Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

"King David" by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1878, included in Rodman The Keeper Southern Sketches)

Homepage of The Constance  Fenimore Woolson Society

The woman's face baffled me, and I do not like to be baffled. It was a face that was old and at the same time young; it had deep lines, it was colorless, and the heavy hair was gray; and still I felt that it was not old in years, but that it was like the peaches we find sometimes on the ground, old, wrinkled, and withered, yet showing here and there traces of that evanescent bloom which comes before the ripeness. The eyes haunted me; they haunt me now, the dry, still eyes of immovable, hopeless grief. an excellent biographical sketch and a list of her works that can be found online

Homepage of Anne Boyd Rioux

Constance Fenimore Woolson was considered, as I learned from my reading of the marvelous biography Constance Fenimore Woolson Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux, one of the first and perhaps the greatest literary chroniclers of the life of the defeated States after the America Civil War (1861 to 1865), especially that of the plantation owning aristocrats.  Aristocrats of a defeated culture seem to have a universal literary appeal.   For example, Japanese literature and cinema is replete with stories about the Samuri.  There is no more romantic literary figure than a White Russian Count living in exile in Paris.  Likewise the old "planter caste" was subject to heavy literary romantic treatment, maybe flowering in Gone with the Wind.  In the movie, 1939, based on the book Southerns of the richer classes felt because they were "Gentlemen" they could naturally outfight barbaric Yankee Northerns.  The defeat was a very bitter dose of reality to swallow.  The American North was seen as industrialized, devoid of old culture.  The South was seen as agrarian, with leaders educated in the classics.   

One very huge social problem faced after the Civil War was the basic survival of millions of freed slaves, few were at all literate or had any conception of life outside of being a slave.  They were also given the right to vote so, compressing a lot of history, venal politicians and businessmen, know as "Carpert Baggers", began to court their votes with absurd promises.  On the other hand, well meaning people, often with the backing of Northern churches, began to set up schools to educate the freed slaves.  "King David" is the story of David King, a young idealistic Northern man's efforts to teach at such a school.  

The teacher had a very hard task.  He also has to overcome his own prejudices and he strains to see ex-slaves as intellectually on a par with whites.  Woolson in her depiction of the freed slaves allows us to see the difficulty the slaves have of relating to tne teacher.  They by habit call all white men "Master" and this upsets David.  We see the very real challenge in teaching the ex-slaves.  I wondered as I read this how this story would go over taught in a environment  of extreme political correctness. David meets a firmer planter who obviously hates him as fool come down to turn the ex-slaves against their former masters.  According to my quick research, huge numbers of slaves did starve to death while many remained on the plantations, loyal to their old masters.  We also meet a very nasty business man who begins to sell alcohol to the ex-slaves.  In one very poignant paragraph Woolson presents to us the impact of this on the beaten faces of the women, now often forced to support their children alone.  

The story teaches us a lot in a few pages about life in the American South right after the war.  There is a risk in using non standard speech for the ex-slaves but I think Woolson succeeds beautifully.

The conclusion of the story, which I will leave untold, is very moving.  

I will next read her "In the Cotton Country".

Mel u

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