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Capitalist Pastorale

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‘Elnora knelt and slipping her fingers through the leaves and grasses to the roots, gathered a few violets and gave them to Philip’; illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda from Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost

Like Elnora Comstock, Ruth Jameson—known as the Girl throughout the novel, as David Langdon is called the Harvester—won’t take money she hasn’t earned, or things she can’t pay for, but weirdly agrees to enter into a not-for-real marriage (like a marriage for a green card) so that she may live in the Harvester’s house. The Harvester hopes that in time the marriage will become a marriage more than in name. In a kind of reverse Taming of the Shrew scenario, he woos the Girl with nourishing meals and tasteful decor. “This adjoining is your bathroom,” he tells her, and goes on:

I put in towels, soaps, brushes, and everything I could think of, and there is hot water ready for you—rain water, too.”

The Girl followed and looked into a shining little bathroom, with its white porcelain tub and wash bowl, enamelled wood-work, dainty green walls, and white curtains and towels. She could see no accessory she knew of that was missing, and there were many things to which she never had been accustomed.

Actually, the Girl is no slouch at label recognition. “Just as I thought!” she exclaims, after inspecting the corner of a coverlet. “It’s a genuine Peter Hartman!” (It is painful to think that the name Ralph Lauren may one day mean as little as that of Peter Hartman.) In the pages that follow, the Harvester shops for beds and sofas and curtains for the not yet furnished parts of the house, and puts special effort into the room to be occupied by the housekeeper. “Rogers,” he tells the man who comes with the van bringing the furniture,

hang those ruffled embroidered curtains. Observe that whereas mere guest beds are plain white, this has a touch of brass. Where guest rugs are floor coverings, this is a work of art. Where guest brushes are celluloid, these are enamelled, and the dresser cover is hand embroidered…. Watch the bounce of these springs and the thickness of this mattress and pad.

When the Girl expresses disbelief at the idea of treating a housekeeper better than a guest, the Harvester reasonably explains:

Friends come and go, but a good housekeeper remains and is a business proposition—one that if conducted rightly for both parties and on a strictly common-sense basis, gives you living comfort.

But the housekeeper never comes. No servant (or wife) could live up to the Harvester’s standards. He may be the most maniacally neat hero in literature. On taking his beloved to sit under an oak on a hilltop, he fussily “spread the rug and held one end of it against the tree trunk to protect the Girl’s dress.” When the sound of an arriving car rouses him in the middle of the night, he “swung his feet to the floor, setting each in a slipper beside the bed.” His house is like a five-star hotel: “rooms shining, beds fresh, fireplaces filled and waiting a match, ice chest cool.” His personal hygiene is no less outstanding. He is always jumping into the lake and changing into fresh, white clothes.

The Harvester is clean in another sense of the word. In A Girl of the Limberlost, Elnora’s upper-class suitor, Philip Ammon, makes a point of telling her, “I’ve kept myself clean,” meaning—what else?—that he has refrained from sex. The house-proud Harvester is similarly sex-deprived, but he goes beyond private self-denial to public crusading. In a speech delivered before a medical society in New York (to which he is peddling his herbal remedies), he rants about the evil social consequences of uncleanness:

The next time any of you are called upon to address a body of men, tell them to learn for themselves and to teach their sons, and to hold them at the critical hour, even by sweat and blood, to a clean life; for in this way only can feeble-minded homes, alms-houses, and the scarlet woman be abolished. In this way only can men arise to full physical and mental force, and become the fathers of a race to whom the struggle for clean manhood will not be the battle it is with us.

By the distorted faces, by the misshapen bodies, by marks of degeneracy, recognizable to your practised eyes, everywhere on the streets,… I conjure you men to live up to your high and holy privilege, and tell all men that they can be clean, if they will.

The Harvester is such a nutty book that by the time you come to this passage it seems like just another of its forays into the crackpottery of its period. According to her biographer, Judith Reick Long, Gene Stratton-Porter never revised or cut; her novels—like the Harvester’s hysterical sermon—just came pouring out of her. But racial theories were no passing fancy with her. They became the central theme of a noxious novel called Her Father’s Daughter, written in 1921, after she had moved to Los Angeles and enthusiastically embraced the hatred for Chinese and Japanese immigrants by which early-twentieth-century California was seized. Its seventeen-year-old heroine, Linda Strong, talks like this:

The white man has dominated by his colour so far in the history of the world, but it is written in the Books that when the men of colour acquire our culture and combine it with their own methods of living and rate of production, they are going to bring forth greater numbers, better equipped for the battle of life, than we are. When they have got our last secret, constructive or scientific, they will take it, and living in a way that we would not, reproducing in numbers we don’t, they will beat us at any game we start, if we don’t take warning while we are in the ascendancy, and keep there.

And this:

There’s an undercurrent of something deep and subtle going on in this country right now…. If California does not wake up very shortly and very thoroughly she is going to pay an awful price for the luxury she is experiencing while she pampers herself with the service of the Japanese, just as the South has pampered herself for generations with the service of the negroes. When the negroes learn what there is to know, then the day of retribution will be at hand.

The plot of Her Father’s Daughter revolves around a Japanese A-student in a Los Angeles high school, named Oka Sayye, who is actually a forty-year-old man planted there by the Japanese government for God knows what reason, but who is clearly such a threat to the white world that in the end he has to be remorselessly pushed off a cliff by the heroine’s Irish housekeeper. I’m not kidding.

Suspecting that Oka Sayye is not what he pretends to be, and in any case incensed by the very thought of a nonwhite leading the class, Linda reproaches another A-student named (yes) Donald Whiting for his supine acceptance of second place. She taunts him with the idea

that a boy as big as you and as strong as you and with as good brain and your opportunities has allowed a little brown Jap to cross the Pacific Ocean and in a totally strange country to learn a language foreign to him, and, with the same books and the same chances, to beat you at your own game.

Donald meekly asks, “Linda, tell me how I can beat that little cocoanut-headed Jap.”

In this atrocious book (I said that The Harvester was Stratton-Porter’s worst book because this one is really in a different league), Stratton-Porter puts her talent for describing desirable consumer objects to the task of describing undesirable racial traits: “I have never seen anything so mask-like as the stolid little square head on that Jap,” Linda says to Donald. “I have never seen anything I dislike more than the oily, stiff, black hair standing up on it like menacing bristles.” Consumerism is not absent from the book—parallel to the yellow-peril plot is another Cinderella story, this one featuring a wicked stepsister, Eileen, who deprives Linda of the pretty clothes and dainty furnishings that are her due.

Like Elnora, Linda finds a way of extracting money from nature: she collects desert plants and writes a lucrative magazine column about the delectable dishes she makes from them. But here even the Cinderella plot has a racist twist. Stratton-Porter improves on the original Cinderella story by severing the blood connection between the heroine and her nasty sibling: Linda finds a document in a secret compartment in her late father’s study, from which she learns that Eileen was not his biological daughter. Blood tells all.

Judith Reick Long notes in her biography that Her Father’s Daughter “caused no ripples in Gene Stratton-Porter’s readership” and in general “met with few complaints.” ( The Literary Review went so far as to praise its “wholesome charm,” she writes.) In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald gives us a nice sense of where white supremacy was situated in the thinking of 1920s America. In drawing the portrait of his deeply unpleasant character Tom Buchanan, he has him extravagantly praise a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires by a writer named Goddard:

The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…. This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.

Fitzgerald used Goddard’s book as a novelist writing today might use a New Age book to establish a character’s intellectual nullity. He based Goddard on a real writer named Lothrop Stoddard, whose book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) sometimes reads as if Stratton-Porter had written it—“clean, virile, genius-bearing blood, streaming down the ages through the unerring action of heredity”—and surely had been read by her. She had probably also read The Passing of the Great Race (1916) by the equally fervent racist Madison Grant—a book Adolf Hitler is said to have called “my bible.”*

When, during the 1980s and 1990s, Indiana University Press reissued eight of Stratton-Porter’s novels (as literature for “young adults”), it wisely didn’t go near Her Father’s Daughter, though it did include The Keeper of the Bees (1925), a work about a World War I veteran with an incurable shrapnel wound, whose weirdness almost surpasses that of The Harvester. But while other nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sentimental novels have fallen by the wayside, as dull as they are ridiculous, even the most risible of Stratton-Porter’s works remain oddly readable. One mocks them, but goes on turning their pages. Stratton-Porter had the crucial ability of the popular novelist to make the reader want to know what happens next to people in whose existence he does not for one minute believe. But she had something else as well.

  1. *

    See Trevor Butterworth’s review of Timothy Ryback’s Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life (Knopf, 2008), Bookforum, December/January 2009.

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