Friday, October 9, 2015

American Fantastic Tales by Major Women Authors: Chopin, Wharton & Cather

While it is true I have been effusive in my praise of Tanith Lee and Thomas M. Disch on this website, I don't think anybody would mistake MPorcius Fiction Log as the go-to place for celebrating diversity in SF and promoting the publication of more SF by members of marginalized populations.  But maybe today is the day I will get a little absolution from the powers that zhe for my harsh criticism of The Tomorrow People and The Killer ThingBecause today is the day I read three "tales of the fantastic" by women, women who are iconic members of the American literary canon: Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.

It is fair to see this post as a companion piece to my late September post about stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James, because I have also drawn these three stories from The Library of America's American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps.  As was the case with Henry James, I know just about zero about Chopin, Wharton and Cather, not having been required to read them in school and not having sought them out since I bid farewell to the classroom. This will be my first experience of these big name American authors.  I know we're all crossing our fingers hoping I love these things!

"Ma'ame Pelagie" by Kate Chopin (1893)

Fifty-year-old Ma'ame Pelagie and her sister Pauline, thirty-five, live in a cabin on their Louisiana plantation, saving their pennies in hopes of rebuilding the mansion they lived in as children, which has been a ruin since it was wrecked by Union soldiers during the Civil War, some three decades ago.  Maybe in twenty or thirty years they will have amassed enough funds to rebuild the place.

A niece, whom they call "La Petite," comes to stay with the childless unmarried sisters.  La Petite quickly becomes the light of Pauline's life: "...she seems like a saviour; like one who had come and taken me by the hand and was leading me somewhere--somewhere I want to go."  La Petite, who has lived in big cities, tires of life in the little cabin far from her piano and any excitement, and declares she will leave.  Pauline tells Ma'ame Pelagie that "if La Petite goes away I shall die."

In her youth her father impressed upon Ma'ame Pelagie that she must look after her little sister.  So Ma'ame Pelagie abandons her dream of rebuilding the mansion, and instead uses the accumulated money to build a smaller but still fine house.  The house becomes a meeting place for local society, and La Petite and her father are happy to move in permanently.

This is a reasonably good mainstream story about self-sacrifice, moving forward in life, and women's relationships, but what is "fantastic" about it?  I guess the scene in which the title character looks into the ruin and "sees" the big party she attended right before the war.  Or how the ruin seems to brood "like a huge monster."

"Afterward" by Edith Wharton (1910)

The Boynes, engineer Ned and wife Mary, left New York City for Ned’s work and have “endured for nearly fourteen years the soul-deadening ugliness of a Middle Western town.” Ay carumba, this is a horror story!  Thank heavens they finally struck it rich and moved to a country estate in Dorsetshire, England.

Life is good for the Boynes at their English estate, with the garden and the library and the servants and walks in the countryside and all that, but then supernatural disaster strikes! A mysterious man appears, and Ned leaves with him, leaving no word with Mary or the servants as to who the man is, where they are going, and when he will return.  In the event, Ned does not return!  Weeks later, with the arrival in England of an acquaintance of Ned’s, all the clues fall into place and Mary learns the terrible truth.  In the course of striking it rich back in what we now call flyover country, Ned screwed over some business associate (in a way Wharton does not specify) and this joker lost all his money and committed suicide.  It was the ghost of this suicide who came to take away Ned, presumably to some final, fatal, punishment.

One assumes this story is an attack on business or capitalism or the free market or whatever you want to call it.  Wharton portrays businesspeople as unscrupulous and business as a lawless realm beyond concepts of honor and dishonor or good and evil. Mary asks the American visitor, “you accuse my husband of doing something dishonourable?”  His reply is “I don’t say it wasn’t straight, and yet I don’t say it was straight.  It was business.”  Wharton includes his line twice in the story, to make sure we get the message.  Another clue that this story is about economics as much or more than it is about ghosts is that Ned was spending his retirement in England writing a book with the working title of Economic Basis of Culture.

“Afterward” is alright, I suppose, but it is no big deal.  It kind of just sits there.  It feels a little long for what it tries to accomplish, and doesn’t generate much feeling; Wharton doesn’t give the reader much reason to like or dislike Mary or Ned or the suicide, or to care what happens to any of them. And of course its politics are hardly interesting or novel; every day we hear broad emotional denunciations of businesspeople and the business world from those who think society would be better off if there was more power in the hands of aristocrats, commissars, or government bureaucrats.

"Consequences" by Willa Cather (1915)

Eastman, an industrious and successful lawyer (sometimes he argues before the Supreme Court in Washington!), and Cavenaugh, a playboy (sometimes he parties til dawn with showgirls!) are bachelors living in the same building in midtown Manhattan.  Oh yes, this is one of those stories which makes me wax nostalgic about "the good old days" when I stalked the streets of New York City, lounging in parks, on street corners, in museums, and at esplanades, stuffing my face with the world's finest pizzas and bagels, watching the girls, the trains, and the ships going by.

Eastman and Cavenaugh exchange stories about suicides they have known. Cavenaugh eventually unburdens himself about his own dark secret: an old man haunts him, appearing at random intervals when he is alone.  This mysterious figure, who wears worn out evening clothes, knows everything about Cavenaugh and his life and puts a bad color on everything:
"...he knows me like a book; everything I've ever done or thought.  But when he recalls them, he throws a bad light on them, somehow.  Things that weren't much off color, look rotten.  He doesn't leave one a shred of self-respect...."     
Is this phantom a cautionary vision of the future Cavenaugh, who regrets his wasted life?  Is it the ghost of Cavenaugh's athletic and ambitious brother Brian, who died young, of who Brian might have become?  Is it a materialization of Cavenaugh's conscience?  

Eastman advises Cavenaugh to quit his idle ways and become a businessman or an engineer or something.  He even helps the playboy get in touch with a ranch in Montana where he can ride horses and shoot guns and do real physical work, far from the decadence of New York.  But it is too late--after a final visit from the old man, Cavenaugh shoots himself.

Even accounting for my New York prejudice, this is easily the best of the three stories I'm talking about today.  Cather's style is more modern: it is clear, smooth, and alive. Eastman and Cavenaugh seem like real people, Cather discusses issues of universal interest, like "how should you live your life?" and "why do people take their own lives?" and exhibits the kind of cynical wisdom I am a sucker for:
"It reminds me of what Dr. Johnson said, that the most discouraging thing about life is the number of fads and hobbies and fake religions it takes to put people through a few years of it."  
"People never really change; they just go on being themselves."   
Perhaps most importantly, for stories in a collection of "fantastic tales," the supernatural element of "Consequences" actually works: it is prominent, interesting, and genuinely creepy.


I'm sure there are legions of college professors and mountains of books that could explain to me why Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather are the queen bee's knees.  But instead of consulting them I went right to the source material and came up with my own almost totally uneducated assessment.  My brief reconnaissance into the distaff side of the American literary canon has left me with a good impression of Willa Cather and the feeling Edith Wharton is not for me.

In our next episode, more American Fantastic Tales, this time by women whom I don't think are as famous as Chopin, Wharton and Cather--at least I've never heard of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment