The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution
Stephen Heyman
US, 2020

I imagine someone has already done this, perhaps as a personal reading challenge or a college literature course, but you could make a decent reading project of expat-writers living in Interwar France, the “Lost Generation” writers. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Stein. Ford. A 1920s-30s project.

For most today that list wouldn’t include a writer then among the most famous but largely forgotten today, his early writing deemed too old fashioned, his later novels derivative. Look Louis Bromfield up on JSTOR and the most current references are to agricultural or environmental articles. Indeed, unless you are from a particular area of north-east-central Ohio, are reading your way through the Pulitzer winners, or have an interest in the history of small scale and organic farming, you’ve probably never had reason to hear the name Louis Bromfield. A far cry from his lifetime: best-selling novelist, friend of celebrities, political activist. To quote Deirdre Bair’s cover blurb, “If Stephen Heyman had written Louis Bromfield’s life as a novel, readers would have found the tale too tall to believe.”

And it’s true. I found Heyman’s biography fascinating, unputdownable, almost novelistic in structure. Although the overall arc is chronological, a strict chronology is forsaken in favor of theming each chapter: “Foreign Soil” about the expats in Paris; “Hothouse,” about Bromfield’s Senlis garden, or “Germination” about the early years for Bromfield’s farm. I found it fitting to the telling. Bromfield’s persona and the times in which he lived also made for a memorable slice of literary and agricultural history. He may have gained fame as a novelist, but it is his passion for the land, and his early activity in soil conservation and sustainable farming that continues to resonate today.

An Ohio native son, Bromfield’s early life was unremarkable: born in Mansfield in 1896, he fell in love with farming from an early age, in spite of his mother’s dreams of his becoming a great writer. He chose instead to attend Cornell to study agriculture–though only for one semester–, before attempting unsuccessfully to save the family farm. A stint at Columbia (studying journalism) followed before he enlisted in the army during World War I. So far, so normal. But his mother’s dreams were kept alive: he moved to New York, worked as a journalist, married, and started writing novels. The novel writing funded he next ventures: a move to Paris, then later the countryside in Senlis, where he created his gardens, which would become famed across France, as were his Sunday parties. The gardens even drew the attention of Edith Wharton, who would become friends with Bromfield, as they bonded over their roses. However, she avoided the garden-parties of the younger generation. The Senlis garden also provided Bromfield an opportunity to learn from and observe the local gardeners, tilling the same soil that had been used and reused over the centuries to grow their own little crop of vegetables. Bromfield was  only too aware of the ways in which many American farmers had failed their own soil, turning it from fertile to barren through poor practices, as was at that very moment becoming clear with the appearance of the Midwestern Dust Bowl.

The idyllic interwar period could not last and Bromfield saw the clouds gathering. In contrast with many Americans of his time, he knew that isolationism was untenable; war was inevitable. At the same time, he was anxious to try out his new ideas, to return to the farms of his youth. The family made their return to Ohio, eventually buying a farm south of Mansfield, that Bromfield would christen “Malabar,” a farm that would become well-known through his books and as the wedding-site for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, both friends of Bromfield’s. It was at Malabar that he would live out the remainder of his years, tilling the Ohio soil and experimenting, always experimenting with ways to improve the soil, improve yields, while at the same time avoiding potential pitfalls: seventeen years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bromfield was speaking out against DDT. He knew the importance of yield to a farmer’s livelihood, but he could also see the dangers of monoculture and unvetted chemical solutions. His writing at the time largely turned to memoirs and meditations on farming, and in them, as well as at speaking engagements, Bromfield preached conservation and stewardship.

After his death in 1956, Bromfield’s farm was turned over to a conservation organization and eventually turned into a State Park. His literary reputation already in decline among critics,  eventually his books would be largely forgotten by the reading public as well, outside of the “farm books” which remain influential among farming-environmentalists such as Wendell Berry.

He seems to have been a complex man. Passionate about his farm, yet short-sighted and controlling enough that he drove his younger daughters away: they and their husbands would found their own farms elsewhere. His very liberal politics of the 1920s and 30s would give way to conservative politics during the Second World War when he grew angry over the Roosevelt administration’s failures (in his eyes) to account for farmers in their war policies–he wanted draft exemptions for farmers and for the factories to continue to turn out at least a moderate amount of farm equipment and parts, concerned that to do otherwise would threaten the food resources of a country at war. He was a conservationist and environmentalist who loved the soil, but was not a pure “organic” farmer in today’s sense, choosing a more moderate path that would ensure both yields and soil health.

Having read The Planter of Modern Life, I’m more determined than ever to read some of Bromfield’s novels (and maybe some of his agricultural work). Although it appears that they are largely out of print in paper editions, I was fortunate to be able to pick up copies of two of his better known novels The Farm (a favorite of the last President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, apparently) and The Rains Came several years back at a regional bookstore. The biography focuses more on the gardens and farming than the novels, but what little it says of the novels intrigues me, The Farm as a semi-autobiographical story, and The Rains Came as a novel set in India about which at least some Indians spoke approvingly: Indian poet Krishnalal Shridharani is quoted, “You know how sensitive we Indians are to all forms of ‘imperialism,’ literary or otherwise,” he said, calling the book “the first ‘real’ novel on India by a non-Indian.” Yet another layer to the story of a life most interesting.

A Little Catch Up

It is December 26th. I’d say that I’m not sure how it is December 26th already except I happen to know how very busy–or perhaps “full” is the better word–2018 has been. There’s been so much going on–bookish and otherwise–that I thought I’d play a little catch-up before my end-of-year and challenge sign-up posts start going up.

I could blame work of course, but other than a couple evening meetings (public meetings – Board of Zoning Appeals, interesting things those…if only they didn’t start so late!), work hours have been reasonable. Nope, it’s everything else keeping me busy–but fun busy.

Allen Art Museum Courtyard

There was the day trip to Oberlin to see the Allen Art Museum and the Weltzheimer/Johnson House (latter by Frank Lloyd Wright). The art museum is a true gem of a museum–part of Oberlin College, it’s completely free and has a little bit of everything–sculpture, painting, ceramics; Americas, Europe, Asia; ancient to contemporary. When I was there, the current exhibits included a digital media piece (projected on 4k TVs) and a series of hand-painted scrolls, both by Asian artists, that I found fascinating meditations on the human impact on our environment.

Fall Decor at Stan Hwyet

Another day trip, much later in the fall, to the Hocking Hills region. I’d never been there before, and although dismayed by the cavalier attitude of too many towards nature (let’s tromp all over the place in the name of the “perfect” picture for social media), it was a lovely day. And a lovely chance to continue to play with my camera’s manual settings. I keep looking over my photos and finding faults, but if you can’t find areas to improve in your own work, you never will get better. Of course, learning the manual settings on the camera leads to learning more about (and therefore spending time on) post-processing. Always something new to learn!

Hocking Hills Falls

And then there’s reading. I’ve been reading too much to write about anything, I’m afraid (although I did find one write-up in my drafts that needs posted). I’d still like to do proper write-ups for a couple, but some brief thoughts on some of the others:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling (1999, Britain) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling (2000, Britain)

I’ve been making my way through a reread of the Harry Potter series. (Currently in the middle of Order of the Phoenix, optimistically hoping to finish by year’s end.) I haven’t quite put my finger on why, but I do find much of the series comfort reads (well, not Order of the Phoenix–I despise Dolores Umbridge too much).

Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs With Any Camera – Bryan Peterson (4th Ed., 2016, US)

I’ve only been brave enough to dare to play with aperture/shutter speed because of this book. A coworker highly recommended it, and if you have a fancy camera and want to move past the “automatic” settings, I highly recommend it as well. (However, “any” is a bit of a misnomer – you do have to have manual mode!)

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think – Laura Vanderkam (2011, US), Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More – Morten Hansen (2018, US), and Off the Clock – Laura Vanderkam (2018, US)

I spent a lot of time reading about time management and related issues this summer. I’ve spent a lot of time overwhelmed by the “to do” list this year, and hoped these would help. I would say…the Vanderkam books did. Mostly because her books are really about adjusting your outlook rather than trying to squeeze more time out of life. Really, when I stop and consider how much time I really have, and where it goes, I have LOTS of free time, I just need to use it well. Nothing wrong with the Hansen book, it just wasn’t that revealing to me. However, reading it in combination with Vanderkam was fascinating. Hansen organized very careful studies to discover what makes a great performer in the work environment. So the focus was on work (rather than all aspects of life) and, specifically, performance. And while he started from the observation that top performers don’t necessarily work tons of hours, he wasn’t focused on time management. Yet, his studies often came to the same or nearly same conclusions as Vanderkam does via her analysis of existing time-use surveys. Completely different approaches–and focuses–leading to some of the same thoughts.

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan (2013, US)

Saw the film, enjoyed the film, so I had to read the book. I was a bit surprised to discover how faithful to the book the film actually was (necessary simplification of characters and plot to keep it manageable aside.) So enjoyable, and frankly, it was a delight to read something lighter than so many of the other books I read this year. I was also delighted by the inclusion of so many words/phrases from other languages – apparently a representation of the “Singlish” spoken by many Singaporeans. I’m tentatively planning to read the other books in the series in the coming year.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith [J.K. Rowling](2013, Britain)

I’ve been wanting to try out the Cormoran Strike books for a while and finally decided to stop waiting. I forget, sometimes, how much I enjoy a good mystery, and I did really enjoy this (err…as much as one should enjoy a murder mystery). I managed to fail to stop myself reading the end before I was halfway through, so I didn’t have the opportunity to guess the solution, but instead got to enjoy seeing how the groundwork was laid for Strike to arrive at the solution. My only complaint was that I would have liked to see more of the character of Robin–maybe in the later novels?

My Plain Jane – Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows (2018, US) and Shiver – Maggie Stiefvater (2009, US)

It’s funny, I never read any YA when I was that age…though I suppose there’s a lot more now than then. But I’m an equal-opportunity reader, so… My Plain Jane is a fluffy retelling of Jane Eyre – a retelling where Victorian England is plagued by ghosts and Jane Eyre happens to be one of the few who can see them. And a retelling where Charlotte Brontë is a character, not the author. Delightful and clearly written by a trio of women who love the original. (Now I kinda want to reread Jane Eyre myself, but I’m trying to focus on new-to-me books for the moment.) Shiver, on the other hand, was less delightful. It is definitely one of Stiefvater’s early novels, and not nearly as enjoyable for me as her more recent efforts. I think a case, in part, of not being the target audience for this one.

Hey, just like that, I’m feeling a bit more caught up! Always a good feeling.

Happy reading!

Slipping into Summer

It’s the last day of a long weekend, Memorial Day here in the US, the unofficial but traditional start of summer. And it truly feels like a summer day: hot, muggy, oppressive sunshine (90F/32C, currently 40% humidity, which is actually an improvement from the 80% humidity earlier). But it’s perfect weather for lemonade and a book. Summer always seems to be when my reading (though maybe not my blogging–hoping to do better this year!) picks up. It’s simply too hot to do anything else.

Actually, the reading’s been going very well this year–I’ve started and finished twelve books already, and am partway through another six. (Very unusual for me to be reading so many at once…) The current/soon to be current book pile:

Summer book stack

True some of these are for/related to work. (But that dosen’t mean I’m not enjoying them anyways!) We’ve actually decided to try a work book club, so I read the intro and first chapter of Blink on Saturday. It’s fascinating so far, and I’m excited to read the rest.

But even before entering the hot, lazy summer months, it’s been reading season. I’ve been crazy busy this spring (last week, for instance, I didn’t get home from work until after 8:00 on Monday and had another really fun work-adjacent event Tuesday evening that had me home even later), but if there’s been a moment to squeeze in some reading, I have. Last winter (2017), I listened to the audiobook of 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think, and it really changed the way I think about time. I’ve been willing to add more to my schedule because I’ve seen that I can, and following author Laura Vanderkam’s blog and seeing how many books she’s managed to squeeze into her busy schedule provided the needed inspiration to kick-start my 2018 reading. I’m on pace for the best reading year since I started the blog. Now…to just catch up on the blog writing. Especially for the 2018 TBR challenge; I’ve read four books for it, but only blogged one so far. I guess it’s just easier to find a few minutes here and there for reading (five minutes at lunch, ten before bed), but I always feel like I need a chunk of time to get my thoughts down in a coherent form. Maybe something to work on?

I’ve been thinking about what I’m looking forward to this summer–since it’s not the hot weather–and besides reading, there’s always a few things I enjoy. Fireworks. Lemonade. Ice cream–so much ice cream! (There’s a wonderful little shop about a 7 minute walk from the office that we love to go to on a mid-afternoon for a treat.) Watching the fireflies dance around the yards after dark. Summer holidays. Bike rides. Rain storms. There’s also a major art event planned for the Cleveland-Akron area this summer that I am tentatively planning to visit (at least parts).

And all the reading.

I’ve decided not to do any summer-long events, though if any interesting single-month event crops up, I might opt in. But mostly I want to make it through the current reads, and my pre-order of Off the Clock (Laura Vanderkam) arrives tomorrow, plus I’d like to keep plugging away at my Harry Potter rereads (so much fun!) and my TBR list. I’m toying with the idea of adding some detective fiction, although that might make better autumn reading. Definitely saving The Woman in White for fall. But with all the non-fiction in the stack, I definitely need some more “fun” reads for summer. Maybe another fantasy…

Any exciting summer (or winter) reading/other plans for you?

Happy reading!

Week’s End Notes (32)

Cuyhoga River in Winter - Kent Ohio
A view of the Cuyahoga River just over a week ago. Would you believe I took this from a busy bridge facing downtown Kent? It’s all about the framing…!

I feel as if I’ve been shamefully neglecting the blog. Neglecting reading other’s posts. It’s a Sisyphean task, that–keeping up with everyone, everything. Especially when I already have the feeling of being underwater elsewhere, at work most especially. I keep plodding away at the reading, though, my Sunday morning reading the one constant. I’m only one week behind (and intend to catch up) on the Deal Me In Challenge. I finally finished Chronicles of Avonlea, which happens to be a short story collection, and which I believe I actually started over a year ago (maybe even in 2015!). Yet I feel as if I’m moving quickly nowhere. Perhaps the long list of unblogged books bogs me down. So many I don’t even properly remember now, not well enough to write about. And perhaps that is why I’ve written nothing.

But I’ve had enough of feeling their weight on my shoulders. Somehow, I’ve managed to dash off a few short posts here this afternoon. Those will be forthcoming. And for those I don’t feel I can prepare a proper post for (but those I still wish to say something about), a few thoughts:

His Last Bow – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Scotland, 1917)

A collection of Holmes stories I read last fall on vacation. A diverting read, though I fear that I don’t remember the stories that well.  This leaves just one collection left and I will have finished all the Holmes stories!

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (Britain/Zimbabwe, 2015)

The publicity surrounding the movie prompted me to pick this one up. A psychological thriller, I found it much more unputdownable than Gone Girl, but I didn’t feel the need to run out to see the film version. Though I did like the end much better.

Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt (U.S., 1975)

On learning of Natalie Babbit’s death late last year, I immediately had to pick up Tuck Everlasting for a reread. I had last touched this one in late elementary school, and so both found that I couldn’t remember the story and yet it was completely familiar. A sweet story of a young girl who accidentally meets up with a family who has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth, it is in a way a touching meditation on death and life and the consequences of immortality.

She folded her arms and nodded, more to herself than to Winnie. ‘Life’s got to be lived, not matter how long or short,’ she said calmly. ‘You got to take what comes. We just go along, like everybody else, one day at a time.’ (Chapter 10)

Although I read it as a nostalgia piece/for my Children’s Classics project, Tuck Everlasting could also be assigned to my Reading Ohio project, as Natalie Babbit was originally from/grew up in Ohio. It’s also a nice segue to add a little reminder that the 5th Classic Children’s Literature Event is coming up in just a couple weeks! I’ve already a collection of books waiting for me temptingly…

Happy Reading!

Purple Orchid in Full Indoor Bloom
Who says winter isn’t growing season?

Completed: Folks from Dixie by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Cover: The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence DunbarFolks from Dixie
Paul Laurence Dunbar
(U.S., Ohio, 1898)
as republished in The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan
Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
(Ohio University Press, 2005)

It is a very fortunate thing that I took notes as I made my way through some of Dunbar’s stories this past spring; it has been so long since that I read them, that my memories have grown faint. Although I had at hand a collection of the entirety of Dunbar’s short fiction, I opted at this point to stick with just those stories making up Folks from Dixie, the first published collection of short stories by Dunbar.

One trouble I had reading the stories from the  21st century perspective was trying to make out where Dunbar was portraying realistic situations (as his contemporary critics praised him for) vs. what was expected by his white audience–was he pandering in stereotype or were his stories accurate? Is it one of those things where we look back years later and see stereotype or cliché but it was fresh or unusual at the time? Regardless, it was an interesting set of stories and characters, with settings in both the north and south, among the poor and the middle class and the previously rich, with characters both black and white. Dialect is employed liberally–and not just African American Vernacular; one of the stories is set in West Virginia and so an Appalachian dialect is used as appropriate. Faith, community, and family are the predominant themes. Some stories are heart-warming, some amusing. Some portray the complexities of relationships between blacks and whites both before and after the Civil War, while some focus entirely on African American characters.

Even more so than I noted in Dunbar’s poetry, a happy–or at least uplifting–ending seems almost requisite. Even when everything seems to have gone wrong, or every opportunity is there for the story to take a darker turn, it always seems to work out in the end. I couldn’t say if this was reflective of Dunbar’s own personality or point-of-view or simply if it was what would sell. (And I know too little of the era’s short stories to know if such positivity was generally common in published short fiction. They do perhaps bring to mind the short stories of L.M. Montgomery which are also consistently uplifting.) In a way though, it is refreshing to read, at least when the current reality of 2016 seems to always want to take the darker path. And it is perhaps our 21st century cynicism that makes me notice Dunbar’s optimism.

“Anner ‘Lizer’s Stumblin’ Block”

A plantation story—all the characters are slaves—yet, it feels odd, as if it is one of those stories that is romanticizing the plantation era, even though written by a descendant of slaves. Quite the contrast to Charles W. Chestnutt. But it is striking to me, from both Dunbar’s and Chestnutt’s stories, there is almost the sound as if slaves were just allowed to walk around wherever—that is, Sam is out “‘coon hunting” and the other slaves go to revival service—I would have thought they’d be more limited, more confined. What is accurate?

In this, Anner ‘Lizer goes to a revival service & finds herself wanting “‘ligion,” but she can never seem to overcome some “stumblin’ block” that keeps her from leaving the “mourner’s bench.” This “stumblin’ block” turns out to be Sam: Anner ‘Lizer isn’t sure if he wants to marry her or Phinny, another slave. It is an ironic story, as seen in the difference between what Anner ‘Lizer is really thinking and what the other slaves think she is thinking, i.e., they think she is solely focused on getting religion, while in reality she can’t get Sam off her mind.

“The Ordeal at Mt. Hope”

He passed vacant lots which lay open and inviting children to healthful play; but instead of marbles or leap-frog or ball, he found little boys in ragged knickerbockers huddled together on the ground, ‘shooting craps’ with precocious avidity and quarrelling over the pennies that made the pitiful wagers. He heard a glib profanity rolling from the lips of children who should have been stumbling through baby catechisms; and his heart ached for them.” (17)

Another southern story, but this one post-war and in an all-black community. It is an interesting look at the contrasts between an educated, northern black man and his uneducated southern small-town counterparts. Although in some ways I suppose it might stereotype, just including a standard-English speaking black man was, I would guess, an accomplishment for the late 1800s. On a certain level, it is a universal story and shows that some things haven’t changed (and some never well)–young folks not doing what their elders want, the lure of alcohol and other temptations, the wariness of a small town of outsiders, the way communities just sit in hopelessness, seemingly unwilling or unable to try to change anything and make things better. Indeed, “Mt. Hope” is an ironic town name, yet true to Dunbar’s form, it is flipped on its head to be accurate by the end.

He could not talk to Elias. He could not lecture him. He would only be dashing his words against the accumulated evil of years of bondage as the ripples of a summer sea beat against a stone wall. It was not the wickedness of this boy he was fighting or even the wrongdoing of Mt. Hope. It was the aggregation of the evils of the fathers, the grandfathers, the masters and mistresses of these people. Against this what could talk avail?” (21)

“The Colonel’s Awakening”

A very sad story of a southern gentleman whose mind has been in the past ever since his two sons were killed in the war. Two of his former slaves (“servants”) care for him, pretending for him that it is just the same as it always was. But rather than romanticizing the antebellum South, with servants staying out of loyalty to their master, it appears that due to age, they don’t know how else they might live. The colonel is however portrayed sympathetically, despite his past slave-holding. Loss is universal.

…and in the haste of the retreat he had been buried with the unknown dead. Into that trench, among the unknown, Colonel Robert Estridge had laid his heart, and there it had stayed. Time stopped, and his faculties wandered. He lived always in the dear past. The present and future were not.” (26)

“The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin”

A church is in need of a new pastor, but there are two factions who cannot agree on who it should be. It is decided to give the two choices each a Sunday sermon, and the faction leaders embark on plots to win over others to their side while undercutting the other. I found it quite an amusing story, even knowing how common such a congregational fractures are, for Dunbar keeps it lighthearted, and there never seems any real danger that this will split up the church–though perhaps some feelings will be long hurt.

“Jimsella”

Here, we have a portrait of domestic distress: abandonment and adultery, but in the end the power of an infant brings the father/husband back hope. A bit of a sweet story, actually, despite how unpromising it begins. It is yet another example of Dunbar’s penchant for uplifting endings. “Jimsella” is set in a northern city–perhaps New York? According to the introduction to The Complete Stories, this would have been a challenge to preconceived notions of the era’s readers, expecting to only see former slaves or their descendants in the rural south.

“Mt. Pisgah’s Christmas ‘Possum”

This one was perhaps less jolly that I might have expected for a Christmas story, as it turns out that Brother Jabez ate 3 of the 4 Christmas ‘Possums! I admit, before reading this collection, I had never contemplated the thought of eating ‘possum, but apparently it would not have been uncommon in Dunbar’s day, as a number of stories reference it.

“A Family Feud”

The old woman had been a trusted house-servant in one of the wealthiest of the old Kentucky families, and a visit to her never failed to elicit some reminiscence of the interesting past. Aunt Doshy was inordinately proud of her family, as she designated the Venables, and was never weary of detailing accounts of their grandeur and generosity. What if some of the harshness of reality was softened by the distance through which she looked back upon them; what if the glamour of memory did put a halo round the heads of some people who were never meant to be canonised? It was all plain fact to Aunt Doshy…” (45)

This is different in that this story, while a plantation story, is the story of a white family, specifically a father and son, and the split that nearly happens between them over the woman the son chooses to marry. It is told by an old woman who had been a slave on the plantation, and one of the characters was the master’s son’s old nurse who does what it takes to reunite the two. It is interesting to me in that it illustrates the complexities of relationships between master and slaves. There is perhaps a bit of romanticism of the past, but I would guess that–considering the story told in The Help–the idea of such relationship between nurse and son is not complete fiction. A sweet story, really.

“Aunt Mandy’s Investment”

A swindler sets up an investment (Ponzi) scheme, convincing the poor blacks of a city he’s just arrived at that if they invest with him, they will reap the benefits and avoid the white man gaining their money. An old lady, Mandy, comes to him privately to invest her little savings that she might bring her son back from out west. This is a charming story, the reader knowing by now that Dunbar will work it all out–for Mandy at least.

“The Intervention of Peter”

Peter, desperate to prevent his master from dying in a duel (of honor), takes matters into his own hands and is about to fire an old fowling piece at the opponent when discovered, a discovery which causes all concerned (save Peter) to howl with laughter. Looking at this and “A Family Feud,” I notice that Dunbar seems to be showing that the slaves have more sense than their masters. Is this where we see him subverting the plantation story?

“Nelse Hatton’s Vengence”

The people had eaten their suppers, and the male portion of the families had come out in front of their houses to smoke and rest or read the evening paper. Those who had porches drew their rockers out on them, and sat with their feet on the railing. Others took their more humble positions on the front steps, while still others, whose houses were flush with the street, went even so far as to bring their chairs out upon the sidewalk, and over all there was an air of calmness and repose save when a glance through the open doors revealed the housewives busy at their evening dishes, or the blithe voices of the children playing in the street told that little Sally Waters was a-sitting in a saucer or asserted with doubtful veracity that London Bridge Was falling down. Here and there a belated fisherman came straggling up the street that led from the river, every now and then holding up his string of slimy, wiggling catfish in answer to the query ‘Wha’ ‘d you ketch?'” (59)

A tramp shows up on the back door of former slave Nelse Hatton’s house (in Ohio), begging for food. Nelse’s wife reluctantly sets the table at Nelse’s insistence, and he and the tramp have a conversation while the tramp eats, leading to the discovery that the tramp is “Mas’ Tom,” the son of Nelse’s old master. Excited, he wants to introduce his family, but his wife, Eliza, scorns meeting the man who gave her husband a scar on his neck. Her anger brings Nelse’s to rise, and for a moment we are afraid he will do as he once vowed and kill the man. But in the end, Tom Hatton having expressed remorse for the scar, Nelse gives him his Sunday suit and money to return home to Kentucky.

This is another illustration of the complex relations between (ex)slaves and (ex)masters. But I think the kicker is Nelse’s final statement: “Bless God, ‘Lizzy, I feel as good as a young convert.” Religion/faith may not be overt in this story, but it colors the end.

“At Shaft 11”

Unlike the other stories, in this one, a white man, Jason Andrews, is the primary protagonist, or at least as much as anyone is in the story. (A black man, Sam Bowles, is another.) It is a story of a mine strike—and it seems to be anti-union.  Or at least, pro-capitalist. The black men are the strike breakers, Jason is against the strike, but has left the mine so his white friends can’t say he profited. This interaction between black and white takes on an interesting dimension when it also equals strikers vs. strike breakers: even without a racial aspect, tension leading to violence seems highly likely. Interesting to me, also, unlike Chestnutt’s stories in which his ex-slave story teller frequently used “n—-r” to refer to his fellow African Americans, this was the first story in which Dunbar employed the term, and there in the voice of the strikers.

“The Deliberation of Mr. Dunkin”

This is a very familiar story, about the courting of a very pretty young woman, Miss Callena Johnson, the new school teacher, by Mr. Alonzo Taft, although he is supposedly acting on behalf of his friend, Mr. Dunkin.  It is so familiar, in fact, that I read it already this year—The Two Gentlemen of Verona— and I’m sure elsewhere as well. Of course, all works out in the end, and the collection ends on a very charming note.

3/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works. Read as part of my Reading Ohio project and for the category “a volume of classic short stories” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.