Thursday, July 24, 2014

July 24th: Jean Toomer
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson
and 10 años con Mafalda by Quino
now listening:
To Save Everything Click Here: The Fo
lly of Technological Solutionism 
by Evgeny Morozov

This was a rough one. 

Today's Story: "Blood-Burning Moon"
Author: Jean Toomer
My Rating: C+

Where to begin? It gets the + instead of just a 'C' for being about such a haunting subject, and describing it realistically and painfully, and making you disgusted that you live in this world that behaves that way, and so on. But it really is a C story, in a few different ways. 

Now, author Jean Toomer is an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance and this work has literary merit and all that. But you know what? The writing is just straight up not that good. We are in eager-creative-writing-student territory here. Example: The second paragraph of the story begins, "Louisa sang as she came over the crest of the hill from the white folk's kitchen. Her skin was the color of oak leaves on young trees in the fall. Her breasts, firm and up-pointed like ripe acorns. And her singing had the low murmur of winds in fig trees." 

About the only thing interesting there is "winds," plural, not "the wind." The rest of it is as if the creative writing teacher said to put a character in nature and describe the scene. It's like an imagery exercise, with a nice frat-boy touch. It's also far from the only sentence in the story like this. The title, after all, is "Blood-Burning Moon" and we get lots and lots of talk about the moon, the full moon, the full moon which is an omen, the full moon which is an omen hanging in the sky above the plantation, sorry, former plantation. For god's sake, there is treachery and evil about! Does it have to be so dully written? 

Jean Toomer, the author, whose work I don't think I've ever read before today, apparently "passed for white" sometimes during his life and married a white woman. This background informs (perhaps) "Blood-Burning Moon," in which Louisa likes/is liked by both the white Bob Stone and the black Tom Burwell. Come to find out, Bob Stone is an asshole and has a temper, and Tom Burwell has brute force strength and a slightly more righteous temper.  Think this is going to end well? 

OK, so it's fine, average, whatever, doesn't really do it for me, wish it did more. Here's a serious thing to consider: the use of Black English vernacular in dialogue. Necessary? Improves the story? Lessens the story? Should be written (only?) by African-American authors? Makes the characters more/less sympathetic? Creates the mood? Affects the theme? etc. So many questions. (By the way, this story, published in 1923, frequently uses the "n-word." You have been warned.) Here's a question I do want answered, though: What's up with "gwine"? 

This isn't the first time I've come across "gwine" or "agwine" -- it always has bugged me. I just don't hear it right, I guess. Example from this story: "What y'think he's agwine t'do t' Bob Stone?" 

Everything else I can "hear" as I'm reading it:  "Yassur he sho' is..." and "An' here I is, but that ain't ahelpin' none..." and "Cut him jes like I cut..."  I hear those words, because I've actually heard such speech. I have never in all the regions in which I've lived and traveled heard someone pronounce the word "gwine" or "agwine" in talking about what they will do. Who says this? Where is it pronounced this way? What have I missed? 

Also, Toomer writes the voices of all these southern characters, not just the black characters. For example, white Tom Stone says, "Fight like a man Tom Burwell an' I'll lick y'." Does that mean that Toomer is or is not making literary use of Black English vernacular? Discuss. 

I'll be over here falling asleep while you students work on your compositions about this story. 

(But "agwine"? Seriously?? I just don't get it.) 

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