American Riffraff

posted in: Mother, Literature | 0

It was my mother’s term, the snooty, smalltown mayor’s daughter from North Dakota–riffraff. Whom she meant, years ago when I began to hear her choice of words, I don’t know–maybe some of my teenage friends. But now it pops up as the perfect word for Faulkner’s Snopes family in The Hamlet (1940) and Thomas Hart Benton’s swirling kaleidoscope of middle-America from before the Second World War.

We like to pretend we don’t have classes in the United States, but they’re there. At the bottom in coastal Carolina where I grew up, they were shiftless, slovenly, poor, and anemic riffraff. Anemic because they ate dirt, so the whisper went. Did I actually know any? Maybe a few, but largely they existed on the edges of my high school class, brought into our small town by school bus from the country. Rumor had it that one of the prettiest set herself up in a car after the basketball games and took young studs, one at a time. Whether she charged, I don’t know.

I’ve just finished listening to a marvelous rendition of William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, set in the hill and creek country around his fictional Jefferson, Mississippi. The hamlet is Frenchman’s Bend, and the riffraff are the wildly expansive family called Snopes who threaten and eventually conquor the hegemony of the wealthy but far from aristocratic Varners. In between these fluid extremes are the folks in the middle, largely all men who sit on the veranda of the village store and provide a Greek chorus. Their lead, but far more active participant, is the traveling sewing- machine salesman V.K.Ratliff. Ratliff, who nominally lives in Jefferson with his sister, has a room in Mrs. Littlejohn’s boarding house when he’s on the road. He provides moral commentary in a laconic understatement, enhanced by shrewd, silent assessments.

Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton was Faulkner’s contemporary. But whereas Faulkner largely stayed put in Mississippi until the 1930s when he went on and off to Hollywood, Benton as young man studied in New York and Paris, and tried all the impressionist, expressionist, cubist styles of advancing European modernism. None of them stuck. Instead, with his flaming temper, he extricated himself from the New York art scene and returned to Kansas City, Missouri, where he went about imbuing his native state with some of his greatest murals. With shifting focus, huge close-ups of a man washing his hair, distant scenes of church-goers, travelers; huge muscled and elongated workers, small profiles of children, church steeples, hay stacks, locomotives, combines, smelters, he catalogues and celebrates the life of working-class and suited politicians like his father and grandfather–dances, school rooms, harvesting, on and on. His student Jackson Pollock represented the next, entirely disparate Abstract Expressionist artistic generation, but from Benton, Pollock learned to portray compelling motion as the major theme of huge works. The physicality of motion, says critic Lloyd Goodrich, describing what Benton did best: physicality, scale, and I’d add riffraff.

In The Hamlet, the last section called Peasants begins with the swirling stampeding hoedown of wild spotted horses, barb-wired together and dragged into Frenchmen’s Bend by a Texan in a surrey. In the hamlet’s first encounter with these horses, one of them splits the Texan’s vest right down the back. Thomas Hart Benton could have done a wonderful mural of the horses and their depredations–one gallops down the hall in Mrs. Littlejohn’s boarding house; another climbs into the wagon with the Tulls, turning it over on a bridge and rendering Mr. Tull unconscious, his face full of splinters. This unbridled energy exactly equals the artist’s swirling, all-over, wildly exaggerated figures. Where Grant Wood portrayed the stillness, even rigidity of middle America, circa 1930, Faulkner and Benton gave us its outlandish creative action.

But Faulkner is the greater creator: There are sharp, quiet minds at work on the Hamlet’s riffraff. In fact, the most pronounced of which lies with the quiet methodical Flem Snopes himself, undeviating (one of Faulkner’s favorite words) in his dress–white shirt, small black string tie, squash cap, and filthy grey trousers–and equally undeviating in his calculations. He takes over running Varner’s store because he never makes a mistake in totaling a bill. And by the end of the novel, he’s calculated exactly what will bamboozle even Ratliff.

I know where to go to find the equal of Benton–Socialist Realism under Communism portrays the same gigantic figures, exaggerated in scale and physique, as they turn work into heroic parables. But to find the equal of Faulkner, we’d have to go back to the roots of American tall tales because he beds his fiction so deep in imagination and detail, slowly unfolding and sparkling in prediction of doom that we inhabit it fully, believing as if the spade or mule traces or baked sweet potato were part of our daily chewing. I know that his earlier works–The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying–are more admired, but for sheer plentitude and command of our belief, I recommend The Hamlet.

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