An idea for an Essay:
I saw Jesmyn Ward on Book TV reading from Men We Reaped. She was reading toward the end of the book, about the temptation to slash her wrists and the fear of doing it. Then she conceived a preventive measure: She tattooed her brother’s signature on each wrist because she’d never be able to cut through her brother’s writing. I didn’t think I ever heard of her before and thought I should have, so I Googled her up and read the New York Times review of her memoir.
There was a paragraph in it to the effect that her stories make clear how and why young black men in the South turn to drugs, alcohol, promiscuity and suicide, abusing their women because young black men are powerless everywhere but in the home –and I don’t like this kind of generalization, but the situation probably wasn’t much different for many of the young white men I grew up with: a sense of powerlessness, an inability to imagine a positive future. Hasn’t that always been the young man’s plight, to feel powerless? Maybe it’s the need to feel empowered at any cost before it’s time that’s the root of certain social ills. And that got me to thinking about some of the unhappy young men I’ve encountered in literature and the way their authors treat them, and the way I as a reader, and presumably other readers, have come to regard them.
I can almost understand why Uriah Heep does what he does in David Copperfield, why he feels powerless: He looks like some hideous alien life form. At least most young men, black or white, have friends. All Heep has is his mother. He’s in a situation that time isn’t likely to heal unless he resigns himself to the company of others like himself. But he’s in love with the boss’s daughter. Not a very promising mindset. He could numb his pain with drugs, alcohol or self-abuse, but he chooses theft instead. He feigns humility, inveigles his way into the trust of his alcoholic boss, and proceeds to embezzle the old man dry. From what I can see, Dickens has no more regard for Heep’s dreams of love, friendship and respectability than the cast of characters who find him out and bring him to bay. Copperfield himself repeatedly refers to Heep’s love for Agnes in terms that reveal it as something disgusting and inappropriate. Maybe it’s because Scrooge and Fagan are old sexless villains that we’re afforded at least a modicum of sympathy, but even Bill Sykes is allowed to help put out a fire and so earn a sliver of sympathy before falling to his death.
By the middle of the 20th Century, things have not changed all that much. I wrote a paper in grad school arguing that Faulkner quietly subverts the reader into feeling sympathetic toward Flem Snopes in The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion. I argued that Faulkner does this by showing Flem through everybody’s eyes but his own. All the good citizens of Frenchman’s Bend, Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County have nothing but contempt for anything Snopes. And even Snopeses, the lowest of the low, are disdainful of their cousin Flem. Much of it might be jealousy. Flem achieves a level of financial success they can only dream about. Uriah Heep would be writhing in envy.
To the extent that I stand by my thesis with respect to Flem, I do so based on Faulkner’s presenting the Snopeses as part of a post-Civil War phenomena whereby white trash sharecroppers see the erstwhile superior middle class and Southern aristocracy brought down to a level where they can economically and socially rub elbows with them. And isn’t it just too bad that Flem Snopes turns out to be a better businessman than any of them, shrewdly selling the loquacious Ratliff and all the yeoman yokels –who should certainly know better, horses they can’t even catch, let alone tame. And wouldn’t you know it, weep Uriah Heep, Flem actually marries the boss’s daughter, the Helen of Troy of the South.
I can just hear Dickens rolling over in his grave. Flem doesn’t love her, she's pregnant with someone else's kid, and Flem is nothing to Eula. He’s not revoltingly ugly like Uriah, but a plain-looking loner with zero libido, while she’s this doomed tragic goddess. At any rate it isn’t long before Flem’s running the county. Heep’s dream come true. But guess what: Flem’s as isolated as ever. Asocial and asexual, he sits alone in his mansion waiting for his crazy cousin to come end the monotony.
So how different are Flem and Uriah? Phlegmatic Flem is never fawning. He has no need of humbling himself before his betters; to him the only thing that makes them better is money. Bloodline and social grace are irrelevant, like the old plantation system. But this doesn’t give him an advantage. The only advantage he has is that he does it all himself. Heep’s big mistake is thinking he can hire someone to do his dirty work: the luckless Micawber, who turns him in. I recollect no such hireling in the Snopes trilogy. And yet one comes away from these novels with the distinct sense that one reason Snopes succeeds is that Faulkner wants him to. This is the story Faulkner wants to tell. And while he may not be interested in garnering sympathy for this devil, he does grant him a certain amount of personal dignity. He leaves the door open for readers who are so inclined to see Flem as universally maligned, not for being criminal, but for being socially isolated, inept and indifferent, for playing by the regulations of free market capital and nothing else. There may not be much going on in Flem’s mind beyond financial calculation, but he’s harmless as a villain. His victims are mostly victims of their own greed.
So what does this have to do with social ills fostered by the socio-economic impotence of youth? Maybe this is something Chuck Klosterman can sort out in some future edition of I Wear the Black Hat. He does an interesting job in that book exploring how and why we see some malefactors as evil and others as folk heroes. Neither Flem nor Uriah drinks or beats women and children. Still, suck-ups and loners make us uncomfortable. We might say we understand what motivates them, but not as much as we understand what drives young people to abuse themselves and their spouses, because these latter behaviors are the crimes and bad habits of passion, driven by frustrated blood and emotion, the sort of behaviors so many of us, though we may be happy to forget it, engaged in back in the good old days when we ourselves were young.