“Leaves on the Capitol Grass,” by James Dawson[Permalink]
Leaves on the Capitol Grass
Sons of a young land prematurely old,
Gone grey about the hills, stagnant of air,
We walk the prim lots in the growing cold
And comb the brown leaves from the land’s dead hairs,
We watch the old men pass, folding their coats
About their greying necks; we see them pass,
Coughing a little in their drying throats,
Parking their buicks by the aged grass.
Old men, we see you, we who rake the leaves,
Who count the dried leaf-veins in every one,
We know the young land ages now and grieves,
Who see you passing when your day is done.
What does it matter what we think of you?
The leaves are dead. The land is dying too.
Trial Balances: An Anthology Of New Poetry provides this short biography of Dawson:
James Dawson was born in New Bern, North Carolina, July 1, 1910. He received an A. B. degree at the University of North Carolina and is now a graduate student at Georgetown University. In the intervals of securing an education he has been a printer’s devil, a sailor, a chain-carrier for surveyors, and a teller in a country bank.
From a St. Andrew’s Society newsletter from 1963, we learn that he served in the Navy in World War Two, and went on to become an advertising and P.R. executive. His four poems in Trial Balances: An Anthology Of New Poetry appear to be the sum of his published work.
April 20th, 2014
The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill[Permalink]
Continuing my journey through the pulp oeuvre of R. V. Cassill–a novelist and short-story writer whose mainstream fiction is nearly as forgotten as his more quotidian work–we come to The Hungering Shame (1956), his fifth novel and his first paperback original for Avon Publications.
One would have to be thick not to figure out that it’s a story about rape. “Four Men, A Lonely Road, and A Girl” is splashed under the title, on which we see an attractive woman examining the torn sleeve of her dress, her hair slightly mussed. These were the days before Avon became noteworthy as the publisher of Latin American and other innovative fiction, days when its marketing aim was not so high(brow).
But, as I found with The Wound of Love (1956), his second Avon original, and Naked Morning (1957), his third, the lurid cover and blurb of The Hungering Shame deceives by disguising the seriousness of Cassill’s purpose and his results.
The Hungering Shame is not actually a story about rape, but rather one about the effects of rape. Cassill uses a set of first-person narrators to play out his drama, which concocts an unstable mixture of characters and circumstances and then sets it alight.
Unlike his next two books, The Hungering Shame is set not in Iowa but in a resort town in the Colorado Rockies. Late the summer before the story opens, a local girl, Joy Everest, was picked up by four visiting frat boys, taken up a deserted forest road, and raped. One of them was the son of Bob Horn, manager of one of the big resort hotels in the town. A divorced father with a weak heart and a guilty conscience, Horn had helped Joy get medical care after the crime and convinced her not to report it. Engaged to marry Al, a local boy, Joy had her own reasons to keep quiet.
Now, a year later, the marriage has disintegrated. Still traumatized by the rape, Joy has been unable to sleep with Al. Then several pieces of bad advice upset the precarious balance of Joy and Al’s psyches. Joy, we learn, has already been scarred from discovering, as a child, her father’s dead body after his suicide, and Al is a nascent sociopath. Add to these ingredients Bob Horn’s genetic predisposition to bad luck (his father tells him that just about anyone other than a Horn “has a better chance than you nor me when it comes time to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing”), a social climbing young woman, and the reappearance of one of the rapists, and it all explodes.
Men might have been hoping for some good old fashioned sleaze in The Hungering Shame, but I doubt they would have been prepared for the brutality of the finale. Al spirals down the path of a classic sociopath, cruising for women, contemplating molesting a young girl, caught masturbating in his car, taking Joy along as he shoots cornered animals, and finally, attacking a couple necking in a parked car. Cassill goes well beyond conventional literary psychology of the 1950s, revealing that Joy finds relief for her own pain by helping Al inflict it upon others.
Bob Horn also discovers unpleasant truths as his fragile world comes crashing down. I liked how Cassill captured the voice and sensibility of an ordinary man being forced to look past the limits of his comfortable notions of evil:
I guess there are, for unlucky men, those times when you are forced to look clear past the edge of what people ought to be asked to stand. It’s a mistake to think there’s nothing out there, a lucky mistake, because in the dark around us there’s a slop and muck and stink that’s stronger than all the daylight we’ll ever get. It moans at you through its stinking lips and says Help me and if you’ve been caught where you hear it you’re tempted to gather it up in your arms and pat it.
The savagery of The Hungering Shame‘s denouement is really quite shocking for its time. I speculated in my post on Naked Morning that Cassill may have used his pulp fiction as experiments where he could try out techniques for use in more serious works. In the case of The Hungering Shame, his ability to work with highly combustible materials proved short of the mark just at the book’s very end.
Q: How to end a story that’s already gone over the edge?
A: Put all your volatile characters in a car and send it careening off a cliff.
The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, 1956
April 14th, 2014
Ginx’s Baby and Little Hodges, by Edward Jenkins[Permalink]
Son of a missionary and minister who took his family to India, Canada and the U.S. and who was ordained in three different churches–Wesleyan, Methodist, and Presbyterian–Edward Jenkins had stronger Protestant and anti-imperialist roots than perhaps any other Victorian radical, which is why he might be considered 19th Century England’s closest counterpart to Jonathan Swift. And like Swift, he used the infant as the instrument for his most savage satires.
Jenkins’ first book, Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misforuntes (1871), used its title character–the thirteenth child both to Mr. and Mrs. Ginx, a London navvy and his wife–to mock the pretensions of religious charities and high-minded reformers, who claimed to serve the poor but more often used them to serve their own interests. Ginx, his wife, and all their children manage to fit into one tiny room filled mostly with on “thirteenth-hand” bed:
When Ginx, who was a stout navvy, and Mrs. Ginx, who was, you may conceive, a matronly woman, were in it, there was little vacant space about them. Yet, as they were forced to find resting-places for all the children, it not seldom happened that at least one infant was perilously wedged between the parental bodies; and latterly they had been so pressed for room in the household that two younglings were nestled at the foot of the bed. Without foot-board or pillows, the lodgment of these infants was precarious, since any fatuous movement of Ginx’s legs was likely to expel them head-first. However they were safe, for they were sure to fall on one or other of their brothers or sisters.
Although the Ginxes, like good Victorian subjects, take their lot in life for granted (“They regarded disease with the apathy of creatures who felt it to be inseparable from humanity”), the latest Ginx is one too many, and Mr. Ginx considers drowning the newborn in the Thames as a solution. A crowd gathers, and a debate erupts among them as to where the responsibility for the situation lies. One man blames Ginx and his wife for having children when they couldn’t afford them and another wonders why “Parlyment” doesn’t provide better care for the poor. Finally, a nun intervenes and persuades a policeman to let her take the baby back to “the Sisters of Misery.”
There, the nuns consult with the Church authorities and soon little Ginx–now named Ambrosius–becomes the centerpiece of a campaign to encourage procreation as a means for creating more Catholics. This draws the wrath of Protestant churches, and an “Evangelical Alliance” forms to rescue him. They “favor of teaching him at once to hate idolatry, music, crosses, masses, nuns, priests, bishops, and cardinals,” and form a Committee of the Protestant Detectoral Union on Ginx’s Baby to determine the correct approach to the infant’s religious education. Unfortunately, after holding twenty-three meetings and releasing countless announcements, the Committee is forced to disband for lack of funds.
In the meantime, Mr. Ginx resorts to abandoning the baby on a shopkeeper’s doorstep, which then leads to his being placed in one poorhouse and then another. Now near death, the child is rescued by a visiting doctor and his case becomes a cause celebre in the press. The respective guardians of the two poorhouses go to court to determine which is at fault. The baby is returned to the Ginxes, who have given up any hope of surviving in England and decided to emigrate to Australia, and once again Mr. Ginx abandons him, this time on the doorstep of a political club in Pall Mall.
Here he comes to the service of the Radicals, who attempt to launch a debate in the House of Commons on the plight of the poor. However, the Minister for the Accidental Accompaniments of the Empire takes them by surprise by launching his own debate in the House of Lords. Though “he never seen the Baby, and knew nothing or very little about him,” this does not prevent him from delivering “an elaborate speech in which he asked for aristocratic sympathy on his behalf” and proposes a practical solution: send the child to Australia. Unfortunately, this motion runs afoul of the great economic authority, Lord Munibagge, who protests, “Ginx’s Baby could not starve in a country like this. He (Lord Munnibagge) had never heard of a case of a baby starving.” The Lords conclude that “there was no necessity for the interference of Government in the case of Ginx’s Baby or any other babies or persons.”
In the end, passed along from charity to charity, Ginx’s baby grows into a young and still hungry delinquent and decides one night to resort to his father’s first solution: he quietly jumps off Vauxhall Bridge and drowns himself in the Thames.
Several years after publishing Ginx’s Baby, Jenkins took another satirical stab at the inertia and hypocrisy of Victorian society through the instrument of a baby–this time in the form of the world’s tiniest baby, known as Little Hodge (1878). Weighing just over three pounds at birth, Little Hodges’ fame soon spreads: “Many visitors came to the workhouse — physicians, surgeons, comparative anatomists, and one or two social science philosophers.” They all come to the same conclusion: “that he was very small,” and “that he could not live.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Hodges, a farm laborer with eight other children, he does live, and, with his mother dead from childbirth, he needs to eat. Hodges turns to his landlord, then to his parson, then to his local poorhouse, and so on, finding all of them greatly concerned and utterly unable to help. When he tries to forage and poach to find some free food for his family, he’s brought up on charges. His plight inspires some of his fellow farm workers to form a union and revolt against the landowners, but this movement also fails to provide solution to the immediate problem of getting enough to eat. Hodge dies one night, probably murdered by his landlord, and his children are taken off to America by a Yankee philanthropist.
Like many other attempts to rework a fictional formula, the tone of Little Hodges seem tired and bitter compared to the gusto with which Jenkins skewered English society high and low in Ginx’s Baby. Where in Ginx’s Baby Jenkins pumped up his targets to exaggerated proportions before bursting them with quick jabs, in Little Hodges, mockery too often gives way to anger and sermonizing. One could trace a line from Swift to Kafka’s The Trial that passes through Ginx’s Baby; Little Hodges, though, is closer to Ten Nights in a Bar-room than anything in the way of lasting satirical literature.
Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misfortunes, by Edward Jenkins
London: Strachan & Company, 1871
April 9th, 2014
“The Brigadier General Bar,” from Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill[Permalink]
The Brigadier Club had never endured for more than ten months under any single management and it had borne half a dozen names since the war. Bur it recurs, Martin thought, and may be here in a fresh avatar when the pigeon-loved bronze of General Dirksen has been sublimed away.
It had opened after the war as the clubhouse of a campus Veterans’ organization. The American Legion and the VFW had their own permanent buildings in the business section of town, but a large part of their membership was from townspeople or the incorrigible patriots who would always find something subversive in any organization they had helped found themselves.
The club had moved twice before it found quarters in the labyrinthine back rooms of a hotel that was thirty years fallen from its highwater mark of prosperity. It had gone broke and had been reorganized repeatedly. While it was still—with some pretense of legitimacy–a veteran’s co-operative project. Then it was “taken over” by an ex-aviator. For a while his name had been painted over the main entrance on a side street five blocks from the campus. He told all those who had by this time become addicted to it that “nothing would change.” He was going merely, to put it on a paying basis, “for them.”
Since then the club had been closed some ten times. Now and then it was closed (and disbanded) at the orders of the outraged university or municipal administration on a variety of charges which added up to something like mass moral turpitude. Sometimes bankruptcies closed it–at which times the onetime flyer “re-incorporated” and changed the name, clinging only to those names which had a common military denominator.
The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.
The bankruptcies sometimes resulted from setting the price of drinks too low (the manager had moments of unbusiness-like compassion for his whole clientele), sometimes from over-paying the local police with bribes which they did not respect (a bribe plus a fine can ruin any business venture), and sometimes from emergencies in the manager’s private life (he fell head over heels for one of the Chicago hookers and went home with her when she left, carrying all his liquid assets and dissipating them on her in a six week binge).
But it was open again this fall, as it had been for at least part of every year, “under new management.” This merely meant that the manager would spend more time in a back room at one of the poker tables and less time hanging from the bar corner in ostentatious drunkenness, reaching for the girls as they danced. Each reopening was signalized by some amateur remodeling of the decor will wallboard and gaspipe, the immemorial peephole between the men’s and women’s toilets was usually plastered shut, and a new program of entertainment was advertised on mimeographed handbills. But essentially, year to year, college generation to generation, as Clare had promised–as he didn’t even need to bother promising, Martin thought–the club had not changed. As it had been, it would be.
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