Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

I was raised Southern Baptist, in rural Arkansas. I was never a very good Southern Baptist; I expressed skepticism about the Trinity at five and shortly thereafter announced that I would not go to Heaven unless I were guaranteed a steady stream of reading material. I also once described the Three Wise Men as “sexy,” which got me in serious trouble with the Sunday School teacher. In middle school, I went through a devout phase in which I read the Bible in its entirety twice, hoping for an epiphany that did not come. By the time I was in high school, I was referring to myself as an “omnist,” a word which I believe I made up to indicate my belief that all religions were a little bit right (in this I anticipated The Good Place); by the time I was in grad school I had joined a Unitarian church solely so I would not have to describe myself as a Baptist. I’ve been happily Jewish now for nearly half my life.

That is the context in which I read Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. I have spent my entire life baffled by religious fundamentalism. How can people like my parents — whom I know to be intelligent and sincere — believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and believe in it so strongly that their belief has become the bedrock of their existence? How is it that they stand in front of me, clearly cherry-picking which bits are to be taken literally and which bits should be interpreted or ignored, insisting in all seriousness that they would never do such a thing? I have read so many books on modern evangelical Christianity, and none of them have unlocked this puzzle for me.

Jesus and John Wayne did not, I fear, come any closer to explaining this phenomenon to me. But it is a good book, with useful things to say, and I recommend it as a book on modern fundamentalism, not the book. I think Kristin Kobes Du Mez is entirely correct about the appeal of the tough, scrappy Donald Trump to evangelicals. Her thesis — that “understanding the catalyzing role militant Christian masculinity has played over the past half century is critical to understanding American evangelicalism today, and the nation’s fractured political landscape” — is well-argued and completely valid, as far as it goes. She gets a lot right here — I recognize my parents and my high school classmates in her description of the evangelical community’s steady march to the right. (My parents, for example, have moved far right on abortion, guns, and the military over the past two decades, all while insisting that they are standing still.) Du Mez is mostly correct, I think, that evangelicalism is partly cultural and political, although I think she does underplay the role of theology. The teaching of evolution, for example, remains a hot-button issue among the people I know precisely because of their theological beliefs. Harry Potter remains controversial for the same reason.

My worry about this book is that an unfamiliar reader might walk away from it thinking that the riddle is solved. Militant Christian masculinity isn’t the whole answer; it isn’t even half of it. It’s the women who are the backbone of the church, not the men. And while, yes, it’s true that women uphold half the patriarchy just as they uphold half the sky, it’s also true that women’s experiences within the church encompass far more than a reactionary definition of gender roles

There is much about evangelical life and culture that is not plumbed in this book. Could a reader who was not brought up in a fundamentalist church read this book and understand the appeal of a church home, a church family? A belief system that insists on its own absolute correctness about, well, everything may be bad for the world but it feels utterly comforting when you are inside it: Going to a church potluck can feel as soothing as sinking into a warm bath. Du Mez misses the terror of change that, in my opinion, has escalated the desire to cling ever more fiercely to a half-remembered past that never really existed. Class and income level play a greater role than Du Mez accounts for; I recall many sermons that centered on the idea that the congregation might be financially poor but were actually better off than wealthy heathens. I would like to have read more about the overt disparagement of critical thought in evangelical communities, which makes it harder to leave but also harder to understand the world as it really is.

“Ah! the brethren,” says a backslidden character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “No doubt they pray for me, weep for me, for they are good people in their way. But what was I to do? How could I go on with the thing once I had lost my faith in it?” I feel this — but even more, the enduring question for me has always been: why am I the only one? why don’t more people lose their faith as well? At one point in my life I had fiery arguments with my parents about Christianity. I’ve stopped that; now I tiptoe around their beliefs. I cannot see what they see, and they cannot see what I see. We might as well be looking at two entirely different landscapes. You could read this book and think of all or most of the evangelical leaders as cynical villains. I think this is a mistake. The tragedy of many of these ministers — fallen or otherwise — is that they are well-intentioned and they believe what they say. Some of them, many of them, have torn themselves apart because they so desperately want to believe. Some of them are hypocrites, yes; but a lot of them are just miserable and confused.

“Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it,” Du Mez concludes. “What was once done might also be undone.” I’m not sure I agree. Although this book is well-written, illuminating, useful, if incomplete, I don’t think it comes any closer to showing how fundamentalism can be undone. Du Mez’s own book demonstrates that while fundamentalism may purport to be based on the unchanging inerrancy of the Bible, it is in fact a protean belief system, one that can be twisted into whatever it needs to be. In the Seventies the Southern Baptist Convention was pro-choice! When I was growing up our preacher talked about his pride in American democracy; now “constitutional republicanism” is all the rage. A decade from now, this belief system could transform itself again. Evangelical Christianity was here before Trump, and it — maybe smaller, maybe less powerful, maybe pointed in a different direction — will no doubt survive him. 

Book Review: We Germans

I’ve said that I am tired of World War II novels, and I am. I am positively allergic to all references to the “Greatest Generation” (if this generation was so great, why didn’t it do more about racism and sexism when it got home from the war?). We Germans is a different take on the war, though, and worth your time (at 197 pages, it won’t take up much of it).

The novel is told in two alternating perspectives: that of an ordinary German soldier, Meissner. who is ultimately captured and spend a couple of years in a Russian prison camp, and then marries and lives out a long life, and that of his British grandson, Callum, who writes of his grandfather as fondly as you might write of yours. (The author’s biography notes that his mother is German, and it’s not hard to imagine that Callum’s perspective might be the author’s, at least to some extent.)

Meissner is harder on himself than his grandson is. “[E]ven if all you did in the war was serve lunches at a quiet rubber factory in the middle of Germany, your meals fed workers whose rubber went into tyres that were fitted to trucks that carried people to their deaths,” Meissner says. ” . . . And I didn’t make lunches; I wore a uniform and fought, to the best of my ability.” But Callum shies away from this: “although you could legalistically tease out varying degrees of culpability, I’ve got no taste for it.” Where Meissner says ruefully that only the heroes — the conscientious objectors — emerged from the war unscathed, Callum concludes that “World history impinges more on some lives than others. Because I was born in the 1980s and not the 1920s, the worst my times have done to me is lose me my first job, in the 2008 financial crisis; they’ve never sent me to Russia to dig holes and kill people.”

As I read this novel I frequently thought of my grandfather, an American soldier who was captured and spent about a year and a half in a German prison camp. What if Grandpa had met Meissner in the 1940s? Each might have tried to kill the other. What makes the German soldier in this book different from my grandfather, of course, is that he fought for Hitler’s Germany while Grandpa fought for Roosevelt’s United States. Meissner notes that even during the war he realized he would someday have to account for his complicity, and yet he remained in uniform, doing his duty. And he comforts himself with the small atrocities, perpetrated by the Russian army, that he was able to prevent. He wasn’t a hero, but he wasn’t a sadist. He fell in love, he raised a family, he adored his wife. Isn’t that enough? he asks. “How can I be an evil man?”

It’s a complicated question, more complicated than we usually pretend. If we hold Meissner responsible for Hitler’s actions, must we also hold American soldiers — both of my grandfathers — responsible for the internment of the Japanese, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (But the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives by ending the war, I hear you protesting. If Hitler had won, how would we be explaining away the Holocaust?) Can we say that one side’s hands are dirty and the other side’s hands are clean, just because one side was unquestionably worse? If the United States had been gassing millions of people, how can we be so sure that our ancestors would have resisted? Is it fair to judge Meissner’s performance on a test that neither we nor our grandfathers ever had to pass? After all, world history has brought to our generation a pandemic, an authoritarian American president, and desperate refugees, and our response to these things has not covered us in glory.

I feel that I should condemn Meissner, who helped prop up Hitler’s regime. But I find it hard to do so without condemning the whole world. “I just hope that my grandparents’ world wasn’t razed to the ground,” Callum concludes, “but ploughed under, like clover is to enrich the soil.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I am not optimistic. If history teaches us anything, it is that humanity does not learn. 

Greece Reading List: The War That Killed Achilles

Book number two in my Greek history reading list! The first book was Thomas Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, which was both a good overview and a tiny bit frustrating when I got interested in the Peloponnesian War and Martin was ready to move on before I was.

After briefly touching on about a dozen different topics with my first read, I was excited to dig into a specific topic. Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles was a reread for me; I finished it almost exactly ten years to the day after the first time I picked it up. I had remembered it being more about the war itself and less about the Iliad (I was partly led astray by the subtitle, “The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War”). Still, I appreciated this book more this time around, even though it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. There’s an argument to be made I really should have read In Search of the Trojan War instead of this one, because it seems to be more about archaeology and history whereas this book is very focused on the Iliad. But the Iliad is so worth reading about! Since the first time I picked this book, I have read The Song of Achilles, a brilliant novelistic take on this story, and having that in the back of my mind really enriched Caroline Alexander’s commentary here.

Alexander isn’t interested in writing about the ruins of ancient Troy or the historical roots of the myths around the Trojan War. What she wants to write about is War with a capital W, and how the themes of an epic poem about ancient war still resonate. In some ways, Homer’s work even anticipates the spectacle of modern warfare. This passage reminded me forcibly of sitting in my office with coworkers in 2003, watching a video of bombs being dropped on Iraq:

Yet, as the Iliad makes clear, notwithstanding the attractions of their abode above the clouds, the gods cannot tear themselves from the world of men. This is not only because mortals provide the savory savory burnt offerings and sacrifice they find so gratifying but because the lives and deeds of men are objects of endless fascination to them. The war at Troy provides the gods with excitement and stimulation. Seemingly, they cannot get their fill of watching it, arguing about it, and participating in it; the Trojan War is the best show playing.

The War That Killed Achilles is uneven; sometimes I wished for a clearer thesis or a bit more of a narrative flow. Sometimes it felt as though Alexander had forgotten that her readers did not know the plot events and characters of the Iliad as well as she did. One chapter is devoted entirely to Alexander’s own translation of a scene from the Iliad, which felt jarring and a little self-indulgent. But overall this is a moving and thoughtful discussion of the themes of the epic, and Alexander makes her case that the work is not simply a celebration of valor in glorious battle. “The Iliad . . . never betrays its subject, which is war,” Alexander writes. “Honoring the nobility of a soldier’s sacrifice and courage, Homer nonetheless determinedly concludes his epic with a sequence of funerals, inconsolable lamentation, and shattered lives. War makes stark the tragedy of mortality. A hero will have no recompense for death, although he may win glory.”

Henry III and Simon de Montfort

I’ve read two biographies by Darren Baker recently and it pains me to report that I am not a fan. What I was looking for was a couple of approachable books about Henry III and Simon de Montfort, who both sounded like compelling subjects. Having found this pair by Baker, which were described as engaging and which seemed to have a very clear thesis and point-of-view, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.

Alas. There are two issues here, I think, and they are present in both books. First, although Baker’s writing is certainly not academic, it is also not clear. Granted, he was not assisted in his task by thirteenth-century parents, who seemed to delight in naming their children Edward, Eleanor, Richard, and Henry. But Baker did nothing to clearly differentiate between all of the Edwards and Eleanors and so I was forever flipping back to remind myself of whom he was writing at any given moment. This is just a symptom of the larger issue: Baker struggles to give the reader context for anything that happens, and so the reader struggles to understand why, for example, Henry III is suddenly being held captive in his own tower.

Secondly, Baker has an odd fixation with the idea that Henry III was a great king. Look, you guys, I am not claiming to be an expert on the medieval British monarchy but I have now read two books by Baker that make this argument and I am not at all convinced. I’ll grant you that Henry was pious and a lover of the arts, and that he seems to have been relatively generous and charitable. Still, if I were to use two words to describe Henry III, “hot mess” would leap to mind long before “great king.”

I have often said that if George W. Bush had just been allowed to become a baseball commissioner, he would have led a happier if relatively more obscure life and spared the country an absolute disaster of a presidency. Henry III was much the same case. He was born to be an artist. If only fate had not intervened and made him king at the age of nine, he might have been a happier man, and England might have been the better for it. Unfortunately, though, he came to the throne at a young age, his mother abandoned him soon thereafter, and he was subsequently raised by courtiers to believe that he was born to rule. And so he seems to have grown up to be a spoiled and entitled adult, constantly running out of money, rarely thinking through his actions, and often making decisions out of fits of pique instead of any kind of strategy or principle.

(To give Henry his due, he loved Westminster Abbey and his attention to it is much of the reason that it is as beautiful and well-kept as it is today, and I sincerely respect that because it is one of the most glorious buildings I have ever set foot in.)

As for Simon de Montfort, I never got a good sense of him because Baker — even when ostensibly writing a biography of Simon de Montfort — is far less interested in him as a person, and never makes an effort to look at him without applying the prism of Henry III’s perspective. I often had the feeling that Baker was repurposing his Henry material into a second book.

So this brace of books was disappointing. After getting a very good grounding in Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, I don’t feel that I’ve learned a huge amount about this period. Which is a shame, because the rise of Parliament and the captive monarchy seem both interesting and significant.

I was tempted to find another biography of Henry III — I did, after all, read four books about Alfred the Great all in a row — but as it turns out I do not have the same investigative zeal for Henry and Simon. For now, I am moving on to Edward I, but I’m prepared to backtrack once David Carpenter’s two volumes on Henry III are complete.

Book Review: The Kindest Lie


The most frustrating sort of book is the book that you desperately want to love but simply can’t. Sadly, this is the sort of book that The Kindest Lie was for me. It seemed to have so much going for it: the intersection of the personal and the political; timely themes about race, class, and identity; a protagonist with a secret and ambivalent feelings about her childhood home.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out between me and this book, and I’m sad about it.

I had two issues: first, the characters never came alive for me; and second, the author did not trust the reader and this grated. (Well, two-and-a-half issues, because the ending felt unearned but I would have forgiven that if the characters and writing had worked.)

First, the characters. I just never got the feeling that the characters had been deeply imagined. I did not learn anything about them that wasn’t required for the plot. Ruth, the protagonist, makes decisions that make sense for the plot the author has in mind, but don’t add up to a coherent character — especially not one as smart as Ruth is supposed to be. And I defy anyone to read this novel and explain the marriage of I found myself applying a version of the Julie Taylor test — could I imagine these people’s lives outside the confines of this book? I could not. I experienced these characters the way I experience mannequins in museum dioramas. I found it very difficult to invest emotional energy in stick figures.

Secondly, the lack of trust in the reader. I found this immensely frustrating because every time I started thinking about the deeper issues that the book raised — and these are vital issues that we should all be thinking about! — the author told me exactly what to think. This passage, for example, in which the author essentially highlights a section of her book and writes “IRONY” next to it in all caps:

Ruth had made a vow to never become the girl the world expected her to be, the one who slept around and got pregnant by a guy who walked away. Yet that’s exactly who she had become. Her mother’s daughter. Her greatest motivation to excel in school and become successful had been the driving desire to reverse that fate.

Similarly, near the end of the book the author explains the meaning of Christmas to her readers. No one who has watched and comprehended It’s a Wonderful Life should need this spelled out to her:

She had attached almost every grievance in her life to someone here. But on Christmas, everything came into focus more sharply and she saw them all with new eyes—their flaws and their beauty—and she chose to appreciate them because, in the end, they were family.

These are conclusions the reader should be drawing for herself, and if you as an author read your chapter and worry that the reader won’t get it, the solution is not to write it out in explicit detail (unless, I suppose, you are actually composing a Sunday School lesson).

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. I very much wanted to like this book. The questions that the author wants to ask are interesting and important. But these flaws are, for me, fatal to a work of fiction. If the themes of the novel — questions about Blackness in America specifically, and questions of identity generally — are what draw you to this book I think you are better served by the novels of Yaa Gyasi and Brit Bennett.

Book Review: Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

Cover of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

I’ve always had a bias toward secondary sources. I’m not proud of this. But something in me seeks the highlights, looks for someone to explain a text to me instead of puzzling it out myself. So when my husband and I sat down to plan to vacation in Greece this September, to celebrate both the end (ish) of the pandemic and our newly empty nest, I immediately sat down and composed a twenty-two-book reading list because of course I did. And I left off Homer and Sophocles and Aristotle because. Because I don’t have time. Because how good are the translations anyway? Because will I even understand it without a good teacher? Because do I even have a good idea of what I should read? Because I have four months and I just need a survey of the main points.

I chose Thomas R. Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times to get a quick overview of the history of ancient Greece, because I haven’t really studied it since I took  Search (a two-year-long survey of western civilization at Rhodes College) in 1990. And if an overview is what you’re looking for, this is the book for you.

The sheer sweep of this book can be sobering. America’s piffling 240-odd-year history looks paltry indeed, set against Greece’s history, which begins before people were bothering to write things down and is still going on these several thousand years later. This 283-page book covers roughly four thousand years, give or take, although it really zeroes in on the Archaic and Classical Ages (750 to 323 BCE).

Martin surveys the major highlights of ancient Greek history as well as a few biographical sketches and a few paragraphs on major philosophers and playwrights. Reading this book can be an exercise in frustration at times, because you get interested in something (the Peloponnesian War was much more interesting then I remembered it being, and Alcibiades was a hot mess, y’all) and then Martin briskly moves on after a page or two.

Martin does a great job of pointing the reader toward additional resources. He especially encourages us to read primary sources: Plato! Aristotle! Herodotus! Thucydides! But as I said above, my brain immediately goes to the books that will explain the primary sources to me instead of the sources themselves. (In a passage apparently directed specifically to me, Martin scolds, “The best way to learn about ancient Greek history and form one’s own judgments is to study the ancient evidence first and then follow up on particular topics by consulting specialized works of modern scholarship.”) But I’m probably not going to read the works of Plato before September, nor will I most likely get around to the Greek playwrights. I feel bad about that. I did not appreciate Plato’s Republic or Oedipus Rex when I read them in college, and now that I have the right perspective for them I don’t have the mental energy to apply to them. At least that is what I tell myself.

But how amazing it is that scraps of philosophy and history and plays have survived thousands of years so that Socrates and Aeschylus and Euripides can continue to talk to us. What a miracle that we can still find so much of what they say relevant! Or maybe it is just proof that human beings never change, not really — over dozens of centuries we just keep making the same mistakes, or at least the same choices, over and over again.

Rethinking Clarence Thomas

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
When I think of Clarence Thomas my first thought is not of the man himself but of Anita Hill. I vividly remember sitting in my dorm room between classes, watching her testimony, quivering with outrage. Even before Hill came forward, I had thought that Thomas should not be confirmed, given the American Bar Association’s tepid recommendation; after she came forward, I was exasperated by the way the overwhelmingly male Senate handled the allegations. When Thomas was confirmed, I bemoaned the Supreme Court’s fate to my friends. “He’s going to be on the Court forever,” I said. “He’s going to be there when we’re his age.”

Clarence Thomas was 43 then; I am 48 now. Justice Thomas is, as I predicted, still on the court, and I have spent the last twenty-eight years rolling my eyes at him. “He doesn’t even ask questions during hearings,” I say when his name comes up. Or: “His wife is terrible. Imagine if Michelle Obama hired an aide who had written ‘I hate whites.’” Or, before Antonin Scalia’s death: “He just repeats whatever Justice Scalia says.” I was quite sure where I stood on Clarence Thomas, and I saw no reason to reconsider my opinion, until I read Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.

Let me be clear: I still don’t think he should have been confirmed, and I am still mad about Anita Hill. I still think he’s been a participant in some of the most pernicious decisions the Supreme Court has ever made. And yet. I do not agree with every word of this book, but it is an illuminating and path-breaking book that should be read by everyone with an interest in the Supreme Court — even, and perhaps especially, by liberals. This is a short book with a lot to say, and it is worth a careful read. Corey Robin’s thesis is that Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence is fundamentally misunderstood and (here’s the provocative part) rooted in large part in Thomas’s commitment to black nationalism. He makes it clear at the outset that he doesn’t agree with Thomas’s legal philosophy, but he is writing an analysis, not a takedown.1

Robin’s distinction between Thomas’s skepticism of political–i.e., voting–rights and his embrace of economic rights is compelling and insightful: Thomas believes that African Americans will always be hopelessly outnumbered in the political realm, but they can make money in a (by Thomas’s lights) neutral market and use that money to wield government influence. Thomas, in other words, is leaning in on Citizens United. “If the currency of politics is money,” Robin writes, “if the primary movers of politics are men of means, what better argument could there be for African Americans of few means to withdraw from politics? Why not concentrate instead, at least for the time being, on accumulating wealth in the market? That way, African Americans might return to politics one day, only this time as men of money rather than as a movement of masses.”

Thomas focuses not on the rights of black defendants, Robin argues, but on the rights of the black community to be protected from criminals of all races.2 Thomas’s position is that the black community, in the main, suffers less from overpolicing than from neglect by the police. Robin identifies the inherent contradiction between Thomas’s limits on state power in, say, second amendment decisions while simultaneously championing harsh policing at the expense of individual rights. Again, Robin argues, this strand of Thomas’s thought goes back to his belief in personal economic empowerment as a long-term racial strategy: Thomas’s jurisprudence “empowers the policing and punishing elements of the state. But that is only a means to an end. The utopian vision that Thomas sees beyond the carceral state is the creation of a new generation of black patriarchs–terrifying enough to make their children cry and thereby to teach them how to survive another chapter in America’s long history of white supremacy.” But it’s hard to read this chapter without thinking of the many people of color who have died at the hands of police even when they have not been convicted of any crimes, but this isn’t addressed and I’m not aware of any comment Thomas has made specifically about, for example, Black Lives Matter. To my mind, this was the weakest part of the book, and I don’t think Robin sufficiently answers the question of how someone motivated by black nationalism could be so quiescent in the face of racially disproportionate policing practices.

Robin’s argument that Thomas’s decisions are motivated in large part by black nationalism and a deep-seated belief that racism is a permanent feature of American society is often convincing and always interesting. At times I felt he was stretching to make a point, or working too hard to make Thomas’s worldview seem consistent. And, frustratingly, Robin does not discuss Thomas’s decades-long second marriage to a white woman with a bent for right-wing conservative activism; she barely merits a mention. How does Thomas reconcile his belief in inherent white racism with his marriage to a white woman? How has Virginia Thomas influenced his views? There’s got to be a story there — it’s hard to believe that Thomas has completely compartmentalized his work from his home life, given his wife’s abiding interest in politics. And yet there’s no hint of it in Robin’s book. To me this felt like a missed opportunity. Anita Hill gets slightly more attention — Robin points out that (a) journalism since the infamous hearings has established the truth of Hill’s accusations but also (b) Thomas himself sincerely believed in his own innocence. But I would have loved a chapter about Thomas’s approach to cases that involve sex discrimination, and how that might intersect both with Robin’s theories about his approach to racism and with Thomas’s response to Hill’s allegations.

Still, Robin has done good work here. Perhaps because of Thomas’s rocky start to his Supreme Court tenure, liberals have a tendency to write him off as a Scalia clone, someone who functions as a reliable conservative vote without having much of interest to say himself.3 Robin has made the case, I think, that Thomas grounds his opinions differently than other conservative justices do, even if they ultimately arrive at the same result. At a minimum, a good-faith liberal reader would be hard-pressed to walk away from this book without taking Thomas’s philosophy seriously and considering the challenges it poses to progressive thought. “We may wonder whether we’re not trapped in the same historical moment as he, making sense of the same defeats of the last century in not dissimilar ways,” Robin writes. ” . . . And then we may come to a realization: that the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.”


 

1 From my point of view, the book treated Thomas very fairly and engaged earnestly with his ideas; I would love to have a conversation with a conservative reader to learn whether they felt the same way. Did Robin do a good job presenting Thomas’s thinking or did he put his thumb on the scale?

2 For a different spin on a similar argument, see James Forman Jr.’s excellent Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

3 Robin points out that conservatives often made the same sorts of criticisms of Thurgood Marshall–and so one has to wonder if the tendency to dismiss Thomas is an objective assessment or the product of unconscious bias.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore

Note: This post discusses the entire plot of Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, including the ending.

How much you like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne depends on how well you respond to paragraphs like this:

. . . . Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodations and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she had read about, they all had to be collected gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation. And that was why even a queer fellow like this Bernard Rice was a blessing in his own way. He was so funny and horrible with his ‘Yes, Mama’ and ‘No, Mama, ‘ and his long blond baby hair. He’d make a tale for the O’Neills at Sunday tea.

judith-hearneI respond very well to such paragraphs, and indeed I loved this book all the way through. I could quibble with some plot developments — I wasn’t that interested in the plot, and I’m not sure Brian Moore was either — but I thought that the character development of Judith Hearne was nothing short of brilliant. Take that paragraph, for example — it’s in the first chapter, and already you know so much about Judith Hearne: her self-consciousness about being single, her ready acceptance of the idea that she was uninteresting on her own, her desire to ingratiate, her insistence that her “solitary life” included “great rewards”. Yes, Judith can be off-putting with her insistence on conventional mores–she’s scandalized by a joke about Mary Magdalene–but she’s heart-breaking, too.

Because I was writing about The Painted Veil while I was reading this book, I could not help but see Judith Hearne as the photo-negative of Kitty Garstin: Judith plain where Kitty is beautiful, dull where Kitty is charming, neglected where Kitty is spoiled. Based on the publication dates of these books, Judith would only be about a decade younger than Kitty and it’s not hard to imagine that her fate is exactly what Kitty feared when she rushed into marriage. Kitty being wealthier, her future wouldn’t have been quite as bleak as Judith’s, but by Judith’s age an unmarried Kitty who had lost her looks and charm would still have faced a lonely life filled with people who didn’t particularly want to talk to her.

It was for this reason that I find the descriptions of Judith Hearne that you see in so many reviews to be entirely wrong-headed. NPR, for example, calls her “an alcoholic looking for love.” And indeed, Moore treats her alcoholism as a huge revelation midway through the book. But to my mind, her alcoholism is a symptom of her distress, not its root cause. She is lonely, trapped in a world where a middle-aged single woman has no worth, unable to make a man care about her and unable to envision a satisfying life without a man who cares for her. One of the saddest passages of the book, for example, shows Judith fantasizing about a husband who would dandle her on his knee and, possibly, smack her if she said something irritating. But then he would be contrite! This is Judith’s idea of marriage, and the worst part of this fantasy is how much she longs for it. Judith’s life is not bleak because she is alcoholic; she is an alcoholic because her life is bleak, and she can’t think of a way to fix it. All she can do is hope that a man someday looks her way, and in the meantime she can dull her pain with alcohol. And if she’d never touched a drop she’d be just as unhappy and just as unable to break out of her unhappiness.1

sacred-heartAs the book went on I began to sympathize more with the piety that I had originally found grating. Catholicism is her mainstay; the Sacred Heart oleograph she displays in her room is the only proof that her life matters at all. The very worst thing to befall Judith Hearne may be near the end of the book, when she begins to lose her faith:

O God, I have sinned against You, why have You not punished me? I have renounced You, do You hear me, I have abandoned You. Because, O Father, You have abandoned me. I needed You, Father, and You turned me away. All men turned from me. And You, Father? You too.

The painted Mary smiled from the side altar; blue robed, with white virginal tunic and delicate painted hands uplifted in intercession. O Mary Mother, why did you not intercede for me? Why do you smile now? There is nothing to smile for. . . .

And now? What will become of me, am I to grow old in a room, year by year, until they take me to a poor-house? Am I to be a forgotten old woman, mumbling in a corner in a house run by nuns? What is to become of me, O Lord, alone in this city, with only drink, hateful drink that dulls me, disgraces me, lonely drink that leaves me more lonely, more despised? Why this cross? Give me another, great pain, great illness, anything, but let there be someone, someone to share it. Why do You torture me, alone and silent behind Your little door? Why?

“I hate You,” she said, her voice loud and shrill in the silence of the church.

Where is Judith at the end of the book? She is, indeed, living in a house run by nuns, at the mercy of their rules and regulations, with her only consolation the oleograph of the Sacred Heart that she displays in her room (but not hung up, of course, because the nuns don’t like to spoil the walls). The only grace Moore allows his protagonist is that as her story ends, the Sacred Heart oleograph has started to work its old magic and she is beginning to recover something of her old faith.2

When I was in college studying women’s history, I read an anthology of women’s letters that included a deeply sad missive from a nineteeth-century teacher living alone, weeping beside her fireplace for the husband and children she suspected she’d never have. That letter came back to my mind again and again as I read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Instead of weeping, Judith employs a stiff upper lip, a nearly delusional belief that she can still have what she wants, and, of course, a flask. But her misery is just as palpable.


1 Of course her life would have been much happier if she had been an iconoclast: a writer or an activist or a career girl. But Hearne is far too conventional for any of that; it’s hard to imagine anything like that ever entering her head. return

2 It’s interesting that both The Painted Veil and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne show their protagonists turning to religion as the books draw to a close. (Kitty doesn’t explicitly talk about religious belief, but she does aspire to be more like those Chinese nuns.) So many nuns in these books! And yet neither of them is aspiring to a happy or fulfilled life, only a bearable one. return

The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham

Note: I’m calling this a review, but it’s really more of a response, and I am responding specifically to the ending. So there are huge spoilers for The Painted Veil if you haven’t read the novel. I also talk about the ending of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Consider yourselves warned.

PaintedVeilWhen I took piano lessons as a child, my teacher assigned me a piece that strung together several renditions of a simple tune as different composers might have interpreted it. Here is how Beethoven would have handled; here is Mozart’s version; here it’s done in the spirit of Brahms. I kept coming back to that idea when I was reading The Painted Veil. The storyline is simple. How would Jane Austen have written it? E. M. Forster? Edith Wharton? Flaubert? But when I finished it, I realized that the author whose version of this story I would be most interested to read was Kate Chopin.

Chopin, you will recall, wrote The Awakening more than a quarter of a century before Maugham published The Painted Veil (1899 and 1925, respectively) and their takes on the adulterous wife couldn’t be more different. Chopin sympathizes with her protagonist, Edna Pontellier; she shows Edna’s affair with Robert Lebrun to be positive for Edna in many ways, and she depicts without judgment Edna’s adultery (and her subsequent suicide, when the affair ends).

The Painted Veil, by contrast, never lets us see Kitty happy. It begins in the moment that Kitty is found out:

She gave a startled cry.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room he saw her face on a sudden distraught with terror.

“Some one just tried the door.”

“Well, perhaps it was the amah, or one of the boys.”

“They never come at this time. They know I always sleep after tiffin.”

“Who else could it be?”

“Walter,” she whispered, her lips trembling.

We’re told in the course of the novel that Kitty’s affair with Charlie Townsend made her happy, but we never get to see her happiness. We see the emptiness that leads to the affair, and we see the unhappiness that unfolds once she is discovered, but the joy that she felt from being in love is only a rumor.

There were things I loved about this novel, which I could hardly put down. The prose is exquisite:

Dawn was breaking now, and here and there a Chinese was taking down the shutters of his shop. In its dark recesses, by the light of a taper, a woman was washing her hands and face. In a tea-house at a corner a group of men were eating an early meal. The gray, cold light of the rising day sidled along the narrow lanes like a thief. There was a pale mist on the river and the masts of the crowded junks loomed through it like the laces of a phantom army. It was chilly as they crossed and Kitty huddled herself up in her gay and colored shawl. They walked up the hill and they were above the mist. The sun shone from an unclouded sky. It shone as though this were a day like another and nothing had happened to distinguish it from its fellows.

Maugham’s dialogue is also excellent; it sounds natural and each character is distinct. And again, I could hardly put it down; I really cared about what was happening to Kitty and I really wanted to know how her story would end.

But on the other hand, I took issue with Maugham’s handling of his characters and, in particular, with the punitive fate that he gives Kitty: widowed, pregnant, and off to the Bahamas to keep house for a father who has shown her precious little affection at any point in her life. The ending of the novel, to me, felt heavy-handed and moralistic; a writer trying to make a point at the expense of his character.

Maugham is quick to pronounce judgment on Kitty. From the first pages of the novel she is revealed to be shallow, silly, flip, foolish. She is spoiled and selfish. Her beauty is the only virtue Maugham is willing to concede her. (And even at that, he takes pains to point out that her chin is “too square” and her nose “too big.”) She fails to capitalize on the first blush of her youth and so is forced to marry Walter Fane “in a panic,” just escaping the dire fate of marrying after her plain younger sister.

Let’s talk about Walter for a moment. He is no prize himself.*  Yes, he seems to be intelligent and skilled at his profession, and yes, he thinks he loves Kitty. But what does he love her for? The same silly affectations that Maugham condemns. Walter loves Kitty because she’s pretty, because she dances with him, because she is “easy to talk to.” He is no more in love with her than Townsend is. How could he be? He knows virtually nothing about her. And he treats her no better than Townsend does. Townsend lies about his feelings for her, but at least he gives her some happiness; Walter is distant and silent and hard to comprehend even when proposing. 

Maugham is writing about a society that was bad for everyone: bad for the women, who are raised to be shallow and frivolous and dependent; bad for the men, who have to spend all their time making the money to support their wives and daughters. But Maugham’s sympathy seems too heavily weighted toward the men, and let’s face, it’s the men who hold the cards here. The men don’t have to vamp and simper in hopes of attracting a proposal; the men have options other than making a good match. And the men aren’t taught from an early age that their only possible achievement is to be attractive and light-hearted and amusing enough to capture a suitor. The men get to choose. Maugham seems to realize this — he gives Kitty a speech at the end about raising her daughter to be “fearless and frank” — but he also blames Kitty for the fact that her father has no feelings for her. Wouldn’t that be as much Kitty’s father’s fault as her own? Similarly, isn’t Walter partly to blame for the breakdown of their marriage, seeing as how he doesn’t seem to actually talk to Kitty all that much?

I like that Kitty grows enough through this short novel to gain some self-awareness. She recognizes and deeply regrets the mistakes that she made, beginning with marrying Walter in the first place and ending with the unwise affair with Townsend. But it would have been nice if someone in the novel had been clear-eyed enough to realize that Kitty was sinned against as well as sinning. “I’ve been terribly punished,” she says near the end of the novel, and it’s impossible to disagree. She claims to feel hope and courage as she prepares to move to the Bahamas, and yet I did not quite believe it. Or perhaps I simply cannot get behind a novel which ends with its central character vowing to “follow the path that . . . those dear nuns at the convent followed so humbly.”

Yes! Women should be more like cloistered nuns! That will solve all of society’s problems! I’m not rolling my eyes at all! I’m not denying that the nuns in this book seem like good people, but I still don’t think that “take nuns as your model” is good advice for the average woman, and certainly not a woman like Kitty, who seems to enjoy clothes and dancing and romance.

How would Kate Chopin have told this story? Well, I don’t love the way Chopin handled Edna Pontellier either; I don’t think I could spend ten minutes with Edna, and I thought that suicide was an awfully irresponsible response to the end of a love affair. (She has a kid! If you read The Awakening in college, read it again after you have children and see if your perspective changes. Mine certainly did.) But I do like that Chopin takes Edna’s emotions seriously, recognizes the affair’s importance to Edna, and doesn’t pile all the blame for an unhappy marriage on Edna. I wish that Maugham could have shown Kitty some similar compassion. Yes, she’s spoiled and foolish; and yes, it’s good that by the end of the book she recognizes that. But it bothers me that none of the male characters — not even Townsend! — have a similar epiphany, and I can’t help but feel that Maugham punishes her too harshly for buying into a worldview that Walter and her father also accept without reservation.

* Nor is Townsend. Nor Waddington. Were any of these people well-raised? The only exception I can think of is the Mother Superior.