Monday, 20 June 2016

Here's Tae Us, Wha's Like Us?...

Observing and Imagining 'Others' in a 1934 Novel

About: J.S.Flett, Bid for Fortune: The adventures of four young men. Moray Press, Edinburgh & London, 1934. 
Note: Joseph Flett (1887-1976) had no middle initial. It seems the publishers thought he should have, and he may have chosen 'S' because many Smiths have a place on his family tree along with Fletts. (As far as is known, looking back at least to the mid-18th century, he was not related to the eminent geologist Sir John Smith Flett. Nor is there any known connection between his family and members of the Cree Nation with that surname.)

Joe Flett's novel Bid for Fortune, published in 1934, has already featured on this blog, considered both in relation to its post First World War setting and as a source of interesting sidelights on particular aspects of that context, notably the trans-Atlantic herring trade and travel in early 20th-century Newfoundland. Attributes of this kind are what can make it worthwhile to seek out and read such bygone works of fiction. At the same time, not very surprisingly if disappointingly, there are some more negative aspects to be acknowledged, in the way of attitudes and expressions of opinion, sometimes in the authorial voice, that are now, to say the least, problematic. To observe that they were apparently accepted without comment at the time of publication, and were shared by a large number of contemporary writers from the very famous to the more or less equally obscure, is not to excuse them.

'Other' stereotypes and generalisations: Race-pride and prejudice?

The idea that it is perfectly valid to generalise about large groups of people on the basis of what they are, e.g. as members of a race, nation, or gender, has not of course died out. (You only have to hear an English comedian going on about the French, and getting a reflex smug endorsement from the audience [to generalise a bit about the English].)  And arguably there is not much wrong with the thesis that a shared culture, heritage, environment and life-style may well result in certain shared characteristics being prevalent among the group. Problems arise when individuals are encountered, interacted with (or not) and judged only as belonging to the given group, with its perceived characteristics imputed to them a priori, instead of considering each as an individual. Readers of a novel like Bid for Fortune will decide for themselves where the line is crossed, and how much this sort of thing detracts from their appreciation of it - while perhaps adding to its value for cultural historians as a product of its time and even providing some incidental entertainment.

Some stereotypes are more favourable than others, and it is perhaps not surprising that the author's compatriots - his ancestors had their being in a small, close-knit (although not isolated) community in north-east Scotland for many generations - don't come off too badly. Three of the novel's main protagonists, flawed and conflicted characters though all four turn out to be, are "Scotsmen of the healthy country-bred type". This can work to their advantage as "a Scots accent helps a man along... especially in America."  Reputedly "Nobody is better at holding his tongue" than a "Scotchman". "Scotchmen" are also seen as "notoriously irascible", liable to the "ready pugnacity of the North". One of them catches himself on in the process of being "race-proud as most English and nearly all Scots are" (p.115): "What a very great country this might have been if only they had not let so many foreigners into it... would have dominated the world - of course for the world's own good..." he reflects, but then "came down from the heights of British moral superiority." Anyway, as someone points out (later, p.243) "Bandit, or pirate, or land-houper - that's how ancestors be always made."

The English are different, but then they are less fortunate, having to put up with "flat ditch-water kind of air... It's only north of the Tweed that a man can feel like a man." Boston is as "squalid as any English city". Jimmy himself is "an Englishman, not prone to easy credulity". "Snobbish English" are adjured not to despise cod and herring, important in the economic development of St John's, Newfoundland. Bad guys include "Cockneys of the worst class". To disarm suspicion it is found useful to display "truly British (as understood in America) ineptitude" and act like a "blatant specimen of the Great British Ass".  

Various sets of people come in for odd sideswipes or casual comment: "a Canadian speaking the truth, unusual for them"; "the coopers were black-avised, rough-looking Polacks instead of grimly smiling Scots". Two rum-runners have Irish names, while the book’s villain-in-chief is apparently Russian, although not much is made of this. Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is the abode of Dutchmen, praised for their boat-building. A Syrian merchant is one of the few passengers on a cross-country train; on the same journey "a darky train attendant" with the "whole-hearted smile of his race" has a sympathetic cameo role. Nova Scotia is later found to be "full of deserted farms and powerful negroes". And the sight of "hordes of priests", observed at St. George's, is taken as a portent of "ill luck". 
On a giant liner there are "many jovial and sociable Americans and Canadians" making the voyage like "a big children's party". However: "The Americans didn't despise law-breakers; the only thing they really despised was poverty" - and (p.218) "Crime in America was a close corporation, something like a trade union. Each gang had its own district, its own hand-fed police..." Lawlessness entails the "need to travel Pullman - first-class was a risk in America, in the immediate post-war years. Third-class was good enough for any reasonable person in Britain."  The captain of a schooner has "Red-Indian-like features" but Native Americans don't appear as such, until the rather sudden announcement that the object of the sort-of-main character's affection is (p.272) "a native princess in her own right".

Portrayal of Jewish characters

The most obvious, recurrent and disturbing examples of racial stereotyping in the book occur in relation to Jewish characters, giving rise to colourable allegations of anti-semitism. It should perhaps be said that this accusation came as a surprise to some of those closest to the author, who did not recall him ever having expressed such views and thought them out of character. But it is hard to deny that the book lays itself open to it; there is a case to answer. Picked out and listed (as follows), the references to and characterisations of Jews do begin to look like a regular preoccupation, if not bordering on obsession, although no doubt in the less prejudice-aware 1930s it would have been easier to miss, among so much else in the book. And the "else", as has been shown, includes many other generalisations about various nationalities or kinds of people and even, at one point, something like a self-subverting send-up of such notions.

The root of the preoccupation may be indicated in the remark passed by one of the four central characters, Tommy, in relation to their plans: "We'll all bud out into herring importers, gaberdines and all. I understand the cured-herring trade in America is a pet preserve of the Chosen Race." The remark is particularly unsettling given who else was making similar complaints when it was published (in the mid-1930s), and what that led to. Its point is reinforced in the authorial and other voices as the narrative progresses. Adam in Glasgow finds himself "an amateur amongst experts" to wit "a little group of men, Jewish of feature but very American in accent, flitting about, following two coopers...noticing subtle differences..." who are seen as being "a' the time tryin' to deceive..." i.e. to get themselves the best deal. (One man's deceitful cunning is another's business acumen.) In relation to the herring trade, Flett was writing about what he knew, so it is probable that his comments (appreciation of expertise) were based on experience and observation, and not entirely unbiased (competition for native traders): "The fishing trade is an important one in Scotland, ranking next to agriculture..." (p.99).

Across the Atlantic: "The herring business seemed to be entirely in the hands of Jews" who treated it with "tremendous seriousness", sampling and taking bites of raw herring. A fellow Scot ventures to "hope ye'll mak the Jews sit up... things ower much their ain way." They are not always successful and enviable, however. On his cross-country train Jimmy encounters a  "New York Jew", who insists on recounting the "history of his life ... the usual hard-luck story with which nobody has any patience"; in fact he has been the victim of a swindle involving herring. Jimmy "felt sorry for him"; and "quite, or almost quite, believed his story" but can't be doing with his volubility, a sore trial to the taciturn Brit.

Not all the Jews' supposed attributes are negative, for example being "munificent to employees whom they valued"; and having "the tenacity of purpose of [this] race" as well as the "racial instinct to haggle" and a capacity for "real inveterate Jewish enmity". On the second-last page, "New York was pleasantly warm... even the Jews relaxing a little to the geniality of nature." Apart from such anonymous or minor characters - "a Polish sort of Jew at that"; "a Jew syndicate back of us" according to a rival gang in the rum-running episode - there are two who play significant parts in the story.

The more pejoratively presented, Maurice Levitt, is "smart" and young, whose intelligence and witticisms appeal to Adam without disarming his distrust; expecting to be deceived, he pre-emptively deceives Maurice by trying to appear thoroughly naïf. He is invited to lunch, welcomed into the home circle; introduced to "all kinds of Jew" and included in theatre parties, but inevitably his suspicions turn out to be justified. It may be that Maurice is based on someone known to the author - there was some word of him having been let down or cheated by an American business partner - and Jewish characters may of course be less than perfect (the Scottish friends have no strong claim to moral high ground either); the pernicious aspect is the implicit linking of his race with his defects. This tendency is reinforced when he is given a passage of internal monologue, with the obnoxious admission that he "despised the Britishers, yet secretly cringed before them". He claims to have spent three years in Scotland. His attempts to win Adam over include an allusion to him being "a hit with the girls" and an interesting riff on post-traumatic stress when Adam displays an exaggerated startle response: (p.222) "I should have remembered that you've been through the War," he said contritely. "I've noticed lots of our ex-soldiers jumpy like that, easy startled, can't bear to be touched. A terrible strain on the nerves it must have been. And long continued... It seems to have affected everyone who went through it, one way or another."

By comparison, Mr. Rufus Maclevy doesn't come off so badly. Adam and Jimmy, the characters who display most affinity with their author, each discover eventually that the "can't help liking Rufus" - whose first appearance has been as the victim, chosen for his affluence and accessibility, of the four friends' first attempt at seriously illegal activity, to wit kidnap and extortion. He is able to assess the fairly low level of risk they pose and to strike a bargain, initiating their subsequent adventures. In the end, having cemented their alliance against Rakovsky, the "virtual king of the underworld", it is he whose cunning plan and substantial resources extricate them from danger and difficulties and set them on a more acceptable course of life. "You can't beat the Jew, now can you, I ask you?" they conclude (p.265), with evident appreciation, adding a Biblical quotation: "... the more they were smitten the more they flourished and multiplied."

Future patriarch JF with his eldest son.
Canada, 1920-21

What about the women?

Given its date (1934) and best-fit genre (adventure story/ crime caper) it is not surprising that women don't get much of a look-in on the main action and are "other", even alien to the main characters, whose male bonding and default assumptions (carried over from the war and/or rooted in their culture) preclude their involvement on equal terms. Jimmy, in chapter 1 and a state of mind he later repudiates (blaming it on his experiences in the war), reflects that "Neither the War, nor that worse enemy, Women, had robbed him of his youth..." while "The women! - clean and sweet and gracious; they were what made life worth living. But he had met few of that kind." Later he "avoided women". They nevertheless pop up from time to time as part of the landscape or to add a bit of colour and detail: a "young coloured woman, quadroon or octoroon or some such blend"; a maternity nurse going to St. George's; a reference to "women being caught trying to smuggle valuable lace"; prohibition "killing the young men and corrupting the young women"; beautiful women in Boston, "frank and fearless enough." Adam resorts to flirting with a young widow although such behaviour was "out of his character" and is encouraged to revisit Maurice's wife and his "little friend Lucille", being supposedly "a hit with the girls". At one point (p.156) Jock and Tommy find themselves "comfortable and jolly here, in a house that held seven buxom and flirtatious daughters..." constituting a "Mohammedan (but, we hasten to add, completely innocent) paradise ..."

Only one female, Nelly Brown, appearing after more than 50 pages, is given a full name, along with a distinctive voice of her own, and a key role in the main action. She is notably transgressive, being one of the most deadly criminal gang who lures Tommy into their clutches (albeit protesting when it looks as though he may be killed) and later persuades him and two of the other pals into a planned escape so that they can be followed. She also persuades them to finance her own escape from the gang, purportedly to set her up in a little shop in her native village. Tommy is happy to believe they have had the "chance to pull a girl out of the mire and set her on her feet again". He briefly considers the idea of her joining in their enterprise, only to realise "a woman would spoil everything". He perceives the plight of "a girl on her own" which is also Nelly's rationale for what she does: (p.68) "It was a hard old world... Aw, well, he was only a man anyway. She hated men. Disgusting, sensual brutes... They cared nothing for women except in the satisfaction of their brutish appetites. Or the tickling of their contemptible vanity. They ruined girls, then laughed and crowed over it..."

A different kind of female is on hand when rescue, rest and recovery, and at last a personal (quasi-existentialist) resolution are required for Jimmy. Not that their first meeting is conventional; saved from hypothermia and exhaustion by a woman's cry and "surrendering control once he recognised safety" he ends up being nursed by Cissie and her sister Susie, but not without being attacked by their axe-wielding mother. Passing over this incident - "She's had a hard life, and now she's got crazy about money; but we'll take good care she doesn't get the chance again" - he lapses into "voluptuous ease", "utterly content for the first time since the War" and enjoying the "atmosphere, familiar to the lucky amongst us, of being petted and nursed by devoted women.." as in the "paradise of the true believer". It has been explained that two men of the family are away for most of the winter and one is working elsewhere, and that "Susie would be going away in the fall. There was no keeping young girls at home nowadays; they would go... Young gels got desperate like when there wasn't no young men about. But Cissie was a good quiet girl, content with the day's work." Apart from this, the sisters are not clearly differentiated; they share a physical description - sheeny golden brown hair, friendly eyes, musical voices, soft cheeks, and "both had that peculiarly well-bred manner, direct and fearless. treating all as equals and none as superiors, of those brought up in the complete independence of the wilds."  After further adventures and a deal of introspection, Jimmy decides that it's Cissie who is "the only girl in the world for him" and duly finds her waiting for him. - [THE END]

Rumour has it that the "love interest" was a late addition at the behest of the publisher, which may be seen as some kind of plea in mitigation. It seems they had nothing to say about the more regrettable features of the work, as quoted and criticised above.

Anyway that's probably enough to be going on with about this (not quite deservedly?) obscure, almost forgotten novel - unless anyone has the bright idea of organising a new edition, or an adaptation for radio, film or TV... Could work?