I’ve never found anything written by George P. Elliott entirely satisfying–yet I keep coming back to his work.
Considered a rising talent in the 1950s, when his short stories such as “The NRACP” and “Among the Dangs” began appearing in anthologies and to be mentioned as some of the more significant works in then-contemporary American writing, Elliott was solidly placed in the literary mainstream by the 1960s, when his name often appeared alongside those of Bellow, Heller, and Roth; beginning to be seen as marginal by the start of the 1970s; and largely forgotten by the time he died at age 62 in 1980. His books are all out of print today, and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (yet).
What happened? I think a look at his best-received book, the short story collection Among the Dangs (1961), can explain a lot.
Among the Dangs includes several stories that stand out quite starkly from most of what was being published at the time. In the title story, a black American academic and anthropologist studies and then becomes a member of a violent Amazonian tribe, the Dangs, only to flee from them in the end, in fear that he was on the brink of reverting to their more instinctual and primitive level. I remember thinking it a remarkable and memorable story when I first came across it in some anthology of contemporary short stories back in college, and that memory was the main reason I but the book on my “to read” list for this year.
Nearly forty years later, the impression left by “Among the Dangs” is not nearly so powerful. Aside from the novelty factor of a white writer adopting the voice and perspective of a black man, there is nothing revealed about the narrator that gives any sense that this was anything but an arbitrary choice by the writer. The color of his skin could just as easily have been purple for all it adds to the story. Elliott later wrote that, “My work in composing ‘Among the Dangs’ was made the easier because I was so little interested in all those aspects of the world which are recognizably arranged in a realistic story,” and this gets to one of the first problems with his fiction.
When I dug back through contemporary reviews of Among the Dangs, one theme jumped out as a constant. The Kirkus Reviews reviewer described Elliott’s outlook as “disinterested and detached. Critic Benjamin DeMott said that Elliott wrote with a “mild irony and a certain detachment from his characters.” Another wrote that Elliott “… entertains and interests us and at the same time puzzles us–puzzles me, perhaps not you–for he conveys a sense of great moral and emotional earnestness without making clear what more or what emotion he wants us to feel.” And another simply confessed defeat in the face of Elliott’s detachment: “I don’t know what George P. Elliott thinks of the people in his stories.”
Elliott’s most reprinted story also appears in Among the Dangs. Originally published in the Hudson Review in 1949, “The NRACP” is such a dryily-written satire that more than a few readers miss the joke entirely. NRACP standa for “National Relocation Authority: Colored Persons,” and the story postulates an America in which a government-run program is quietly carrying out the genocide of its black citizens. In some ways, it’s a fictional demonstration of the old saying about how to boil a frog (i.e., very slowly). Much of the story deals more with the personal dilemma of the protagonist, a relatively hapless guy torn between staying with his wife or having a fling with his younger and more attractive secretary. Only vaguely does the reader come to understand that all around, the blacks are being taken away to camps and disappearing from the streets. And Elliott’s protagonist is even slower to catch on.
A fair number of readers were shocked by the story when it first came out, and as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the violence of the story’s premise came to seem even more dramatic. Elliott was considered coarse and insensitive by liberals and viewed as mocking the beliefs of conservatives. Elliott himself said that it was the first story he ever sold that made him enough money to go out to dinner on: “So I invited Josephine Miles and some other friends out, but Josephine wouldn’t go. She would not dine on that story because she thought it was so bad, so wrong.” The America of “The NRACP” is one increasingly split between the winners and the losers–or, as Elliott puts it, “Those who get it and those who dish it out.” Of all the stories in this collection, it’s certainly the most relevant for readers in today’s America, where this sort of divide is becoming more and more apparent.
A third story, “Faq'” (a title likely to be misunderstood by most readers today), evokes the work of Borges, Kafka, and other metaphysical writers. In it, an American geographer sees a remote settlement in the Atlas mountains of Morocco while flying on an Army Air Corps mission and vows to visit and study it after the war. What he finds is a long-isolated civilization where the men spend all day worshipping numbers while the women–kept at a rough ratio of three to every male to ensure a ready workforce. The people of Faq’ have come to believe that their existence depends upon continuing the communal task of counting: “By hypothesis the highest nameable number is as far from the end as one is, and there is no end to counting. It is the function of Faq’ to test this hypothesis in the only statistically verifiable fashion, actually by counting forever.”
As with the anthropologist of “Among the Dangs,” however, the American ultimately flees and returns to the world he is more familiar with. He is determined “never to go there again, for he is sure that though he does not know what is right for men ordered perfection is wrong, and that though suffering is bad the lack of suffering is much worse.”
This last statement could easily serve as Elliott’s motto. The anthropologist gains a place among the Dangs in part through his prowess as a storyteller, and the primary story he tells them is that of the life of Christ. While not an overtly religious writer, Christian themes–particularly those of human fallibility, of sin, of the need for repentance, and of the possibility of forgiveness–are easily found throughout Elliott’s work. And he always had a moralist’s disdain for the notion that seeking freedom or pleasure would ultimately change man’s situation. He would have agreed with wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” As Elliott wrote in a piece in The Nation titled, “The Happiness Rat Race”, “To be sure, having the kind of fun you have to have doesn’t hurt as much as finding out what’s really wrong and doing something about it. But finally, rather than that grinning stupefaction, I’d prefer to hurt.”
Human failure is in many ways Elliott’s favorite subject. Although one critic wrote that the story, “A Family Matter”, “sounds as if it had been written as a contribution to a seminar on the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett”–and Elliott himself later admitted that he had written it as an experiment after reading several of Compton-Burnett’s novels. “That is, I felt like writing a story in which the plot problem is announced at the outset, developed in clearly marked stages, and resolved near the end, and in which all the characters are connected with the same family and speak concisely and hyperconsciously.”
In the story, an elderly millionaire returns to the place where his ex-wives and children live, in part to try to understand what led to his becoming so distant and detached from them. In the end, neither he, the ex-wives, the children, nor the reader is any more the wiser–and yet, it’s clear that the effort was both necessary and useful. Elliott was a firm believer in the necessity of trying to come to grips with the world we live in–even if that effort is likely to prove unsuccessful: “A good deal of fiction derives from the writer’s impulse to understand or cause the reader to understand the true nature of part of the world. Whether he does it for himself primarily or for the readers he wants to affect does not matter as much as that he is pressed by the need to understand the world, to order experience.”
I think this is what continues to interest me in his work: even when it’s not entirely satisfying, it always reveals an individual making a deep and serious effort to understand. As someone has probably already said, it’s probably more important to have the right questions than to have the right answers.
Though Elliott published four novels during his life, all were consistently judged interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. Many reviewers remarked that his short fiction was better than his novels. And reviewing his second story collection, An Hour of Last Things, William Peden judged that Elliott was “As much a thoughtful essayist as story-teller.” But even in his essays, Elliott could, at times, become somewhat strident and brittle. However, as Phillip Stambovsky writes in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, a few of these essays, mostly autobiographical, “are among the most original and impressive of his literary productions”: “A Brown Fountain Pen” and “A Piece of Lettuce” from A Piece of Lettuce; “Never Nothing” from Conversions; “Snarls of Beauty” from The George P. Elliott Reader. “Whatever other qualities this unnamed, unshaped age we are entering may have,” Elliott once wrote, “I hope that it will realize it needs art in order to live.” I will have to return to these essays next year, when I plan to focus on autobiographical works, to give Elliott’s art the appreciation it deserves, in its own earnest if never fully successful way.