Tuesday, May 5, 2009

An Interesting Social Study by Kristin Hunter

This is Becca's Book Blog's 29th post - but only its 2nd concerning a Black author, its 8th concerning the work of female authors... which is a shame - as I'm a young, Black woman.

I'm now making a point to write about Black and female authors - with an emphasis on the intersection of the two conditions - a space in which I reside, happily.

First is a short story published in 1967 by Kristin Hunter, "An Interesting Social Study". I couldn't find the story reproduced ANYWHERE online, so I've typed and posted it on an auxiliary blog started for this very purpose.

Read An Interesting Social Study HERE.

A micro-reading of An Interesting Social Study may turn up more than a few issues... the overuse of adjectives and adverbs and prosaic repetition of dialogue structures ("she said", "she inquired", et al, et al), but besides, there is much to love in Kristin Hunter's story of an evening drink between old and new acquaintances on a porch in a 1960's Jersey Shore town, Cape May.

The story's young female protagonist is never named, only referred to as "the new resident", and is the only character whose thoughts are explicitly revealed to the reader. There are two other characters: Mrs. Powell, who is quickly established as the director of the story's coming action, whose "tone less of invitation than command" is not to be refuted, whose invitations are so coveted as to resemble "the instant fulfillment of a wish in childhood", whose "booming voice of authority" delivers "incontrovertible orders" to all around her. And her longtime friend Corinna who, by Mrs. Powell's declaration is "dumb", a "one hundred per cent fool", and who "accepted Mrs. Powell’s tyranny, as if [it] were divinely ordained circumstance."

What isn't immediately obvious is that Mrs. Powell and Corinna are White and the new resident is Black. The initial physical descriptions of Mrs. Powell and Corinna are as follows:

[Mrs. Powell was] an unusually tall and bony woman with a magnificently lined face which depicted, clearly as a graph, a mixed history of pleasure and pain...

[Corinna] was a plump woman of vague shape and features, with wispy dyed-red hair; like her hostess, near sixty; and dressed, like her, for a city luncheon, in a silk suit, polished straw hat, and quantities of pearls. Except that Mrs. Powell's hair was uncompromisingly short and gray, and her pearls were real.

Corinna refers to local blue collar workers as "colored" early in the story, which was not cause for alarm in 1967, when An Interesting Social Study was published, but it's clear that her referral establishes "colored" as other. The new resident, once she's sufficiently inebriated by Mrs. Powell, reveals that she'd done her undergraduate studies at Spelman College - a Historically Black Women's College. When the races of the women become apparent, the story finds its footing.

The setting, Cape May in summer, and its signs of social progression, not unlike in Yates' Revolutionary Road, mirrors the reluctantly changing attitudes of its inhabitants. In Revolutionary Road, "three swollen villages had lately been merged by a wide and clamorous highway called Route Twelve" - and along this new highway, commercial properties, "KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT," spring up - all while the sly elitism of young, suburban families prompt resentment toward any lingering signs of what was once an uncouth rural town. Similarly, in An Interesting Social Study, both Cape May's new and old residents can feel a shift in the town's culture:
...There was no longer any clear pattern of segregation on Cape May’s beaches. A strong tide seemed to have scattered the varicolored bodies of bathers as randomly as shells. But last night she had noticed the stately old hotels floating at the edge of the water like giant ghost ships, empty, yet lit from stem to stern. They had given her an eerie feeling, and she had turned her back on the ocean wind and hurried home, shivering.
The tide of change brings integration to the historically relaxed, carefree shore town, and also, by Mrs. Powell's admission had divide it into "'two towns... the old summer people, and the new summer people. The old people... kind of wooden-headed and slow, and it takes them along time to make up their minds about new thing." The old people like Cape May's old hotels, their ghostly, stately manner, leave the new resident unsettled - her first encounter with Mrs. Powell described by the narrator as awkward, stiff, uncomfortable... understandable as Mrs. Powell herself "looked monumental and splendid as the old beach front hotels, and as lonely." Lonely because Cape May's newer, younger residents seem "to be flocking to the ugly new nightclub down on the beach instead," - Mrs. Powell because her position of near omnipotence ("The new resident thought... Before this evening is over, you’ll know everything about me too. That’s probably why you invited me up here on your porch. You make it your business to know everything.... And I’ll bet you’re the one who tells all the other old people what to think. I’ll bet you run the whole town by yourself...") in Cape May is also one of isolation.

In this seaside town, these women, from different places, separated by decades, generations, are able to find common ground - each providing the other with what she seeks in her visit.

In this strangely colored twilight that falls on the southernmost point on the Jersey shore, the newest resident’s hands, as they caught the arms of the rocker were tinted a soft mauve, while the faces of the older women, who had already spent a month in the sun, were deeper variations of the same shade.
The new resident's studies to be a social worker lend themselves to aiding Mrs. Powell's blatant alcoholism, as Mrs. Powell herself suggests. More tangibly, the shells the new resident collected on the beach the day before the action of the story began are, at the end of the story, suggested as the antidote allowing Mrs. Powell's stagnant furnishings to more accurately reflect the town's spirit. We learn that Mrs. Powell was raised in the North (explaining her progressive attitude?), that she's the great-grand daughter of her state's most profitable slave owner and trader, the daughter of a state senator, "the most important lady in Cape May." But she plays down her own attributes, her wealth, her legacy "with a deprecating wave of hands".

We learn in Mrs. Powell's willful sloughing of legitimate claims of class, birth, and education that people, disparate in origins, can converge peacefully, meaningfully... An "old relic" and a "new resident" - Corrina, whose harmless ignorance foils Mrs. Powell's willingness to accept change - find one another, put history aside, and in a summer, on a porch, drunk, head together toward the future of their town.

I'm reminded of a recent post from Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence:

I’m rereading a favorite family history, Bowen’s Court (1942) by Elizabeth Bowen. As she chronicles the fortunes of one Anglo-Irish family, we slowly realize we are witnessing the fall of an entire civilization into modernity:

“And to what did our fine feelings, our regard for the arts, our intimacies, our inspiring conversations, our wish to be clear of the bonds of sex and class and nationality, our wish to try to be fair to everyone bring us? To 1939.”

In this case... To 1968.

Mrs. Powell's final dialogue to the new resident, the story's closing lines:

“I have a lot of interesting old relics around here, if you like history, and I’m the biggest old relic of them all. Although I don’t care much for history, myself.”

What a refreshing read! I have 4 anthologies of the best short stories and poems by Black Writers and look forward to enjoying them as much as I have Kristin Hunter's An Interesting Social Study.

But I plan to finish Revolutionary Road first!

Next Post: The absence of men in An Interesting Social Study


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