Archive

Archive for the ‘History of the USA’ Category

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

April 25, 2017 14 comments

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard (2014) Original French title: Tristesse de la terre.

I read Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard in January and I’m trying to catch up with billets that are long overdue. I’m going to be bit lazy here and quote the Goodreads summary of this non-fiction book about Buffalo Bill and the end of the Indian wars in the US.

Buffalo Bill was the prince of show business. His spectacular Wild West shows were performed to packed houses across the world, holding audiences spellbound with their grand re-enactments of tales from the American frontier. For Bill gave the crowds something they’d never seen before: real-life Indians.

This astonishing work of historical re-imagining tells the little-known story of the Native Americans swallowed up by Buffalo Bill’s great entertainment machine. Of chief Sitting Bull, paraded in theatres to boos and catcalls for fifty dollars a week. Of a baby Lakota girl, found under her mother’s frozen body, adopted and displayed on the stage. Of the last few survivors of Wounded Knee, hired to act out the horrific massacre of their tribe as entertainment. And of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, hamming it to the last, even as it consumed him.

Told with beauty, compassion and anger, Sorrow of the Earth shows us tragedy turned into a circus act, history into sham, truth into a spectacle more powerful than reality itself. Could any of us turn away?

Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked its line of thoughts. Vuillard explains how Buffalo Bill exploited the vanquished Indians in his Wild West shows and how his rise was concomitant to the last massacres of Native Americans. He depicts how these shows became history and how this entertainment became the grounds of our collective memory of the American West. It created the imagery that would prepare the grounds for westerns. Vuillard tells how Buffalo Bill’s vision of history supplanted historical accuracy and became our reference.

This is a line of thought I find valuable and it’s a question worth exploring, especially this year. Entertainment penetrates so far in brains that there is no more room for accuracy or science.

On the other hand, I have a problem Vuillard’s book due to its tone and its style. He gives a passionate retelling of Buffalo Bill’s life and broadens his topic with a more general analysis of the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s shows. He doesn’t demonstrate his point of view or remains analytical. His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.

As the blurb mentions it, it’s told with compassion and anger. Are these feelings compatible with analytical thinking that is, in my opinion, required in historical non-fiction books? I don’t think so. What’s your opinion? Vuillard’s book was published in English by Pushkin Press in August 2016. Did you read it? If yes, what did you think about it? Did you read other books like this one that have historical content but are not exactly essays?

In the end, I found this book interesting but I wondered (and still wonder) if it was reliable.

The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel

November 9, 2016 15 comments

The Great Depression. American. 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. Original French title: La Crise.

Disclaimer: This is a billet (a chronicle) not an academic paper and I’m not an economist, just a reader.

As mentioned in my previous post about American paintings in the 1930s and literature, I bought a non-fiction book entitled La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel.

claudel_la_criseClaudel (1868-1955) is known as a poet, a playwright. He was also a fervent Catholic and even tried to be a monk. He was the man who put his sister Camille in an asylum because she did not quite fit the image he had of what his sister should be. He didn’t want other people to know his sister had psychiatric issues. She spent 30 years there and he only came to visit a dozen times. How Christian of him. I love Camille Claudel’s sculptures and I’m not overly fond of Catholic thinking. I tried to give Claudel a chance by attending one of his plays, Partage de Midi and it’s one of my most painful memories in a theatre. I was bored to death. So, Paul Claudel as a man and as a writer doesn’t interest me much. But this book is by Claudel the ambassador of France in Washington from 1927 to 1933 and it’s an excerpt of the letters he sent to Aristide Briand, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.

In these memos, Claudel analyses the economic and political situation of the USA. Lots of memos are centered on economic issues. Some report political speeches by the president of the USA or decode the trends in America’s politics. Some memos were prepared by his staff, the economist E. Monick. Claudel was in Washington at the end of the Coolidge administration (1923-1929) and during the Hoover administration. The book ends in December 1932, before the administration of FD Roosevelt.

Claudel describes the economic growth of the years 1925-1928 and explains that the signs of the Great Depression were already there but masked by a general euphoria and a raise in speculation on the financial markets. I know that comparing is not reasoning but it’s difficult to put aside thoughts of the 2008 crisis and the last 7 years when you read Claudel’s notes.

These years are the beginning of a new era. More machines in factories mean mass production and high investment of advertising to sell all the products made in these factories. To facilitate consumption, instalment selling is widely promoted. At the time, there is no word in French for what we now call crédit à la consommation and Claudel uses the English word instalment. New industries thrive at the time, like the car industry and new products turn old markets upside down. Claudel writes that the fridge killed the old ice industry. The artificial silk for pantyhose disturbs the market of cotton stockings. It’s not called disruption but it looks like it.

Many jobs in factories disappear because machines replace workers. Claudel refers to this as technological unemployment. He explains how these blue collars start working in the service industry, mostly in services around cars (selling and maintaining) or in restaurants and hotels. But not all of them manage their reconversion in something else and Claudel muses that the adaptation of the workers to the new economy is at stake and not easy to tackle.

The rationalisation of production opens the road to the rationalisation of distribution. It’s the beginning of chain stores, started to gain on buying power and to decrease distribution costs.

After the Black Friday, Claudel dissects the reasons of the crash and the madness around borrowing money to buy securities in the hope to sell them with capital gain. The value of shares quoted on the market had nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the company they belonged to. The financial markets went crazy and Claudel depicts the beginning of investment trusts that seem to be the ancestors of investment funds. Claudel deplores the power of banks in the economy but states that Bankers are at the heart of the modern economic system. (Le banquier est la pièce centrale du système économique moderne)

At the beginning the Great Depression, Claudel repeatedly points out that Hoover remains unwisely optimistic about the consequences of the crisis. He sounds too mild and unable to rule the country.

The Hoover administration invests massively in the Farm Board to pilot the prices of wheat and other agricultural products. It doesn’t have the desired effects but the administration persists. I always wonder why prices of agricultural products are structurally too low for farmers to live upon their land.

Il n’en reste pas moins vrai que l’aide aux fermiers demeure l’un des problèmes les plus urgents que la nouvelle administration devra s’efforcer de régler.  (18 janvier 1929) It is perfectly clear that helping the farmers remains one of the most urgent matters that the new administration will have to sort out. (January 18th, 1929)

Today, the EU subsidizes agriculture. What does it mean for our civilization that we are ready to pay a lot of money for phones but won’t pay the people who grow our food a decent price for their production?

Claudel also describes a natural tendency of America to retreat and close their borders.

L’Américain moyen n’aime pas les aventures à l’étranger, il en a une horreur instinctive. Le 9 octobre 1928 (p41) The average American doesn’t like adventures abroad. They hate them instinctively. (October 9, 1928)

Claudel explains how the Tariff ie the customs duty implemented by the American administration to protect their economy is actually detrimental to their business. And this statement still rings true.

La situation est en effet celle-ci. Un peuple dont la population est six pour cent de la planète, détient cinquante-deux pour cent des ressources de la terre. Or ce peuple a pour idéal de fermer ses portes au reste de l’univers, de tout lui vendre et de ne rien lui acheter. C’est un défi à toutes les règles économiques, c’est aussi une contradiction presque grotesque à toutes les protestations pacifiques, à toutes les déclarations de goodwill que ses hommes d’Etat vont porter aux quatre coins des continents. (2 juin 1929). p91 Here’s the situation. A people whose population represent six percent of the planet own fifty two percent of the earth’s resources. And this people’s ideal is to close their borders to the rest of the universe and to sell them everything without buying anything from them. It’s against all economic laws and it’s also in grotesque contradiction with all the pacific protestations, with all the declarations of goodwill that their representatives are carrying at all corners of all the continents. (June 2nd, 1929)

Thought provoking, eh?

Claudel also describes the way of making politics. Lobbying was born in the lobby of the capitol building. In October 1929, the old lobbyist Joe Grundy brags about financing the last presidential election with his $500 000 dollar donation. That’s a huge sum for the time. Sounds like financing politics is not a new hobby for businessmen.

Again, comparing is not reasoning. I’m not saying that the current state of the world is similar to that time. I’m just saying that we always think that what we’re living is unique. Turning back to history gives us some perspective. I found this book eye-opening even if some sections with numbers about growths and full of production figures were a little dry at times. I would have liked more memos about the effect of the Great Depression on the American people.

I’ll end this post with this last quote because it brings hope and we’re going to need a lot of hope to turn the page of 2016.

Je crois que l’esprit est comme l’air et la lumière, il n’y en aura jamais trop. Je crois que l’esprit n’est pas un de ces germes malfaisants dont tous les moyens sont bons pour arrêter la contagion. Je crois qu’un pays a finalement intérêt à laisser des choses belles et agréables éveiller la sensibilité et l’intelligence du plus grand nombre d’hommes et de femmes possibles et les provoquer non pas à une imitation servile mais à une émulation bienfaisante. 2 février 1929. p79/80 I think that intelligence is like air and light, there can never be too much of it. I think that intelligence is not one of those evil germs that we must stop at any cost. I think that a country always ought to let beautiful and agreeable things to awaken the sensitivity and the intelligence of the largest number of men and women possible and to lead them, not to a servile imitation, but to a beneficial emulation. February 2nd, 1929.

That’s something the 44th president of the United States could have quoted.

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

December 23, 2015 10 comments

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman (2006) French title: Le chagrin entre les fils. Translated by Pierre Bondil.

Hillerman_chagrin_filsTo be honest, I still have three books to review by the end of 2015 and out of the three, Hillerman’s book is the least appealing. This explains why my billet will be a short one.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) is an American writer of detective novels whose main characters are policemen from the Navajo Tribal Police Department, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. His books are set in the Four Corners area, between Arizona and Utah.

In The Shape Shifter, Joe Leaphorn is now retired while Jim Chee has just gotten married and is back from his honeymoon. Leaphorn is a little bored, so when an old friend calls him about a Navajo blanket that had reappeared when everybody thought it had been destroyed in an arson, he jumps on the occasion to investigate further. Only it will be on his free time and without police backup.

It had been a long time since my last Tony Hillerman. His books are usually a pleasure to read because of the investigation but also because of all the information he gives about the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo cultures. This element is present in this opus as well. The blanket relates the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864 when they were deported from Arizona to New Mexico.

Hillerman gives details about The Long Walk and its impact on the Navajo psyche. However, I failed to understand how it was serving the plot. It was interesting to read about but I thought it never quite meshed with the plot. It felt more like a pretext than a real plot enhancer.

I also thought that the plot was a little weak and it sounded to me that the writer was as tired as his character. It didn’t help that I wasn’t in awe with the translation; I don’t like recent books with notes explaining what a pick-up is. And let’s talk about the French title. It’s not the translation of the original title, which I understand because it’s hard to translate. However, the French title, Le chagrin entre les fils, is unfortunate because the word fils, when you read it, can be understood as threads or as sons. Until I heard about the blanket after I started to read the book, I was convinced the title meant the grief between the sons and not the grief between the threads. The title makes sense as the blanket was made to keep a trail of this painful Long Walk and to express grief in an artistic form. But how can you guess that when you’re in the bookshop?

Despite the reservations I have on this volume of the series, I still highly recommend Tony Hillerman as a writer to explore. Just pick his earlier books and if you have any interest at all in Native American culture, this is an enjoyable way to learn things. For example, in The Shape Shifter, he explains that in the Navajo culture, being called rich is not desirable at all, it’s almost an insult. What a clash with the culture of the white America. Hillerman was an honorary citizen of the Navajo reservation, so you can trust his explanations. He also has a fantastic sense of place. He has a way to describe nature in the Four Corners area that makes you want to pay a visit. Reading it after a trip there is even better because you have your own images of the places he describes.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part II

October 21, 2015 11 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

This is my second billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one focuses on the plot and can be read here. In this second post, I wanted to focus on Roth’s analysis of Communism as a political ideal and on his depiction of the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s. Roth focuses on the global picture, the ideals conveyed by Communism, the witch hunt and the political climate of the time but also reflects on how this witch hunt has been possible, that is to say by the cooperation of individuals.

He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it. In order to get them to believe in their brotherhood, they’ve got to control people’s every thought of shoot ‘em. And meanwhile in America, in Europe, the Communists go on with this fairy tale even when then know what is really there. Sure, for a while, you don’t know. But what don’t you know? You know human beings. So you know everything. You know that this fairy tale cannot be possible. If you are a very young man I suppose it’s okay. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, okay. But after that? No reason that a person with an average intelligence can take this story, this fairy tale of Communism, and swallow it. ‘We will do something that will be wonderful…’ But we know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.

Roth_Communist_CoverI have to say I quite agree with Roth. The idea of Communism is doomed from the start because it’s based on a fairy tale conception of mankind. I don’t believe in natural goodness and I haven’t in a long time. I remember sitting on a chair in my high school class, listening to the teacher explain Rousseau’s vision of the Good Savage and thinking it was utterly rubbish and unrealistic. Ingrained brotherhood and goodness do not lead to wars, rapes, pogroms, thefts and crime in general. And those have existed since the beginning of humanity.

Everything is clearer with hindsight but still, I never understood how a clever philosopher like Sartre became so engrossed with Communism and refused to see through the official curtain put in place by the USSR. Not only was the thinking flawed from the start because it’s based on an inaccurate assumption, but the implementation phase led to brutal dictatorship.

Roth depicts O’Day, the Communist who converted Ira to his “religion” as a zealot. He can be compared to a Christian zealot from the beginning of Christianism. He has an unbreakable faith in Communism, he’s ready to suffer for it and he’s ready to sacrifice any personal life for it. The older he gets, the more ascetic he becomes. He renounces to possessions, lives like an ermit and is only committed to preach Communism to the masses. That beats everything for a line of thinking that says that religion is the opium of the people.

Roth also describes the unhealthy climate of the McCarthy era and how the battle against Communism was a good opportunity or a good excuse to eliminate political opponents, gain political power, undermine liberal thinkers or simply get rid of a rival. Politicians used it as a leverage to win elections and be well positioned at the White House. Several examples are given in the book through the characters’ lives. Of course, Ira is a notable Communist and he was loud about his political ideas. He was bound to be in trouble for it considering the times. As a reader, I expected it. But it also touched other characters in an unexpected way. Murray, Ira’s brother was an unorthodox teacher (more of that in Post III) who pushed his students to think out of the box. He had the bad idea to go against his hierarchy. False accusations of Communism on top of his teaching methods were enough to put him out of a teaching job for a decade. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door for 10 years and his former dean was promoted. In his conversations with Murray, Nathan learns that he missed a grant to study abroad because his friendship with Ira was suspicious. He states:

I did not and could not have made crap of difference, and yet the zealotry to defeat Communism reached even me.

Roth wants to go further and endeavors to understand how common people denounced someone, how the American administration managed such an efficient witch hunt. He reflects on how betrayal became normal in those years.

To me it seems like more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war—say between ’46 and ’56—than in any other period of our history. This nasty thing that Eve Frame did was typical of lots of nasty things people did those years, either because they had to or because they felt they had to. Eve’s behavior fell within the routine informer practices of the era. When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country? It was everywhere during those years, the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit. Not only does the pleasure of betrayal replace the prohibition, by you transgress without giving up your moral authority. You retain your purity at the same time as you are patriotically betraying—at the same time as you are realizing a satisfaction that verges on the sexual with its ambiguous components of pleasure and weakness, of aggression and shame: the satisfaction of undermining. Undermining sweethearts. Undermining rivals. Undermining friends. Betrayal is in the same zone of perverse and illicit and fragmented pleasure. An interesting, manipulative, underground type of pleasure in which there is much that a human being finds appealing.

I’m not sure about the comparison with sex but I think that Roth’s reflection on the personal motivation of people who were informers and betrayed acquaintances, family or colleagues quite interesting. It is applicable to other contexts as well, the Occupation in France, or the wide network of informers the Stasi had in the DDR. In a way, it brings us back to the first statement Roth makes: there is no such thing as natural brotherhood, otherwise this betrayal behavior wouldn’t have spread in the society as fast as the Spanish influenza.

I have not done extensive researches on the period. I can’t tell if Roth exaggerates or not and if the witch hunt infiltrated the society as much as he pictures it. I’m not here to say if he’s right or wrong. I do think that I Married a Communist tackles a difficult topic and Roth approaches it through different angles that give an interesting vision of it. He develops a consistent analysis of the phenomenon through a political, historical and philosophical perspective. And the multi-disciplinary approach is commendable in itself.

 

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

August 12, 2015 23 comments

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 20 comments

Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars (1925) French title: L’or.

CendrarsI started L’or by Blaise Cendrars because I wanted to read it before seeing its theatre version. More about that later. As the English title suggests, Cendrars’s famous novel is about the rise and fall of Johann August Suter. (1803-1880). I suppose American readers all know about him. Other readers may not.

Suter was German, living near the Swiss border. In 1834, indebted, he left his wife and children behind and ran away from home to America. He boarded on a ship that led him to New York, spent time in Saint-Louis and then reached Fort Vancouver via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

He wanted to go to California but couldn’t go straight away. He first boarded a boat headed to Honolulu and another one going back to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. California belonged to Mexico then and Suter managed to secure the property of land in Northern California. He got 48 827 acres on the banks of the Sacramento River. His dream was to be a rich landowner. He started building an estate named the New Helvetia and founded Fort Suter where Sacramento will be. His estate was growing and money was coming in. Everything looked good and he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream when one of his employees, James W Marshall discovered gold on the property in 1848.

The Gold Rush started there and then and thousands of gold diggers swooped down on New Helvetia like a swarm of locusts on an African field. Suter was ruined. He later on initiated a law suit to regain the property of his estate and be compensated for his losses. In vain.

The novel relates his story but also the history of California and they are closely linked. It explains the politics there, the growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush and the madness of the Gold Rush. It pictures the Wild West as we imagine it, full of reckless people and where only the law of the strongest was enforced. The pictures are vivid and we need to remember that Cendrars wrote only 45 years after Suter died.

Cendrars writes about Suter in a series of short vignettes and chapters, describing the extraordinary destiny of this man. Not all the details are historically correct but it was well done. He spoke English, Spanish, French and German. He was adventurous. He left his home country, wasn’t afraid to die during the journey to California. He was driven, ambitious and a bit reckless. He was brilliant, dedicated and a hard worker. You needed guts and faith in yourself to be a pioneer in California in the 1840s. He also lived in troubled times: he had three different nationalities, German, Spanish and then American. He saw big and wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted. Absolutely fascinating. And yet, something surprised me.

In a sense, Suter is a traditional man, almost a man of the past. For him, being successful and wealthy meant owning a large estate and farms. His ambition was to be like the aristocracy in Europe. He had the intelligence to run a large estate and build a rich farm out of the land he got from the Mexican governor. He had all the skills to succeed in this field but totally failed to adjust to the Gold Rush. He could have turned into a mine owner or exploit the gold vein on his property. He could have created retail stores to meet the needs of the gold diggers. They needed everything, he would have been successful. He could have founded a bank to trade and keep all that gold safe. But no, he was a peasant-soul and he couldn’t let go of his dream, of his image of success. And that was being the landlord of a large farm, have people working on his land and grow cereals, produce wine and own herds.

Keep that in mind for my next billet about Run River by Joan Didion, set on a ranch on the Sacramento River less than a hundred years after the foundation of the New Helvetia.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this billet, I saw a theatre version of the novel and it was extremely well done. The text was close to the book and Cendrars words were there on stage, not a rewriting of the novel. An actor was relating Suter’s story while a musician provided musical bridges between scenes/chapters. He only had a harmonica and played traditional cowboy tunes to let our imagination carry us to this place in California. Powerful. The narrator was excellent, living the text on scene, almost chanting some parts. It sounded like traditional stories told by the fire.

The reasons of wrath

October 22, 2014 36 comments

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 1939 French title: Les Raisins de la colère.

Steinbeck_englishI finished The Grapes of Wrath a few weeks ago and I’ve been procrastinating. What can I write about such a classic? Being French, The Grapes of Wrath is not part of the usual high school curricular. So I have no bad memories of reading this in school and I started it without knowing much about the plot. I expected the exodus of Okies to California, that’s all.

A quick reminder of the plot, if someone needs it: the Joad family leaves Oklahoma during the Great Depression because their farm has been purchased by banks and farm labourers are replaced by tractors. They’re headed to California because they’ve seen leaflets saying that workers were wanted. When they leave, the family is composed of the grand-parents, Uncle John, the parents (Ma & Pa), Tom who came back on parole just in time, Noah, Al, Rose of Sharon, her young husband and the two youngest Joad children. The novel describes their journey to California via the Route 66, their arrival in the Californian Promised Land. They live in tents along the way, in shanty towns, in government camps. Steinbeck describes their perpetual quest for work, their hard working conditions and the lack of job security.

I found the descriptions of the Joads departure, their journey and living conditions quite moving. As they leave their farm and Oklahoma behind, the loss of their home dismantles their family. Their family dynamic changes too. Pa loses his authority because only his sons know how to operate the truck; Ma switches to survival mode and takes over when it comes to harsh decisions. Pa just has to tag along and I felt sad for him. There are plenty of bleak scenes in the book like the death of the grand-mother or the description of life in settlements. I couldn’t help thinking about the illegal shanty towns we have here near the city. I drive by them every day and I see the shabby cabins, the smoke of chimneys and I wonder how we accept to have humans living there. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I kept wondering how the children would grow up since they couldn’t go to school while on the road. Joan Didion answered my question. In Run River, a character mentions that one of his schoolmates was two years older than him because she came from Oklahoma and missed two years of school because she was on the road with her family.

In French, The Grapes of Wrath is Les raisins de la colère. Change an i for an o in raisins (grapes) and you’ve got raisons instead of raisins and a perfectly apt title for this novel: The Reasons of Wrath. Steinbeck is on a mission with this book just like Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series. Anyone who’s read both writers knows that their style is very different though. Zola’s style is lush and graphic. Steinbeck’s reflects the characters he’s defending and it appears in the construction of the novel. He alternates chapters between the Joad family’s story and generic chapters demonstrating that the Joads’ experience is not unique but the common lot of migrants. The language is always tainted with peasant vocabulary and grammar mistakes. We never change of point of view and Steinbeck makes sure we never forget that by writing prose in spoken language. It’s a great literary device but it’s difficult for non-natives. Passages like this…

The preacher stirred nervously. “You should of went too. You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.’’ “I couldn’,’’ said Muley Graves. “Somepin jus’ wouldn’ let me.’’

Or this…

She was in a family way, too, an’ one night she gets a pain in her stomick, an’ she says, ‘You better go for a doctor.’ Well, John, he’s settin’ there, an’ he says, ‘You just got a stomickache. You et too much. Take a dose a pain killer. You crowd up ya stomick an’ ya get a stomickache,’ he says. Nex’ noon she’s outa her head, an’ she dies at about four in the afternoon.

…were difficult for me. It took me a lot of time to read the whole book but I survived.

Steinbeck_frenchSteinbeck’s political orientation becomes obvious in the description of the government camp where the Joads settle for a while. It’s clean, organised and with showers and toilets. It’s luxury compared to camping along the Road 66. It’s a settlement self-managed by the migrants. They take turn to do chores like cleaning the lavatories and they are organised in committees to rule the everyday life of the inhabitants. It sounds awfully like an idyllic version of a kolkhoz. Pardon my sarcastic mind but I almost heard Candide say All is for the best best in the best of possible worlds. The Grapes of Wrath is a condemnation of wild capitalism. Steinbeck violently criticises the banks and their greediness, the farmers’ organisations that push their adherents to exploit workers. He dissects the job market workings and shows how hunger and desperation lead workers to accept lower wages and thus enrich their employers and further destroy their chances to better pay. It’s a plea for more control and regulation from the authorities. Steinbeck’s points are valid. It bothers me that his points are still valid nowadays. Uncontrollable financial markets? Check. Dirt poor workers? Check. Job insecurity? Check. Agriculture ruled by stock markets? Check.

Steinbeck also pictures how the poor treatment of workers fosters despair and aims at proving that hopeless people have nothing to lose, that uprisings stem from this. The novel portrays the slow dehumanization of the migrants and the increasing hatred of the locals towards them. It pictures the difference between them and the Californians. I had to remind myself that this was the 1930s. The Joads live, behave and think like peasants of the 19thC. They’re far behind from the California of the 1930s described in Run River or even They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? The Californians see them as we Westerners look at the migrants running aground on our coasts. Think of Lampedusa.

The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece which should not be read in high school without the help of an excellent teacher. I barely scraped the depth of its contents here especially since I didn’t say much about the interactions between the characters and how the events affect their dreams and their chance at a future. The Grapes of Wrath analyses the historical events it pictures and examines the damages they did on small people. It also explores the feelings and thoughts of its characters. History has a face. Collateral damages of uncontrolled capitalism have a face. This face has a name, Tom Joad.

%d bloggers like this: