scientific or literary merit” were immune under the local statute, notwithstanding that they may have been obscene) and New South Wales, where prosecutors gave up after two trials resulted in hung juries. The book was removed from the federal banned list for importation in June 1971, the federal government recognising the absurdity that local publications could be sold legally in three states and the Australian Capital Territory. The Portnoy matter was a watershed in Australian censorship law, marking the last occasion on which the censorship of a literary publication came before the courts.[13]

Many libraries in the United States banned the book because of its detailed discussion of masturbation and its explicit language.[5]

Film adaptation[edit]

In 1972, the novel was adapted into a film written and directed by Ernest Lehman, and starring Richard Benjamin and Karen Black.

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management

Eight of us (Jay Carr, Gene Helveson, Sarona Burchard [Phoenix], John Hawn, John Sturman [Los Angeles], Bill Briscoe, Susannah Windell, and Dave Young) ZOOMED into Matthew Baker’s 2020 collection of short stories, “Why Visit America.”  Mark Hudson and Kathleen Angelone sent their regrets.  Jay, a connoisseur of short stories, did a yeoman’s job of helping us through our discussion.

The author, who obviously values his privacy, is something of a mystery.  Apparently he grew up somewhere in Michigan and earned a bachelor’s degree at Hope College (Michigan) and an MFA at Vanderbilt University, in 2012.  He now lives in NYC.  While at Vanderbilt he founded a literary magazine to which he gave a rare interview a few years ago.  He talked mostly about his art, but when queried as to how he might be addressed he let it be known that if such a thing were necessary he preferred to be called “Mx. Baker.”  We might assume from that and other clues that he is “non-gendered.”

First things last, we commented on the book jacket, the colors and arrangement of which suggest the American flag.  “America” is printed upside down, the classic symbol of distress.  Or, perhaps, he is telling us that everything in America is topsy-turvy.  On the dedication page, Baker simply writes “for my country.”  Make of it what you will.

We described the 13 stories as dystopia and spooky.  There was also a sci-fi angle of the “what if” variety. He supposedly stopped at 13 as a tribute to the original 13 colonies.  Each story has an explicit distinct location spread across the U.S.  

Baker’s method is to start with a concept and develop it through his characters.  Although his work is clearly original, some the themes have already been worked over in American fiction.  The longer stories, which run over 40 pages could easily have been pared down.  Baker likes fill and enjoys working with long lists and catalogs which are initially amusing but turn into tedium.  Baker has also learned from American fiction and can spin a paragraph that goes on for 3 or 4 pages.  He must have been impressed with Faulkner’s “The Bear.”

Speaking of tedium, it would be too much to go through all of the stories.  I have not been able to find any comprehensive reviews or wikipedia articles so I am attaching my rough notes in case anyone needs to have their memory of the book refreshed.  I will try to hit some of the highlights.  This may be a longer read than usual.

“The Rites” dealt with government efforts to control population growth through encouraging suicides among the elderly, a touchy topic for the superannuated members of our club.  KV dealt with this topic in his 1968 short story “Welcome to the Monkey House.”  His venue was the Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor in Hyannis, MA, operated by beautiful virgin hostesses kept young by anti-aging drugs.  Baker’s hero refuses to play along with the suicide crowd and is castigated by the community.  KV’s hero opts for birth control pills over the sex/suicide option.  The larger theme was acceptance of death and we, including our two physicians, brought our own experiences to this.  Has medicine become a business rather than a profession?  We were left with the puzzler “Do healthy people have a cheaper last year?”

Somehow the discussion morphed into speculation about the recent spate of mass murders around our country.  One of us longed for the old days when disputes were settled in duels where rules were rigorously followed.  Another had problems with that and advocated resolution through rock, paper, and scissors. There was some sentiment for more government control of guns, but that seemed unlikely due to Amendment #2. Two stories had to do with mind alteration.   “The Transition” is about a human who considers having his brain transferred to a computer server.  Positive and negative consequences were weighed.  “Life Sentence” Imagined a society that did away with prisons.  Maximum sentence consisted of erasure of the perp’s historical memory while retaining functional memory.  Seemed to be more human than the lobotomies performed in the mid-twentieth century.  We were reminded of the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”  Kate Winslow and Jim Carrey try to overcome a painful relationship by having the memory of their affair erased.  Baker would have called this a “vanity wipe.”

Dave’s favorite story was “The Tour.”  A world famous prostitute travels the US with her entourage spending one week in small towns before moving on.  She takes on one very carefully selected John for a one night stand during that week for a fee of $100,000.   She is not young and is rather average in appearance.  She discourages conversation but has an amazing touch.  For her, prostitution is not entertainment, but an art form.  In Sundown, Wyoming, she meets up with an over-the-road trucker who has visited bordellos all over the U.S.   He is apparently afflicted with some war-related PTSD.  He has carefully saved for this experience and when he leaves as dawn is breaking, he is a changed man.  The woman was worth every penny.

The title story, “Why Visit America” is the pièce de résistance of the book.  A small county in Texas, disgusted with the sea change in our country’s culture, secedes from the US and names itself “America.”  Baker presents the town in a guide book.  A cast of characters and numerous subplots are too involved to summarize here, but it is well worth a read.

Despite the unevenness of this work, each of us found something useful therein and gave the book a pretty-good rating of 7.5 on the 10 point KV Scale (the accuracy of which has never been disputed).

We hope to be able to meet in person at the KV Library this summer.  Until then we will continue to ZOOM.

Our next event will be at 11AM on Thursday, June 24, 2021 when the meshuggener Dave will attempt to lead a discussion on Philip Roth’s 1969 best-selling work of sexual frustration “Portnoy’s Complaint.”  Join us for the mishegoss.   This is timely as we are awaiting the release of Roth’s “authorized” biography by Blake Bailey.  Publication was pulled by Norton and Company due to some alleged hanky-panky between Bailey and his eighth grade students but he found a new publisher.  Can’t cancel him.  Alexander Portnoy would understand. Genug.  I will get out the ZOOM link as soon as it comes to hand.

These books were suggested.   We need to consider scheduling them – we are wide open for the rest of the year:  John Green. “The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet”  (2021);  Kate Quinn “Rose Code” (2021); and Erik Larson “The Splendid and the Vile” (2020)

Dave Young

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Dave’s summary of Matthew Baker’s  “Why  Visit America”.  May 25, 2021

Story #1. “Fighting Words”. (Michigan). 1-22.   21 pages.  Rank 7-11

Narrator and his brother are both wordsmiths

They are charged with caring for their niece, a teenager bullied by a classmate

They have resolved to take on the classmate and waste much time stalking him

Both are ineffectual and are mocked by their nephew who really does want to fight

Narrator is asexual – brother describes him as presenting a “demeanor of invisibility”

—and an aura of insignificance.  Narrator and his brother, after confrontation with the bully, both wimp out 

Envision the bully as some kind of victim

Theme   emasculation, societal breakdown

Choice: fight or stand down

Story #2. “The Rites”. (Minnesota).  23-40.  17 pages.  Rank 4

Opening scene.  Auntie dowses herself in gasoline and rows out on lake

Self-immolation.   Most choose pills

When and oldster reaches seventy,  he is supposed to give himself a party and off

 himself. One oldster refuses to go along to the disgust of his family and town

Theme:  death and alienation.     Futurism

Choice:  commit suicide or buck the crowd

Story #3.  “The Transition”. (New Orleans, LA). 41-61.  20 pages.    Rank 7-11

Twenty-something male, unhappy with his body, determines to undergo an operation

That transfers his mind to a computer server

Conflict with family,   community values

Loving mother finally accepts that she will have better access to him.   Lots of 

cataloging.  Futuristic element:  transferring brain functions to a computer server

Theme:  Mind-Body dualism and awareness, alienation,   sci fi futurism

Choice:  mind over body

Story #4. “Life Sentence”.   (Kansas). 62-90.  28 pages.     Rank  7-11

Wash is a 40 something family guy who has committed some horrible crime

In a futuristic society that has eliminated prisons.   His sentence is

To have his memory “wiped” of all past actions while retaining structural knowledge

His sentence is puzzling to him but difficult for his wife who has to suffer

Wife gifts him with a rifle in an attempt to bring him back

He knows he can reconstruct his past if he accesses the computer at the local library

Penalty for reoffending or reconstructing is another wipe out session

Ends as he is making his decision.

Futuristic element:  Prisons have been eliminated.  Punishment is memory deletion

Theme:  mind-body dualism,  penal reform, sci-fi  futurism

Choice:  Recover old memory or retain a new one

Story #5.  “A bad Day in Utopia” (San Francisco,  CA) . 91-102.   11 pages.   Rank 5

The matriarchy replaced the patriarchy two or more generations ago.

Only a few thousand men are kept in cells just in case they are needed for repopulation

Protagonist is a code-grinder beset by many problems.

Wants sex with cuddling, instead of usual vibrator.

Most straight women go to android cafe’s to have sex with robots

She goes to the menagerie for paid sex and kinda likes her choice

He wants to escape with her and start a new life together.  

She is tempted but then remembers stories of how bad it was before women took over

Nah she says.

Futuristic element:  lifelike sex robots

Theme:  Radical feminism, mechanical sex,

Choice:  Go with the guy or go with the matriarchy

Story #6. “Testimony of Your Majesty”. (Nashville, TN)  103-141.  39 pages.     Rank 6

Kind of a slog.  Hard to get through without putting it down several times

Poor little rich girl, alternating between spending binges and purging binges’

Humiliated by classmates at a HS event, burns down part of family mansion

Parents send her away to boarding school, she becomes permanently estranged from

them. Married, she lives a modest and fairly normal life;  with an occasional binge when

She buys shit and takes it to the woods and throws it into a ravine

Futuristic elements:  open tax records and publication of “the ratio” (financial status)

Themes:  Consumerism and alienation.

Story #7.   “The Sponsor”. 142-156.  14 pages. (Foxboro, MA).  Rank 3

Great concept and execution.   Highly satirical

“Headline” sponsor pulls out of wedding at a late date.  Bride is inconsolable

Last chance is boyhood neighborhood loser who know runs ads for Barbie

Bad experience with bridegroom and a zucchini (never explained. 

New sponsor lives in mansion with a satanic chamber

Groom must go through devil worship ritual if he wants sponsorship of Barbie

Futuristic elements.  Everything must have a sponsor

Themes:  materialism, devil worship

Choice:  worship the devil or call off the wedding

Story #8.  “One Big Happy Family.  157-189.  32 pages.  (DC/FL)   Rank 7-11

Another long slog.  Exposition of main character thru repetitive interviews

Of roommate, workers, friends, parents.  Young professional woman spurns abortion

and a has child;  gives it up to state run nursery. Has a change of heart and kidnaps child 

and flees. Hitches a ride on a train and ends up in the Everglades looking for a supportive 

tribe.   Futuristic element:  most children raised by state.

Theme:  Statism vs. Individualism

Choice:  Give up infant or raise infant in the wild

Story #9.   “Appearance”.  189-200  11 pages.  (Rhode Island)   Rank 7-11

Story is a comment on our current problem

13 years prior, strange humanoids appeared in the fields

They have moved into the cities taking the unwanted jobs

Narrator and his grandfather periodically abduct them and remove them from the state

Now more are emerging from the fields.  The narrator’s borders have shrunk to the vehicle

he is riding in.    Theme:  immigration, nationalism

Futuristic Elements:  Strange race of sub-humans, hunted down by citizens

Choice:  Give into Gramps or accept reality of situation

Story #10.  “Lost Souls”.  201-245.    44 pages.  (Las Vegas, NV).   Rank 12

Rather creepy.  Healthy “empty” babies dying after childbirth. Couldn’t finish it

“Phoenix Hypothesis”.  Nature’s attempt to limit population growth.   

Theme:  Reincarnation/replacement

Story #11.   “The Tour”. 245-290.   45 pages. (Sundown, Wyoming).   Rank 1

Most entertaining and bawdy of all the stories, kinda pornographic

OTR Trucker who visits bordellos all over the US,  has a chance to

See a legendary prostitute who tours the US, spending one week

At a time in various towns hosting one client at $100K a pop

Despite the fact that that she is thirty something with average looks

She has an amazing touch and while discouraging conversation

Causes him to relive wartime experiences and work out some PTSD issues

He leaves at dawn and walks into a different world

Futuristic Element:  Prostitution has become legal and widespread

Theme:  Difference between Art and Entertainment

Story #12.   “Why Visit America”.  290-327.   37 pages. (Plainfield, TX).   Rank 2

A guide book to a small town that seceded from the US and called

Itself America.    US described as “a dystopian plutocracy that viewed

Corporations as legal persons and treated citizens as mere merchandise”

Lots of cataloging and huge number of characters.  Symbolized by

A holdout old time physician and a rough female rancher who 

Initially fought bitterly but reconciled after a disastrous invasion

Staged by the doc.   Creative and very interesting concept about what our

Country has become and the underlying spirit that made us so great

Theme:  Disintegrating America, troubled redemption

Choice:  Statism or individualism

Story #13.  “To Be Read Backward.   327-354.   27 pages.    (NYC, NY).   (Rank 13)

Intentionally difficult to follow (or unfollow). 4th Dimension Stuff

Sexually confused young man living in parent’s basement

Trying to go back into his past, birth, marriage, children

Finally has a breakthrough – offered a job as an artist in a new community center

Fantastic destruction of building and construction of new building

Takes jobs with newborns who are apparently his children

Resolves not to tell them of their parentage

Pretty incomprehensible and rather tedious piece

Theme:  time-shifting, reincarnation, uselessness

Choice:  to find a purpose in life or not.

*********End*************

Meeting, April 22, 2021

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Jay Carr hosted our ZOOM meeting and then bugged off to take care of more pressing business,  leaving eight of us to hash over Erik Larson’s 2018 well-researched book on Berlin in the 1930’s “In the Garden of Beasts” (2011).    John Sturman led the discussion in his usual knowledgeable way and Kathleen Angelone, Sarona Burchard, John Hawn, Mark Hudson, Bill Briscoe, Susannah Windell, and Dave Young chipped in.

Sturman gave us an excellent overview of the book and the mood of Germany in the mid-1930’s.  Larson had a background in journalism and his diligent work appears to be based in fact.  At times it reads like a novel, but Larson maintains that the dialogues included can be backed up by letters and first person accounts.  The book was well-received.  Janet Maslin of the New York Times gave it a relatively favorable review (https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/books/in-the-garden-of-beasts-by-erik-larson-review.html).  Others quibbled that the fascinating character of Martha Dodd was not fully explored.  Martha was simultaneously bedding the head of the Gestapo (Rudolf Diels) and the NKVD liaison at the Russian embassy (Boris Vinogradov).  Hitler’s pianist, Ernst Hanfstaeng, arranged for her to have a meeting with Hitler, but the two of them did not hit it off.  Martha lived a long and complicated life.  Initially she was supportive of the Nazi’s but came to dislike them and eventually became a spy for the Russians.  After WWII, she married a wealthy American and became an ex-patriot rather than testify against other communists.  She died in Prague at the age of eighty, unwelcome in her native country.

Much was made of Ambassador Dodd’s conflicts with the “pretty good club”  (President Wilson’s characterization) consisting of the wealthy, ivy-league, amateurs running foreign relations.   Although well-educated, Dodd had the common touch and liked to work with the soil.  He was relatively poor and both unwilling and unable to put on the louche parties the diplomats expected.   Initially he took a wait and see attitude toward the Nazi’s but after 1934 became disgusted with them.  The “deep state” in the State Department wanted to get rid of him but he had FDR’s support and no one else really wanted the job.  He would have rather returned to his farm and his scholarly pursuits but his stubbornness kept him on the job for another two years.

The pace of the book is another problem.  So much happened in 1933 and 1934 that there was not much room left in the book to cover the rest of Dodd’s tour which ended in December, 1937 when he and his family returned to Chicago.  Dodd was ill and died three years later.  Martha’s later tumultuous years are crammed into a few pages.  

We discussed the significant isolationist sentiment in the U.S. during the 1930’s.  There were three Indiana Senators serving between Hitler’s election and the beginning of WWII.  Arthur Anderson (R-IN) 1925-1935, succeeded by Sherman Minton (D-IN) 1935-1941, and  Frederick Van Nuys, (D-IN) 1933 to 1944.  Minton was a toady to FDR and a strong backer of court packing which landed him on the Supreme Court.  Van Nuys was one of those conservative Indiana Democrats who often bucked the administration.  Wikipedia has this to say about him: “In 1943 a confidential analysis by Isaiah Berlin of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the British Foreign Office stated of Van Nuys:  his voting record is a very mixed one; in 1939 he was one of the members of the committee which voted to postpone consideration of the Neutrality Act in June of that year; in October he voted for a revision but not for repeal. Like George and Gillette, he is one of the Senators whom the 1938 purge failed to eliminate, and his feeling towards the President is, therefore, somewhat cool. He voted for Lend-Lease in common with most Democrats, against reciprocal trade agreements, and occasionally votes with the Farm Bloc. A man of very uncertain views tinged with isolationism and liable, on the whole, to vote with the Conservatives.”

Then we were off on a tangent, talking about the impending Russian invasion of the Ukraine.  “In the Garden of Beasts” is full of flashing lights about what can go wrong in a culture.  There is always a thin line between civility and chaos.

This book was enjoyed by the book club which rated it 9.25 on the brilliantly designed ten point KV scale.    Jay Carr has chosen “Why Visit America,”  (2020) a collection of 13 short stories by Matthew Baker examining the current malaise that envelops our beloved country.  In the purple state of Texas the citizens of the town of Plainfield have seceded from the United States and renamed their town “America.  Please join us at 11 AM on Thursday, May 27, 2021 when we will ZOOM together again. [update 5/26/21]. The ZOOM link is: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83484658962

Dave Young

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Summary – excerpted from WikiPedia

Larson recounts the career of the American Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, particularly the years 1933 to 1937 when he and his family, including his daughter Martha, lived in Berlin. The Ambassador, who earned his Ph.D. in Leipzig 40 years earlier; and, at the time of his appointment, was head of the History Department at the University of Chicago initially hoped that Germany’s new Nazi government would grow more moderate, including in its persecution of the Jews. Martha, separated from her husband and in the process of divorce, became caught up in the glamor and excitement of Berlin’s social scene and had a series of liaisons, most of them sexual, including among them Gestapo head Rudolf Diels and Soviet attaché and secret agent Boris Vinogradov. She defended the regime to her skeptical friends. Within months of their arrival, the family became aware of the evils of Nazi rule. Dodd periodically protested against it. President Roosevelt was pleased with Dodd’s performance while most State Department officials, suspicious of his lack of background in their area of expertise, as well as his inability to finance embassy activities from his own wealth, found him undiplomatic and idiosyncratic. The title of the work is a loose translation of Tiergarten, a zoo and park in the center of Berlin.  The other historical figures who appear in Larson’s account include:

American officials

German officials

Journalists

Diplomats

Other Americans

Other Germans

Awards and honors

  • 2012 Chautauqua Prize, shortlist[3]
  • 2011 Christian Science Monitor 15 Best Nonfiction Books[4]

References:

  1. ^ Janet Maslin (May 19, 2011). “Perched in Berlin With Hitler Rising”. New York Times Book Review. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
  2. ^ Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Crown Publishers, ISBN0307408841, 43, 66, 79-80
  3. ^ Staff writer (April 29, 2012). “The Sojourn Wins Inaugural Chautauqua Prize”. The Post-Journal. Archived from the original on May 12, 2012. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
  4. ^ “15 best nonfiction books of 2011: CSMonitor picks”. Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved February 24, 2013.

*******************

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The Kurt Vonnegut Book Club ZOOMed again on Thursday, March 25, 2021, to discuss Kurt’s first novel“Player Piano” (1952).   Our in-house manufacturing engineer, Bill Briscoe, enthusiastically led the palaver about this 1950’s era take down of a company Kurt imagined after his brief unsatisfactory career as a flack with General Electric.  Others participating were:  Jay Carr, Gene Helveston, Kathleen Angelone, John Sturman (from Los Angeles), Sarona Burchard (from Phoenix) and Dave Young.

Bill gave the background on this, Kurt’s first novel.  Kurt acknowledged that he was indebted to some previous dystopias  namely Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”  (1932)  which stole its theme from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel “We.”    Although the novel was a little light on humor and satire,  it did employ some typical Vonnegutian devices.  The chapters were short, what humor there was was black, and there was a science fiction element.   Kurt never wanted to be considered a science fiction writer as he did not want to be type-cast as a pulp-fiction writer.    When the book didn’t sell well, his publishers brought it out under another title “Utopia 14” in hopes it would bring in more SF readers.

That led to a rather long discussion about the definition off  “Science Fiction.”  Those of us who think conventionally like to think of SF as little green men zapping earthlings with ray guns.   More enlightened types see SF as a projection of real-world science and engineering on some future society.  The novelist then imagines how that society adapts to the challenge.  Kurt could go either way.  He loved his little Tralfamadorians whom he fashioned as “plumber’s helpers.”

“Player Piano” was never made into a movie, but the character of Dr.Paul Proteus appeared in a 1972 television movie produced by National Education Television.  “Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5.”  The movie is based on a number of Kurt’s works, but he did not write the script.  He did  advise and contribute to the project and is generally credited for the entire work.    The screen version does not seem to be available but a kindle version (or a very expensive paperback version) can be had through Amazon. The comedy team Bob and Ray had a hand in the script and Jill Krementz (whom he had just met after leaving Jane) contributed some of the photography.

Kurt liked to pepper his work with mantras.  A bit that frequently pops up in “Player Piano” is a piece of dialogue between Paul and his wife, Anita.   “I love you Anita, I love you Paul.”  Rather prosaic, but it underlined the phoniness of their marriage.  Anita was a corporate wife and a social climber.  Paul had been born into the corporate world and was too sensitive to rise in it as his father had.   It was inevitable that the relationship would end.

Some comedic relief comes through the Shah of Bratpuhr, a visitor from another culture whom Kurt uses to illuminate the problems arising from over-reliance on machinery.  KV works in some autobiographical material when the Shah visits Kurt’s erstwhile alma mater, Cornell. Briscoe’s and Kurt’s social fraternity, Delta Upsilon, gets a mention.   

We were amused by the computerized chess program “Checker Charlie” which competed with Dr. Paul.  That led to talk about artificial intelligence and chess.  Our resident chess expert, Jay Carr, gave us some pointers and alerted us to a major chess event for Indiana. Computers have been teaching themselves how to play chess for seventy years and they are winning. In mid-May, 2021, under the auspices of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Indianapolis will host the Circle City Open at the Airport Marriott.   We wish him well!    We also hashed over the Netflix series “Queen’s Gambit” which Jay assured us was pretty realistic.

Those who might take pleasure in the downfall of GE (Kurt would have loved this!) might want to take a look at Jeff Immelt’s recent memoir “Hot Seat.”  When Immelt took over GE from Jack Welsh in 2001 it was capitalized at $600 Billion.  When Immelt was forced out in 2017, it had sunk to $116 Billion.  Immelt puts much of the blame on Welch’s reckless conglomeration strategy and his promotion of financial products over electrical/mechanical products.   GE fell because it de-emphasized its core business.

Now to the end.  Dr. Paul and Finnerty, the shabby genius (and insistent player of the Player Piano) who inspired him to revolt against the corporate world have failed in their revolution.  Society wants its machines. They are waiting for the authorities to come and arrest them and are reflecting on their lost cause. The revolution does eat its children.

This seventy year old book seemed somewhat dated, but Kurt was perhaps ahead of his time in foreseeing the problems automations would cause for our workforce and our culture.   We nevertheless gave it an average rating of 8.0 on the exacting KV ten-point scale.  In previous years we rated it 7.75, 8.00, and 8.80 so we are at least consistent.  

Looking forward to our next ZOOM meeting, we will gather at 11AM on Thursday,  April 22, 2021, which is also Earth Day.  Our selection is Erik Larson’s  “In the Garden of  Beasts.”    This is a 2011 non-fiction work that reads like a novel.  The NYT reviewer calls it a “novelistic history.”   It follows an aging history professor and his family as he is posted to Berlin in the role of American Ambassador during the rise of Hitler.  One of the sub-plots involves some sex scenes between his daughter and some high level Nazis.  Is that what we call “intersectionality?”   I will get out the ZOOM link to those on the email list (and whomever else might be interested) as soon as I receive it.   The Vonnegut Library is starting to reopen and we are looking forward to meeting again in person.  Perhaps we can use a hybrid form of ZOOM so we can stay in touch with our very valuable out-of-state members.  

4/22/21. Jay Carr has provided us with the ZOOM link for tomorrow’s discussion of Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts.”  Please join us at 11AM on Thursday, April 22, 2021, when we will join Ambassador William Dodd and his sexually active daughter, Martha, as they cope with the rise of Hitler in the early years of the Thousand Year Reich.   Here is the link:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81126127220

Dave Young 

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Excerpted from Wikipedia

Player Piano is the first novel by American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr., published in 1952. The novel depicts a dystopia of automation partly inspired by the author’s time working at General Electric, describing the negative impact technology can have on quality of life.[2] The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. The widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class, the engineers and managers, who keep society running, and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. The book uses irony and sentimentality, which were to become hallmarks developed further in Vonnegut’s later works.[2]

Player Piano is set in the near future, after a third world war. While most Americans were fighting overseas, the nation’s managers and engineers faced a depleted workforce and responded by developing ingenious automated systems that allowed the factories to operate with only a few workers. The novel begins ten years after the war when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. The bifurcation of the population is represented by the division of Ilium, New York into “The Homestead,” where every person, not a manager or an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and the managers live.

Player Piano develops two parallel plotlines that converge only briefly and then insubstantially, at the beginning and the end of the novel. The more prominent plotline follows the protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus (referred to as Paul), an intelligent, 35-year-old factory manager of Ilium Works. The secondary plotline follows the American tour of the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation.

The purpose of the two plotlines is to give two perspectives of the system: one from an insider who is emblematic of the system, and one from an outsider who is looking in on it. Paul, for all intents and purposes, is the living embodiment of what a man within the system should strive to be, and the Shah is a visitor from a very different culture and so applies a very different context to whatever he sees on his tour.

The main plotline follows Paul’s development from an uncritical cog in the system to one of its outspoken critics. Paul’s father, George, was the first “National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director.” George had almost complete control over the nation’s economy and was more powerful than the President of the United States, who by then had effectively become a puppet. Paul has inherited his father’s reputation and social status but harbors a vague dissatisfaction with the industrial system and his contribution to society. His struggle with that unnameable distress is heightened when Ed Finnerty, an old friend whom Paul has always held in high regard, informs him he has quit his important engineering job in Washington, DC. Paul and Finnerty visit a bar in the “Homestead” section of town, where workers who have been displaced by machines live out their meaningless lives in mass-produced houses. There, they meet an Episcopal minister, Lasher, with a M.A. in anthropology, who puts into words the unfairness of the system that the two engineers have only vaguely sensed. Paul eventually learns that Lasher is the leader of a rebel group known as the “Ghost Shirt Society,” though Finnerty instantly takes up with him. Paul is not bold enough to make a clean break, as Finnerty has done, until his superiors ask him to betray Finnerty and Lasher. However, Paul purchases a rundown farm, managed by an elderly heir of the prior owners. Paul’s intention is to start a new life by living off the land with his wife, Anita, but Anita is disgusted by Paul’s wishes to change their lifestyle radically. Paul and Anita’s relationship is one of emotional distance and personal disagreements. She and Paul had married quickly when it seemed that she was pregnant, but it turned out that Anita was barren and that it was just a hysterical pregnancy.[3] “Of all the people on the north side of the river, Anita was the only one whose contempt for those in Homestead was laced with active hatred…. If Paul were ever moved to be extremely cruel to her, the cruelest thing he could do… would be to point out to her why she hated [Homesteaders] as she did: if he hadn’t married her, this was where she’d be, what she’d be.”[4]

She temporarily convinces Paul to stay in his position, and to continue to compete with two other engineers, Dr. Shepherd and Dr. Garth, for a more prominent position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

After rumors of Paul’s disloyalty to the system and suspicious activity during the hosting of “the Meadows,” an annual competition for high class engineers, begin circulating, Paul determines that with or without Anita, he must work with his friend Finnerty, among others, to stop the socioeconomic “system” of having machines replace humans. He quits his job and is captured by the “Ghost Shirt Society” in which he is made the public figurehead of the organization although the position is merely nominal. By his father’s success, Paul’s name is famous among the citizens and so the organization intends to use his name to its advantage by making him the false ‘leader’ to gain publicity. In the first Ghost Shirt Society meeting Paul attends, the police raid it and capture Paul.

Paul is put on public trial but is freed as the Ghost Shirt Society and the general population begins to riot, destroying the automated factories. The mob, once unleashed, goes further than the Ghost Shirt leaders had planned, destroying both food production plants and the superfluous plants. Despite the brief and impressive success of the rebellion, the military quickly surrounds the town, and the citizenry, used to the comforts of the system, begin to rebuild the machines of their own volition. Paul, Finnerty, Lasher, and other members of the Ghost Shirt Society acknowledge that at least they had tried to stop the government’s system before they surrender themselves to the military.

Major themes

The automation of industry and the effect that it has on society are the predominant themes of Player Piano. It is “a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.”[5] More specifically, it delves into a theme to which Vonnegut returns, “a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use.”[6] Unlike much dystopian fiction, the novel’s society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them that must be rectified.[7]

Mankind’s blind faith in technology and its usually-disastrous effect on society as well as the dehumanization of the poor or oppressed later became common themes throughout Vonnegut’s work.[8] Throughout his life, Vonnegut continued to believe the novel’s themes were of relevance to society, writing, for example, in 1983 that the novel was becoming “more timely with each passing day.”[9]

Style

Player Piano displays the beginnings of the idiosyncratic style that Vonnegut developed and employed throughout much of his career. It has early inklings of the hallmark Vonnegutian flair of using meta-fiction, such as when a writer’s wife describes her husband’s dilemma to the Shah of Bratpuhr in the back of the limousine: that the writer’s “anti-machine” novel cannot get a passing “readability quotient” under the reading machine’s scoring algorithm. However, the fourth wall does not get broken, as in later writings. His style of self-contained chapters “of no more than five hundred words, often as few as fifty,” which would come to define his writing, had yet to be developed.[7]

Influences

In a 1973 interview Vonnegut discussed his inspiration to write the book:[10]

I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War II, and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brâncuși forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.

In the same interview he acknowledges that he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We.”[10]

Title

A player piano is a modified piano that “plays itself.” The piano keys move according to a pattern of holes punched in an unwinding scroll. Unlike a music synthesizer, the instrument actually produces the sound itself, with the keys moving up and down, driving hammers that strike the strings. Like its counterpart, a player piano can be played by hand as well. When a roll is run through the instrument, the movement of its keys produce the illusion that an invisible performer is playing the instrument. Vonnegut uses the player piano as a metaphor to represent how even the most simple of activities, such as teaching oneself how to play the piano in one’s spare time, has been replaced by machines instead of people. Early in the book, Paul Proteus’s friend and future member of the Ghost Shirt Society, Ed Finnerty, is shown manually playing a player piano, suggesting the idea of humans reclaiming their animus from the machines. The book’s most tragic character is Rudy Hertz, the machinist who was the prototype recorded by the machines. They are player pianos replicating his physical motions.

Publication history[edit]

This satirical take on industrialization and the rhetoric of General Electric[11] and the big corporations, which discussed arguments very topical in the postwar United States, was instead advertised by the publisher with the more innocuous and marketable label of “science fiction,” a genre that was booming in mass popular culture in the 1950s. Vonnegut, surprised by that reception, wrote, “I learned from reviewers that I was a science-fiction author. I didn’t know that.” He was distressed because he felt that science fiction was shoved in a drawer which “many serious critics regularly mistake… for a urinal” because “[t]he feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works.”[5]

Player Piano was later released in paperback by Bantam Books in 1954 under the title Utopia 14[2] in an effort to drive sales with readers of science fiction. Paul Proteus’ trial was dramatized in the 1972 TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu, which presented elements from various works by Vonnegut.[12]

In 2009, Audible.com produced an audio version of Player Piano, narrated by Christian Rummel, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.

In the Italian translation, Player Piano is rendered as Piano meccanico, a double-entendre, which, without any other words in the phrase, can mean either “player piano” or “mechanical plan.”

Reception

The science fiction anthologist Groff Conklin reviewed the novel in Galaxy Science Fiction, declaring it “a biting, vividly alive and very effectively understated anti-Utopia.”[13] The founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas, named Player Piano to their “year’s best” list, describing it as “Human, satirical, and exciting;… by far the most successful of the recent attempts to graft science fiction onto the serious ‘straight’ novel.”[14] They praised Vonnegut for “blending skillfully a psychological study of the persistent human problems in a mechanistically ‘ideal’ society, a vigorous melodramatic story-line, and a sharp Voltairean satire.[15]

Player Piano was nominated for the International Fantasy Award in 1953.[16]

 

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Eight inches of snow and two weeks of sub-freezing weather were behind us as everything is melting.  But we don’t care because we are  still ZOOMing while the COVID19 crisis seems to be abating.  Jay Carr got our meeting underway, but had to leave to tend to business. That left Mike Hudson, Bill Briscoe, Kathleen Angelone and Dave Young (who took responsibility for the selection) to talk over William Faulkner’s 1931 potboiler Southern Gothic novel “Sanctuary.” 

This choice was unfortunate.   Decades ago, when I was a lit major and William Faulkner was still a fairly warm corpse,  I was caught up in Faulknermania.  Times have changed and Faulkner has fallen out of fashion.  Reading “Sanctuary” which was a sensational hit in the 1930’s reminds me of an era full of racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny.   Faulkner himself was not proud of this book and called it a cheap thrill, written because he needed the money.  When his agent saw the first draft, he protested that they would both go to jail if the work were ever published.  Faulkner, a high-school drop out and part-time alcoholic, always had trouble with spelling and punctuation.  He considered himself a poet early on and did not attempt a novel until he was in his mid-twenties.  The book underwent several revisions and he claims he set it aside and forgot about it for awhile.   

We started off by comparing the book to the two films based upon it;  “The Story of Temple Drake” (1933) starirng Miriam Hopkins and “Sanctuary” (1961) starring Lee Remick.   Faulkner had nothing to do with the script in either and both were wildly different from the novel.  Popeye appears in the first as “Trigger” and is shot to death by Temple.  In the second film, Popeye is styled as “Candy Man.”  This film incorporates some of the material from Faulkner’s 1951 novel “Requiem for a Nun”  in which he attempts to redeem Temple through her suffering and self-sacrifice. The 1933 film, very tame by today’s standards, is thought to have been one of the factors that led to Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code (named after William H. Hays from Sullivan, IN).  Faulkner had a love-hate relationship with Hollywood and in his characteristic contemptuous style he called script writing “hack work.”   Although he is often described as a life long resident of Oxford, he spent much of the next twenty years, beginning in May 1932, working there.  It started out as a money deal.   The publisher of “Sanctuary” went bankrupt and couldn’t pay him, so he was broke.

He was offered $500 a week to do script work in Hollywood and he took it.   He stayed because he developed a relationship with a drinking buddy, Howard Hawks.  Kurt always said “wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something important.”   Hawks was born and raised in Goshen, Indiana before he became a tremendously successful director and producer.   Faulkner also had a sixteen year extra-marital relationship with Hawk’s secretary, Meta Carpenter.   Novelists were often hired by Hollywood to add prestige to studios whether they contributed to scripts or not.   Faulkner was talented and Hawks used him to fix scripts and to write “treatments” of suggested plots.  In his off and on Hollywood days, he worked on over fifty scripts.  So much for Mississippi.     Faulkner was also a regular diner at Musso and Frank’s Grill in Hollywood.   I had a three month assignment to Los Angeles in the late 1970’s and went there several times for burgers.  Being a Hoosier Hick,  I had no idea until years later that it was a hang out for the rich and infamous.  

The novel gets off to a slow start, not unusual for Southern Gothic.  There is a lot of description of landscape and the obligatory rotting plantation house, wrapped in fog and vegetation.  Faulkner does not do a very good job of fleshing out the characters.  The only one who gets a backstory is the extremely evil Popeye and that doesn’t come until the end of the novel.  Faulkner’s dialog is indirect and it is sometimes difficult to tell who is doing what to whom.  I often found myself backtracking thinking I had missed something.   The central figure appears to be a rural Mississippi lawyer named Horace Benbow who is running away from an unhappy marriage.  He represents what was left of the Southern Aristocracy and is incomplete as a human being and ineffective as a lawyer.  Nevertheless, he is sort of a narrator and the story is told from his point of view as he gives way to the more dramatic Temple Drake.  The novel does not pick up until a third of it is frittered away.  That happens when the impotent Popeye rapes Temple with a corn cob and murders the half-wit Tommy who tries to protect her.   Popeye then kidnaps Temple and holds her captive in a brothel in Memphis (about 60 miles northwest of Oxford, Ms which might be the seat of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County).  The characterization of the aging madam, Miss Reba, and the operation of the brothel provide some comic relief.  There are no heroes in this novel.  All of the men are corrupt and/or ineffectual and all of the women are facilitators.

We all felt that Faulkner was anxious to wrap up the ending.  It came quickly and without much of a set up.   There is a trial and Temple shows up and lies to protect Popeye, falsely laying the blame on the very passive Lee Goodwin.  She apparently believed that she and Popeye had actual intercourse but was puzzled as to why she hurt and bled so much afterwards.  It came clear when the bloody corn cob was introduced as evidence that they did not have normal sex.   Horace Benbow, having failed to save his innocent client, Lee Goodwin, whom he took on pro bono, slinks back to his wife who is not particularly happy to see him. The mob breaks Goodwin out of jail, douses him with gasoline and burns him up.   Popeye, having gotten away with the murder of Tommy, his buddy Red, and another unfortunate Mississippian, heads for Florida to visit his mother and makes the mistake of lingering too long in another small town where he is charged, convicted, and executed for a murder he did not commit.  Like Goodwin, he is fatalistic.  He has nothing to live for.

Temple and her father, a respected judge who does not get a name,  have escaped to Paris.   They walk to the Luxembourg gardens, which has a Gothic vibe all of its own, and Temple sees her face in the mirror of her compact.  Her face is sullen, discontented, and sad.  And there, the story ends.

Faulkner was apparently troubled by his portrayal of Temple and attempted to rehabilitate her 20 years later in “Requiem for a Nun.”   In this novel, set 8 years after the first,  Temple has married the drunk, Gowan, and has had a child.  The child is murdered by their maid who has become a confidant of Temple.  Temple rethinks her life and regrets having lied about Lee Goodwin.

Sarona could not join us because of her son’s birthday and Susie, who had some work commitment relayed her vote through Bill.   So the composite score came out to a lowly 5.0 on the indisputably accurate ten point KV scale.   Our next venture will be on March 25, 2021, when Bill Briscoe will lead us through Vonnegut’s first (1952) novel “Player Piano.”  It will be good to get back to the Vonnegut canon after our run of depressing early 20th century Americana.  This will be our fifth treatment of this important work in eleven years!   So come together with us via ZOOM at 11AM on Thursday 3/25/21.  All are welcome, even if all haven’t read the book!   I will get the ZOOM connection out as soon as I get it.

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Plot summary from Wikipedia (excerpted):

Sanctuary is a novel by the American author William Faulkner about the rape and abduction of a well-bred Mississippi college girl, Temple Drake, during the Prohibition era. It is considered one of his more controversial works, given its theme of rape. First published in 1931, it was Faulkner’s commercial and critical breakthrough, establishing his literary reputation. It is said Faulkner claimed it was a “potboiler“, written purely for profit, but this has been debated by scholars and Faulkner’s own friends.[citation needed]

The novel provided the basis for the films The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and Sanctuary (1961). It also inspired the novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish as well as the film of the same title and The Grissom Gang, which derived from No Orchids for Miss Blandish. The story of the novel can also be found in the 2007 film Cargo 200.[2]

Faulkner later wrote Requiem for a Nun (1951) as a sequel to Sanctuary.

See also: Requiem for a Nun

The novel is set in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi and takes place in May/June 1929.

In May 1929, Horace Benbow, a lawyer frustrated with his life and family, suddenly leaves his home in Kinston, Mississippi, and hitchhikes his way back to Jefferson, his hometown in Yoknapatawpha County. There, his widowed sister, Narcissa Sartoris, lives with her son and her late husband’s great-aunt, Miss Jenny. On the way to Jefferson, he stops for a drink of water near the “Old Frenchman” homestead, which is occupied by the bootlegger Lee Goodwin. Benbow encounters a sinister man called Popeye, an associate of Goodwin, who brings him to the decrepit mansion where he meets Goodwin and the strange people who live there with him. Later that night, Benbow catches a ride from Goodwin’s place into Jefferson. He argues with his sister and Miss Jenny about leaving his wife, and meets Gowan Stevens, a local bachelor who recently has been courting Narcissa. That night, Benbow moves back into his parents’ house, which has been sitting vacant for years.

After meeting Benbow, Stevens leaves to go to a dance in Oxford that same night. Stevens has returned to Jefferson after graduating from the University of Virginia, where he “learned to drink like a gentleman.” He is from a wealthy family and prides himself on having adopted the worldview of the Virginia aristocracy. His date that night is Temple Drake, a student at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”), who has a reputation of being a “fast girl.” Temple also comes from a wealthy Mississippi family and is the daughter of a powerful judge. While they are out, Gowan and Temple make plans to meet the next morning to travel with her classmates to Starkville for a baseball game. But, after taking Temple home after the dance, Gowan learns from some locals where he can find moonshine and spends the night drinking heavily. He passes out in his car at the train station where he is supposed to have a rendezvous with Temple the next morning.

Gowan wakes the next morning to discover that he’s missed Temple’s train. He speeds to the next town to intercept it, meeting Temple in Taylor, and convincing her to ride with him to Starkville—a violation of the university’s rules for young women. On the way, Gowan, still drunk, and an obvious alcoholic, decides to stop at the Goodwin place to find more moonshine. He crashes his car into a tree that Popeye had felled across the drive in case of a police raid. Popeye and Tommy, a good-natured “halfwit” who works for Goodwin, happen to be nearby when the accident happens, and take Temple and Gowan back to the old mansion. Temple is terrified, both by Gowan’s behavior and by the strange people and circumstances into which he has brought her. Upon arriving at the Goodwin place, she meets Goodwin’s common-law wife, Ruby, who advises her to leave before nightfall. Gowan is given more liquor to drink.

After nightfall, Goodwin returns home and is upset to find Gowan and Temple staying there. All the men continue to drink; Gowan and Van, a member of Goodwin’s bootlegging crew, argue and provoke each other. Van makes crude advances toward Temple, rousing in the drunken Gowan a sense that he needs to protect Temple’s honor. By this point, Temple is deeply distressed. She is apprehensive of the bootleggers, truant from school, and afraid of being discovered for fear of her family’s disapproval. She is condescending, which angers Popeye, and tries to hold court in the room where the men are drinking despite Ruby’s advice that she stay away from them. After being harassed, Temple finds a bedroom to hide. Gowan and Van finally fight, and Gowan is knocked out. The other men carry him into the room where Temple is cowering and throw him on the bed. Ruby and Tommy keep the men, including Popeye, from bothering Temple. Finally, the men leave on a whiskey run in the middle of the night.

The next morning, Gowan wakes and silently leaves the house, abandoning Temple. Tommy, who dislikes and fears Goodwin’s other men, hides Temple in a corn crib in the barn. But Popeye, who has obviously been devising a scheme, soon discovers them there. He murders Tommy with a gunshot to the back of the head and then proceeds to rape Temple with a corncob. Afterward, he puts her in his car and drives to Memphis, Tennessee, where he has connections in the criminal underworld.

Meanwhile, Goodwin discovers Tommy’s body at his barn. When the police arrive on the scene, they assume Goodwin committed the crime and arrest him. Goodwin knows of Popeye’s guilt, but doesn’t implicate him out of fear of retaliation. In Jefferson, Goodwin is jailed, and Benbow takes up his legal defense, even though he knows that Goodwin cannot pay him. Benbow tries to let Ruby and her sickly infant child stay with him in the house in Jefferson, but Narcissa, acting as half-owner, refuses because of the Goodwin family’s reputation. In the end, Benbow has no choice but to put Ruby and her son in a room at a local hotel.

Benbow tries unsuccessfully to get Goodwin to tell the court about Popeye. He soon finds out about Temple and her presence at Goodwin’s place when Tommy was murdered, heads to Ole Miss to look for her. He discovers that she has left the school. On the train back to Jefferson, he runs into an unctuous state senator named Clarence Snopes, who says that the newspaper is claiming that Temple has been “sent up north” by her father. In reality, Temple is living in a room in a Memphis bawdy house owned by Miss Reba, an asthmatic, widowed madam, who thinks highly of Popeye and is happy that he’s finally chosen a paramour. Popeye keeps Temple at the brothel for use as a sex slave. However, because he is impotent, he brings along Red, a young gangster, and forces him and Temple to have sex while he watches.

When Benbow returns from Oxford, he learns that the owner of the hotel has kicked out Ruby and her child. After Narcissa again refuses to give them shelter, Benbow finds a place for Ruby to stay outside of town. Meanwhile, Snopes visits Miss Reba’s brothel and discovers that Temple is living there. Snopes realizes that this information might be valuable to both Benbow and Temple’s father. After Benbow agrees to pay Snopes for the information, Snopes divulges Temple’s whereabouts in Memphis. Benbow immediately heads there and convinces Miss Reba to let him talk to Temple. Miss Reba is sympathetic to the plight of Goodwin and his family, but she still admires and respects Popeye. Temple tells Benbow the story of her rape at Popeye’s hands. Benbow, shaken, returns to Jefferson. Upon his return home, he reflects on Temple and is reminded of Little Belle, his stepdaughter. He looks at a picture of Little Belle, and then becomes ill while being disturbed by images of her naked, conflated with images from what he has heard from Temple about her night at the old mansion.

At this point, Temple has become corrupted thoroughly by life in the brothel. After bribing Miss Reba’s servant to let her leave the house, she runs into Popeye, who is waiting outside in his car. He takes Temple to a roadhouse called The Grotto, intending to settle whether she permanently stays with Popeye or Red. At the club, Temple drinks heavily and tries to have furtive sex with Red in a back room, but he spurns her advances for the moment. Two of Popeye’s friends frog-march her out of the club and drive her back to Miss Reba. Popeye kills Red, which turns Miss Reba against him. She tells some of her friends what has happened, hoping he will be captured and executed for the murder.

Narcissa visits the District Attorney and reveals she wants Benbow to lose the case as soon as possible, so that he will cease his involvement with the Goodwins. After writing to his wife to ask for a divorce, Benbow tries to get back in touch with Temple through Miss Reba, who tells him that both she and Popeye are gone. At around this time, Goodwin’s trial begins in Jefferson. On the second day of the trial, Temple makes a surprise appearance and takes the stand, giving false testimony that it was Goodwin, not Popeye, who had raped and brutalized her, and that Goodwin had shot Tommy dead. The district attorney also presents the stained corncob used in Temple’s rape as evidence.

The jury finds Goodwin guilty after only eight minutes of deliberation. Benbow, devastated, is taken back to Narcissa’s house. After wandering from the house that evening, he finds that Goodwin has been lynched by the townsfolk with his body set ablaze. Benbow is recognized in the crowd, which speaks of lynching him, too. The next day, a defeated Benbow returns home to his wife. Ironically, on his way to Pensacola, Florida to visit his mother, Popeye is arrested and hanged for a crime he never committed. Temple and her father make a final appearance in the Jardin du Luxembourg, having found sanctuary in Paris.

Characters[edit]

Major characters[edit]

Minor characters[edit]

  • “Pap” – Probably Goodwin’s father; a blind and deafmute old man who lives at the Goodwin place.
  • Van – A young tough who works for Goodwin
  • Red – A Memphis criminal who has intercourse with Temple, at Popeye’s request, so that Popeye (who is impotent) can watch; Popeye later tires of this arrangement and murders Red
  • Minnie – Miss Reba’s maidservant
  • Narcissa Benbow – Horace’s younger sister (the widow of Bayard Sartoris)
  • Miss Jenny – Narcissa’s deceased husband’s great-aunt, who lives with Narcissa and young Bory
  • Benbow Sartoris, aka “Bory” – Narcissa’s ten-year-old son
  • Little Belle – Horace Benbow’s stepdaughter
  • Miss Lorraine, Miss Myrtle – friends of Miss Reba

Development[edit]

Faulkner stated that he wrote the novel for financial gain and was not motivated by internal passion. He did the first draft in a three-week period in 1929 and later made a new version with toned-down elements when the publisher expressed reluctance to publish the original.[7]

According to Muhlenfeld initially Temple was not the primary character, but this was changed in a revision.[8] E. Pauline Degenfelder of Worcester Public Schools argued that Temple, Popeye, and Horace were all main characters even though the work presented itself as mainly being about Temple.[9]

Reception[edit]

Most reviews described the book as horrific and said that Faulkner was a very talented writer. Some critics also felt that he should write something pleasant for a change.[10]

Faulkner once headed a troop of Boy Scouts but the administrators removed him from his position after the release of the book.[7]

Gene D. Phillips of Loyola University of Chicago wrote that because audiences were preoccupied with lurid scenes instead of its moral philosophy, the book was a “best seller for all of the wrong reasons”.[11]

Time commented that “A favorite question on Shakespeare examinations is ‘Distinguish between horror and terror.’ Sanctuary is compact of both. The horrors of any ghost story pale beside the ghastly realism of this chronicle. […] When you have read the book you will see what Author Faulkner thinks of the inviolability of sanctuary. The intended hero is the decent, ineffectual lawyer. But all heroism is swamped by the massed villainy that weighs down these pages. Outspoken to an almost medical degree, Sanctuary should be let alone by the censors because no one but a pathological reader will be sadistically aroused.”[12]

Editions[edit]

In 1931, Sanctuary was published by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith.[13][14] In 1932, a cheaper hardcover edition was published by Modern Library. This second edition is notable in that it contains an introduction by Faulkner explaining his intentions in writing the book and a brief history of its inception. In it, Faulkner explains that he wished to make money by writing a sensational book. His previous books were not quite as successful as he had hoped. However, after submitting the manuscript in 1929, his publisher explained that they would both be sent to prison if the story was ever published. Faulkner forgot about the manuscript. Two years later, Faulkner, surprised, received the galley copies and promptly decided to rewrite the manuscript as he was not satisfied with it. He thought that it might sell 10,000 copies. This version was published in 1931.[15][16][17][18] All later editions featured the text from the 1931/32 editions; however, a plethora of typographical errors existed, some of which were corrected in the later editions.[19]

In 1958, a new edition was published by Random House with the co-operation of Faulkner, the entire text was reset and errors corrected. The copyright year is listed as “1931, 1958” in this edition.[20] In 1981, Random House published another edition titled Sanctuary: The Original Text, edited by Noel Polk. This edition features the text of Faulkner’s original manuscript as submitted in 1929, with errors corrected.[21]

In 1993, another version was published by Vintage Books titled Sanctuary: The Corrected Text which corrects additional errors. This is the only edition currently in print, though reprints of it bear the original novel’s title, simply Sanctuary.

Analysis[edit]

Various observers had their own interpretations on the themes of the novel. André Malraux characterized it as, in the words of E. Pauline Degenfelder of Worcester Public Schools, “a detective story with overtones of Greek tragedy“.[22] Cleanth Brooks believed that the work was a “mood piece” on, in Degenfelder’s words, “the discovery of evil”.[22]

Doreen Fowler, author of “Reading for the “Other Side”: Beloved and Requiem for a Nun,” wrote that “it could be argued that the title” refers to the main character’s sexual organs, which are attacked by Popeye.[23]

Adaptations[edit]

In 1933, Sanctuary was adapted into the Pre-Code film The Story of Temple Drake starring Miriam Hopkins, with the rapist character “Popeye” renamed “Trigger” for copyright reasons. According to film historian William K. Everson, the film was largely responsible for the Motion Picture Production Code crackdown on risque and controversial subject matter.[24]

The novel was later a co-source, with its sequel Requiem for a Nun (1951), for the 1961 film Sanctuary, starring Lee Remick as Temple and Yves Montand as her rapist, now renamed “Candy Man”.

Faulkner stated that initially he wished to end the plot at the end of Sanctuary but he decided that, in Degenfelder’s words, “Temple’s reinterpretation would be dramatic and worthwhile.”[25] Degenfelder believes that he may have gotten inspiration for the sequel from The Story of Temple Drake due to common elements between the two.[25]

Phillips wrote that due to the difficulties of adapting the novel into a film with the same spirit that would attract major audiences, “no film so far has retold Faulkner’s story of Temple Drake with quite the impact of the original. And at this point it seems safe to predict that none ever will.”[26]

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Okay, let’s get at it.  On 1/28/21 eight humans and one dog tore into John Steinbeck’s 1936 potboiling novel “In Dubious Battle.”   The dog didn’t have much to say (she doesn’t like ZOOM) and didn’t get a vote.  Those that did were:  John Hawn, Gene Helveston (from Cabo San Lucas), Jay Carr, Kathleen Angelone, Sarona Burchard (from Phoenix),  Dave Young,  and Suzanne Windell/Bill Briscoe and their dog.  No one copped to having suggested this depression era work and we did not have a discussion leader.

We started by talking over the 2016 movie of the same name, produced and directed by James Franco who also starred in the movie as the union organizer Mac McLeod (that should be a clue as to its artistic integrity).   Franco did have an all-star ensemble but that didn’t help the reviews, although the lefties had to applaud his good intentions.  The language in this period piece seemed stilted and the characters were insufficiently developed.  Our group noted some significant diversions from the novel, but in the end the little guys lost and the nasty capitalistic fruit growers won.   You might say that Steinbeck is a pessimist, but the overall message is that even though battles may be lost, the struggle is worthwhile and must go on.  The journey is more important than the destination.   Although Steinbeck is undoubtably sympathetic toward the “heat can” bindle stiffs, he is certainly “dubious” about the “reds” and the forces behind the labor movement. After Steinbeck dispenses with the scenery of the Salinas Valley, most of the action is revealed through dialogue.

Mention was made of J.Lo and her rendition of  Woody Guthrie’s 1940 protest song “This Land is Your Land”at the recent presidential inauguration.  She did not translate it into  Spanish as she did the Pledge of Allegiance.   The song captures the aspirations of the underclass during The Great Depression. J.Lo’s estimated net worth is $400 Million.  Plus she is married to A-Rod who has dough of his own.

Another parallel with our present situation concerned the barricades.  The growers barricaded the roads so that the strikers couldn’t get through to the scabs working in the apple orchards.  The Capitol Police erected a flimsy  barricade to keep the allegedly pro-Trump mob from lobbying their elected representatives.  Neither mob seemed to have any clear plan of action once the barricades were breached.  Questions arose.  Can change happen without violence?  Can a mob have a unified voice?  Here Steinbeck seems to speak through “Doc” Burton, the hard-working, self sacrificing medic who works tirelessly to keep the striker’s camp clean and legal and to care for the injured.  Doc is  practical, tireless and very detail oriented.  He refuses to be drawn into the larger picture and in somewhat preachy dialogue offers his cynical philosophy of mass movements.  This passage from page 199 (Penguin Classics) sums it up – after Jim opines “All great things have violent beginnings.” 

“There aren’t any beginnings,” Burton said.  “Nor any ends.  It seems to me that man has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can’t remember, into a future he can’t forsee nor understand.  And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one.  He cannot win over himself.  How mankind hates itself.”

On the other hand, we have the various types of fanaticism in the characters of Joy, Jim and Mac.  Joy, a fruit picker who is an apparent alcoholic and career criminal, would rather die than cooperate with authority and die he does.  The movement is happy to use him as a martyr.  As Rahm Emmanuel famously said: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”   Jim, who may be the central character in the book, does seem to evolve.  He stumbles into the movement, is mentored by Mac, and becomes radicalized.  Wounded in battle, he becomes a charismatic leader.  At the same time, Mac, who was sent to organize the workers becomes dubious.  He has been a masterful tactician who keeps the mob from drifting apart by arranging to keep them fed and motivated by the bloody rags of the downtrodden.   As his protege grows in his leadership skills, Mac learns from Jim and cedes his control.

All’s fair in love and war.  The object is to win by any means necessary and both labor and management do not hesitate to use dirty tricks.  In the ultimate dirty trick, the growers use a decoy to lure Jim into the woods in a futile search for the missing Doc Burden.  There Jim (who “didn’t want nothing for himself”) is murdered.

As the novel ends, Mac has a new martyr.   

We voted this work a 7.5 on the vaunted KV 10.0 scale (guaranteed to be more accurate than your last COVID-19 test).   Our next ZOOM meeting will happen on February 25, 2021 when Dave will coral the jabber over William Faulkner’s 1931 novel of rape and violence. “Sanctuary.”  Which will prove that nothing good has ever come out of Memphis.   Those who worry that the club has fallen into a spate of negativity what with all the dystopias and portrayals of the downtrodden need to take heart.  Our reading list is open and surely someone will offer to lead us through “The Wind in the Willows”  or something by Dr. Suess. Where is Mary Poppins when we need her so badly? Join us at 11AM on Thursday,  2/25/21 for 90 minutes of hand-to-hand combat.   I will get the ZOOM link out as soon as I get it.  [update 2/24/21:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88574455173

Dave Young

 

We met again, via ZOOM to discuss “Follow the River” by James Alexander Thom. We had hoped that Jim would join us as he has in the past, but he had a conflict. So we went ahead with our small crew: Sarona Burchard (from Phoenix), Kathleen Angegolone, Dave Young, and Jay Carr. Susie and Bill Briscoe led the discussion. Thom, who has joined our meetings in the past, sent his greetings in an email to Bill. Those of us who have met Thom know him to be a wonderful story teller and a very accessible human being. Perhaps because he is married to a Native American, Dark Rain, he did an excellent job of balancing the negative traits of the Shawnee, their cruelty and obstinacy, with their caring for their own community and their sense of honor and dignity. Thom, who is very active in the Vonnegut Library, shares Kurt’s interest in anthropology and the importance of community in human affairs.

There was something forbidding about this 400 page tome. Tracking this brave woman who was following the Ohio River and its tributaries over several weeks with minimal resources and terrible circumstances was a grim task. Nevertheless, those of us who stuck with her to the end felt somewhat rewarded. Susie skillfully guided us through a work which she thought was written from a woman’s perspective. She was particularly impressed with the way the protagonist, Mary Draper Ingles, handled childbirth under horrible conditions and her ability to disassociate herself from her infant when she had to leave him with the Shawnee when she made her escape. Mary was motivated by the need to go home, even though she knew her home and its village had been destroyed in a massacre. While being taken away, she memorized the scenery along the river so that she could find her way back. She believed that if she could remain dignified she would win the respect of the Shawnee. The book is a study of human nature. Both Mary (who felt guilt for leaving her infant behind) , and her husband, Will (who let her be taken hostage as his resistance would have been futile) both learned to put shame and guilt behind them to get on with their difficult lives.

Mary’s dignity is rewarded when Wildcat, chief of the Shawnee tribe that captured her, is impressed by her stoic child bearing experience and demeanor and spares her from running the gauntlet to which the other hostages are subjected. Wildcat clearly wants Mary to be his squaw but does not force himself on her. Mary realizes that she would be respected and live a fairly comfortable life in terms of the tribal culture but rejects him in the hope that she can return to her husband and Draper’s Meadow. We noted that the gauntlet was not much different than the old fraternity hazing routine. It sorted out who was fit enough to join the club.

Most of the book is consumed by the long foot march along the Ohio and its tributaries from the Cincinnati area to the western regions of Virginia. She and her fellow escapee “Gretel” traversed what appears to be about 600 miles at the rate of ten to twenty miles a day surviving on what food they could find. Hunger is a major theme and Thom himself underwent a long fast so he could better understand how hunger affected one’s disposition. If you want to know how Thom prepared for this novel you might want to check out an hour long interview John Krull had with Thom on his WFYI show “No Limits.” https://www.wfyi.org/programs/no-limits/radio/hoosier-authors-james-alexander-thom-and-dark-rain. This trek is rather tedious and nasty – the thought of eating grubs, rotten carcasses, and combing through feces looking for digestibles can ruin one’s dinner. Nevertheless, it is so well-written and destination driven that it is hard to put down. Thom has apparently taken artistic license with what the human body can tolerate. How the two scantily clad women avoided hypothermia fording frozen tributaries and overcame infections and digestive problems is nothing short of miraculous. Well, people were a lot tougher in those days!

Mary’s relationship with Gretel forms an interesting subplot. Mary is in her early twenties and Gretel is described as an older Dutch woman (probably in her thirties) who came from a village of German settlers in Eastern Pennsylvania. Gretel is not as fit as Mary, but she is just as tough although completely ruled by her stomach. Their conversation is minimal due to Gretel’s limited knowledge of English. After weeks of near starvation she is ready to cannibalize Mary and puts a plan in motion. Mary manages to separate from her and they spend the last part of the trek following opposite sides of the river but staying in touch. Mary is fascinated when Gretel spreads herself out on a rock and pretends to be dead so that she might capture a buzzard coming to feed off her carcass. When Mary reaches Draper’s Meadow she convinces the men to search for Gretel although they think she deserves to perish. She is rescued and Mary, being the super human that she is, forgives her as she is carted off to join her village in Pennsylvania.

In the happy ending, Mary has a joyous reunion with Will (after he overcomes his disgust at what he thinks the savages have made of her) and they rebuild their lives. Mary has a sixth sense about Indian raids and believes that it is not safe to stay in Draper’s meadows. They leave and escape disaster. In real life, they have many more children and Mary lives to a ripe old age. Mary is a superwoman and there is little in this novel that would displease a feminist.

Jay and Dave reminisced their personal knowledge of the Ohio River watershed. Jay has hiked the New River Gorge and Dave has white-water rafted the Cheat and Monongahela Rivers. Dave also spent a few months in Portsmouth, Ohio (lower Shawneetown) working on a federal project. We don’t usually think of southern Ohio as Appalachia, but those who have travelled the region know of its grinding poverty which has been detailed in two recent novels: “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance and “Knockemstiff” by Donald Ray Pollock.

We gave this heavy page-turner an 8.6 score on the exquisitely designed KV ten point scale. Doubtless it would have been higher if Thom had participated! Our next meeting will kick off 2021 (a better year, we hope) with “In Dubious Battle,” the third novel in John Steinbeck’s dustbowl trilogy. Its all about organizing agricultural workers in California in the 1930’s – at least that is the surface story! So please join us at 11AM on Thursday, January 28, 2021 for ninety minutes of spirited discussion. I will get the ZOOM connection out to everyone as soon as it comes to hand. [Updated 1/13/21: Thanks to Jay Carr the ZOOM connection for 1/28/21 will be: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86700135643%5D.   

 

Dave Young

**************************

Kirkus Review 1981

Fleshed out from historical accounts and records, this is a strong novelization of a true woman-versus-nature ordeal. In 1755 Mary Draper Ingles, 23, pregnant mother of two, is kidnapped by Shawnees following their massacre of Mary’s West Virginia settlement–a vivid bloodletting. She, her two sons, and sister-in-law Bettie are taken downstream on Sinking Creek–as Mary gives birth to a daughter, then next morning must ride horseback or be slaughtered. (Almost bleeding to death, she nonetheless keeps a cheerful face for the Indians, who respect strength.) They spend 17 days at a salt lick, killing and salting game for winter, then push on to the great O-y-o (Ohio) River and follow that until reaching the Shawnee village–where prisoners are stripped and made to run a gauntlet of whippers before being adopted by Indian families. Mary has a sewing basket and goes into shirtmaking for profit. But when the Shawnee chief asks for her hand, she turns him down; so he sells her to a pair of French traders to work in their store, keeping her sons to raise as braves. And when the traders take Mary and old Dutch woman Ghetel to a second lick to collect salt, Mary decides to abandon her baby to a squaw and strike out for home with Ghetel. They sneak off and endure ever greater starvation for 43 days as they trek about 600 miles, following the rivers back to Mary’s settlement. . . while her husband rides into the Cherokee nation and tries to effect her ransom. The two women fail at fishing and hunting, are skin and bone in the fruitless fall, vomiting plant fibers, chewing a rotten doe’s head or acorns and grubs. Then it’s sleet, wolves, and fording deep streams. Ghetel becomes demented and hunts Mary to eat her. And finally: a crawl on skeletal hands and knees straight up a snowy stone 500-foot bank. . . and more banks beyond. More American Heritage than commercial romance, unusually convincing and often quite moving.

*******end*********

 

 

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met again, via ZOOM, to discuss John Steinbeck’s 1937 Novella “Of Mice and Men.”  Those participating were:  Gene Helveston, Mark Hudson, Susannah Windell, Jay Carr, Kathleen Angelone, Bill Briscoe, and Dave Young.  Sarona Buchard was unable to join us, but sent in her vote on the book’s merits.  Dave started the conversation with an overview of Steinbeck and the Novel.  Then the club pitched in with ninety minutes of spirited discussion.  We all had a lot to say.

“M&M” is the second of what is called “The Dustbowl Trilogy,”  the other two works being “In Dubious Battle” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Steinbeck started his writing career as a playwright and this work was written to be easily adaptable for the stage.  Minus the description of the natural scenery, it is mostly dialogue.  The narrator is unobtrusive and the talk carries the action.  The 107 page novella is broken down into six chapters which can be seen as a three act play with all the action taking place in (1) a clearing by a river close to the ranch;  (2)  The ranch bunkhouse; and (3) the barn and stable.   Out of this came at least four dramas with the following pairs playing George and Lennie.   The actors on stage in 1938 were Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford.  In 1939 a movie was made with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.  In 1981, Robert Blake and Randy Quaid played the roles in a TV movie.  Last but not least was 1992 remake with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.

Our discussion was centered on three pivotal scenes in this rather short work.  (1) The shooting of Candy’s dog by Carlson; (2) the fight between Curley and Lennie; and (3) Curley’s wife’s put-down of Crooks, Candy, and Lenny in the stable.

Most of us had read M&M more than once.  Rereading it was a revelation in that so many scenes that seem simple on the surface are set-ups for later plot points.  Carlson’s badgering of the crippled Candy and his execution of Candy’s ancient dog seems to be a pointless act of cruelty.  However, Steinbeck uses the relationship between Candy and the diseased dog to reinforce the book’s theme of loneliness and friendship.  The gunshot to the dog’s head foreshadows George’s execution of Lennie, using the same Luger Carlson used to put the dog out of its misery.  Slim, the mule skinner, also figures into this scene.  Although he is not dominant in the novella, he is dominant on the ranch.  He seems to be the conscience of the novel, a bridge between the uncaring corporate management of the ranch and the rather pathetic migrant workers in the bunkhouse.  He is a highly skilled driver of the mule train and a man everyone in the bunkhouse respects.  He humanizes the scene by offering Candy a new pup from a litter he helped deliver.

Carlson and Whitt are practical sorts who round out the bunkhouse.  Why isn’t there a cook?  Who ever heard of a man camp without a cook?  Carlson has adapted to his world of loneliness and seems unable to imagine human feelings.  Whitt demonstrates his limitations by expounding on the whore houses in the nearby town,  Soledad (Spanish for solitude – reinforcing the theme).   He prefers prostitutes because the exchange of money (a day’s pay for a $2 “flop”) for sexual satisfaction  is a complete transaction and no commitment, obligation, or feelings are involved.

Curley was pissed that the men in the bunkhouse found his wife to be sexually attractive.   He was particularly concerned about Slim but did not have the nerve to confront him so he decided to pick on Lennie.  Curley was a little guy who had shown some promise as a prize fighter and had developed what was called a “Napoleon Complex.”   When he lit into Lennie, the gentle giant did not fight back and took a beating until George gave Lennie permission to retaliate.  Lennie did so by grabbing and crushing Curley’s hand.  There was some symbolism here as Curley was known for keeping the hand in a vasoline glove so it would be soft for his wife.  After the fight Slim stepped in to make sure that Curley wouldn’t complain to his dad, a.k.a. “The Boss,” and make trouble for Lennie.  

Curley’s wife, who was so objectified that Steinbeck did not bother to give her a name, was an aspiring actress and sexpot stuck on a boring ranch.  She hated her husband who mostly neglected her.  While Curley and most of the ranch hands were visiting  Susy’s whorehouse in Soledad,  Curley’s wife wanders down to the bunkhouse where she finds three damaged people who did not make it into town: Candy, the one-handed swamper; Crooks, the bitter Negro stable hand; and Lennie, the mentally-retarded big guy.  She rather viciously puts all of them down, but then warms to Lennie as she seems to appreciate the hurt that he visited on Curley. That leads to her death and the unravelling of the dream.

The dream is freedom from the drudgery of the ranch and perhaps of the world.  George projects a time when he and Lennie will have saved up a stake and can buy a ranchette where they can raise their own food and breed rabbits.  Lenny buys into the dream and fantasizes about raising rabbits he can pet.  George manipulates him by constantly holding forth this dream.  Even George seems to buy into it.  For awhile, Crooks and Candy want to be part of it.  After the murder of Curley’s wife, George acknowledges that it was never going to happen.  Steinbeck is telling us that the future of the underclass is hopeless.

Steinbeck was an agnostic, but he liked to use biblical imagery.  It is tempting to shoehorn the idyllic river clearing that Steinbeck so carefully describes into some kind of West of Eden.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” cried Cain after he slew his brother in the fields of Eden.  God punished Cain by condemning him to roam the earth for the rest of his days.  So Cain was a bindlestiff too.  Curley and his wife might represent the evil of he outside world.

George’s murder of Lennie overpowers one’s memory of the books ending.  Frontier justice would probably not  have held George accountable.   Slim would support the theory that Lenny, not George, stole the fatal weapon and that, the shot in the back of the head notwithstanding, it was obviously a case of self defense.   What is forgotten is the classic Western walk-off that followed.  To the puzzlement of Carlson,  George and Slim hit the trail together as Slim seems to have warmed to the idea of friendship.   Think of Bogey and Rains walking off into the Casablanca fog after another covered-up murder as Bogey intones “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”   Here is the clip:  https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhsibasyn4&hsimp=yhssyn4&hspart=iba&p=claude+rains+casablanca#id=5&vid=66d93988af4150efef327433f86c9e03&action=click

What does this have to do with Kurt?   Well, it is a “banned”  book!”     Just this year a school board in Burbank, CA “challenged” this work (along with “Huck Finn” and “Mockingbird”)  by removing it from its required reading list for high school students.  Their reasoning, following a few complaints from parents, was that no matter how sympathetic the works were to minorities, the language therein was a “trigger” which damaged the self image of African-America students.  A longish news article on this topic in the LA Times is attached to this blog in our external essays section.  Steinbeck was twenty years older than Kurt and his writing career was pretty much over after he received the Nobel Prize in 1962.  He was ridiculed by the literary establishment and gave up on publishing fiction, dying in NYC at the age of 66 in 1968.  Kurt was also held in disregard by academics.  Kurt was a transplanted New Yorker and Steinbeck was a Californian.  I can’t find any evidence that they ever met or had any influence on one another.  Both were liberals and heavy smokers.  Both had served in WWII.  Vonnegut was an infantryman and Steinbeck served as a War Correspondent. They probably would have hit it off.

Using the infamous KV ten-point rating scale we voted this work a solid nine, higher than average for our monthly selections.  Next month, Bill and Susie will lead the discussion on James Alexander Thom’s 1981 historical novel “Follow the River.”  Thom has attended two of our meetings in person and we hope we can get him to ZOOM in from Bloomington for this one.   Join us at 11AM on Thursday, December 16, 2020 when we will ZOOM back to 18th Century America and talk about the Shawnees and the Settlers fighting it out.   We are in the process of filling out our calendar for 2021 and have only a few offers so far.  Please select a book (and a month)  you think the club would enjoy.  You get to lead the discussion.  Bill is running the calendar and you can email him at: wfrb@att.net.  Don’t let the two middle initials throw you off!

Dave Young

Summary extracted from  Wikipedia

Of Mice and Men is a novella written by John Steinbeck.[1][2] Published in 1937, it narrates the experiences of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in the United States.

Steinbeck based the novella on his own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers as a teenager in the 1910s (before the arrival of the Okies that he would describe in The Grapes of Wrath). The title is taken from Robert Burns‘ poem “To a Mouse“, which reads: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)

While it is a book taught in many schools,[3] Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity, and what some consider offensive and racist language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association‘s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.[4]

PLOT

Two migrant field workers in California on their plantation during the Great Depression—George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a bulky, strong man but mentally disabled—are in Soledad on their way to another part of California. They hope to one day attain the dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie’s part of the dream is merely to tend and pet rabbits on the farm, as he loves touching soft animals, although he always accidentally kills them. This dream is one of Lennie’s favorite stories, which George constantly retells. They had fled from Weed after Lennie grabbed a young woman’s skirt and would not let go, leading to an accusation of rape. It soon becomes clear that the two are close and George is Lennie’s protector, despite his antics.

After being hired at a farm, the pair are confronted by Curley— the Boss’s small, aggressive son with a Napoleon complex who dislikes larger men. Curley starts to target Lennie. Curley’s flirtatious and provocative wife, to whom Lennie is instantly attracted, poses a problem as well. In contrast, the pair also meets Candy, an elderly ranch handyman with one hand and a loyal dog, and Slim, an intelligent and gentle jerkline-skinner whose dog has recently had a litter of puppies. Slim gives a puppy to Lennie and Candy, whose loyal, accomplished sheep dog was put down by fellow ranch-hand Carlson.

In spite of problems, their dream leaps towards reality when Candy offers to pitch in $350 with George and Lennie so that they can buy a farm at the end of the month, in return for permission to live with them. The trio are ecstatic, but their joy is overshadowed when Curley attacks Lennie, who defends himself by easily crushing Curley’s fist while urged on by George.

Nevertheless, George feels more relaxed, to the extent that he even leaves Lennie behind on the ranch while he goes into town with the other ranch hands. Lennie wanders into the stable, and chats with Crooks, the bitter, yet educated stable buck, who is isolated from the other workers due to being black. Candy finds them and they discuss their plans for the farm with Crooks, who cannot resist asking them if he can hoe a garden patch on the farm albeit scorning its possibility. Curley’s wife makes another appearance and flirts with the men, especially Lennie. However, her spiteful side is shown when she belittles them and threatens to have Crooks lynched.

The next day, Lennie accidentally kills his puppy while stroking it. Curley’s wife enters the barn and tries to speak to Lennie, admitting that she is lonely and how her dreams of becoming a movie star are crushed, revealing her personality. After finding out about Lennie’s habit, she offers to let him stroke her hair, but panics and begins to scream when she feels his strength. Lennie becomes frightened, and unintentionally breaks her neck thereafter and runs away. When the other ranch hands find the corpse, George realizes that their dream is at an end. George hurries to find Lennie, hoping he will be at the meeting place they designated in case he got into trouble.

George meets Lennie at their camping spot before they came to the ranch. The two sit together and George retells the beloved story of the dream, knowing it is something they will never share. He then kills Lennie by shooting him, because he sees it as an action in Lennie’s best interest. Curley, Slim, and Carlson arrive seconds after. Only Slim realizes what happened, and consolingly leads him away. Curley and Carlson look on, unable to comprehend the subdued mood of the two men.

Characters

  • George Milton: A quick-witted man who is Lennie’s guardian and best friend. His friendship with Lennie helps sustain his dream of a better future. He was bound in teasing Lennie since he was young[further explanation needed]. He is described by Steinbeck in the novel as “small and quick,” every part of him being “defined,” with small strong hands on slender arms. He has a dark face and “restless eyes” and “sharp, strong features” including a “thin, bony nose.”
  • Lennie Small: A mentally disabled, but gigantic and physically strong man who travels with George and is his constant companion.[5] He dreams of “living off the fatta’ the lan'” and being able to tend to rabbits. His love for soft things conspires against him, mostly because he does not know his own strength, and eventually becomes his undoing. Steinbeck defines his appearance as George’s “opposite,” writing that he is a “huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes” and “wide, sloping shoulders.” Lennie walks heavily, dragging his feet a little, “the way a bear drags his paws,” adding that his arms do not swing at his sides, but hang loosely.
  • Candy: An aging ranch handyman, Candy lost his hand in an accident and worries about his future on the ranch. Fearing that his age is making him useless, he seizes on George’s description of the farm he and Lennie will have, offering his life’s savings if he can join George and Lennie in owning the land.
  • Slim: A “jerkline skinner,” the main driver of a mule team and the “prince of the ranch”. Slim is greatly respected by many of the characters and is the only character whom Curley treats with respect. His insight, intuition, kindness and natural authority draw the other ranch hands automatically towards him, and he is significantly the only character to fully understand the bond between George and Lennie.
  • Curley: The Boss’ son, a young, pugnacious character, once a semi-professional boxer. He is described by others, with some irony, as “handy”, partly because he likes to keep a glove filled with vaseline on his left hand. He is very jealous and protective of his wife and immediately develops a dislike toward Lennie. At one point, Curley loses his temper after he sees Lennie appear to laugh at him, and ends up with his hand horribly damaged after Lennie fights back against him.
  • Curley’s wife: A young, pretty woman, who is mistrusted by her husband. The other characters refer to her only as “Curley’s wife”. Steinbeck explained that she is “not a person, she’s a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil – and a danger to Lennie.”[5] Curley’s wife’s preoccupation with her own beauty eventually helps precipitate her death: She allows Lennie to stroke her hair as an apparently harmless indulgence, only for her to upset Lennie when she yells at him to stop him ‘mussing it’. Lennie tries to stop her yelling and eventually, and accidentally, kills her by breaking her neck.
  • Crooks: Crooks, the black stable-hand, gets his name from his crooked back. Proud, bitter, and cynical, he is isolated from the other men because of the color of his skin. Despite himself, Crooks becomes fond of Lennie, and though he claims to have seen countless men following empty dreams of buying their own land, he asks Lennie if he can go with them and hoe in the garden.
  • Candy’s dog: A blind dog who is described as “old”, “stinky”, and “crippled”, and is killed by Carlson.
  • Carlson: A “thick bodied” ranch hand, he kills Candy’s dog with little sympathy.
  • The Boss: Curley’s father, the superintendent of the ranch. The ranch is owned by “a big land company” according to Candy.
  • Whit: A young ranch hand.

Themes

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

— John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry[6]

Steinbeck emphasizes dreams throughout the book.[clarification needed] George aspires to independence, to be his own boss, to have a homestead, and, most important, to be “somebody”. Lennie aspires to be with George on his independent homestead, and to quench his fixation on soft objects. Candy aspires to reassert his responsibility lost with the death of his dog, and for security for his old age—on George’s homestead. Crooks aspires to a small homestead where he can express self-respect, security, and most of all, acceptance. Curley’s wife dreams to be an actress, to satisfy her desire for fame lost when she married Curley, and an end to her loneliness.

Loneliness is a significant factor in several characters’ lives. Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for—she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”[7] The author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means “solitude” in Spanish.[8]

Despite the need for companionship, Steinbeck emphasizes how loneliness is sustained through the barriers established from acting inhuman to one another. The loneliness of Curley’s wife is upheld by Curley’s jealousy, which causes all the ranch hands to avoid her. Crooks’s barrier results from being barred from the bunkhouse by restraining him to the stable; his bitterness is partially broken, however, through Lennie’s ignorance.

Steinbeck’s characters are often powerless, due to intellectual, economic, and social circumstances. Lennie possesses the greatest physical strength of any character, which should therefore establish a sense of respect as he is employed as a ranch hand. However, his intellectual handicap undercuts this and results in his powerlessness. Economic powerlessness is established as many of the ranch hands are victims of the Great Depression. As George, Candy and Crooks are positive, action- oriented characters, they wish to purchase a homestead, but because of the Depression, they are unable to generate enough money. Lennie is the only one who is basically unable to take care of himself, but the other characters would do this in the improved circumstances they seek. Since they cannot do so, the real danger of Lennie’s mental handicap comes to the fore.

Regarding human interaction, evil of oppression and abuse is a theme that is illustrated through Curley and Curley’s wife. Curley uses his aggressive nature and superior position in an attempt to take control of his father’s farm. He constantly reprimands the farm hands and accuses some of fooling around with his wife. Curley’s Napoleon complex is evidenced by his threatening of the farm hands for minuscule incidents. Curley’s wife, on the other hand, is not physically but verbally manipulative. She uses her sex appeal to gain some attention, flirting with the farm hands. According to the Penguin Teacher’s Guide for Of Mice and Men, Curley and Curley’s wife represent evil in that both oppress and abuse the migrants in different ways.[9]

Fate is felt most heavily as the characters’ aspirations are destroyed when George is unable to protect Lennie (who is a real danger). Steinbeck presents this as “something that happened” or as his friend coined for him “non-teleological thinking” or “is thinking”, which postulates a non-judgmental point of view.[6]

Development

Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play termed a “play-novelette” by one critic. Structured in three acts of two chapters each, it is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. It is only 30,000 words in length. Steinbeck wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.[10]

Steinbeck originally titled it Something That Happened (referring to the events of the book as “something that happened” because nobody can be really blamed for the tragedy that unfolds in the story). However, he changed the title after reading Robert Burns‘s poem To a Mouse.[11] Burns’s poem tells of the regret the narrator feels for having destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing his field.[12]

Steinbeck wrote this book and The Grapes of Wrath in what is now Monte Sereno, California. An early draft of Of Mice and Men was eaten by Steinbeck’s dog, named Max.[13]

Reception

Attaining the greatest positive response of any of his works up to that time, Steinbeck’s novella was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection before it was published. Praise for the work came from many notable critics, including Maxine Garrard (Enquirer-Sun),[14] Christopher Morley, and Harry Thornton Moore (New Republic).[15] New York Times critic Ralph Thompson described the novella as a “grand little book, for all its ultimate melodrama.”[16][17]

The novella has been banned from various US public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly “promoting euthanasia“, “condoning racial slurs”, being “anti-business”, containing profanity, and generally containing “vulgar” and “offensive language”.[18] Many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted and it remains required reading in many other American, Australian, Irish, British, New Zealand and Canadian high schools. As a result of being a frequent target of censors, Of Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association‘s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century (number 4).[19] In the UK, it was listed at number 52 of the “nation’s best loved novels” on the BBC‘s 2003 survey The Big Read.[20] Of Mice and Men has been challenged (proposed for censorship) 54 times since it was published in 1936.[21] However, scholars including Thomas Scarseth have fought to protect the book by arguing its literary value. According to Scarseth “in true great literature the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art.”[22]

Adaptations

Stage

Main articles: Of Mice and Men (play) and Of Mice and Men (opera)

The first stage production was written by Steinbeck, produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George S. Kaufman. It opened on November 23, 1937, in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.[23] Running for 207 performances, it starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie.[23] The role of Crooks was performed by Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of the Actors’ Equity Association.[24] Whipper repeated this role in the 1939 film version.[25]

The production was chosen as Best Play in 1938 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.[26]

In 1939 the production was moved to Los Angeles, still with Wallace Ford in the role of George, but with Lon Chaney, Jr., taking on the role of Lennie. Chaney’s performance in the role resulted in his casting in the movie.

In 1958, a musical theater adaptation by Ira Bilowit (1925–2016) was produced Off-Broadway in New York City. The cast included several in-demand performers of their day, including Art Lund and Jo Sullivan, re-teamed after performing together in the hit musical The Most Happy Fella, as well as Leo Penn.[27] However, a newspaper strike negatively affected the production and it closed after six weeks.[28] A revival of the work was mounted at the Western Stage in Salinas in 2019.[28]

The play was revived in a 1974 Broadway production in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre starring Kevin Conway as George and James Earl Jones as Lennie.[29] Noted stage actress Pamela Blair played Curley’s Wife in this production.

In 1970 Carlisle Floyd wrote an opera based on this novella. One departure between Steinbeck’s book and Floyd’s opera is that the opera features The Ballad Singer, a character not found in the book.[30]

A new version of the play opened on Broadway at The Longacre Theater on March 19, 2014 for a limited 18-week engagement, starring James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Norton.[31][32]

Film

The first film adaptation was released in 1939, two years after the publication of the novella, and starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, with Burgess Meredith as George, and was directed by Lewis Milestone.[25] It was nominated for four Academy Awards.[25]

A TV version, produced by David Susskind in 1968, starred George Segal as George, Nicol Williamson as Lennie, Will Geer as Candy, Moses Gunn as Crooks, and Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton as Curley and his wife, respectively.[33]

A 1972 Iranian film, Topoli, directed by Reza Mirlohi was adapted from and dedicated to John Steinbeck and his story.[citation needed]

In 1981, a TV movie version was released, starring Randy Quaid as Lennie, and Robert Blake as George, and directed by Reza Badiyi.[34]

Another theatrical film version was made in 1992, directed by Gary Sinise, who was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.[35] Sinise also played George in the film, and the role of Lennie was played by John Malkovich. For this adaptation, both men reprised their roles from the 1980 Steppenwolf Theatre Company production.[36]

The 1992 Malayalam film Soorya Manasam directed by Viji Thampi is also based on the novel.[3

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