Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

The Chinaberry Tree by Jessie Redmon Fauset

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This is an article I wrote for Patsy Moore's zine THE BOHEMIAN AESTHETIC around 2005.

  1. The Chinaberry Tree; Jessie Redmon Fauset, 1931

I can remember being a student in Manhattan in the 1980s, having high falutin’ discussions with a colleague, an old salt of a voracious reader, a literary bloodhound who thought that anything worth reading had to be difficult reading – he opined that if a novel was compulsively readable, a page turner, it wasn’t literature.  Literature is something that makes you work, something that isn’t easy.  I wryly remembered these discussions in my mind’s eye as I turned the pages of The Chinaberry Tree, the third of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s four novels.  This book is a vital refutation of my old friend’s belief!  Carefully plotted, cunningly thought out, well constructed, the novel powers along, driven by a forceful narrative engine.  It’s a model of the sort of aesthetic of literature Lajos Egri put forward in The Structure of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives.  We can’t wait to see what happens next. 
That’s a great reason to enjoy a novel, but Fauset provides us with another.  She’s a master of understatement, like Miles Davis on the trumpet.  The characters in the novel all veritably sizzle with  broiling, perfervid emotions but the author has such a light, elegant touch – such a knack for nuance – that the full impact doesn’t come till much later, upon reflection and introspection.  The author’s patience and maturity in delivering such a story is quite venerable – many authors would give in to the temptation to fly off the prose handle with this kind of subject matter.  As I read I often thought of a contemporary of Fauset’s who dealt with similarly dark themes, Robinson Jeffers, and his brand of flash and rhetoric, in every way almost the complete opposite of Fauset.  What a contrast!

As an object of study and research this novel I think is best approached from three different angles.  We can look at it as a storytelling model, an attempt to build a kind of modern day Greek tragedy; we can look at it in the context of Fauset’s place in the Harlem Renaissance; and we can look at what it has to say thematically in terms of racism.
Sal Strange is a wealthy, black, female homeowner in the town of Red Brook, New Jersey, a Philadelphia suburb.  She had a scandalous affair with a wealthy white manufacturer, Colonel Halloway, who left her a wonderful house and grounds, as well as financial provisions for life, in his will.  The garden is dominated by a huge Chinaberry tree.  The tree is a symbol of solace and peace of mind, as well as sexual expression – throughout the story various characters love to sit under it, sometimes in secret.  Sal’s daughter by Halloway, Laurentine, is a beautiful, quiet girl who becomes an expert dressmaker much sought after for her services by all ladies of the town, black and white alike.  Laurentine is romanced by Phil Hackett, the son of the man who owns an establishment with a poolroom upstairs for whites and one for blacks downstairs.  Sal’s sister Judy comes in for a time from Alabama and is seen around town with Forten, a married gentleman who like to hang around Hackett’s.  Judy leaves after the briefest of visits.  Years later she sends her daughter, Melissa, to live with Sal and Laurentine.  (We’re never really told why, but by the end we can deduce for ourselves – she’s run off to have another wild affair someplace and cannot stand to have the child with her.)

Almost immediately there is talk of “bad blood” and “the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children”, in the manner of Ibsen’s Ghosts.  Much, much later, two thirds of the way into the book, when the reader finally begins to get the full impact of what is really going on, Fauset uses a symbolic master stroke to leave little hints around the edges – she has Malory, Melissa’s boyfriend, quote first from Hardy and then, later, from Rosetti – two tragic European authors who placed a good deal of credence in fate, in the inevitable, in destiny.  Their appearance here is meant to increase our awareness of the point that the characters we are reading about are caught up in a fatalistic entanglement.  (As is the use of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy in a recurring dream that one of the principals has.)  Fauset also makes use of a wide array of characters to function as kind of Greek chorus to comment upon the action; although the story is mainly told from the POV of Laurentine and Melissa, there are well over ten characters whose POV the author uses at one time or another.  And there are numerous plot points that are very well positioned to keep the story chugging along, major revelations which provide characters with more and more motives for their behavior.  It’s not easy to talk about the plot and story line without giving too much away, but it’s appropriate to say this much – although there is great tragedy here, there is also hope.  The ending is not necessarily pessimistic.  Fauset seems to be saying that life is indeed beautiful if we can get through the storms.  In the end Laurentine and Melissa – both of whom are scarred by two different taboo situations in their lives – are united with men who are good for them, who have their sincere best interests at heart.  I think it’s fair to conclude that Fauset’s belief in tragedy and tragic circumstances was as strong as that of Shakespeare or Sophocles, but also that she believed that tragic circumstances can be surmounted and even produce a kind of triumph in persons of strong resolve. 
On the website I found the following quote about Fauset:
            Miss Fauset found strong opposition among publishers for her first
            novel.  It did not contain stereotypical characters and plots they thought
            would sell a book dealing with the lives of blacks.  There were no
            descriptions of Harlem bars or cabarets, no fights or race riots, and no
            abject poverty.  She was determined to feature another picture – that of
            a black middle class of which she was a part.

            This observation is about her novel called There Is Confusion, but it applies to The Chinaberry Tree equally as well.  Except for the obvious exception of mixed race love affairs, the issue of racism doesn’t really come up until page 312 of a 341 page book.  There, on a trip to the city, Laurentine and her suitor Doctor Denleigh encounter a racist waiter in a restaurant.
            The same site mentioned above says of Fauset that she “did not possess the characteristics generally associated with the Harlem Renaissance: she was older, reserved in demeanor, meaningfully employed (she was a teacher of languages) and her lifestyle was not bohemian in nature.”  The picture that emerges is very clear – she was intensely interested in writing fiction about extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people.  She was interested in presenting middle class black life as essentially not all that different from middle class white life.  As the site says. “Prior to her novels, the black middle class milieu was not a subject that was recreated in novels.” 
            So what does Fauset have to say about racial matters?  I believe the sentiments expressed by Denleigh to Laurentine in the following passage may be a summation of her actual views:
                        She could feel herself growing pale but she said steadily, “I don’t
                        believe you really know me after all Stephen.  I’m just – nobody, not only
                        illegitimate, Stephen, but the child of a connection all America frowns on.
                        I’m literally fatherless."
                        He frowned, his face almost as pale as her own.  “What bosh to talk to a
                        physician!  Biology transcends society!  Is that over your head darling?
I mean to say the facts of life, birth, and death are more important than the rules of living, marriage, law, the sanction of the church or of man.”

Of course, we would have to say that any reasonable person would take Denleigh’s point of view on this subject, but the fact is that almost no one, black or white, other than Denleigh himself, takes it for vast stretches of the novel – although, obviously, Colonel Halloway did, acting from beyond the grave to weigh in with his opinion on the matter.  (It’s worth noting that Halloway bequeathed a percentage of his factory’s profits to Sal Strange every month and that, as a result, his wife deliberately tries to mismanage the business so that the overall profits, and thus Sal’s share of them, are smaller.)  In fact everyone who is able to lift themselves above social convention – Denleigh, Sal, Melissa’s initial suitor Asshur Lane – is actualized, happy, and healthy while those who do not – Melissa, Laurentine, the punk Harry Robbins, the old gossips in the town – are petty, vindictive, and miserable.  I think it’s fair to say for Fauset that to become a human being, and not a black or white one, is what we should be striving for; and that the pettiness of racism is something that serious people have no time for.  I also think that at times Fauset’s outlook calls for a little more patience and understanding than a good many people on all sides of the question are willing to exercise, and we’re all perhaps the worse for that.
            The Chinaberry Tree has great value for us today for us today for many reasons. The first of these is that it’s an example of what a writer can put together when they work at fiction as a craft, as something that arises out of definite, identifiable principles of artistic construction.  Second, it’s historically important because it represents the work of an author who was totally unique for her time – nobody was doing what Fauset was or writing about the people about whom she elected to write.  Third, it takes themes which have been more or less accepted as Archetypes of the human experience and works them in the context of a definite group of people at a fixed point in history, thus further validating the universal.  I’ve deliberately chosen not to talk about the plot in any great specificity because in this case it is obvious that knowing too much about it would detract from the reading experience.  But let’s be clear: this is a page turner that you will race through once, then go back and read a second time to savor the author’s great grace and wisdom. 

1 comment:

  1. In this paper I’ll propose that the mind of Albert Corde in Saul Bellow’s 1982 novel The Dean’s December functions in complete harmony with this Jamesian dichotomy and that Corde automatically, reflexively assesses the more than thirty characters he interacts with in the novel as belonging to one category or the other. In deference to manageability I’ll not select every single character but, rather, just thirteen. Some of these are minor and some more important. Of these thirteen five (other than Corde himself) are of critical importance to the overall arc of the novel – Minna, Mason Zaehner Sr.