Commentary Magazine


Whisper My Name, by Burke Davis; and In the Land of Jim Crow, by Ray Sprigle

Frozen Statues

Whisper My Name.
By Burke Davis.
Rinehart. 282 pp. $2.75.

In The Land of Jim Crow.
By Ray Sprigle.
Simon and Schuster. 215 pp. $2.50.

 

Like a statue in a public park, the Jew in literature is a prey to the climate. Like a statue too, lie is frozen in one posture, defined by public taste. “When General Jackson posed for his statue, he knew how one feels.” Invariably, the Jew knows how one feels, and, invariably, this is the subject of the novel about the Jew. The climate now is sticky; the Jew has advanced from Shylock and Fagin to moral entrepreneur. Commerce, in Whisper My Name, is only the objective correlative of his creative impulse.

Thus, in Whisper My Name, money is the language of the Jew, and green the color of his sky; investment is his art. Dan, the Jewish hero, is a life-lover, a doer, set in the backward South like a scythe among weeds. As the eternal immigrant imbued with ambition, he resuscitates the South. His personality is an International Business Machine with a special set of moral keys to sum up the goyim’s failures. Stocky, hairy, ruminating on his race-memory, he finds the goy’s sex too shallow, his emotions not guttural enough, his vision lacking. He takes over the impractical, accidental goy, who is without destiny, who coasts unconsciously through life, and shows him the way.

_____________

 

But, unfortunately, Dan is an ambivalent, quasi-authentic Jew who conceals his true identity, and thus, inevitably, he falls for an archetypal shiksa, who at first seems to him a sensual specialty, like Southern-cooked chicken. He defiles her temple to savor this strange, creamy, bland American butter, whipped for centuries by a flagellant tradition. Actually, he loves Katie, a warm, vivacious newspaperwoman, the town’s intellectual, but, victimized by his inauthentic Jew’s compulsion, he marries this wax mannikin of Southern gentility, and forms a cash and psychological partnership with the core of the culture. After the marriage, disappointed with her sexually, he no longer makes love to her, but still lusts for her with his mystical assimilation-urge. For love, he keeps the délassée Katie. He gives her a fur coat, which, significantly, he drapes over her nude body, so that we see the two symbols—pelt and gelt—surrealistically juxtaposed in their full ambiguity. Katie is his muse (or mother-image): thus, when she dies—of an abortion—he cannot make money any more; i.e. he is penalized for his abortiveness, for aborting his heritage, his Jewishness, and the book ends on an ominous note of retribution.

The author of Whisper My Name has not concealed his admiration for the Jew. Thus, Dan is an epicure, music-lover, and deep-feeler. He interrupts his poetic pursuit of the dollar long enough to sponsor a Negro for alderman and comfort the mother of a Boy Scout shot in a strike. His religious compassion is favorably compared to the hoarse cries of a fanatic cult, enriching a fakir with their spectacle frames, gold teeth, and watches. Which all goes to show that the Jew is still being okayed by self—appointed apologists, and in negative terms which are simply the inverse of all the old, false charges laid against him. “They said you weren’t fit to eat with pigs, but I said you were.”

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Judging by the advertisements in Negro newspapers, many Negroes wish to whiten their skin. This desire is matched by the desire of many misguided authors to whitewash the Negro. Ray Sprigle’s In the Land of Jim Crow is another instance of the confusion of “progressive” stock responses and real perception which obscures the discussion of minority problems today.

The book is the story of a white reporter who posed as a Negro for four weeks in the South. An excellent idea: but, in becoming a Negro, the author inevitably became a very bending-over-backward and self-conscious one. Unrealistically projecting himself into only the negative aspects of the Negro’s role, he tested the limits of every situation in an abnormal manner that made the Negro’s freedom seem even less than it is. Furthermore, his “guide” was chosen by Walter White, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—which unavoidably shaped to a certain extent the kind of picture he saw. He was introduced, for the most part, to highly educated Negroes, whose conversation with a Northern stranger automatically ran to the differences between North and South. And Mr. Sprigle is not a trained anthropologist—his attitude and response, therefore, probably encouraged his hosts to speak almost exclusively of discrimination. To further indicate the dangers of autobiographical data, Gordon Allport, in The Use of Personal Documents in Psychological Science, points out that, in describing their lives, most people dwell on conflict areas and omit all mention of long periods of serenity. Also, it’s hard to believe that there are any number of white men who can kill a Southern Negro “in his tracks, in cold blood, for fun, or for no reason at all,” or “to try out a new gun,” with the assurance that “nothing will happen to the white man.”

On the positive side, In the Land of Jim Crow treats America to one of those dialogues of conscience it so urgently needs and so studiously avoids. Jim Crow is America’s blow below the belt, and unprejudiced Northerners are usually content to cry “Foul!” and do no more. Down South, Jim Crow is the primitive demonstration of the Southerner’s superiority, the symbol of his inability and unwillingness to establish an identity based on his own merit. It is one of those irrational American phenomena which survive like traumas of our violent and foundling birth on this continent. And it is, too, one of the best proofs—which foreign critics never tire of citing—that the American Way is still very wayward.

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