Junky, William Burroughs

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William Burroughs (1914-1997) has been one of my favourite writers since university days – half a century ago now – and I have a row of his books, The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express … maybe 7 or 8 of the 18 he wrote. Though it’s a long time since I read any of them. It’s hard to say what the appeal is, what the appeal is of Beat/Punk/Grunge writing generally. It must be something to do with life being lived at the rawest level. With writing to match. I haven’t studied much modern literature but I can see a lineage stretching back through Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence and James Joyce (and no doubt Virginia Woolfe, but I haven’t read enough to say).

Junky which I came across recently in a second-hand shop was Burroughs’ first. He was relatively old when it came out, nearly 40, and half a generation older than Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Kerouac (1922-1969), the other principal members of the Beat Generation, who had famously got together at New York City’s Columbia University in 1944.

Ginsberg writes in the Introduction that by the 50s he and Burroughs were corresponding regularly. Burroughs began including chapters of Junky and at one stage Ginsberg, who was living with his parents after a spell in a mental institution, was carting round to potential publishers both Junky and Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, which became On the Road, the Beat Generation’s seminal text.

By chance, my companion from NY State Psychiatric Institute, Carl Solomon, was given a job by his uncle, Mr AA Wyn of Ace Books… He distrusted the vagabond romanticism of Burroughs & Kerouac

and then there was the dread Narcotics Bureau which was rumoured to make arrests even for the discussion of drug taking – at a time when some states were making ‘being a drug addict’ a jailable offence, as Burroughs discusses in this book – but finally Junky (or Junkie) came out, hedged about with medical disclaimers and a Preface explaining Burroughs’ “distinguished family background”, which I presume is the Prologue with which this edition begins:

I was born in 1914 in a solid, three-story, brick house in a large Midwest city … I remember the lamp-lighter lighting the gas streetlights and the huge, black, shiny Lincoln and drives in the park on Sunday.

Junky is the story of ten years in ‘William Lee’s’ life, or rather the story of ten years of taking drugs, of being a heroin addict. His children, his wife are barely mentioned. Of his encounters with boys, with which others of his works are saturated, we see very little. Partly maybe because H he says, destroys the sex drive, and partly because he wished this to be purely an account of drug addiction. To the best of his ability, the protagonist of this work is Junk.

It is possible to detatch yourself from most pain – injury to teeth, eyes, and genitals present special difficulties – so that the pain is experienced as neutral excitation. From junk sickness there seems to be no escape. Junk sickness is the reverse side of junk kick. The kick of junk is that you have to have it. Junkies run on junk time and junk metabolism. They are subject to junk climate. They are warmed and chilled by junk. The kick of junk is living under junk conditions. You cannot escape from junk sickness any more than you can escape from junk kick after a shot.

This is the tone throughout. We are all familiar with the exaggerations of American comedians acting drunk, with the unreadable prose hippies use to render ‘being high’, but Burrough’s approach is the opposite. Junky is a straightforward, unadorned account of the everyday experience of being controlled by the desire for junk.

I have learned the junk equation. Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.

Is there a story? Sort of. Burroughs finished school, studied Eng.Lit., bummed around Europe during the Depression, living off his trust fund. He’s called up when the US enters WWII but “cops out on his nut-house record”. And about this time he’s introduced to drugs and the story begins. From the beginning he is involved in fencing stolen goods and dealing. Later, he turns to rolling sleeping drunks and stealing their wallets. He does not say if his trust monies ran out or if his family attempt to ‘recover’ him. He does not mention meeting a wife, but there she is, late in the book, their house being searched and them both being arrested.

He goes on junk, mixes with fellow addicts and low level dealers, learns the strategies for survival, in downtown New York, in New Orleans, briefly in a farming community in Texas where he owns property, and then, escaping while on bail, Mexico. Endures weeks of junk sickness to come off junk. Goes back on. Repeat. Repeat. By the end, the US has replaced one Prohibition with another which will morph in our time into The War on Drugs. Returning home seems out of the question. William Lee considers moving on to the South American drug yage which may facilitate telepathy.


William S Burroughs, Junky, Penguin, 1977. Original & unexpurgated for the first time. Introduction by Allen Ginsberg. First published as Junkie by William Lee, Ace Books, New York, 1953

see also:
Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity (review)
Author Interview, Justine Ettler (here)
Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia (review)
Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review)

In a moment of synchronicity this came up in a Grab the Lapels comment stream just as I was wrapping up. “… one of the lead scholars on Burroughs’s work; he is also a quirky dude named Davis Schneiderman.”

New York, Lily Brett

I’ve been down to Fremantle to see Kim (ReadingMatters) for coffee and beer a couple of times since she moved back to Australia. We have a connection, the obvious one, that we follow each other’s blogs, and the less obvious, that we are in WA and our parents are in Victoria. Last time, she gave me this book.

Lily Brett lives in Manhattan and her father, at the time of writing, in Melbourne, so that’s a connection too. Though I’m sure Kim gave me the book because she knows I enjoyed Lola Bensky.

New York is a slim volume of pieces, some trite, some whimsical, some sad, all the same length, around two and a half pages, maybe a thousand words, that feel like newspaper columns, casual, personal and beautifully crafted. Brett writes of Geoffrey, the man who cuts her hair:

This man is crucial to me. My hair is curly. it’s not easy to get curls to aim themselves in whimsical directions and attractive angles. To make curls look carefree requires a skilful hairdreser,

She might be writing about her writing.

The pieces, only tied together in that they are observations arising from Brett’s having lived in downtown New York for many years, all have the same rhythm so that if you read them one after another it begins to feel like the rise and fall of breathing.

A quick introductory sentence: “I feel bad about living so far away from my father”. A little story about something she sees or is feeling: “I worry that he is lonely in Australia. He is eighty-four. Most of his friends are dead.” A side-step into the general: “In New York, elderly parents are sometimes seen as a storage problem.” Then back to the particular:

I work at home. It would be impossible for me to concentrate with my father in the apartment. “Would Grandpa really disturb you?” my younger daughter, who’d love her grandfather to live in New York, asked me.

“He’d drive me nuts, very quickly,” I said. I paused. “I don’t want to ever hear you talking like that about me,” I said to her.

And a little sting in the tail:

“You won’t,” she said, “I’ll say it out of your hearing.”

Lily Brett, it is clear, writes always about Lily Brett. I’m not complaining. The best writing comes from deep within as the writer wrestles with his or her demons.  Look at DH Lawrence, Sartre, Gerald Murnane, Kim Scott. The problems their protagonists deal with are the problems they deal with. Writers who imagine themselves into situations, famously Lionel Shriver, or say, Peter Carey, may write very well, but they are mere story-tellers compared with the greats.

The great problem Brett’s writing revolves about is that her family was murdered by the Nazis before she was born. That she is alone in the world, not just an only child, born in 1946 in the shadow of Auschwitz, but without uncles and aunts, cousins or grandparents; her own parents often remote; her loving, ordinary husband and children never enough.

This is a light work, indeed Lola Bensky is a light work, but Brett’s New York is not the New York of Friends or even of Seinfeld. We are seeing through the eyes of a woman who feels every day the absence of family. She loves New York, is anxious when she is away, describes lovingly the everyday experiences of walking, shopping, apartment living, getting her hair cut. But this is also the New York where people take dogs to work because they can’t make connections with people; where Brett can’t offer to help the homeless couple living nearby because she might become involved; where Brett’s acquaintances don’t know her children, and her children don’t know them; where there is no-one who knows her father. A world where no-one has ever met, where she has never met, was never able to meet, her wider family.

I wonder if she writes of herself, or versions of herself, so that we can know her, so that she can feel known. Or known and not known. She tells a friend her father is worried about a prostate op. making him impotent.

“Well he’s certainly had his fair share of sex,” she says. I am surprised. She doesn’t know my father. I realise she is confusing my father with the father in my novels.

Maybe I am confusing the author with the Lily in these stories. But I don’t think so.

Brett, as a new New Yorker from Australia, tries very hard to fit in,

Trying to be American can be exhausting. I’ve practiced perkiness until I’m blue in the face. And still perkiness eludes me. It’s not my natural condition. Nor is friendliness …

She has speeded up her speech and ‘tried to tone down my Australian vowels’. Kim’s years in London have noticeably rounded hers, but I gather she’s doing lots of homework in her local (Clancy’s) and will soon be as nasal again as the rest of us.


Lily Brett, New York, Picador, Sydney, 2001

Kim’s review (here)

Little Women, mostly

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Book Cover

You guys all grew up reading Little Women I’m sure. Milly did, and Gee says that she and Psyche did, though I don’t remember giving it to them, but I didn’t. No sisters, no copy in the house. So I read/listened to it for the first time just a week or so ago and thought the first sentence of my review was going to be “I couldn’t find a way into reviewing this book which you all know by heart – no trucks!” BUT. In Part II, Chapter 23* a distressed Jo steps out into traffic without looking, into the path of a … truck. I pictured a costermonger’s barrow

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though Websters suggests any “strong horse-drawn or automotive vehicle for hauling” so I’m not sure what Alcott intended.

*I wrote ‘2/23 truck’ on the back of my hand because that is my notebook when I am driving, but Ch 23 is actually in Part I, and now I can’t find the quote.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote Little Women in two parts, which came out in 1868 and 1869. It is generally regarded as fictionalised autobiography and as a novel for children. I’m sure most of you read it at around 12 or 13 but it seems to me to be directed more at young women getting ready for adulthood and marriage.

At the beginning of the novel Mr March, father of the little women of the title, is away at the American Civil War, as a chaplain (on the Union side) so the year is around 1862. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first, Mary Barton, was published in 1848, all of Jane Austen’s had been out for 30 or 40 years, but the two works which Alcott has Jo reading are The Vicar of Wakefield (secretly, for amusement, when she’s meant to be reading sermons to her wealthy, aged aunt) and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, both dating from the previous century. I wish just one author would write, “I rushed down to the bookshop for the latest xxx”, Dickens maybe, who was then at the height of his popularity. Of course the work which is central to Little Women is the older again Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (1678), another “first novel written in English” (here).

There is of course nothing I can tell you about the book itself. I found it a bit preachy but am used to that strain of Christian duty in books of that time; and I probably preferred Anne of Green Gables (1908, I hadn’t remembered it was so ‘recent’). I would though like to say a little about ‘the Independent Woman’. Jo speaks at length about the advantages of being unmarried and of course she famously refuses to marry the boy next door. Alcott herself remained unmarried, supporting herself as a governess and writer (her family’s connections with Thoreau, Emerson, the Underground Railroad are fascinating (wiki) and I would like to read more).

“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it. Well, I needn’t be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner, and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it, but…” and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

Americans, it seems to me, are afraid of independent women and even strong characters like Marge Simpson and Roseanne eventually bow down to their husbands, so I was disappointed but not surprised when Alcott not only married Jo off to the older Bhaer but made Bhaer, not Jo, the principal of Jo’s school.

At nine they stopped work and sung as usual

Project Gutenberg has a generously illustrated version (here). The illustration above is “At nine they stopped work and sung as usual”, by Frank T Merrill (here).

That’s a scrappy review, I know, but I wanted to say something about it. Now I am listening to Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot which is a fiction about an amateur Flaubert biographer – really just an excuse for talking about Flaubert, and about what we can say about writers – which I am finding both interesting and enjoyable, and about which I might write a similarly scrappy review. If I get time. And there’s the rub. I’m stuck in Melbourne. Again. After only one day home in Perth. Here, mum is in hospital after a hip replacement (she’s quite well thank you, though tired). B3 is down to see after her and picks me up from the truckstop in Dandenong each day when it’s clear there’ll be no work, and drives me up to mum’s hospital (Knox).

Meanwhile, back in Perth it’s all happening. Kim (Reading Matters) has just come from London to live and work; Nathan Hobby has handed in his PhD thesis* and is now facing the world as “full-time parent, part-time writer, part-time librarian”; and Jess White is visiting us for the launch of Hearing Maud. Hopefully I will shortly catch up with them all.

see also: Melanie/GTL’s recent post on US women’s comedy (here)

Recent audiobooks 

Katharina Hagena (F, Ger), The Taste of Apple Seeds (2013)
JD Robb (F, USA), Brotherhood in Death (2016)
JD Robb (F, USA), Apprentice in Death (2016)
Truman Capote (M, USA), The Grass Harp (1945)
Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom (M, USA), The Ascension Factor (2012)
Ann Barker (F, Eng), Ruined (2009)
Ben Bova (M, USA), Moonrise (1996)
Louisa M Alcott (F, USA), Little Women (1868)
Lisa Jackson (F, USA), Innocent by Association (1986) DNF – I stopped reading this book, and would advise you to never read this author, when the heroine was kidnapped and fell in love with her abductor. Why women authors advocate violence as a way of winning women is beyond me (in my own defence, I was expecting a crime thriller not a modern bodice ripper).

Currently reading

Eleanor Dark, Waterway

*Nathan Hobby: 100 word version of my thesis, sounding more scholarly than it is in reality: ‘Astir With Great Things’ is a biography of the early life to 1919 of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), an Australian writer and political activist. Critically engaging with Prichard’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, the thesis builds a fuller account of her early life with archival material. The thesis narrates Prichard’s literary development and the writing of The Pioneers and Black Opal. Exploring Prichard’s political radicalisation against the backdrop of World War One, the thesis also considers the intertwining of Prichard’s personal life with writing and politics, including the effects of her father’s suicide and her brother’s death in the war.

House of Earth, Woodie Guthrie


Of course we all know Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) as the Depression-era singer-songwriter, brought back to public notice by his daughter Nora in 1998 when she got Billy Bragg and Wilco to put to music and record previously unheard Guthrie material in the albumn Mermaid Avenue (listen here). But he was also a prolific and talented painter and, (until recently, unpublished) writer.

Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp say in their extensive Introduction that House of Earth was “first conceived in the late 1930s but not fully composed until 1947”. It apparently is Guthrie’s only “accomplished novel” and lay amongst his extensive papers until rediscovered and published in 2013 as part of the celebration of the centenary of his birth. It however is much more than a curiosity, but a virtuoso stream of consciousness in the style of Ulysses, a hymn to the dustbowl country of the Texas panhandle high plains Guthrie called home.

The Texas panhandle is more or less next door to the Oklahoma country of the Joads, of The Grapes of Wrath, and the period is the same, and therefore the conditions, drought and scouring winds carrying away the topsoil. The Joads and their neighbours were farming cotton on 40 acre blocks. The panhandle is more like Australia’s mallee, divided into square mile/640 acre blocks for mixed farming, wheat and cattle, though much higher, they get sleet and snow.

But still the big landowners have the upper hand, using debt to force small farmers to become renters and renters to become share-croppers. The Joads were forced off their land when the banks wanted to consolidate the small holdings to facilitate mechanization. There doesn’t seem to have been the same pressure in Texas, in this part anyway.

House of Earth is in four parts, covering two days,i less than a year apart, in the life of ‘Tike’ Hamlin, son of poor dirt farmers and his wife Ella May, estranged from her substantial landowner father. They’re in their early thirties, renting 640 acres and living in a falling down timber shack, 18 ft square. Their dream is to build a house of adobe that won’t be eaten by termites and fall down in the driving winds, but their landlord won’t let them build on productive farming land.

Guthrie writes in streams of speech and consciousness – reminiscent of Christina Stead, who was in America and writing at the same time, as much as James Joyce – for both his protagonists and later for Blanche, the nurse-midwife.

During the first day Tike persuades a not unwilling Ella May to come into the barn and have sex with him and during the second Ella May gives birth, supervised by Blanche, a trained nurse who lives with farmers in the last week or two of pregnancy for whatever they can afford to pay. After a hundred pages of trying to get Ella May to settle down on the bed, to get Tike from stop being underfoot …

A noise came. A noise in the whole room. A noise from under the bed, in the closet, up the stairs, even down from the roost, from out of the cans of cream, the disks of the separator, the tablecloth, out of the globe of the lamp, the sound came on into the air, through the sounds of the night winds outside, the creaking of the snow and ice, the scrunch of crusted sleets, hard froze snow, a cry. It was a scattered and a broken, windblown, rattling yell. It was a woman drowned in water, a man drowned in hot oil. A dog that fell from a landslide down the Cap Rock. A mama turkey shrieking at three of her babies caught in the mud ruts under truck wheels. The last death hiss, the only live sound of the leather lizard under a fallen rock. Noise of dry locusts on stems of bushes. High rattle of clouds of grasshoppers peeling off across the ranch. A yelping dog. Hungry coyote. The croak of a carp feeding with fins out of the water, the gasp of the buzzard shot through the head. A sound of new green things crashing up out of the spring ground. A dry wagon wheel, a barn door, the jingle of rusty spurs hung on the windmill post. The sound was a cry and the cry had all these sounds and more and other sounds, all of the sounds, all of the hisses, barks, yelps, whoops, croaks, peeps, chirps, screams, whistles, moans, yells and groans, all of these were mixed up in Tike’s head as he listened to the skreak of the bones of his temple and saw Blanche shake his baby there above that slick wall canyon. And out of the walls of the canyon the cry got itself together, and it got better organized and unionized and turned into something so wide, so high, so big, so loud, that it strained the boards of the shack.

And so Tike realizes that this noise is the first cry of his newborn baby son. And he can’t wait to get out in the fields with his son and start putting in another crop. Because for all the dust, for all the poverty, for all the falling-down old shack Tike and Ella May must pay rent on to be able to stay one more year on the land, this is a novel of hope.

“… I want to show just a few people round here that there is a way to come out of this mess, to build a better house, and not pick up and run down the highway. I’ll be one that’ll never take that road that goes nowhere.” (Ella May)

This is Woody Guthrie’s answer to John Steinbeck. Stick it out. Pay the rent, crop for shares, whatever it takes. Scrimp and scrape and get a block of waste land and build with your own hands a house that will last. Raise another generation.


Woodie Guthrie, House of Earth, Fourth Estate, London, 2013. Jacket painting In El Rancho Grande, Woodie Guthrie, 1936


The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is one of the classics of American and World literature, THE great novel of the Depression, and of course a great Road story, of impoverished farming family the Joads, and their journey from Oklahoma to California. It was made into a movie, one of the great movies according to Wikipedia, the following year. The image above, of the Joads’ ‘truck’, a 1926 Hudson Super Six cut down from a sedan and given a home-made truck body, is from the movie.

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1926 Hudson Super Six sedan

When I was a boy scout if we went on a troop camp – say 15 or 20 boys – our scout leader would take us in his farm truck with a cattle crate 16 ft long by 8 ft wide with 6 ft high slat sides, and we boys would sit on tents or on our bags with our backs against the slats, smoking Alpines, Camels, Viscounts, Marlboros, and it is this sort of roomy feeling I got reading (listening to) the book once again last week, but in fact the body on the Hudson wouldn’t have been much larger than the tray on my Hi-Lux ute – 8 ft long by 6 ft wide – and there were 13 Joads, counting the preacher and the son-in-law, some of them lying on mattresses (and at one stage Connie talks Rose of Sharon into having sex!). That’s awful crowded.

Don’t you think Rose of Sharon is a great name? Luckily I’m past the age of giving names to daughters or I’d have been tempted. It’s from the Bible, though apparently no-one is sure what flower it describes.

Everyone has read and seen TGoW I’m sure, but what struck me this time round was the number of trucks and the time Steinbeck takes to describe them. First up is a new diesel truck. Tom Joad, just of jail for killing a man, hitches a lift home.

For a moment the driver stared after him, and then he called “Luck!” Joad waved his hand without looking around, then the motor roared up and the gears clicked and the great red truck rolled heavily away.

I had thought most US trucks were petrol engined but I discover GM introduced the 71 series two-stroke diesel engines which I was driving in the 1970s, in 1938.  And Mack too had diesel powered trucks back then.

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1938 Mack Type 75 (I think)

Not much later Steinbeck introduces a roadside cafe by describing two drivers – a long distance two-up team – chatting to the woman behind the counter. Their truck has a sleeper berth “high up, behind the driver”. I can’t imagine what their truck was (maybe Melanie/GTL’s father can tell me), but they did exist, as these images show.

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I’m sitting in a roadhouse (Wingfield, Adelaide today) waiting for work and using Google Books to look up quotes. It’s hard to know what phrases to search on but the scene in the cafe brings up this, which resonates:

He’d go nuts just settin’ here and the road sneakin’ under the wheels. Fella said once that truck skinners eats all the time – eats all the time in hamburger joints along the road.

I owned and drove old trucks (20 or 30 years newer than these in build if not in design), Inters, Atkinsons, AECs, Leylands on long distance and Austins and Bedfords on local, so a lot of what Tom and Allan put up with is familiar. I never cranked a truck though I think we could crank our old Prefect and Granddad used a blowtorch to heat up his single cylinder Lanz Bulldog tractor, then a big flywheel to turn it over, with a deep bop-bop-bop that would send me running out of the machinery shed and down the track to the house.

When a big end bearing fails on the road the boys drop the sump (oil pan) and swap out the piston. I’ve done the same more than once, though not with secondhand parts from the wreckers as they did. I’m fascinated that they were able to get the replacement piston up past the crankshaft and into the cylinder, holding the piston ring tight with bronze wire which melted when the engine fired up. I’ve always had to remove the head – which means a new head gasket – and put the new piston in from above.

Enough trucks? The Grapes of Wrath is a Realist novel, following in the tradition of Zola and Jack London, not just describing the poor but explaining how they are cheated by the rich, the banks and the big landowners. ‘Conservative’ governments again and again allow the banks to create credit on the back of low quality paper, and again and again the paper – often junk mortgages – fails, the banks fail or at least withdraw credit, and so businesses relying on credit fail. Here the businesses are small farms, 40 acres – tiny by comparison with Australia where my grandparents’ selection in the Mallee was a square mile, 640 acres – many of the farmers already reduced from owners to tenants by years of drought, and with the coming of mechanized ploughing the banks force the people off the land causing a great wave of migration from  Oklahoma and surrounding states to the land of milk and honey, California. Only there, the banks and land owners are squeezing the little guys too, using their ownership of canneries to force down prices and ruthlessly underpaying the great influx of farm workers.

So the migrants are hated. Even workers in employment can’t afford to spend. Big business profits skyrocket while the economy stagnates. If it all sounds familiar that’s because it is. While the middle class is prosperous Capitalism seems benevolent. But it never lasts. Does it?

Interestingly Steinbeck alternates the Joad’s story with chapters of general description, economic theory, or illustrative stories with unnamed characters. And it works. Do you think the novel has a central protagonist? Sometimes I think it is Tom and sometimes I think Ma.

Ma is certainly the most interesting character. She says to Tom senior (her husband), you can give me a few whacks when you’re doing your job, supporting the family, but now we’re down and out, I’ve got to step up, assert control, and if you try and give me a few whacks now you’ll find I’ll be whacking back.

The Joads never get on their feet in California, the old people die, Noah, Connie, the preacher leave. Eventually Tom is forced to leave. But the novel ends with a flicker of hope, or at least of life-goes-on. Al settles down with his girl, and Rose of Sharon, her baby still-born, brings a near-dead man back to life.


John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, first pub. 1939. Audiobook: Hachette, read by John Chancer

Beloved, Toni Morrison


I’m late to the Toni Morrison party – she is obviously, and deservedly, well known to feminists and to all readers not so determinedly nationalistic as I am. At this point I check Wikipedia and discover Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am really late to the party! Morrison (1931- ) was “the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family.  She grew up in Ohio, did her BA at Howard in Washington DC and worked as a lecturer and in publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye came out in 1970. Beloved (1987) was her fifth and was subsequently developed into a trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). As with many of my posts, I’m learning as I write, so forgive me for including stuff you already know.

My reason for reading Morrison was that I’m interested in the portrayal of race relations in other countries and in thinking about how that reflects on race relations in Australia; and that I had seen Morrison mentioned a few times by Melanie in Grab The Lapels. In her review of Sula (here) Melanie writes: “If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can.” My reason for reading Morrison in the future will be her wonderful command of language.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, and her daughters ‘Beloved’ and Denver. I write ‘Beloved’ because that is the single word on the headstone of Sethe’s daughter who died as Denver was being born. The novel begins:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old …

Baby Suggs was Sethe’s mother in law. They had been slaves on a farm down south, Sweet Home, along with six men, one of them Baby Suggs’ son Halle. The novel drifts backwards and forwards over the years (approx.) 1855 – 1875 slowly building up the story as to how the women’s home, 124 became haunted and then un-haunted. Does this make it magic realism? I’m not sure, for Morrison’s characters Beloved’s spirit is just another facet of life.

The timeline which underlies Beloved includes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which mandates that slaves escaping to the North must be returned to their owners in the South), the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the Emancipation Proclamations of 1863-65, but only the War comes up in the text and even then, only tangentially.

Briefly, the owners of Sweet Home allow Halle to earn money in his free time, to buy his mother out of slavery. She moves to Ohio, to the white house on Bluestone Road outside Cincinnati which becomes known as 124. After Mr Garner, the farm owner dies, Mrs Garner brings in ‘the schoolteacher’ to manage the farm and the slaves lose all the freedoms they had previously been allowed. There’s a revolt. Sethe sends her boys on ahead, becomes separated from Halle, and must make her way alone, pregnant and with an infant daughter, to Baby Suggs.

Halle, we don’t see again, but in 1873 another of the six men from Sweet Home, Paul D, turns up, exorcises the ghost, the spirit of the dead baby daughter, and eventually Sethe takes him as her partner. A young woman, seemingly dumb but beautiful, giving herself the name Beloved, moves in with them. Then one day, Paul D learns the secret of the dead baby’s murder, and the three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved are alone, isolated from the community of which Baby Suggs was once the centre.

What gets me. Over and Over. Is how hard Toni Morrison is on Whites. The “hard” we have to absorb before we can even begin to understand. The ten minutes of sex Sethe pays to have the headstone inscribed; slaves wearing headpieces with bits forcing their mouths into unnatural smiles; Sethe’s feet beaten to stop her walking off the farm, and yet she does; Black women valued more highly than men because they were mares who could throw off foals for resale; and

… That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.

And yet, the novel ends on a note of hope. Retracing Paul D’s story as the War comes to an end, he finds himself in the North, walking unremarked amongst whitefolks, being paid for work: “That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got. And he did it for seven years till he found himself in southern Ohio, where an old woman and a girl he used to know had gone.” Which is more or less where we started.

A scarifying work, written in the most wonderful prose. Read it and weep for all the wrongs that we have done, that we go on doing.


Toni Morrison, Beloved, first pub. 1987. My copy Picador (as pictured), London, 1987.



The Awakening, Kate Chopin


No, I don’t understand the cover either. Shades of the gratuitous breasts on the cover of Anne Brooksbank’s All My Love (here). The painting above is “Antes del Baño” (Before the Bath) by Ramon Casas, a Catalan Spaniard, doubly or triply inappropriate for a buttoned-up, French-American heroine who takes her ‘baths’ in the sea.

To get back to where I meant to start, I have begun downloading audiobooks from Project Gutenberg (here). The first was Silas Marner and this was the second. The books are read by volunteers for LibriVox and so far have been uniformly good. It’s not completely straightforward, the books must be downloaded a section at a time (as MP3 files in my case), named, and copied to one directory per book on a USB drive so I can play them via the USB port on my truck radio, you Apple nuts can experiment for yourselves. In the case of The Awakening each section was 5 chapters, each with a different reader, all women, four American and two French. This caused no problems at all. The next book I downloaded was Howards End (I was wondering where the apostrophe would be, but there isn’t one) which has one reader but 44 chapters, which took quite a while to download, name, copy etc. The readers name themselves at the beginning of each section but do not appear to be named on the Project Gutenberg site.

Ok. The Awakening is beautifully written, is yet another example of the anti-marriage theme in C19th women’s writing, and suffers from unthinking racism throughout. It’s a book I’ve had in my TBR for many years, so I’m glad to have finally got to it. I have the Penguin Classics edition pictured above which contains as well 12 short stories and an Introduction by Sandra M Gilbert, an English professor. Don’t read the Introduction first as it completely destroys the ending.

Gilbert says that Chopin (1850-1904) was born to parents with Irish and ‘aristocratic’ French antecedents, grew up in affluent circumstances in St Louis, Missouri, was a voracious reader in English and French, was an acknowledged belle, supported the Confederate side in the Civil War (1861-1865), married at age 20 a cotton trader/plantation owner in Louisiana, and had six children.

On the death of her husband in 1883 she returned to St Louis and began writing – first “delightful sketches of her life in ‘Old Natchitoches‘”, then novels. The first, At Fault (1890) was derivative, particularly of Jane Eyre. The second, The Awakening (1899), was received so badly for its discussion of women’s sexuality that Chopin basically stopped writing. Gilbert argues that Chopin was writing not just in the tradition of the Brontës and George Eliot, but in an end of century atmosphere of eroticism and women’s independence created by the New Woman movement and writers and artists such as George Sand, Zola, Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.

The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife, an American from Kentucky, who has married into properous middle class, Francophone New Orleans. The setting is first Grand Isle, an island near New Orleans (map) in the Gulf of Mexico, then the French Quarter of New Orleans itself, then finally, briefly, Grand Isle again.

The racism – in the telling, not in the conscious actions of the protagonists – begins early.

Some young children were out under the water-oaks playing croquet. Mr Pontellier’s two children were there – sturdy little fellows of four and five. A quadroon nurse followed them about with a far-away, meditative air.

Why couldn’t Chopin write ‘Mary, the nurse followed …’ ? Because no-one who is African-American, except the old woman who becomes her house-keeper, is named. The nurse is always “the quadroon”, other servants “mulattos” or “coffee-coloured”.

There is much academic discussion of racism in The Awakening with one writer concluding,  “Chopin is guilty of oppressing these characters for their color in exactly the same way Edna is being oppressed for her gender.”

Grand Isle was formerly the grand home of Mrs Lebrun which, on the death of her husband, she turned into a guest house with cottages around the main house for families, but with central dining room and lounges. During the summer Mr Pontellier, who seems to be an investment banker, goes up to town during the week while Edna and the children (and the ‘quadroon’) stay on Grande Isle. She is generally in the company of the older Lebrun son, Robert, who every year is infatuated with one of the wives, but she has or makes friends among the other guests, particularly the beautiful, plump, and fecund Adèle Ratignolle – “There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams” – and the crusty spinster pianist Mlle Reisz.

Without going too much into the plot, this is the story of Edna’s gradual increasing awareness of her position as a dependant, of her sexual awakening, and of the movements she makes away from her husband. Robert goes away, to a position in Mexico City, and Edna back in New Orleans visits Mlle Reisz to read Robert’s letters to her, but also falls into the ambit of a seducer, Alcée Arobin. Lots of readers, then and now, get excited about the sex, which puzzled me, I must be dense. The nearest I found was:

[Arobin] did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle seductive entreaties.

Mr Pontellier (before Arobin comes into the picture) worries about the increasing distance between him and his wife but nevertheless goes to New York on an extended business trip. His mother takes the children back to her farm and Edna is free to pursue her own interests. I will say no more except that The Awakening contains one of the loveliest images in the literature of the Independent Woman:

“… when I left [Mlle Reisz] to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’ Whither would you soar?”

A wonderful book! I’ve been wondering what I would do if I were a young African-American English student and this was a set text. I think that I would read it, but I would hope that the teacher led a discussion of the racism, and that Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, was also set.


Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 1899. The Awakening and Selected Stories, Penguin, 1984, 2003. Project Gutenberg Audiobooks (here)