Sunday, August 02, 2009

Notes on Evelyn Scott's Migrations

So, you ask, how's that whole Evelyn Scott project coming along? Not quite as smoothly as I'd hoped, but then whoever said literature was supposed to be smooth? I still have another Escapade-related post in the works, but in the meantime I've been looking into a couple of her novels.

In the wake of my happy discovery of Scott and my fruitful reading of Escapade, I checked Migrations and The Wave out of the library with some excitement. Some of this excitement was dissipated upon opening the two volumes, both of which are historical novels of sorts and on first blush appear to be much more conventional than I'd hoped. But then they were both published, still, in the late 1920s, so what seems conventional now may not have been then. Migrations is the shorter of the two, by far, and is the earlier novel, so it was no contest which one I'd attempt to tackle first. In addition, Migrations is subtitled An Arabesque in Histories, which sounds much more interesting than narratives of the Civil War, the subtitle to The Wave. Having now read Migrations, I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, though I certainly enjoyed large portions of it.

"Arabesque" is one of those words I've always avoided looking up, preferring instead to just let it remain suggestive in its strangeness. (I think I first encountered it used by a writer describing the music of the Throwing Muses: "Zep arabesques" he wrote; the phrase seemed to capture something elusive about the band's music, though I really didn't know precisely what he meant. But I digress.) I did finally look it up and, with all apologies to Andrew Seal, it means, when applied to the fine arts, "a sinuous, spiraling, undulating, or serpentine line or linear motif." Here I'd say it means a more or less free indirect prose and stream of consciousness narrative, in the multiple-character Mrs. Dalloway sense (assuming my memory of Mrs. Dalloway is remotely accurate). A species of "pyschological realism". Only occasionally does it appear as if the third-person descriptions of the external world are not also reflected in the direct experience of a character but belong to an outside observer, one who objectively knows, and, indeed, the one occasion when a new character's back story is extensively filled in by a narrator's voice, it feels gratuitous.

The novel takes place in the 1850s and is divided into three chapters, each with several sub-divisions, with interrelated characters but no real plot or narrative arc uniting them other than the theme hinted at by the title. In chapters one and three, we're among slaveholders and slaves in Tennessee. Some of the slaveholders are ambivalent about owning slaves, though not usually for any discernible moral reasons; they all think they treat their slaves well. In both chapters, a slave runs away; in chapter three this leads to a confrontation between mob justice and a suspected abolitionist--who nevertheless owns slaves of his own--and his scandalously mixed-race ("quadroon") wife. Chapter two is considerably longer than the others and traces the journey to San Francisco (in the wake of the gold rush), by way of Jamaica and Panama, of a married couple who've left the town in Tennessee in search of better opportunities.

The book is interesting as a depiction of aspects of life in the antebellum South, but I admit that my attention occasionally flagged the closer it veered to reading like a semi-objective historical narrative, however unresolved. The characters are much concerned with the nature of their own existence, and Scott invests her female characters especially with rich, complicated inner lives, bound up in questions of class, gender, and race. We are also treated to the slaves' thoughts and inner struggles. Beyond The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I have no direct experience with fiction from this time or earlier that deals with slavery and slaves, so I can't say anything about how "progressive" this may or may not have been, but I thought it was worth noting. And it appears that Evelyn Scott aspired to be as "realistic" as possible, so she attempted to render the speech of the slaves in dialect, as well as that of poor whites, or other characters not of the slaveholding class predominant in the book. The language and thoughts of that class is, perhaps inevitably, the more or less standard English of the main, free indirect narration. I get the sense, in some of what I've read about her, that in many ways Scott positioned herself as a writer in opposition to the Southern Agrarian critics of her day (by the way, there is a connection here with the New Critics, such as Cleanth Brooks; more on this in another post, I hope), and thus, I gather, wished to break down the romantic Old South narrative dominant in her youth. I have little doubt, then, that she thought of herself as in sympathy with the former slaves, as well as with Native Americans. Nevertheless, some of this speech is difficult to read, as such rendered speech often is, regardless of the author's best intentions. Also, I probably don't need to tell you that the characters make liberal use of the word "nigger" (or, in the slaves' case, "niggah").

Of course this isn't any kind of review, and obviously there is a lot that could be said about any one of these issues, which I'm not going to delve into here. However, before closing I do want to leave you with some sense of the writing. This is towards the end of chapter one, Captain George is dying, and his wife Miss Sara has rung the bell for help, but everyone is out looking for Silas, the runaway slave (italics in original):
But the lane to the Quarters continued to open an abandoned perspective. Uncle Blossom did not move. Miss Sara was conscious of her ineffectualness, could almost see herself, her thin face under her crushed cap, her diminutive body, her wide sedate lady's petticoats, and her arms upreaching. Why had she not been born a man. Why had the men been sent away on other missions when the Captain was sinking and in a state like this. They should have come to her for their orders. What did anything matter but this--this last struggle against the--but was it inevitable. Her wrists slackened exhaustedly, and she half reclined herself against the long deal table upon which, in the morning, her precious bowls of milk were set out evenly for her to skim the cream from them.

No one had heard her. Staring across the stripped stubble of the brownish tobacco fields, she began to weep silently, her mouth, penciled in its fine lines of age and pain, quivering, her bleared gaze reproaching the distances. Thomas and Edwin do not know. They can not know. A long life--all over--and what for. But there was no need for the 'what-for.' Living-being-alive--was sufficient. We require no explanation of it. In God we trust. A long life. Ah, how she hoped yet to live a long time.
And this is from towards the end of the book. Bosh has also run away, but he hasn't made it very far. He's made it to the Gilbert property, where his mother is a slave and he basically gives up; she has hidden him away, tried and failed to get him to leave in advance of the inevitable mob justice (the mob is after him not only because he's escaped, but because he "attacked" a white women--really, he scared her; he was hungry and trying to get some food):
"Dey's free whut the law sets free," she answered acidly. She was shaking as with palsy, and felt herself in danger of another nervous seizure such as she had experienced in the afternoon. In her flat ponderous countenance, her small eyes sparkled with that constant glitter of anger, aroused from the first instant in which Bosh had thrown insoluble responsibility upon her. She began to set the room to rights, rearranging her small belongings so that they might appear orderly. Some rush baskets and similar odds-and-ends, she stacked in a nook by the chimney, leaving, between the baskets and the wall, a space in which Bosh could, if necessary, secrete himself. The single unbleached sheet on the bed was smoothed out nearly, but she removed her fine quilt of many-colored patchwork and held it in readiness. Surely, as she listened, the tramp of strange men drew nearer.

[...] Ready to expire, she gave up her efforts to shift the bed. It was too late now, truly. Footsteps were indeed audible, and some, as yet, indistinguishable cries. "Snuff dat candle, Bosh," she whispered, but, anticipating his uselessness, did not wait on him. Rushing forward, she laid her broad palm upon the wick. The candle guttered, went out redolently, and, from beneath the door, sagging above an uneven sill, the flat moonlight gushed suddenly, in faint blue traceries. Save for the vivid relief of a spot on the floor just before the door, the room was pitch-black. Mammy Mary, her fists clenched and shaking, sank on her knees, half suppliant, half defiant with a desperation which she recognized as futile. In the night invisible, the sound of shouting voices grew always louder. She could not see Bosh, and only guessed that he was beside her.


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