The Victorian Sage

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Tag: race

Becoming a Man in Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood (2012)

The tradition of the Condition-of-England novels of the mid-19th century is still with us; novels still offer “analysis and synthesis of social reality”. One of the contemporary novelists who most clearly invites comparison with the C-of-E genre is the American Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s novels are huge sprawling affairs with large casts spanning social classes but linked by chance, like Dickens’ Bleak House moved across the Atlantic.

Wolfe published Back to Blood in 2012, and it is still his most recent novel. He is in his mid-80s, so it may be his list. In fact, it is only his fourth novel, as he didn’t start until late middle age, with 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Up until then, he had written only non-fiction, journalistic pieces collected in very successful volumes such as The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But with Bonfire, Wolfe set the template for his fiction work, and he has reused it in work since then.


Tom Wolfe in the 1980s, in typically dandyish dress.

Bonfire was a quintessentially New York novel, as tied to place as Bleak House is to London. With Blood, Wolfe set the entire 700 page opus in Miami, having apparently gone down there first to put in the research. Like Bonfire, also, the plot of Blood is essentially set in motion when the male professional protagonist becomes embroiled in a charged encounter with a low-status black male, one which becomes public knowledge and sets loose a storm of public condemnation on the head of said protagonist. Finally – several hundred pages – later the protagonist faces down the baying, bovine public and wins back his honour and his financial and social standing.

In Blood, this protagonist is Nestor Camacho, a cop of Cuban heritage. Camacho first comes to public attention when he arrests a Cuban attempting illegal entry into the US, an arrest carried out in a spectacular fashion. This leads to Camacho being ostracised by the Cuban community, including his own family. Then, shortly afterwards, Camacho arrests a black drug dealer in a violent manner, and a video emerges of Camacho’s partner racially abusing said drug dealer and of Camacho himself calling the guy a “filthy little bitch” (Vintage, 2013, p. 309) and so on. Cue public outrage.

Though the general public denounce Camacho and he is relieved from duty by the Police Department, another reading of the incident is provided:

No indication whatsoever of the life-or-death crisis that precipitated this vile “abuse,” not so much as a hint that this put-upon black man is in fact a powerful 250-pound young crack house thug, nothing to make it at all credible that he might have touched off the whole thing by wrapping his huge hands around the Sergeant’s neck, that he was within one second of murdering him by crushing his windpipe, that his life was saved only by the immediate reaction of Officer Camacho, who threw himself onto the brute’s back and, weighing only 160 pounds, clamped a couple of wrestling holds onto 275 pounds of crack house thug and rolled in the dirt and the dirtballs with him until the brute became utterly depleted in breath, power, willpower, heart, and manhood… and gave up… like a pussy. How could any man pretend not to realize that, faced with death, even a cop experiences an adrenal rush immensely more powerful than all chains of polite conversation and immediately seeks to smother his would-be killer with whatever vile revulsion comes surging up his brain stem from the deepest, darkest, most twisted bowels of hatred? How could any man, even the mildest and most sedentary, fail to understand?! (pp. 416-417)

Who is it who speaks here? It is a characteristic of Wolfe’s fiction, and especially this book, that there is a very blurred line between narratorial comment and the thoughts of the characters. The above is an example. The use of an exclamation mark seems to indicate the emotion that would come with Nestor’s point of view, but some of the language is rather formal and literary, which Nestor is not. There is an intertwining of the narrator’s voice with the character’s, indicating that they are in agreement.

The logic of the plot bears this out also, as Nestor undergoes a Hero’s progress, from equilibrium to crisis and finally back to equilibrium at a higher level and with gained knowledge. This happens during the rushed final chapter, when he returns to active duty, taking up again his badge and his gun, whilst also embarking on a new relationship with a beautiful and well educated young girl – leaving behind his old girlfriend, a Cubana nurse who dumped him but now wants him back. The old girlfriend’s reflections on the “new” Nestor are revealing:

“It was like he was being all manly and taking charge […]. He was kind of… I don’t know…” She laughed, trying to take the edge off the word she was about to use– “hot.” (pp. 695-696)

Nestor has come through the fire of public opprobrium, and now he is back on the beat, and, what’s more, he’s manly and hot. His coming to true manhood is related to his ability to withstand and ignore the opinions of the public, with their reflexive liberal outrage. The very strength of the public feeling on Nestor’s actions allow him and Wolfe to avoid analyzing those actions in depth. The reflexiveness of the public position makes opposition to it seem brave, rational and manly, and the complexities of Nestor’s position as a guardian of the peace giving way to violence disappear.

Meanwhile, and equally troublingly, Nestor coming to manhood also means disowning the community from which he sprung: his girlfriend is gone, and his relations with family and other Cubans are just jettisoned halfway through the book. Manhood is not about such relations, clearly. Manhood is about engaging fully and thoughtlessly with the symbolic authority one has been invested in by the state. Nestor is just a badge, a gun, and a uniform, with a doting young girlfriend on the side. Heroic masculinity is about silence, violence and power. As evidence, there is the otherwise pointless episode where Nestor faces down a “big lug” in a diner:

Nestor was in such a good mood, thanks to Cristy, he would have been glad to laugh at the big lug’s crack—which did have a valid point, after all—and let it pass… except for one word: sniffing. Especially coming from the working-stiff lips of a hulk like this one, it meant sniffing Cristy in a sexual way. Nestor ransacked his brain to find a reason why even that might be okay. He tried and he tried, but it wasn’t okay. It was an insult… an insult he had to stomp to death on the spot. It was disrespectful to Cristy, too. As every cop on patrol knew, you couldn’t wait. You had to shut big mouths now.

He stepped away from the counter and gave the americano a friendly smile, one you could easily interpret as a weak smile, and said, “We’re old friends, Cristy and me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time.” Then he broadened the smile until his upper lip curled up and bared his front teeth… and kept stretching that grin until his long canines—i.e., eyeteeth—made him look like a grinning dog on the verge of ripping open human flesh, as he added, “You got a sniffing problem with that?”

The two men locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity… Triceratops and allosaurus confronted each other on a cliff overlooking the Halusian Gulp… until the big americano looked down at his wristwatch and said, “Yeah, and I gotta be outta here and back on the site in ten minutes. You got a problem with that?”

Nestor nearly burst out laughing. “Not at all!” he said, chuckling. “Not at all!” The contest was over the moment the americano averted his eyes, supposedly to look down at his watch. The rest of it was double-talk… trying to save face. (649)

So in “stomp[ing] to death” the perceived insult, the incipient violence of Nestor’s new manlihood is laid bare. This is one of the many troubling aspects behind Wolfe’s book and the implied ideology behind it.

Wolfe has sympathy mostly with power and money, and interest in how they are gained and wielded. The dialogism that informs a first generatin Condition-of-England novel like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) has here given way to brute force. Because of this, Wolfe needs to be read for the many challenges he presents to the liberal way of thinking. The Wolfean universe is not necessarily one we want to live in, but the questions are: How accurately does it reflect the universe we do live in? How valid is its analysis and synthesis of social reality?


The Most Frequently Taught Fictional Texts in (US) Universities

The Open Syllable Project collects the booklists of over 1m syllabi (mostly US) and one can browse a list the books used on all of these syllabi (ordered by frequency). There are over 933,000 books listed altogether, starting with the most commonly assigned book of all: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, on almost 3,400 course lists. There are all sorts of investigations that can be done on this list, but for the moment I am just going to look at the works of fiction (mostly novels, but some that would be classed as novellas or short stories) that appear in the top 100 of the list. They are:

5. Frankenstein (Shelley)

15. Heart of Darkness (Conrad)

24. Things Fall Apart (Achebe)

36. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

43. Beloved (Morrison)

47. Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

50. The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins)

55. The Awakening (Chopin)

57. Candide (Voltaire)

67. Invisible Man (Ellison)

70. Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

71. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston)

76. Brave New World (Huxley)

87. Mrs Dalloway (Woolf)

91. The Metamorphosis (Kafka)

97. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

98. The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne)

There are 17 works of fiction listed above, but Huckleberry Finn actually appears twice (with slight variations on the title), at 47 and at 97, so there’s really 16. Though the Open Syllabus Project appears to be well researched and well presented, this is a somewhat glaring oversight. Adding the scores together for both entries, it is clear that Huckleberry Finn should appear much higher on the list (in 10th position, by my calculations).

Some facts:

  • Among the 16 texts, 7 are by women, 9 by men.
  • 8 are by Americans, 4 English, 1 Pole (Conrad, although he was living in England throughout his writing career), 1 Nigerian, 1 French, 1 German.
  • 8 from the 20th century, 7 from the 19th century, 1 from the 17th century (Voltaire).

The theme of race is what really jumps out in this selection: Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart. The last-named two are also about colonialism, and they are also 2 of the  3 most-frequently assigned fictional texts, which illustrates the centrality of the subject in US academia.

There is certainly some sense of the much-discussed “opening up the canon” here, but there is obviously a marked Eurocentrism to the choices. The exception is Achebe’s novel, though I would point out that the irony here is that Things Fall Apart is an obvious rebuttal of the super-canonical Heart of Darkness (of which Achebe was famously critical), so it is the most European of all African novels. There’s nothing from South America or Asia.

The old Leavisite canon is still there: Austen and Conrad make it; George Eliot and Henry James don’t. Dickens, liminal and semi-canonical in Leavis’ opinion, bubbles just under the top 100 here too (Great Expectations at 112). The continuing relevance of Conrad is clear: his emphasis on race and colonial relations in Heart of Darkness keep interest in his work alive, rather than for the purely literary qualities that Leavis sought (indeed, he thought Heart of Darkness one of Conrad’s lesser efforts, as he discusses in The Great Tradition). As for Austen, the case is less clear-cut. Certainly, she explored female subjectivity and the social relations of upper-class women in depth, but unlike Conrad she knew nothing of class or racial struggle. I think Raymond Williams’ account of Austen’s viewpoint as a social novelist, from which some things, some activities, some people, simply could not be seen, still stands up:

The land is seen primarily as an index of revenue and position; its visible order and control are a valued product, while the process of working it is hardly seen at all.


She is concerned with the conduct of people who, in the complications of improvement, are repeatedly trying to make themselves into a class. But where only one class is seen, no classes are seen. Her people are selected though typical individuals, living well or badly within a close social dimension. Cobbett never, of course, saw them as closely or as finely; but what he saw was what they had in common: the underlying economic process. (The Country and the City)

The fact that such a partial view has such resonance among the educationally privileged of 21st-century America is revealing in itself, and worthy of further reflection. And there is much more to provoke reflection in the results of the Open Syllabus Project, well worth a look for anyone interested in the nature of contemporary third level education.

Joseph Conrad’s Unnameable Book

Conrad’s third novel, published in 1897, is named The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, and this fact alone may account for its relative obscurity. Conrad himself, later in his career, looked back on Narcissus as his greatest artistic achievement:

It is the book by which, not as a novelist perhaps, but as an artist striving for the utmost sinceity of expression, I am willing to stand or fall. (Jeffrey Meyer, Joseph Conrad: A Biography)

To the modern reader it is most familiar, perhaps, not for any detail of the text itself, but for a peritextual element: the preface, a manifesto, as it has come to be seen, for the impressionist method:

All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its highest desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.


My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.

Thus though there is an element of realism on Conrad’s work – and Narcissus has a considerable biographical element – everything is heightened so that physical details are experienced symbolically. There is not a shadow cast Conrad doesn’t elevate into something cosmic, some never-to-be-defined symbol of the human condition. Recall the insistent gloom at the beginning of Heart of Darkness (1899):

The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.


It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.


The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

That gloom may function well enough as a realistic element, but Conrad’s reiteration makes clear that it pertains also to something within the characters’ experience during the story, and creates the impression in the reader of an unvanquishable sense of impotence and sadness attaching to human endeavour.

For some tastes, Conrad is all too insistent in his use of natural and other phenomena as vague metaphors for human experience. F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition provides the classic statement of this position, referring specifically to Heart of Darkness:

[W]e have an adjectival and worse than supererogatory insistence on ‘unspeakable rites’, ‘unspeakable secrets’, ‘monstrous passions’, ‘inconceivable mystery’, and so on. If it were only, as it largely is in Heart of Darkness, a matter of an occasional phrase it would still be regrettable as tending to cheapen the tone.


Conrad must […] stand convicted of borrowing the arts of the magazine-writer (who has borrowed his, shall we say, from Kipling and Poe) in order to impose on his readers and on himself, for thrilled response, a ‘significance* that is merely an emotional insistence on the presence of what he can’t produce. The insistence betrays the absence, the willed ‘intensity’ the nullity. He is intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.

I am quite sympathetic to this reading of Conrad, who certainly likes to hint at a deeper and darker knowledge that he cannot share with his readers. It is certainly a feature that seems to me to mar Heart of Darkness.

With The Nigger of the “Narcissus” I have come to somewhat share in the sense of Conrad’s power as a writer that so many distinguished critics, from Leavis himself up to Edward Said and others, have felt so strongly. I didn’t feel it with any of the major works, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent or Nostromo (I still haven’t completed the last). But Narcissus, problematic as it is, is also memorable and compelling.


The problems with Narcissus for a 21st-century reader are significant. With regard to the title, this is obvious. Some people point out that the n-word did not mean the same in the late 19th century as it means today. This is a point that I think can be overstated. Earlier in the 19th century, the n-word was already the preserve of those with racist views. This is clear to me from reading the Carlyle-Mill debate on slavery: the abolitionist Mill consistently used the term “negro” while the pro-slavery and explicitly racist Carlyle used, particularly in later works, the n-word quite profusely. So Conrad was positioning himself very clearly by his use of the word.

It doesn’t end there, though. Conrad was, as is clear from the discussion above, a very symbolic writer. He always hints at the great significance of details. And nothing in the book is more symbolically loaded than the title character, the black sailor James Wait. A full explication of what Wait symbolizes is impossible – perhaps because Conrad himself is not wholly coherent on this front – but that he is a deathly blight on life on board the good ship Narcissus is obvious. Early in the book the narrator (a member of the ship’s crew, though no detail on him is given) describes Wait as a “hateful burden”, evoking considerations of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” which appeared 2 years later. Later, Wait is associated with lying. Again, Heart of Darkness is recalled here. The narrator Marlow’s supposed hatred of lies is one of the motifs of that work, culminating in the lie to the beloved in the novella’s final scene. Here, again, lying and falsehood become central motifs in the latter part of the story:

Falsehood triumphed. It triumphed through doubt, through stupidity, through pity, through sentimentalism. We set ourselves to bolster it up from compassion, from recklessness, from a sense of fun. Jimmy’s steadfastness to his untruthful attitude in the face of the inevitable truth had the proportions of a colossal enigma—of a manifestation grand and incomprehensible that at times inspired a wondering awe; and there was also, to many, something exquisitely droll in fooling him thus to the top of his bent.

In a way that is slightly obscure, Jimmy/James Wait becomes responsible for an epidemic of falsehood among the crew. What exactly Wait’s falsehood lies in is not that clear. He is sick, and has been throughout the voyage. But is he pretending? Or is he in fact dying? Is it his actual ill health that provokes such a malaise among the crew, or his shamming (he is later described as having a “sham existence”). None of this is wholly clear.

The disturbing thing is that Wait is not just an inferior being, but one whose inferiority is somehow dangerous and even contagious, such that his death at the novel’s end is like the release from a spell. Read through a racial prism, this seems very dark indeed. Was Conrad just tapping into the symbolic resonances of blackness as established by poetry and literature over centuries, or is there a real political content to the book? This is the difficult question a 21st-century reader of the book must face, and, as always with Conrad, there is no clear answer. Similar questions arise with Heart of Darkness, of course, and maybe if that work had such a title as the present one, it would not have such a large readership.

Conrad’s narrator

There’s a curious anomaly regarding Conrad’s narrator. Conrad’s narrator’s do tend to be shadowy characters, observers rather than protagonists. But the narrator of Narcissus takes this to extremes. He has no name, his position in the ship is unknown, he never speaks to the other crew members, he is never acknowledged by them (this is from memory; maybe he does somewhere in the early part, but if so it’s very limited). In fact, were it not for the narratorial use of “we” to describe the crew, one would imagine a heterodiegetic narrator, not a homodiegetic one. And, indeed, some scenes are logically inconsistent with a homodiegetic narrator, notably the climactic scene between Wait and Donkin, culminating in the former’s death. Clearly, the players in the scene felt themselves unobserved, so how can any but an omniscient heterodiegetic narrator have recorded their encounter? Was he hiding in the cupboard?

Such anomalies are common enough in Conrad. As was long ago pointed out, much of Lord Jim was apparently told by Marlow at one sitting, yet the length of the work renders this a practical impossibility. It is an interesting question why Conrad insisted on using first-person narration when it was so unsuitable for the stories he had to tell, which is certainly the case in Narcissus. My hunch is that it relates to the implied Englishness of his narrators. A heterodiegetic narrator would be identified with Conrad himself, and have rendered his books more identifiably foreign, but by establishing the character of Marlow or the other narrators, Conrad is impersonating the English gentleman as he liked to do in real life as well. So the reason is less narrative than personal-psychological, I suggest.

Trade unionism and Filthy Eloquence

If one can’t help thinking of the politics of race in Conrad’s portrayal of Wait, his portrayal of Donkin is even more starkly ideological. Donkin’s dialogue is rendered phonetically, his cockney accent and dropped h’s contrasting with the rest of the crew. He also spins the rhetoric of workers’ rights and trade unionism. You don’t have to work hard to show that Conrad disapproves of such rhetoric. Very late in the book (the penultimate paragraph), the narrator says, with out-of-character brutality, “Donkin, who never did a decent day’s work in his life, no doubt earns his living by discoursing with filthy eloquence upon the right of labour to live.” As quoted, it loses something, but that filthy is striking in context. Conrad was an admirer of strong leadership, such as that demonstrated in time of crisis by Captain Allistoun in Narcissus; he was not at all a believe in democratic or socialist movements.

In short, one can’t count Conrad among the political progressives. But recent readings of Conrad do tend to count him in that group. As far as Heart of Darkness goes, this works by seeing as  all of Marlow’s racist and pro-imperialist comments as Conradian irony, while taking the anti-imperialist ones at face value. This is more difficult with Narcissus, as there is no clear irony in the narrator’s stance, so this book brings us even more starkly up against the challenging politics of Conrad, even while it beguiles with its often beautiful, though sometimes, one feels, slightly overheated, prose.


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