Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Alien Past

"The past is a foreign country" (from a 1953 novel, THE GO-BETWEEN, by British author L. P. Hartley).

Recently I felt struck by the reality of this now-proverbial remark when I read THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett. Here's my summary of this novel from the mini-review that will be in my upcoming August newsletter:

"Stockett, writing about the time and place of her own childhood, tells a story of black maids and their employers in Mississippi of the early 1960s. Skeeter, a young, college-educated woman who wants to become a writer, gets her first job as a journalist writing a column of housekeeping tips. Since she knows nothing about cleaning or cooking, she composes answers to readers' letters by seeking advice from a friend's maid, Aibileen. Skeeter gradually has her eyes opened to the circumstances of the lives of colored 'help' to which she'd previously been oblivious. She gets the idea of compiling a book of interviews with maids, which she hopes to submit to a New York book editor who has written her a couple of blunt but slightly encouraging letters. With great difficulty, Skeeter persuades Aibileen to grant interviews, and Aibileen eventually manages to get other maids to participate. It takes a last-straw local incident of racial injustice to overcome their fears, though. All of them know, and Skeeter comes to realize, that if their pseudonyms and the concealment of the stories' location are penetrated, catastrophic results will probably ensue. Loss of jobs could be the least of reprisals. Stockett tells the story in first person through the voices of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny, a maid who has trouble keeping jobs because of her reputation for 'sass.' Skeeter, considered unattractive because of her height and unruly hair, gets constant nagging from her mother about her appearance and the possibility that she won't find a husband. Of course she has to conceal her work on the interviews from her family as well as her middle-class friends in the local women's League. In particular, everyone in the project is terrified of the probable reaction of Hilly, the overbearing, catty dictator of the League. A recurring plot motif focuses on Hilly's obsession with separate bathrooms for whites and blacks in the homes of white employers. Aibileen, for all the strength she displays in every other area, can't bring herself to leave the husband who intermittently beats her. Minny gets a job with a woman who not only doesn't know how to fit into local society but also has no clue about proper relations between white ladies and the 'help.' Her employer, Miss Celia, keeps a tragic secret from her husband, and secrets related to other characters come out as the story progresses. All these events happen against the background of the social and political turmoil of the civil rights movement."

How alien these characters' attitudes seem to me, and yet the story takes place during the period of my own teenage years. Of course, I grew up in Virginia, which probably makes a difference; not only is the past a different country, in reading this book I realized more strongly than before that Virginia and the true Deep South were also "different countries." In THE HELP almost every middle-class household has "help." Most of the people I knew didn't have maids coming in to clean!

Currently a list I subscribe to has an ongoing discussion about "the century with the greatest changes," contending whether the 19th or the 20th century saw the most radical changes in human society. There's also an argument about whether the changes we've experienced since 1970 have been mainly incremental or truly quantum shifts. C. S. Lewis, in his inaugural lecture upon taking up his chair at Cambridge, places "The Great Divide" in European culture somewhere in the 19th century, on scientific, technological, social, political, artistic, and religious grounds. This page summarizes the lecture lucidly with lots of direct quotes:

The Great Divide

What technological and social developments catalyzed truly radical change in the past century? In your lifetime? What elements of our society would seem strangest to a time traveler from 100 years ago? Fifty years ago? In some cases they might be things the traveler expects to find and doesn't. Edward Bellamy in LOOKING BACKWARD, at the end of the 19th century, portrayed the world of the year 2000 as a planet-wide socialist utopia. Robert Heinlein's early fiction predicted moon colonies by now. On the other hand, I don't think anybody looking at the first automobiles around 1900 foresaw the social changes widespread access to individual mobility would bring into existence.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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