Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ethan Frome

If you dig deep enough and you will find a story. And this search for a story will reveal a moment that is life altering. It is a moment where the the heavens above tilt one way or the other, and the course of the stars change for good or bad, and one's life is moved from happiness to desperation and misery, or, the other way around. A good storyteller who properly tells the story, will reveal that there exist other moments, other events, and other decisions that play a part in that final moment.

Edith Wharton, through the literary device of the flashback, uses an unnamed narrator to tell the story of Ethan Frome, a strikingly tall man with a powerful look despite his lameness, a man who now looks as if he was "dead and in hell." In what happened twenty-four years before, lies the story - a young man whose dreams were dashed by the decisions of those around him, and, ultimately, by his own choice.

Laid up in the small New England town of Starkfield for the winter, the narrator sets out to learn the mysterious story. When a violent snowstorm forces the narrator into an overnight stay at the Frome household, the narrator is told the story by Ethan himself.

Flashback - Ethan is walking through snowy Starkfield at midnight. In the basement lights of a village church, Ethan catches sight of a young girl in a cherry-colored scarf. She is his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who has been living with the Fromes for over a year, helping to take care of the house and Ethan's sickly and bitter wife Zeena.

When the dance lets out, Ethan catches up with Mattie to walk her home. A sense of thrill is apparent between Ethan and Mattie, which, when the two arrive home, is also apparent to the sickly Zeena. Without a word to Zeena and with thoughts only of Mattie, Ethan goes to bed.

Ethan 's opportunity to be alone with Mattie comes the next day when his wife announces that she has decided to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, and will spend the night there with relatives. Ethan is excited  and goes into town to make a lumber sale, but hurries home to Mattie in time for supper.

The evening meal between the two is a scene of non-verbalized thoughts; as well as, the unspoken presence of Zeena, symbolized by a favorite pickle dish which falls to the floor and shatters. Ethan fails in his courage to express his inner thoughts and the two separately go to bed. The next day Zeena returns and informs Ethan that her health is failing quickly and that she plans to hire someone to replace Mattie.

Spurred on by Zeena's resolve to remove Mattie from the house,  Ethan goes to the kitchen and kisses Mattie passionately. He tells Mattie of Zeena’s plans, but the moment is interrupted by Zeena herself. That evening, Ethan contemplates his choices. Unable to prevent Mattie's dismissal, Ethan contemplates eloping with Mattie, and even begins to draft a letter of farewell to Zeena. But considering his financial situation, Ethan realizes that his dream is unreal.

At breakfast the next day, Zeena announces plans for Mattie’s departure and the arrival of the new hired girl. Later, Ethan steals into town with a plan to collect an advance on a recently delivered lumber load, and thereby pay for his and Mattie's escape. But, on the way,  Ethan encounters a neighbor's wife who praises him for his patience in caring for the ailing Zeena. Her words touch his conscience and he returns to the farm..

Against Zeena’s wishes, Ethan decides to drive Mattie to the railroad station himself. Ethan takes a roundabout route and ends up stopping at the top of the village hill. There they agree to fulfill a sledding adventure they once proposed but had never undertaken. After the first run prompts Mattie suggests a second, but with a different purpose. Together, they will run the sled into the elm tree at the foot of the hill, and end their last moments together. Ethan rejects her idea initially, but is won over. Together, they lock themselves in a final embrace headed down the hill toward the big elm. After the collision, Ethan languidly reached out to touch Mattie's hair and feel her face. In the darkness that enveloped them, he saw her weakly open her eyes and say his name.

Twenty years forward and the narrator enters the Frome's kitchen where two frail and aging women bicker. The drone of their querulous chatter stops as the narrator enters; Frome, glancing about at the poor condition of the room, apologizes for the cold. Then, he introduces the narrator to the two women - the first a tall bony figure, with pale opaque eyes revealing nothing and reflecting nothing, as his wife, "Mis' Frome", and to the second seated, paralyzed woman in the chair by the fire, with eyes that had a dark-witch like stare, as —"Miss Mattie Silver".

Edith Wharton likely based her story of Ethan Frome on an incident that she had heard about early in her life. In 1904 a sledding accident involving four girls and one boy occurred on Courthouse Hill in Lennox, Massachusettes. One of the girls was killed when the sled struck a lamppost.

Wharton heard about the story from another of the girls who became her friend later in life. As tragic events go, it was the death of the girl that was long remembered. It remained for Edith Wharton to give the event a story that would live on. And while the story of Ethan Frome is fictitious, the characters and events are real enough that they resonate with readers even today.

Monday, April 18, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

The longer I live, the more I learn, that if one looks hard enough, there is a connection to anything and everyone.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, it became an instant success and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It became successful, because like so few other books, it novelized a subject that America desperately wanted to talk about, but, for which America could not find the words. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn are but two earlier examples of America's frustration of dealing with the touchy subject of race in America. In Harper Lee's case, the subject was the highly inflammatory subject, to Southerners and many Northerners, of black men and white women.For Harper, the events of her novelized story followed the events that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old. To the American nation, the events also recalled the misjustice that befell the "Scotsboro Boys", over an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931. I repeat the word"boys" because that was the vernacular of the day, just as Mark Twain used the word "nigger" in Huck Finn.

For two decades following the arrest of the nine black  teenagers for a crime they never committed, , "the struggle for justice of the 'Scottsboro Boys,'  made celebrities out of nobodies, launched and ended careers, wasted lives and produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America's political views."

This was surely fresh in the minds of America when Harper Lee brought out her novel about a lone white lawyer struggling to ensure justice in a bigoted southern town.The book was quickly made into a movie two years later. It starred Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch the lawyer. The reaction was even greater than the book. Wikipedia summarizes the awards:

The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. Additionally, the AFI ranked the movie second on their 100 Years... 100 Cheers list, behind It's a Wonderful Life. The film was ranked number 34 on AFI's list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, but moved up to number 25 on the 10th Anniversary list. In June 2008, the AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. To Kill a Mockingbird was acknowledged as the best film in the courtroom drama genre.
 I could say that my connection to the film is my own childhood which paralleled that of Scout, the six-year-old narrator who grew up in a segregated south and observed the injustice of racial discrimination. I could say that as a lawyer, when I was older and practicing law, that I too took on cases that were never popular or politically correct. No, that is not the connection which intrigues me.

Instead, it is Harper Lee's sense of history as a framework in which all stories begin. Chapter One, page one. Harper Lee as Scout explains that the story begins not with the trial. Rather, it begins much earlier.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch (the progenitor of the Atticus Finch line) would never have paddled up the Alabama and where would we be if he hadn't? ...
 It was customary for t6he men in the family to remain on Simon's homestead, Finch's Landing, and make their living from cotton. The place was self-sufficient: modest in comparison with the empires around it, the Landing nevertheless produced everything required to sustain life, except ice, wheat flour, and articles of clothing, supplied by river-boats from Mobile.
The only thing Scout, a.k.a. Harper Lee, neglects to mention is that the land that produced the cotton was the product of slave labor of those black men and women that Atticus would later champion.

My grandfather was born in Alabama in the 1888. Before him, his grandfather, my great great grandfather, came to Alabama from Georgia and farmed the cotton in central Alabama not far from the Tallapposa River. The Alabama River of which Harper Lee speaks is formed by the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers, which unite about six miles above Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Once upon a time Montgomery was the capital of the Confederate States of America. My great grandfather was a doctor and his brother a lawyer, both in Montgomery.  But I do not know if they took on the challenges of injustice that Atticus Finch willingly took on.

Since, according to Harper Lee, Southerners are all about ancestors, mine came to Alabama before Simon Finch, I feel a little more regal in my heritage than she has a right to. I say this because Tallapoosa River land was the frontier before Alabama River land. Atticus Finch went to Montgomery to read law as did my great grandfather's brother. My great grandfather went to Montgomery to study medicine.

I digress, a problem of which my children frequently complain. The salient point that I am trying to make is that the Finches, like my own family, dispossessed the Creeks of Alabama in order to make a living raising cotton on the backs of slave labor. Now that is a burden to carry. And it is understandable that Harper Lee mentions the Creek Indians in only one sentence and the slave labor that raised the cotton not at all.

Each of us has to live our lives. Our moral standards are set early in life. The effect we have on others is how we act, not in the history of our fathers, or their fathers before them. And so Atticus Finch's principled stand against justice marks a turning point in the relationship of blacks and whites. Even Gregory Peck as Atticus learned from others. His lesson was is less of a legal one, than the human need to respect others regardless of color.

Color is not merely black and white. It is red and yellow and all shades in between. Alabama and much of the Southeastern United States was once inhabited by Indian tribes. For that matter, all of America was inhabited by Indians prior to the arrival of the first Europeans at Jamestown. The succeeding generations of all those who have gone before must not forget the past. But we must also remember to act like Atticus Finch in a time of crisis. Do the right thing.

My grandfather moved on from Alabama many years ago. Even then I know that I have relatives still living on the land once possessed by the Creek Indians. The cotton farms are gone, even if after the Civil War free black men and women picked the cotton that supplied the means of life to the new owners of the land. Guilt is something that is born by all of us.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Charlie Chaplin's Birthday

April 16 is Charlie Chaplin's 122nd birthday, but I would rather write about his wife Oona O'Neill Chaplin and her relationship with her father Eugene O'Neill. As you read on you can also watch Google's tribute to Charlie on his birthday.

Oona, Lady Chaplin was the daughter of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O'Neill and writer Agnes Boulton, and the wife of British actor, director and producer Charlie Chaplin.

Eugene O'Neill was the author of Long Days Journey into the Night, the semi-autobiographical story of his own depression and alcoholism. Eugene and Agnes had two children Shane and Oona. Oona was born in 1925 while her parents were living in Bermuda, during a period of heavy drinking by her father. In 1929, dad left mom for another actress. Oona rarely saw her father after that.

Agnes Boulton wrote of O'Neill in her autobiography, Part of a Long Story (1953): "He never seemed to be what is called drunk, but there would be some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence when he appeared more like a madman than anything else."

Oona decides to pursue acting instead of attending Vassar College. At age 17, she meets 53 year old Charlie Chaplin. Father Eugene O'Neill refuses to give Oona his consent to marry Chaplin and disinherits Oona continuing to ignore her for the rest of his life. Oona and Charlie wed and live happily thereafter, having 8 children over a marriage that spans 35 years.

Eugene O'Neill is a turd who obviously can't come to terms with his own life. He goes on drinking binges and speaks of suicide. When sober, he writes prodigiously. He projects his own insecurities and failures onto his children. Oona's older half-brother, Eugene O'Neill Jr., was the son of a woman to whom papa O'Neill had reneged on a promise to marry before attaining success as a writer. This younger O'Neill, like father, suffered from alcoholism then, unlike father, committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40. Oona's brother Shane became a heroin addict. He moved into the family home in Bermuda, where he supported himself by selling off the furnishings. Father also disinherits him before the other son commits suicide by jumping out of a window years later.

Oona finds happiness with Charlie Chaplin despite the age difference and despite Charlie's fading success in movies as "talkies" replace the silent film. The couple eventually moves to Switzerland because of Charlie's tax problems and the label of communist sympathizer by the US government. Oona renounces her US citizenship in protest.

In 1981 when Oona saw Jack Nicholson film Reds, where he portrayed her distant father, she wrote him a letter saying, "Thanks to you, I now can love my father". Nicholson remarked that "that is the best compliment I ever got".

After Charlie Chaplin's death in 1977, Oona fought her own unsuccessful battle with alcoholism. She died in Switzerland of pancreatic cancer in 1991.