Thursday, February 25, 2010

I don't think it very likely that you could make us believe it - why Chesnutt repeats himself

Yesterday I provided evidence, as I do now and again, that I should not review books.*  I described the stories in The Conjure Woman as "formulaic," following a formula.  I wanted the word to be descriptive, neutral, but in the context of a book review, it is always negative, isn't it?  Mindlessly formulaic.  Not creative.

As if most books most people (and I) read are not following formulas!  Not you - you only read the most far out of the avant-gardists, of course.  But for most of us, much of the pleasure of a book lies in the variation within the formula.  Charles Chesnutt's conjure stories make the formula explicit, seven stories in a row, the same dang thing over and over again.  Except not.  By fixing certain elements of the stories, Chesnutt highlights the parts that do change, which then actually changes, deepens, the meaning of some of the unchanging parts.

A white couple moves to North Carolina to operate a vineyard.  Uncle Julius tells them stories about slave life, always involving a conjure woman's magic spell.  The wife responds sentimentally, while the husband looks for Julius's selfish economic motives.  So when Julius warns, in "The Gophered Grapevine," that the vines on a particular piece of ground are enchanted, it is to protect his own supply of scuppernongs.  When he says he doesn't like to work with mules, because they might be people ("The Conjurer's Revenge"), it's because he is trying to get his employer to buy a horse from someone he knows.  If he says a patch of woods is haunted ("The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt"), it's because Julius is concealing a source of honey.

The narrator, the employer, is the one telling us all this.  He's the clever fellow who always figures out what Julius is really up to.  He's the loving husband who describes how his wife responds incorrectly, irrationally, to Julius's stories, but let's her do what she want "as I did not wish the servants to think there was any conflict of authority in the household" ("Mars Jeems's Nightmare").

In other words, in each story the narrator is condescending to Julius and to his wife.  What is a minor part of any given story becomes more interesting as it repeats.  My favorite touch is that the narrator's "real motives" become more fanciful as the stories progress.  Maybe Chesnutt is just following his own formula, providing a punchline, and fails to come up with such good ones.  Or maybe the narrator is a fool.

The title of the post is from "The Conjurer's Revenge."  The narrator knows that Julius is trying to trick him, so he tries to draw Julius out into the open, encouraging him to tell his stories, so that he can indulge his superiority over Julius (and over his sweet but weak wife).  Then he can tell us, and the readers of The Atlantic Monthly, all about it, and we can patronize the sly (but not too sly) Negro.

Now I'm the one assuming that I'm more sophisticated, seeing through the narrator, thinking that Julius is not sly but merely intelligent, that he tells his stories for a purpose that is his own, but not necessarily material.   I'm afraid that question - why does Julius tell his stories - may be too complicated for this pass through The Comjure Woman.  Meaning, I don't know.  I'm still thinking about it.

*  Whether I should do whatever it is I normally do is a separate topic.


  1. Interesting that you characterize what you normally do as different than book-reviewing. I don't consider what I normally do as book-reviewing either, but I think of yours as one of the more review-ish book blogs, in that you seem interested in comparing the critical status of different works, evaluating & re-evaluating the canon (which I generally consider a goal of reviewers more than plain ol' readers...or whatever we in the blogging world are). Perhaps I should reconsider?

    For what it's worth, I thought your use of "formulaic" as purely descriptive came across. Slightly provocative - enough to grab the reader's attention - but clear in the context of the rest of your post.

  2. I've been enjoying these Chesnutt posts of yours, Amateur Reader, and just wanted to add that I think The Conjure Woman is a hell of a title. As far as formulas go, I'm all for sticking with the good ones myself: sub-three minute Chuck Berry songs and sub-two minute Ramones songs never grow old, for example, but I don't need to hear a five-minute version for the artists to show me they're "maturing" or "progressing." "Variation within the formula" and all that, definitely!

  3. "Variation within the Formula" would not be such a bad name for a pretentious band, or a pretentious litblog.

    I think of book reviews as the format found in Book sections of newspapers. Or that were once found etc. They
    are self-contained. They contain plot summaries. They are mildly encouraging, except for a pro forma criticism, and end with a lukewarm recommendation, and perhaps a star rating.

    Or there is the academic journal version, the analytical summary, written for people who need to know that a book exists but do not necessarily need to actually read it. See The Little Professor. That books sounds like something else.

    Or maybe you are thinking of someone like Woolf? Now there's an aspiration!

    I spent a week in April last year writing, every day, what I considered a book review. Well, four days - I ran out of reviews.

    Maybe this is something I should wrte about more. I'm not the fellow to re-evaluate the canon, though, since I like everything.

  4. I don't consider what I write as book reviews either. I just like to write about books. I do think you do a great job of capturing the issues behind literature, so keep doing what you are doing.

    Maybe I will give Chesnutt a chance!

  5. I agree with Emily that your original use of "formulaic" seemed fine and descriptive, but I'm glad you have elaborated. Because now I sort of want to read these.

    "Variation within the formula"...yep, that's what it's all about...

  6. Rebecca - give Chesnutt a chance!

    Did I mention that The Conjure Woman is only 98 pages long (Library of America pages)? A low cost book.