Thursday, July 28, 2011

Optional Work: In Cold Blood

This book joins the ranks of the few others on this M.A. exam list that I have given five stars on It is indeed that good. It could have gotten very boring very quickly due to its true crime/nonfiction nature and the necessity of including names, dates, and facts. But Truman Capote made In Cold Blood entirely compelling and haunting without making it so detailed and gruesome that a semi-delicate reader would have to put it down. And even though the reader is aware from the outset has to how it all ends, the novel is still extremely suspenseful and never stops being interesting.


This is of course a true crime/nonfiction book. It is also considered a pioneering work of the true crime genre. On November 15, 1959 Dick Hickock and Perry Smith entered the home of Herbert Clutter in Holcomb, Kansas and proceeded to tie up the four family members who lived there, search the home for money that they had believed was there, and then shot all four family members in the head with a shotgun. They were originally looking for around the amount of $10,000, as a fellow inmate led them to believe Mr. Clutter had a wall safe of some sort where he kept massive amounts of cash. Truth is, Herbert Clutter never carried cash but did all transactions by check. When Dick and Perry finally left the house, they drove away only approximately $50 richer.

While the main focus of the novel is the actual crimes, Capote begins with the Clutter family, and then moves out to describing the family and friends, and then eventually Holcomb community, and then he goes into Dick and Perry and their life as criminals before, during, and after the crime, as well as the effect of the crime on the community itself. The book ends with an account of the crimes from both Dick and Perry’s points of view, which is actually the first time Capote tells the reader what happened that night in that house, as in the beginning of the book he simply states what the family did that night, who saw them last, and who found them the next morning. Dick and Perry are eventually executed for what they have done, and Capote gives the account of their final moments.


It is initially difficult for me to deal with themes when it comes to something that is supposed to be nonfiction. However, In Cold Blood is written much like a fiction novel and holds a person’s interest like one. No doubt that it is well-crafted and well thought out in its organization.

As I mentioned before, despite the fact that the reader knows the outcome of the events from the very beginning (before that even, since the book jacket gives it away), there is still a very real element of suspense here. The book very methodically takes you through what went on a few days before, slowly leading up to the actual event, only to skip the event and then slowly lead up to the capture and trial of Dick and Perry. The reader isn’t given a detailed account of how the killers did it until the end. And even still, the reader has to wait some more until the killers are inevitably executed. I maintain it is a difficult thing to hold suspense when your audience has already been given the answers.

Capote also sets up a very real contrast between the lives wholesome Clutter family and that of Dick and Perry. Mr. Clutter is painted by Capote to be a good man with few enemies due to the many testimonies of the people of Holcomb. Dick and Perry, however, are ex-cons even before they committed this gruesome crime, and the descriptions of their adventures make it very hard to sympathize or give them credit in any way simply because of the juxtaposition with the Clutters. Capote talks about the early life of each, and while Dick’s home life was not especially troublesome, Perry’s was. Neither man had the advantages that the Clutter children would have had, and Capote does make a point of stating that Dick had an issue with anyone he perceived to be better off than he was. Perry maintained that even if Dick had $100 on him, he would still steal a pack of gum. And even with Perry’s difficult upbringing, his desire to see his sister again just to hurt her, and his almost complete lack of emotion concerning the crimes makes him hard to be close to, even though the reader feels like they are forced to be.

There are many testimonies given from various people of the community concerning what they saw, what they thought, what they heard, etc. Holcomb was small enough and the Clutters were well known enough that everyone had something to say. The book touches on a feeling of insecurity and general fear as the majority of the Holcomb community believes that the guilty party are someone they all know from inside the town. A deep paranoia sets in as everyone starts to look at their neighbors in suspicion. Before this, Holcomb was the type of town where people left their doors unlocked, and Mr. Clutter was the type of man who would not hire anyone if he knew that they drank alcohol in any amount. Capote says it best when he states that before this even most of America was not even aware Holcomb existed, and that is was very easy to drive right by it on the way to somewhere else.


On November 16, 1959, The New York Times published an article on the murders that caught Capote’s interest and caused him to fly to Kansas to investigate with his childhood friend Harper Lee (of To Kill A Mockingbird Fame). All in all it would take Capote six years to write the novel as he started right after the crimes occurred and waited until the accused were executed by hanging to finish and publish it. It was published as part of a four-part serial in The New Yorker and was an immediate hit. Random House published it in books form in January 1966.

Capote also includes a brief legal history concerning the state of Kansas and the death penalty. The governor that had just been defeated in re-election was rigidly opposed to the death penalty (which is the main reason he was not re-elected) while the new governor was not. Had Dick and Perry’s trial been concluded under the old governor, they may have received life with parole, as life without parole did not exist as an option in Kansas at the time. Also, the insanity defense plays a crucial role in the ruling since Kansas operated under the belief that even if Dick and/or Perry were mentally unstable, because they know right from wrong, they cannot receive the sentence of being placed in an institution for the mentally insane.

Critics have challenged the authenticity of the book saying that Capote added scenes that never occurred and changed dialogue as well as facts to suit his story. Other simply contest that its popularity is due to the promise of gory details and the fact that the novel withholds them to the very end.

This is definitely a book worth reading either for academics or for fun. Of course, we read these things because we want answers and we want to understand, but ultimately, I personally do not think any amount of explanation will help me to understand what makes someone take the life of an entire family that has done no wrong to the killers and did not seem to provoke them in any way.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Required Activists: Sojourner Truth and Francis E.W. Harper

Okay, for the past few weeks I have been trying to keep it short and failing miserably. But there is seriously no reason for me to go long here. Today we will be reviewing a legendary speech by Sojourner Truth as well as a speech and the poetry of Francis E.W. Harper. Let’s do this.


With Sojourner Truth this is really a no brainer. “Ain’t I A Woman?” is a speech, but of course we could drill it down even more by linking it with feminist literature. I am always tempted to also put the speech with many other speeches made by abolitionist, but it really does focus much more on the rights of women than it does the rights of slaves or black people. The speech was made at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron Ohio, it is titled “Ain’t I A Woman?” and while she does mention the “negroes of the South” who were also fighting for rights, she decides to spend the rest of the speech focused on the power of women and why they deserve their rights like anyone else.

And much the same argument can be made about the speech by Francis E.W. Harper, “Women’s Political Future.” Harper makes an argument for women’s suffrage, and even makes a call to other women to use their power, influence, and intellect to fight for justice and do what is right.

Two of Harper’s poems also made the list: “Ethiopia” and “An Appeal to My Country Women.” To me, both have a sense of a country or a people stripped of what they hold dear and their desire and need to get it back. I would still put her with feminist, but the poems deal a lot more with slavery than the speech does, although she still calls for the reader of “An Appeal to My Country Women” to “Weep not for the Negro alone.”


Truth likes to employ effective repetition in “Ain’t I A Woman?” The title question itself gets asked four times in the short speech. It is also not the only question Truth asks the audience. Apparently at one point she asks a question and someone from the audience answers, making for some very effective call and response action, which is always fun. Truth also calls out nameless men as if they are right there at the convention, and the proceeds to refute points they made using her sharp tongue and brutal wit. My personal favorite: “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” Zing!

In both “Ethiopia” and “An Appeal To My Countrywomen,” Harper uses a fair amount of nature imagery, and as I mentioned before, there is a general theme of a nation and/or people attempting to “lift their eyes,” and find some redemption. There is much use of words such as “outcast,” “fallen,” and “tortured” in “Appeal,” while in “Ethiopia,” the title country is a woman seeking to (or maybe she already has, I’m really not sure) take the “tyrant’s yoke from off her neck” and have her “cry of agony…reach and find the throne of God.”

Both “Appeal” and “Women’s Political Future” are calls to action, mostly directed at women. While Truth just makes the argument for women to have the same rights as men, Harper seems to go one step further and asks for someone to do something about it, while using a gentler approach than Truth’s biting rhetoric.


As I mentioned when I reviewed the Narrative of Frederick Douglas, there was a race between black men and women suffragists to earn the right to vote. This caused a predicament for black women as in order for them to be able to vote, both groups would have to be successful. So it is interesting that both Truth and Harper chose to align themselves with the women, and not the black men. As a black woman myself, I honestly cannot say which I would be moved to align myself with if I was in the same position.

Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree. In 1826 she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, and would later go to court to recover her son. Miraculously, she won the case and was the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. She said of her escape “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right” (love it!). Interestingly enough, different witnesses tell different accounts of what truth said, how she said it, and what type of reaction she got. Some say she was warmly welcomed and applauded, others say she was met with hisses and taunted. Some even say she spoke calmly, which I can’t seem to imagine as I always think of her being very lively as she is saying some of those less than gentle words. But that just might be me though…

Unlike Truth, Harper was born to free parents, but she would still grow up to become involved with abolitionism and women’s suffrage. And while Truth spoke at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, Harper made her speech at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women. In 1892, she publishes lola Leroy, which is one of the first novels by an African-American woman and also sells well and is reviewed widely.

Okay, much better length-wise, but only because I cut down on my intro. Not sure how I am going to manage to say everything I need to within the four-hour time limit of the written portion of the exam. Yeah, you read right…FOUR hours. And from what I have heard, you need every minute of it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Required Work: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

This is probably the hardest thing I have had to read from the list so far. Only if Pale Fire were replaced with Lolita would there be something harder to read. Granted, I’m not talking hard to read like Chaucer is hard to read, or Faulkner, but in subject matter purely. Jacobs’ story is one of abuse, fear, hatred, and injustice. The few bright spots in the narrative such as the kind people who help her out are just not enough to escape the evils that some were willing to inflict upon her simply because of the color of her skin. It makes a perfect companion piece to Frederick Douglass’ narrative, so it makes perfect sense the two should share an item number.


Once again, on the surface this is only a slave narrative that also includes elements of a coming of age tale. The story starts with Jacobs’ early childhood years, before she even knew she was a slave, and follows her until she is able to gain her freedom and that of her children. However, the tale can also be viewed as an example of feminist literature as there are many points in which Jacobs makes the point that as harsh as male slaves were treated with the meanest forms of abuse, female slaves still had it the hardest. They may not have been abused as brutally as the men were, but there was the issue of slave children having to follow the condition of their mother, resulting in many families being separated due to children and parents being sold to different owners. Also, as Jacobs experienced, many female slaves were subject to their white master’s sexual advances. Some were raped, with no law to protect them. Others submitted only to have their children sold from them so that the master would not have to deal with them. And sometimes the females themselves were then sold, mostly due to the intense jealousy of the master’s wives who were often in full knowledge of what their husband’s were doing. While Douglass was able to offer a male perspective in his own Narrative, Jacobs is able to tell another side of the story – of another evil from the influence of slavery in America.


I have already touched on the feminist tones throughout the story; mostly the point that female slaves had it even worse than their male counterparts. The bulk of the first half of the novel involves the many different attempts of Dr. Flint, Jacobs’ master, to get Jacobs to sleep with him. He threatened her, he even hit her a few times, and on occasion was very sweet to her, but he never forced her or raped her. But he employed pretty much every other type of abuse he could when she refused to bend to his will. Jacobs gives plenty of accounts of other female slaves who endured much worse, especially those that did submit or were raped and subsequently had their master’s children.

The issue of identity is also a theme in this story, but not in the same way that it was for Frederick Douglass. There is some issue over whether her children will take the last name of their real father (a white man in the community), but most of the naming issues come from Jacobs’ desire to conceal the real identities of the people she is writing about, both friend and enemy. With every new person that is introduced under a pseudonym the text gives a footnote with information on the real identity.

Jacobs even gives herself the name of Linda Brent, which was also her pen name when the story was published. For me it is a continuation of Jacobs’ constant need to hide, and not only when she has escaped. Even when she is still in Dr. Flint’s house, Jacobs continually attempts to fly under the radar and escape the master’s notice. She often escapes and hides in the comfort and security of her grandmother, and even escapes in some way to the white man who ended up being the father of her children. And then of course, there are the several escapes Jacobs has to undertake in order to elude not only her old master, but his son, his daughter, his son-in-law, and anyone who may recognize her and take her back under the Fugitive Slave Law. She would often hide in plain sight in a way after going north remaining indoors in her employer’s house when there were rumors that someone may be looking for her.

Two other prominent themes will also be those of being free versus being property. Jacobs continually bristles under the idea that she must pay for her own freedom and the idea that her children can be taken away from her on the basis that they are property that belongs to someone else. In the end (spoiler alert!) Jacobs obtains her freedom when her employer buys her from her former master. An actual bill of sale is drawn up, and Jacobs finds this particularly offensive (who wouldn’t?).

Jacobs also had to endure much of the same type of criticism that Douglass did when he published his Narrative. People did not believe the level of cruelty Jacobs described, and some critics asserted that some of the accounts simply couldn’t be true.


Upon its publication, many actually accepted Jacob’s accounts of what she endured as true. They believed that her insights into slavery could not have been fictionalized and openly praised the work and Jacobs on its publication.

When the book was published in 1861, the Fugitive Slave Act had been in effect for 10 years. The act required that whites of the north (or any region really) return any escaped slave they came across back to their masters. In other words, the “free states” were no longer really free. Also, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, a book that also preaches against the evils of slavery. Four years before that, The Seneca Falls Convention had taken place and white women were moving toward the right to vote. But the Anti-Slavery movement was split over women’s rights, and eventually this led to a race of sorts to see who would get the right to vote first: African-Americans, or women. Ultimately, African-American men gained the right to vote first.

Once again, I came in longer than I wanted to, but there you are. Next week I will end my current run on the topic of slavery with a speech from Sojourner Truth and poetry as well as an essay from Frances E.W. Harper.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Required Work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

It is time to begin tackling the slave narratives and speeches…well, at least some of them. The next few weeks will be spent on Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Frances E.W. Harper, and of course, Fredrick Douglass, with whom I’ll be starting off. Make no mistake; this is hard stuff to deal with. Now I know that statement seems sort of ridiculous given some of the material this blog has already dealt with, but for me especially, most slave narratives specifically are just incredibly hard to read. And the fact that these first two works that I’ll be covering in the next couple of weeks are non-fiction, well, it really doesn’t help matters. With that being said, they are important works and I believe everyone, English major or not, should read at least one of them during their lifetime. I’ll try to make this quick – like a band-aid: right off!


On the surface, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is an obvious slave narrative and memoir. If it were fiction it would probably also fall under the category of a bildungsroman or coming of age tale as it follows Douglass from his childhood into his adult life after he (spoiler alert!) finally runs away to freedom. Douglass gives extensive and eloquent detail of his life as a slave and of the cruelty (as well as some kindness) he endures as a result of the peculiar institution. Everything leads to his eventual escape and transition into the abolitionist movement.

Narrative can also be seen as a treatise on abolition and is considered by many as one of the most important works of literature by a former slave and the most influential in fueling the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century.


Like pretty much every slave narrative I have ever read, Douglass highlights the extreme cruelty he would come to know as a standard way that most slave-masters dealt with their “property.” And an interesting side note to this theme is Douglass’ account of one master of his that started out very kind but eventually came to be as cruel as others. This shift in his slave-master’s behavior highlights the argument that slavery affected whites as well as blacks, without stating the case too overtly. Slavery turned blacks into objects (as slave-holders and traders insisted on treating them as such) and whites into cold-hearted people.

Another theme that crops up throughout the book is that of identity. Early on in Narrative Douglass laments the fact that he does not know when his actual birthday is and consistently has to guess at his age at different points in the story. He didn’t really ever identify with his mother as they were separated early in his life, and it is generally believed that his father was a white man, or even his master from when he was a young boy. He also undergoes several name changes as he moves around between masters and locations. When he finally achieves freedom, he makes the final name change to Frederick Douglass. He holds onto “Frederick” as it was the name his mother gave him and he wanted to hold onto some of his past identity. A Nathan Johnson, whose home he was escorted to after reaching New Bedford, chose the last name “Douglass,” and from then on he was known as such. To name something is to hold ownership of it, and Douglass’ name seemed to change as his owners did. In the end, he came away with a name all his own.

There is also a somewhat underlying theme of validation and acceptance. Upon its publication, there were many people who were not willing to accept Narrative as written by a former slave as it was written too well. So not only is Douglass attempting to convince the world of the evils of slavery, but also of the simple fact that what he is saying is true.

There are also recurring issues of the education of slaves, even for just reading the Bible. Two arguments make their appearance in the book: 1. that an educated slave is no good for a slave, and 2. that an educated slave will only dream of freedom. It seems that in Douglass’ case, both arguments proved to be true. His new ability haunted him and only helped to make him more resolved to escape.


As I have already mentioned, upon its publication, there were many who were not ready to believe that Narrative was written by Douglass’ own hand. A neighbor of one of Douglass’ former masters said that the former slave was “unlearned” and just not capable of writing such a narrative. But Douglass’ use of real dates, places, and people simply cannot be ignored. And he did teach himself to read and write at a young age. Also, before its publication, people were generally reluctant to believe Douglass’ story as he told them the events of his own life. Just the publication alone of Narrative added a great amount of credibility to a story many had already heard.

The publication of Narrative also helped Douglass in his relations with the whites he was acquainted with in the abolitionist movement. Before the publication, the white people even of the abolitionist movement demeaned Douglass and attempted to control what issues he could speak of when he took the platform, but that all changed. Also, he fled to England and Ireland for two years after the publication because he feared recapture from his former master. While there, he gained support from others who raised the funds to pay for his emancipation from his legal owner. Now that is one influential story.

Okay, so I didn’t really make it that quick…it happens. Next week I’ll rip the band-aid off of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs – a story that is proving to be for me an even more difficult account to take in than the one by Douglass…if you can imagine that.