Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have put off reading Morrison for many years, simply not drawn to her portrait of black society. But this is supposed to be one of her best, I thought, so let’s give it a try.

Once I started this 1987 book, however, I was immediately lost. Who is Baby Suggs? What is the relationship among these people? What is going on? Fortunately, there is a Foreword, and in it Morrison explains that she has deliberately dumped the reader into the middle of a complex situation. Because this is what life is, especially for black people, who must react to the world around them, often without help.

However, the relationships among these people remain unclear for some time. Especially when Beloved arrives on their doorstep, a young woman whom Denver, daughter of Sethe, relates to. Who is she? Is she a ghost? Because another baby has died earlier. And this new arrival not only has the same name but is the title character. So we know she is important.

There is also a white woman named Amy, who helps Sethe on the day she bears a child. Sethe is grateful, and learns her last name is Denver, which she likes. That baby appears to be Denver, now a teenager. What is clear is that this episode takes us back in time, that we are dealing here with events on different time levels. Which adds complexity to the relationships.

For a long while we have no reference point for the memories and interaction among Sethe, Beloved, Paul D, a former slave, and others. But with more detail, the relationships begin to come together. This is Faulkner territory to a degree, as we bounce around in time. Thus, Paul D escapes from a Georgia chain gang, moves in with Sethe, boots out a baby ghost, and then runs into the opposition of the newly-arrived Beloved, who suggests both that banished baby and a past returned to haunt the present.

Confusion is amplified as the story continues to move about in time, even introducing a new character, Stamp Paid, a ferryman who brought Sethe to freedom. He tries to persuade Paul D to make a realistic appraisal of Sethe, whom Stamp once found with two children, one covered with blood. Nothing is clearly stated, but the implication is that she has killed one child in order to preserve it from the life she has known. But, unlike in Faulkner, where confusion reigns but is eventually clarified, my frustration continues.

Until we remain in the present, where new details finally begin to make sense. That Stamp Paid stopped Sethe from killing Denver, after she had killed her other child, presumably Beloved, and tells this to a distraught Paul D. That Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and she is triumphant when he leaves after learning this. That Sethe still loves Beloved, and now tries to justify what she did by emphasizing the plight of fellow coloreds. But Beloved refuses to listen; and, as they argue, Beloved gains control over her mother, for Sethe is fearful Beloved will leave.

The climax occurs when Denver seeks a job with Quaker abolitionist Bodwin in order to support Sethe and Beloved, but to get that job she has to reveal the situation at home. Which riles up the local woman, who gather at the house to pray just as Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver. At the height of the action, Sethe rushes from Beloved’s side to attack Bodwin, thinking he is a slave catcher. This act also frees her from Beloved. And from her past?

A chapter later, we learn what happened and that Beloved is gone. The house also appears empty, except the faithful Paul D finds Sethe lying in bed, as grandmother Suggs did before she died. Who was Beloved, the town asks. Did she really exist? A final chapter recalls how she has been forgotten.

To sum up, this novel’s mysteriousness and misdirection certainly hearkens back to Faulkner. Why did Morrison take this approach? Partly, I think, because so much of the action is internal, and that while the life of the colored people is vividly captured, not much happens dramatically in the novel’s present. What happens is offstage or in the past, and often told indirectly, with the emphasis on the reaction to those developments.

As presented here, my interests were too much distributed among Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Stamped Paid. Might the latter two, in fact, have been combined? And Beloved, torn between being real and being a ghost, is not vivid enough. She is described more through others reacting to her than through her acting on them. She thus becomes a symbol more than a real person. Especially when she is naked at the end, and some outsiders see her and some do not.

This work does not urge me to seek further Morrison. I must work too hard to understand what is going on. Which is deliberate, as I said, for the Foreword states: “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”

This is a valid purpose. And the work is beautifully written. But the approach makes it difficult to identify with the characters, as the author both moves from one character to another and moves back and forth in time. This is another case in which the events are not told sequentially. Often this is to hide the lack of a dramatic cause and effect, but here it is also because Morrison is emphasizing the significance of the events rather than the events themselves, and the repercussions of the events rather than their causes.

I can understand why Morrison is thought of so highly. Her message, her portrait of where today’s black society came from, is important. And perhaps requiring the reader to dig for that portrait and its repercussions is a valid means to impress that history on the white reader. But I for one would rather have been so immersed in the fate of these characters—instead of having to figure them out—that the same message would have been implanted in my emotions as much as in my mind. Which, I suggest, is the more traditional literary approach. And one that I am more comfortable with.

I regret my reaction to this work. I am still a conservative in literary terms, however, even if I am liberal in social and political terms. (June, 2015)

Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks

While Banks is one of my favorite authors, I had put off reading this 1998 novel. Who wants to read about John Brown and his violent end? Who wants to relive that history? But I finally picked up this novel, perhaps out of a sense of dedication to Banks, and I was immediately hooked.

Because the work begins with a point of view!

Now, Banks makes clear before the reader begins this work that he has written a novel, not history. So the point of view is that of the narrator created by Banks, which is Owen Brown, one of John Brown’s sons. Owen narrates this story, he says, because he is old and near death, and because he wants the truth to be finally told about his father.

The first truth the narrator establishes is Brown’s commitment to religion, and to the Protestant Bible. Which re-enforces his commitment to honesty, which, in turn, is re-enforced by his strict discipline. The second truth is his blend of ambition and economic incompetence, as both Banks and the narrator seek to firm up the complexity of Brown’s personal, social, and religious convictions.

Frustratingly for Brown, he is too poor to devote all his time to ending slavery. He must first support his family of thirteen. Which leads him into land speculation, at which he is a complete failure and ends deeply in debt. And yet this sympathetic man, who loves his family, and is kind when dealing with others, will completely lose his temper when he feels victimized.

To implement his business ventures, Brown moves from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Massachusetts, a loving but desperate father. Finally, he is given the job of training city Negroes to become farmers; and his two missions come together. This sends him to the Adirondack Mountains, and there is a marvelous description of a long uphill trek with his family and their animals through rain and snow into their new home.

Once in the Adirondacks, Owen moves the emphasis from narrative movement to character, to Brown’s commitment to the Negroes. We see the father’s good heart, with little reference to the violence to come. Meanwhile, Owen reveals a little of himself. Such as what he sees as his weaknesses: that, unlike his father, he has difficulty in seeing black people as human beings, the same as him, and, even more, a difficulty in regarding women as human beings, rather than mysterious persons of the opposite sex. And he also notes that, unlike his father, he does not believe in God.

Which raises a question. Why is Owen the narrator? At first blush, it legitimizes Brown’s portrait by offering a contrast in character. Indeed, after Brown transports one black couple on the Underground Railroad, he thanks Owen for making him aware that he should not kill a bounty hunter. Which is followed by Brown himself defending accusations by the locals against his helping the Negroes. He gives a lengthy church sermon in which he compares himself to a Job who refuses to deny God, despite the evils imposed on him. He will endure, like Faulkner’s Dilsey does.

Gradually, Banks introduces the potential for violence. Brown and his son rescue the newly arrested black couple, and in the process two white men are wounded and a Negro killed. Mercy and justice have their price. Then, Brown and Owen stop in Boston on the way to sell wool in England, and a resentful Owen is beaten by anti-abolitionists he challenges.

But he has acted on his own, and a change comes over him. Then, on the boat to Liverpool, he encounters a girl in despair, and their brief but fascinating conversation awakens him further to his potential, to being independent from his father, even as he continues to believe in him and to support him. And when the father’s strategy to auction his wool in England fails, Owen convinces him to forget his efforts to recoup his wealth and to concentrate instead on his life ambition of freeing the slaves.

The Fugitive Slave Act upset many abolitionists, because any Negro could be arrested and sent South on suspicion of having escaped its owner. Owen (or is it Banks?) speculates that this is what turned his family more radical, more violent, convincing it that it needed to be more active, to stay ahead of the abolitionist curve. Which suggests a rationalization. In any event, Brown sends Owen back to the Adirondacks to run his farm, which is now disorganized.

Owen manages the farm well enough, but then becomes involved with the wife of his father’s black aide, Lyman Epps, a development that is initially not convincing. For it seems to set the stage for some later melodrama. But when Brown, the father, arrives on the scene, he takes over, and the melodrama does not develop. I should have known Banks better.

Instead, there is a dramatic development in a cave that plumbs Owen’s own sense of guilt and sets him on a violent path. Sent to Ohio to forget that guilt, he encounters his brother Fred who, out of his own guilt, commits further violence, this time on himself. With such violence in the family, Owen turns his path west, toward Kansas, where that new territory is a battleground between abolitionists and slave-holders.

Eventually, Brown, the father, also arrives, and the family begins to confront the anti-abolitionists, the Border Ruffians. While the father plans in the name of God, it is Owen who instigates the actual violence, leading their forces through a drunken enemy army and later shooting an enemy sheriff. But his father decides they need to instigate true terror, to show the enemy they mean business. Which Owen, now a changed man, endorses, and leads.

The result is a massacre of five pro-slavery men in Kansas. It is Brown’s conviction that they are about the Lord’s business, while Owen convinces himself that it is to save the Union. That otherwise, the pro-slavery forces will take over Kansas, and their representatives will tip the political balance in Washington to the South, resulting in the North seceding from the Union, the nation split in two, and slavery made permanent.

Yet even as Owen rationalizes the murders as political acts, he compares it to the death he caused in the Adirondacks. He realizes that he intended that death to happen but for it to resemble an accident, and that he later convinced himself that it was. He will also say, in a casual but provocative passage, that the reason he felt love for the Negro’s wife was in order not to love the Negro himself. And since he remains unmarried, we do wonder about his relationship to the Negro cause.

Owen also here addresses his father’s fictional biographer (and the reader), seemingly to emphasize the politics behind the Kansas massacre, and at the same time to explain that his interest here is the internal story of the Browns, not the historic record of the uprising they fomented among the abolitionists in order to preserve Kansas as a free state for the Negroes.

It now becomes clear why Banks wrote this book, through a further rationalizing by Owen, who concludes that because of him the Civil War was fought and the Union saved. This has happened because Owen first went to the Adirondacks to implement the Underground Railroad, then is sent by his father to Ohio, from which, on a whim, he goes to his brothers in Kansas —where his father follows and exerts Biblical authority to free the slaves but where it is Owen who actually leads the family troupe into battle. Therefore, but for Owen, the Union would have dissolved and Negroes remained slaves.

This is a huge conceit on which to build this novel. But it works. And justifies the novel‘s 700+ pages. For this is the personal story. This is where the truth lies, says Banks. Not on the historic record. Of course, I am not the historian to know how much is historically accurate here, and how much Banks has imagined this personal story to substantiate his thesis. Is Owen truly the terrorist behind his father’s violence?

Before the climactic battle at Harper’s Ferry, Banks obviously wants to establish the theme, the meaning, of this novel. With a quote by Owen, he establishes the dual perspective of father and son: “Father’s God-fearing typological vision of the events that surrounded us then was not so different from mine. My vision may have been secular and his Biblical, but neither was materialistic.” That is, both held to the ideal of eliminating slavery.

But son Owen is clearly the main character, and it is his confession we are reading. He has earlier said that one reason he is making the confession is to free the dead from the purgatory he has sent them to by fomenting the violence of their rebellion. In researching his records fifty years later, he has now encountered an old pistol, and he says that after he has completed his confession, “I will, at last, have no longer a reason to live. I will be ready to become a ghost myself, so as to replace in purgatory the long-suffering ghosts this confession has been designed expressly to release.”

And then begins the attack on Harpers Ferry. It has been carefully planned, and seems to begin perfectly, as Brown’s forces occupy the arsenal, the armory, and the rifle factory. But what does not happen is the expected rising up of the Negroes in the area to join forces with the 15 whites and 5 Negroes on the assault. Meanwhile, Southern re-enforcements are heading to Harper’s Ferry from three directions—tragedy advancing from the wings.

Banks ends his long novel on the right note. After Owen imagines the initial assault on Harpers Ferry that he had overheard, he and the author take us back to a climactic meeting in which Frederick Douglass refuses to support Brown’s plea for Negroes to revolt and join the 20-man raiding force.

Owen then climbs the tallest tree, from where he witnesses the arrival of Southern forces, and watches them gradually kill or capture all of Brown’s men. What is less clear is how Owen escapes from that tree. For he is suddenly spotted, and, with bullets striking all around him, he falls to the ground. But apparently the Southerners have been firing from the town, not from beneath his tree, and so when he falls he falls into darkness, picks himself up, and escapes.

The novel also closes with Owen’s speculation of whether he will actually join his father in death these 50 years later, now that his confession is complete. Or whether there is no light, nothing, after death. That his father’s Biblical belief and exhortations were in vain

To sum up, this is not an unusual subject for Banks. Many of his novels have included life not only in upper New York State but also in the South, in the Caribbean, and even in Africa. And it is the relationships between the black and white races that are often the key in those stories. Moreover, Banks himself is from New York State, where John Brown had his base and is buried, and from where he led his assault on the evils of slavery.

The title, Cloudsplitter, also comes from this area. It is a translation of the Indian name for a local mountain, and is turned into a symbol of John Brown himself. For just as the mountain breaks through the clouds, so John Brown broke through the social norms of his era, first by espousing the anti-slavery movement and then by resorting to violence to enforce his reform.

This novel is about history, yes, but it is also about fathers and sons, idealism and reality, clear consciences and guilt, retribution and justice, ends and means, goodness and evil, the devil and God, man’s fate and man’s hopes, and about eternity and an empty future. It is about absolutism, loss, obsession, and about violence as a tool of justice and self-righteousness.

I now read that little is known about the real Owen, making him the ideal person to tell this story, a character that Banks can flesh out to achieve his purpose. Owen loves his father but resents him, believes in him in one moment then steps away, resists his plans then embraces them, claims he wishes to tell his father’s true story but always has himself at center stage, and ranges from a man of action in his youth to a philosopher in old age.

This is a great novel. It is about 19th century America before the Civil War. It is about a family of that era. It is about secular politics against a backdrop of religious zealotry. It is a blend of history and philosophy and human emotions. It is a work of literature whose subject exists on an immense scale, and yet is recreated on a human scale.

I have not read such an important novel as this in many, many years. And to think I almost did not pick it up. (June, 2015)

The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth

This fascinating novel is a powerful sequel to Sacred Hunger, which had earlier won the Booker Prize. It is not necessary to have read that earlier novel to appreciate this 2011 novel, but it does help one to understand the depths of this work if one has done so.

And by that I mean the depths of the main character, Erasmus Kemp, who was the single-minded villain of that first novel, as he pursued and saw killed his first cousin, Matthew Paris, for what he considered acts of piracy and mutiny, but which his cousin and the reader saw as acts of mercy. Namely, taking over a slave ship owned by Kemp’s father, a ship whose captain had ordered sick slaves to be thrown overboard to their death.

I had objected to the portrayal of Kemp at the end of Sacred Hunger, for it evoked a note of self-awareness in this cruel villain that I felt the author had not prepared me for. But now I believe this self-awareness was always there, because Unsworth has made Kemp not only the main character of this novel but also even more aware of what he, Kemp, might term as shortcomings but which the reader sees as a reluctant identification with these men he considers his inferiors.

This sensitivity arises when he confronts Michael Sullivan, one of the crewmen from Sacred Hunger, who was involved in what Kemp called mutiny and piracy; and again, when a poor youth, the miner Michael Borden, sees through what Kemp calls a generous offer for a piece of land the youth owns. Indeed, even the woman Kemp loves, Jane Ashton, detects a latent compassion in him that she believes she can develop if she marries him.

Kemp thus develops into a complex figure. He wants to play a major role in developing British industry—to his own advantage, of course, but also, he claims, to that of the workers and his country. And his single-mindedness remains, meaning he will do this by fair means or foul. Even love-fixed Jane is transfixed by this determination, while less fixed on the means he will use.

It would seem that the author wishes his title, The Quality of Mercy, to apply to Kemp. For it is mercy he shows to both Sullivan and Borden, when he unexpectedly acknowledges their needs. And this response, I suggest, shows that Unsworth wants his reader to extend such mercy to Kemp as well. In fact, he also may be suggesting that this kind of determined but compassionate industrial leader is what this small island relied on to reach its greatness.

On the other hand, and I nearly missed this, the greatest quality of mercy Unsworth seems to show here is toward the slaves themselves. But to me that is less interesting. Because it is so obious. Whereas to apply it to Kemp adds a complexity to his character that enriches this work as literature. I would note that John Vernon in his New York Times review preferred that the author had kept Kemp’s character more simple. He writes, “Kemp was perfect—a tortured monster of obsessiveness.” I obviously disagree.

There are really four stories here at the start of the novel, each one so interesting that we move quite willingly from one to the other. Indeed, I was so confident in the author’s professionalism that I knew eventually these four stories would come together. The first story is that of Sullivan, the crew member who joined in the mutiny, was caught and transported back to England in chains, and then fortuitously escapes from prison and becomes determined to travel north into Durham coal country in order to inform the family of a shipboard colleague that their son has died.

The second story is that of the Borden family in Durham. John the father and his three sons, especially Michael, are fated to work in the mines but dream of escaping that harsh world. The third story is that of Frederick Ashton and his sister Jane, the brother being an active abolitionist determined to abolish slavery in all of England. And the final story, of course, is that of Erasmus Kemp, who brings these stories together, first by suing to receive compensation for the drowned slaves on his father’s lost ship, and then by both his pursuit of Jane and his effort to purchase and modernize the coal mine up north in which the Borden family works.

The reader easily identifies with Sullivan, Michael Borden, and Frederick and Jane Ashton. These are all good people. And Kemp’s interaction with each of them earns him the reader’s respect for a certain integrity, even if not their full sympathy. Indeed, one can detect both sympathy and fascination on the part of the author for this character he has created, so much so that one can foresee still another sequel, this one based on the tension that has been set up between Kemp and Jane Ashton, as she tries to instill in him a greater awareness of the needs of the working poor.

Despite it’s title, the underlying theme of this novel is the rights of property. First, are slaves property? That is what Sacred Hunger was about, and that is what Frederick Ashton is all about. That they are not. And it is also about the workers in the Durham mines. Are they, in effect, the property of the mine owners, since they have no say in the terms of their duties, their wages, their working conditions, or their future lives.

On the other hand, one critic says this is a novel about justice. And this is valid, for the administration of justice revolves around two key trials that are depicted toward the end. But these trials do depend on property rights, and this is the immediate theme that drives Unsworth’ novel, under the overall literary theme of justice.

Unsworth manages to resolve these property issues to a large degree, enough to bring a legitimate resolution to this novel, even if some of its ramifications are left open-ended. Which, as I said, does leave the door open to another sequel. Not that I would require one, but I would certainly read it, for Unsworh has the enviable talent of being able to explore moral and social issues from a richly created past. In the meantime, I will happily search out his other highly praised novels. (January, 2015)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

I have not read this 1880 novel for more than 60 years. Why return to it? Because I wanted to evaluate it from the literary perspective I have today. It is still a masterpiece, of course, but I now realize that the key to the novel lies in its initial words:

“Notice. Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Because, of course, this work is filled with a motive, a moral, and a plot. In fact, these factors reveal the purpose of the novel. Its motive is to contrast the good of following one’s conscience with the usual, and accepted,, behavior of society. Its moral is to reveal the hypocrisy of saying or believing one thing and doing another. And its plot is to entertain us while exposing us to the human contradictions in all of us.

Twain addresses most of these contradictions through the issue of slavery. But he also explores other varieties of human deceit: when Huck disguises himself as a girl, when Huck convinces Jim their separation was just a dream, when a family feud rises between two families whose individuals do not hate each other, when confidence men pretend to be royalty and then swindle their victims, and even when Huck pretends to be Tom. With each scene, Twain is playing with the contradictions between belief and reality, and between subjective morality and objective morality.

Many critics, including Hemingway, have objected to the final scenes with Tom Sawyer. And I did as well more than 60 years ago. But now I see those pages in a different light. I see them as a continuation of the contrast between what men choose to do and what men should do. In this case, Twain is in a way following Cervantes. He has Tom at the final rescue of Jim invoking, as his guidelines in the real world, not the rules of chivalry but the rules of the classic romances of literature. The novel’s conclusion thus continues the false reality theme which powers a major portion of the novel. And so Tom’s own false reality at the end belongs.

Now, I will grant that Twain exaggerates this false pretense of how to save Jim from his prison. If you accept the premise, however, the methods that Tom espouses are appropriate to free Jim. But I would argue that Twain does overdo it when Tom insists that Jim endure the rats, snakes, and spiders of those classic imprisonments.

However, Twain turns the tables on the reader (spoiler alert) when he explains why all of Tom’s exaggerated “rules” of escape were unnecessary. That is, in the real world. But not, still, of course, in Tom’s world.

The major impact of this book comes from its indictment of slavery. Even if its major purpose is an indictment of human hypocrisy. But the latter results in a misreading by those who would ban this book. Because the characters seek to justify their evil deeds, the banners do not see the evil being exposed. Because they do not see the irony Twain is using. (I have long been taught, by the way, and still believe, that all human beings act based on what they think is [for them] good.)

And the perception of evil is compounded by the word “nigger.” Except, that word belongs to this style that is vernacular, as well as to this era and to this region of the country. Actually, I think the word becomes an excuse for what those who would ban this book sense to be a refutation of their standard of morality. Thus, they can ignore that the novel is really a refutation of their own human hypocrisy.

And Twain’s theme begins, indeed, on the very first page of this novel, when Tom tells Huck he is going to form a gang of robbers, and invites Huck to join. Whereupon, his plans do not succeed because, in his secret cave, Tom reveals arbitrary rules for robbing, rules that precisely foreshadow what will later become his rules for rescuing Jim.

Huck also has discussions about Providence and the need to be good, not bad, in this life in order to enter heaven. Which introduces the theme of good and evil that will trouble Huck’s in his adventures along the river—for it will raise doubts about what is actually good and what is actually evil. And then the idea of witchcraft and superstition enters, complicating the issue and one’s own responsibility for one’s actions.

From the start, Twain sets up his treatment of hypocrisy and deceit. It begins with the trick Huck uses when he flees his cruel father. That is, Huck kills a pig and leaves a trail of blood to the river, thus leading people to think his dead body has been swept away. And it is Huck’s belief that Tom would admire this subterfuge.

As Huck’s adventures begin, Twain dramatizes Huck’s desire to flee civilization and its artificial constraints, a desire he repeats in the book’s final line. These adventures begin when Huck encounters the nigger Jim, also in flight because he fears he is going to be sold down-river. Slowly, Twain lets Huck and the reader see the human side of Jim, which makes the “civil” treatment of slaves all the more inhuman.

The amusing chapter in which Huck pretends to be a girl offers another variation on the theme of pretense and reality. Which continues when Huck tells an elaborate lie to get a boatman to go upriver and rescue bad men caught in a shipwreck. And follows in an amusing discussion in which Jim misses the point of the story of Solomon in the Bible, with Huck defending the customary rationale.

Next, Huck and Jim get dramatically separated in a fog, whereupon, when they reunite, Huck tells Jim it was all a dream. Which Jim accepts until reality sets in—that theme again. And when Jim reveals how distraught he was in thinking Huck was lost, then Huck  begins to accept the humanity of Jim. Indeed, Huck later tells another lie, this time to save Jim, saying that the man on his raft (Jim) has smallpox in order to drive away men looking for runaway slaves.

Huck and Jim are separated again when a steamboat rams their raft and they dive overboard. Huck is taken in by the middle-class Grangefords, who are dueling with the Shepherdsons—still another example of adhering (as Tom does) to the false protocols of the past.

Finally, Huck and Jim rescue two men who turn out to be confidence men, the duke and the Dauphin (the king). These two decide to create their own misshapen theatrical drama based on the classics, a drama to entice an audience who thinks it is getting the real classics.

In their final deceit, the confidence men pretend to be the brothers of Peter Wilks, a rich man who has just died. But Huck’s conscience is troubled by his collaborating with these men to cheat the Wilks girls of their inheritance. Then the true Wilks heirs show up, and all plans are foiled, both Huck’s and the duke’s and the king’s. Whereupon, the final adventure, of rescuing Jim, begins. And it begins with the lie of Huck pretending to be Tom Sawyer, since Tom’s Aunt Sally expects Tom’s arrival.

I go through these details of lies, mistaken identity, and deceit to suggest how perfectly planned this novel is. That even the artifice of the final rescue of Jim is not actually out of tune with the more serious travels down the river. And, in retrospect, even those adventures were not themselves that serious; they were filled with humor and lies and artifice as well.

Finally, what is remarkable to me is the various duels Huck has with his own conscience. They basically concern his helping the slave Jim escape, but they also involve supporting the confidence men and stealing money to get the girls their true inheritance. Twain has Huck thinking that he has been trained/educated in a certain way—that slavery is valid, that the adult world’s rules should be followed, etc—but that in specific situations he senses that such principles are wrong, that they lead to injustice. So he decides he must be “bad,” even if it means he will not go to heaven, in order to do right by people on earth. And it is this ironic exposure of hypocrisy that troubles many readers.

This reading prompts me to go back one day to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and perhaps to the two subsequent books about Huck. I do not expect them to be great masterpieces, such as this work is, but it might be interesting to read how the story of Huck evolved in Twain’s mind. (March 2014)

Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth

Again, a book sat on the shelf for a long time, and I kept avoiding it. Because it is about the terrors of a slave ship, the horror of kidnapping the blacks of Africa and transporting them for profit to the West Indies. Who wants to read that? Who wants to know the details of that brutal voyage?

But, surprise, surprise, that is not what this 1992 novel is about. It is about greed, the drive for profit, the sacred hunger of the title. Yes, there are the details of the brutality on board a slave ship, but it comprises only a quarter to a third of this book. The rest is about two cousins, Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris. Erasmus hates Matthew because when a boy Matthew picked him up and carried him away from a miniature dam he was building. Erasmus didn’t understand that Matthew was saving him from being swamped by a surge of water, just as he does not understand others as a grown man—beginning with Sarah, to whom he proposes and imperiously assumes her consent.

As the real story starts, Matthew has been unjustly disgraced; he has written “blasphemies,” such as supporting Darwin. And he has lost his wife, for whose death he blames himself. So, to escape a sense of guilt, he signs on to a slave ship, Liverpool Merchant, leaving England, a ship that is owned by his uncle, Erasmus’ father. The captain of the ship, Thurso, is a brutal taskmaster and a vital character in his every scene. Resenting Matthew’s relation to the owner, he makes his shipboard life doubly hard.

The heart of this book is the contrasting portraits of Erasmus and Matthew. Erasmus is full of himself, distorts every motivation to his own benefit, and is blind to reality. The reader recognizes this from his early dealings with Sarah. But while she sees through him, others do not. And Matthew, who has not dealt with him for years, does not realize that Erasmus still remembers their affair on the beach, and is intent on revenge. And, indeed, Erasmus sees the perfect opportunity when he learns of the fate of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant; he will see that Matthew is hanged for mutiny and murder.

Meanwhile, we have followed Matthew aboard the ship. As a doctor, he cares equally for the crew and the slaves below deck. Through his journal, we come to understand he is a just man, not worthy of Erasmus’ resentment. This pursuit of justice culminates with a small community he helps build on the shore at Florida following the sinking of the slave ship. It is a community of equals, whether white survivors from the crew or the black slaves. Together, they live under a fair administration of justice, including the sharing of women by the men who far outnumber them. It is a community that lasts a decade, with no awareness of Erasmus and the English justice waiting in the wings.

These are the story details, but more significant is this portrait of mercantile life in the 1750s and 1760s. The priorities, the selfish motivations, the duel between fairness vs. justice, the cutthroat dealings, the physical brutality, the greed, the role of influence, etc.—all enrich that portrait. And on a more practical level, this novel puts the reader in bars and whorehouses as a crew is “recruited” by force, then on the deck of a rolling ship in the Atlantic as cruelties abound in the name of discipline, then below in the filthy hold with the slaves, and, finally, prowling the jungles of Africa and, later, Florida.

Unsworth himself commented on the choice of his theme in a 1992 interview. “It was impossible to live in the [19] Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it [then] are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and the throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term ‘wealth creation’ deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.”

And not to be overlooked is the large cast of believable characters that populated that life of greed, ranging from English capitalists to angry sailors to despairing slaves. Some live for the moment, some for the long term. Some think only of themselves, some of others. Some are brave and confident, some afraid. Some relate to others and learn how to survive, some do not. Some seek to dominate, some to get along, and some to help the unfortunate. Each one is distinctive, and alive on these pages.

The finale of the novel is written to be inevitable, given the violence of those distant times. And the final confrontation between Erasmus and Matthew does work. But the fate of Matthew, for me, does not. It reflects too much an author’s choice, an author’s denial of the justice he has created, an author’s attempt to create for the reader a “justice” he can be comfortable with. In addition, Unsworth shows Erasmus reaching a self-understanding at the end that seems too brief, too tidy. and is barely credible.

A review in the Manchester Guardian sums up the novel’s qualities.  “It’s a cracking adventure story. It isn’t pleasant – slavery is a disgusting business – but there are rewards. The story moves at a smart pace, the cast is huge and colorful, and there’s enough detail to make us feel we are breathing in the salt air, the scent of the ship’s timbers and the claustrophobic stink of the slave’s quarters – but not so much that it smells of the lamp. Above all, there is fine writing. As with the period details, Unsworth’s prose has enough 18th-century inflections to create the right mood, but not so many that it feels laboured.”

This work has to be the highlight of Unsworth’s literary career. It has breadth, it has power, and it has strong emotions. One marvels at the research into that era’s shipboard life, the inhuman treatment of the enslaved, the primitive level of medicine, and the daily environment of that distant era.

I need to catch up on more of Unsworth’s work. It has the broad vision I seek, and yet a concern for individual souls. There is a philosophy of life, a sense of humanity, that underlies the surface action. (April, 2013)