Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Stand By Your Man

There is something to offend nearly everyone in H.S. Whitehead’s Sweet Grass (1929).  Readers will find considerable male chauvinism, ethnic stereotypes, racism, and class warfare—in just about that order.  It will be helpful to have on hand a Dictionary of Archaic Racial Designations to decode terms like zambos, mulattoes, octoroons, and mestizos.  Titrations of non-Caucasian blood once mattered greatly in the assignment of individuals to various social classes—an odious prejudice that was still current less than a century ago, and still operative in some respects today. 

Then, as now, the human race seems neurologically primed to categorize its various members on the basis of superficial physical differences, in order to establish identity and a sense of security in the world.  The attempt to divide oneself from the other is not limited merely to racial characteristics; gender, nationality, religion, politics and social class can also be effective, especially in combination.  Anxiety is much reduced when we know exactly who we are, and who we aren’t.  At least it is until we have close encounters with people who aren’t like us.

On the surface, Sweet Grass seems intended as a parable about the supernatural consequences of miscegenation.  A fastidious young Danish man, recently transplanted to the tropical island of Santa Cruz, begins to think of marriage, or at least the steps that might lead to that arrangement.  But is he ready for commitment and conventionality?  “At first he had wondered, vaguely, how other men met this primal urge,” Whitehead writes. 

Yet all around him are the progeny of European intercourse—on various levels—with the local population.  The fragrances of the island and especially that of the “sweet grass” seems a powerful sensual metaphor for the attractive beauty displayed by island women of color.  It is no accident that “sweet grass”—probably Muhlenbergia capillaris var. filipes— is the title of the story and is referenced often throughout.  Sweet grass was used to make highly ornate baskets by Africans who were enslaved and brought to the West Indies.

One sleepless night, Cornelis, the young Dane, gets out of bed and goes downstairs to sit on the veranda.  In the moonlight, he spies a fifteen year old girl, returning from a late night stroll along the ocean.

Then the girl recognized him, her sudden smile revealing white, regular teeth set in a delicate, wide mouth, a mouth made for love.  In the transforming magic of the moonlight her pale brown skin showed like cream.

“Bathing in de sea,” she murmured explanatorily.

He beckons to her; she approaches him and they—gasp!—embrace.  But propriety instead rears its ugly head, and Cornelis pushes the girl away, marching her off the property.  It is the most active and decisive measure Cornelis takes for the remainder of the story.  Regrettably, the girl happens to be the daughter of the local mamaloi or witch-woman, but more about this later.

Horrified at his lack of self control, Cornelis promptly marries Honoria Macartney—of the “fighting Irish” Macartney’s—a woman of the local gentry who is guaranteed to possess the “domestic virtues”.  She is a very suitable woman, of good stock.  However, the young man had earlier described her in these terms:

“Somehow, to Cornelis, these young ladies of the planter gentry were not alluring, vital.  The most attractive of them, Honoria Macartney, he could hardly imagine beside him perpetually.  Honoria had the dead-white skin of the Caucasian creole lady whose face has been screened from the sun since infancy.”

It is impossible not to recall the old Loving Spoonful lyric: "Did you ever have to make up your mind?  Say yes to one and let the other one slide…"

Thus Whitehead expresses some ambivalence in the tale, which allows it to rise above superficial racism.  Safely married, the hapless Cornelis soon begins to experience unusual dermatological symptoms, and later on, dire indications of heart failure.  At this point in the story the perspective shifts from the male point of view—Cornelis’ unfulfilled sexual longing—to that of his indomitable new wife, Honoria.  She believes that men are all alike.  She’s right.  “How often had she heard her mother, and other mature women, say that!”

Honoria is determined to figure out the cause of her husband’s symptoms, which seem to have intensified not long after a local “brown girl” named Julietta began working in the household.  Julietta of course is the fifteen year old that Cornelis had spurned on the veranda one recent moonlit night.  At one point one of her husband’s white shirts goes missing. It is suspected that this personal item is now being used in some sort of black magic.  Honoria lines up all the household servants and makes this chilling threat:

“The master’s shirt is to be returned this night,” commanded Honoria imperiously.  “I shall expect to find it—on the south gallery by nine o’clock. Otherwise”—she looked about her at each expressionless face—“otherwise—the fort.  There will be a dark room for every one of you—no food, no sleep, until it is confessed.  I will have none of this in my house.  That is all.”

Until this juncture, Sweet Grass reads like a tepid soap opera, almost a comedy of manners.  However, with Honoria’s threat we are reminded of the darkness of racial oppression and subjugation, taken as routine in these islands at the time.  Though she knows or suspects her husband of dallying with Julietta, Honoria will stand by her man.  She will also stand by the colonial powers and traditions she represents. 

In the final pages of the story, Julietta is found to be complicit in a Vauxdoux “obeah”—a vengeful curse—placed on her husband.  Honoria marches the girl up the hill for a final confrontation with Julietta’s mother.  Interestingly, it falls to the woman to preserve white privilege, power and social class on this seductive and mysterious tropical island.  Alas, men are all alike.

Sweet Grass originally appeared in the July 1929 issue of Weird Tales, alongside verse by Robert E. Howard, (“Forbidden Magic”), Edmond Hamilton’s “interstellar patrol” novella Outside the Universe, and E.F. Benson’s The Wishing Well, among others.  Whitehead’s story is unique in literature of this kind in featuring women—three of them!—as relatively strong and powerful characters, albeit stereotypes.  Unlike his other stories—the ones that feature the bemused, smug, Carnacki-like character of Gerald Canevin—this one is told in the third person.  The author’s perspective is a bit more distant, allowing for a little more ambivalence, and even some timid questioning of the island’s status quo.

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