And The World
by Yvonne Georgina Puig
I began reading The Member of the Wedding in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August of 2006. The experience was up there with hearing Mozart’s Requiem in concert for the first time, or seeing that Van Gogh at the Musee D’Orsay, the church with the brilliant blue sky, or watching Amarcord, a holy occurrence which yields the bewildering question, how have I lived fill-in-the-blank years without having seen this, read this, heard this? There is my life before reading this book, and my life after.
Frankie is twelve, and it’s the end of summer. She, her six-year-old cousin John Henry, and Berenice, the black, glass-eyed housekeeper, mull around the kitchen. Outside, the sidewalks are hot. The moths spread their wings against the summer screens. It’s the dog days. We begin to lose our minds. Everything is amplified.
The failure of little John Henry’s biscuit man to remain a charming and intact biscuit man out of the oven sounds comedic and anecdotal here, but in the story it is significant, because August in the South is menacing, because every event in a late summer kitchen the week before school starts when you’re just a kid is significant. The biscuit man was bound to failure. So there is the kitchen, and the world.
The kitchen was a sad and ugly room, McCullers writes. John Henry had covered the walls with queer, child drawings, as far up as his arm would reach. This gave the kitchen a crazy look, like that of a room in the crazy-house. And now the old kitchen made Frankie sick. The name for what had happened to her Frankie did not know, but she could feel her squeezed heart beating against the table edge.
Frankie is angry because she isn’t a part of the world. She wants to grow up. She is stuck in the kitchen and too tall, and she dreams of seeing snow. She wants to be free: Frankie stood looking up and down the four walls of the room. She thought of the world, and it was fast and loose and turning, faster and looser and bigger than ever it had been before.
The frightening caveat in Frankie’s predicament is that the conflict of entering the world, of feeling right in the world, will not end. School starts, Fall brings renewal, and Frankie grows out of her meanness. But the world remains mean, will remain mean, and Frankie, all of us, alienated.
Frankie senses this inevitability in Berenice, without fully understanding the truth of it. She, Berenice, and John Henry sit around criticizing God. The world of the Holy Lord God Berenice Sadie Brown was a different world, and it was round and just and reasonable. First, there would be no separate colored people in the world, but all human beings would be light brown color with blue eyes and black hair. There would be no colored people and no white people to make the colored people feel cheap and sorry all through their lives. No colored people, but all human men and ladies and children as one loving family on the earth. And when Berenice spoke of this first principle her voice was a strong deep song that soared and sang in beautiful dark tones leaving an echo in the corners of the room that trembled for a long time until silence.
McCullers possessed a profound sense of justice, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her own suffering. She died at fifty after a litany of illnesses that began with a battle with rheumatic fever in high school. Her characters suffer, but they are not victims, and they share a sort of hope for redemption from a predictable life. They are ordinary, but aware. And they are never smug or entitled.
Southern writers cannot be smug because they know where they come from, women in particular. They require their histories. In a way, Southern writing ultimately turns its back on the literary cliques which grant its admission. The writer is first, above all, Southern, and the South is too real, too gruesome to care. “I must go home periodically,” McCullers said, after moving to New York, “to renew my sense of horror.”
The twelve-year-old longing to see snow is the grown-up writer imagining an alternate history. What would it be like to love, and to believe in, your home? John Henry gets meningitis, and dies in October, on the Tuesday after the Fair, “a golden morning of the most beautiful butterflies, the clearest sky.”
Yvonne Georgina Puig is the contributing editor to This Recording. She lives in Los Angeles. Her tumblr is here.
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