Tuesday, January 9, 2018

How to Be Good

I was about to start bitching yesterday about the reports that Oprah Winfrey plans to run for the US presidency in 2020 -- just what America needs: another uber-rich celebrity President with no political experience, right? -- but then I started reading Betty Smith's 1963 novel Joy in the Morning (Doubleday) and cheered up remarkably.

Smith is best known for her autobiographical first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943.  I knew of it only because the title featured in so many Warner Brothers cartoons, though I finally read it three years ago and was impressed enough to want to read more of her work.  I picked up a copy of Joy in the Morning at a used book sale not long ago, and yesterday I took it out of one of the piles ot to-be-read books on my living room floor.  I was a bit wary of it, I admit, because as fine as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was, it was fairly grim, depicting a childhood of grinding poverty in early twentieth-century New York.

But Joy in the Morning lived up to its title.  Set in 1927, it's the story of Carl and Annie Brown, newly married and relocated from Brooklyn to an unnamed college town in the Midwest.  Carl is twenty and studying law, Annie is eighteen and had to leave school at fourteen, but loves to read and wants to write.  Contrary to the assumption of all the adults around them, they are not marrying because Carl got Annie pregnant: in fact, they are both virgins at their (civil) wedding.  Carl knows about contraception and is determined that they won't become parents right away.  Not too surprisingly, the best-laid plans don't work out in that department.

Smith periodically switches viewpoint to Carl and other characters for a page or two, but Annie is the focus of the novel, and it is she who cheered me up.  She's positive without being bland or syrupy, and that I think is no mean achievement.  She isn't sure of herself, she feels inferior next to Carl because of her lack of schooling, she has her blind spots and prejudices, but she overcomes these weaknesses through conscious effort and a determined refusal to let herself be treated as less than a person.  So, for example, there's this scene, where Annie recalls her mother's reaction to being told that Annie was going to marry and move away:
"I can't wait, Mama.  I got to get married."
"You got to?  Did you say you got to?"
"It's not what you think, Mama."
"Tell me what I think.  Tell me."
"You're hurting my arm, Mama."
"I said, tell me!"
"It's better that you don't know."
"When was your last period?"
"Don't say ugly things, Mama."
"Don't you tell me what to say, you ... you tramp!"
"Mama,  if you say that again ..."
"Tramp!"
"You went too far, Mama."
"How dare you raise your hand to me!  When I think ... when I think how I suffered bringing you into the world, the sacrifices I made for you ... " [7]
The only indication that Annie offered physical resistance to her mother's violence is that "How dare you raise your hand to me!"  I don't know whether to read it to mean that Annie hit her, pushed her away, or simply took her hand off her arm.  The important thing is that it shows that despite her lack of self-confidence, there are limits beyond which Annie will not be pushed, even by her mother.

This scene does show one of Annie's weaknesses: she is comfortable enough in her body, she enjoys marital sex with her husband, she's fairly non-judgmental about other people's lives -- but she is intensely uncomfortable talking about these things.  She knows that Carl uses condoms, for example, but considers it nasty for him to say the word.

Similarly, when Carl defends his mother's misjudgment of Annie:
"She said she was sorry."
"An easy thing to say after she had the fun of telling me off.  Does she think 'sorry' is a word like a rubber eraser she can use the rub out the dirty way she thought of me and the things she said?" [17]
And when Carl tells her never to change over their wedding dinner:
"Oh, I couldn't give you a guarantee on that.  No."
"Why not, Annie?"
"Well, the world is full of people."
"No kidding!"
"And people are persons."
"You mean individuals."
"All right.  Individual persons.  Persons change.  A person gets old and old makes him different.  So he changes whether he wants to or not."
"I ask you a simple question, my girl, and you go all away around the mulberry bush."
"All I'm saying is, persons have to change.  I am a person.  I will change." [21]
Annie is mostly outgoing, curious about the world and the people in it, determined not to be limited by her lack of schooling or class status.  So she makes friends, reads omnivorously thanks to the university library (to which she has access through Carl), eavesdrops on and finally audits classes, and begins writing plays.  Until I was about three-quarters of the way through the book I was afraid that she was going to be punished somehow, and not until I finished was I really sure she wouldn't be.  The novel ends with the birth of their first child, their first wedding anniversary, Carl's graduation, and Annie's nineteenth birthday.  Initially I'd thought that Smith had set Joy in the Morning so far in the past so she could follow them until the time of publication, and I'd have been happy to see that; but it ends in early 1929 -- a few months before the Great Crash, just as some gay male fiction is set to end just before the arrival of the AIDS epidemic.

One reviewer on Amazon called Annie "petulant."  I can see why she'd annoy a certain kind of person -- someone like her mother, say -- but it's definitely the wrong word.  I liked her because despite her intense desire to be liked, she won't let anyone abuse her, not even her husband, which I think is what that reviewer objected to.  She has a core belief that people, starting with herself, shouldn't be treated badly.  Carl is also quite likable, by the way, and though he's a fairly conventional middle-class boy in many respects he is ready to put aside his expectations and adjust to Annie, just as she adjusts to him.  I've said before that one shouldn't look to fiction for a reliable guide to the workings of relationships, but I thought that Joy in the Morning provides a plausible account of how a happy marriage might work.

It also reminded me of something the critic Marvin Mudrick wrote in a review of a book on Chaucer from the 1970s, which has stayed with me ever since I first read it.  (In fact this passage was quoted in a review of Mudrick's book, Books Are Not Life But What Is? [Oxford, 1979], and it led me to buy and read it.)
Howard has a fund of jazzy generalizations, as when he defends the dull Parson against the fascinating Pardoner: "If goodness is dull in literature -- if Milton's Satan is more interesting than God, Iago more exciting than Desdemona -- this is a fact not about goodness or about literature but about ourselves.  Take someone to the zoo and he wants to see the snakes."  But it doesn't occur to him that nothing in life or literature is more interesting and exciting than goodness: that Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus are all both good and wonderfully interesting; so too Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliot, Sophocles' Antigone, Pushkin's Tatyana, Trollope's Plantagenet Palliser, Lawrence's Tom Brangwen; so most of all the character Chaucer in Chaucer's poems, who is the best human being on record and marvelously interesting.  And when someone takes me to the zoo I want to see the swans [184].
I still basically agree with Mudrick, though I think there's some sloppy, lazy thinking on his part here no less than on his target's.  I do agree that nothing in life or literature is more interesting and exciting than goodness.  I can quibble about some of his chosen examples of literary goodness, but who couldn't? Most of my favorite characters are good people, and I don't think I can think of any favorites who aren't.  (The bit about God also reflects less on God than on Milton, I should think, but I've also complained that given the opportunity to invent good gods, people always seem to invent monsters.)  I believe I was bothered slightly by the snakes/swans contrast from the beginning, though: snakes are not evil, and swans aren't good.  I don't think that moral goodness applies to non-human animals, and certainly not to entire species.  But Annie and Carl are good without being goody-goody, and wonderfully interesting, which is very much to Betty Smith's credit.  I'm grateful to her for giving me a hand out of the Slough of Despond today.