Sybille Bedford: A Legacy
7 hours ago
Mr. Blingham, and may he fry in his own cooking-oil, was assistant treasurer of the Flaver-Saver Company. He was driving from New York to Winnipeg, accompanied by Mrs. Blingham and their horrible daughter. As they were New Yorkers, only a business trip could have dragged them into this wilderness, and they found everything west of Pennsylvania contemptible. They laughed at Chicago for daring to have skyscrapers and at Madison for pretending to have a university, and they stopped the car and shrieked when they entered Minnesota and saw a billboard advertising “Ten Thousand Lakes.”Although we never hear about the Blinghams beyond the first few pages, Lewis continues to paint the picture of the fictitious Grand Republic, Minnesota and to describe the everyday Joe kind of personality of our hero, thirty-one year old, war-wounded Captain Neil Kingsblood:
And here were his own not-very-numerous books. The set of Kipling, the set of O. Henry, the set of Sherlock Holmes, a history of banking, and the bound volumes of the National Geographic Magazine, with Beasley on tennis and Morrison on golf. Among these solid wares, pushed back on a shelf, was a volume of Emily Dickinson, which a girl, whose name and texture he had now forgotten, had given to him in college, and sometimes Neil picked at it and wondered.It isn’t long though, before we start to sense a much darker underbelly to this tale than what the opening pages has lead us to believe. Essentially Kingsblood is a book about race. The book, with a bit of a sledgehammer lets it be known that the great Middlewest of America is not the tolerant northern bastion most of us would like to believe. And after some time (Let this serve as your SPOILER alert) Neil Kingsblood finds out that he is 1/64th Negro. After shock and anger and confusion, he begins to try and understand what his racial “impurity” means to him and his life. What follows is less a voyage of discovery and more of a baptism by fire. Although it is overly dramatic in places, its essence rings true even today. On the one hand I felt how different the outcome would be today, but I also couldn’t help but realize how far we have yet to go when it comes to race relations in the United States.
To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!The bright sunshine of human rights indeed. It is alternately gratifying and galling to read a book such as this with our first African American President sitting in the White House. Have whatever policy or ideology difference you want with President Obama, but to deny that race has not played a role in the venom and hatred spewed toward him by the aforementioned whack-a-doos is to be as clueless as the nut jobs who inspired Lewis to write Kingsblood Royal in 1947.
Pauline sometimes thinks of the people who have lived at World’s End before her. The real inhabitants – those who lived here seriously, because they had to. She sees stunted people with skins ripened by dirt and weather. Most of these people would have been old at fifty-five – at her age – keeling over, heading for heir hole in the turf, worked quite literally into the ground. They would have looked rather differently upon the silver gleam of winter sunshine on ploughlands, upon the billowing gold of an August cornfield. All very fine for us, thinks Pauline – playing at Marie Antoinette, soothing the troubled soul with contemplation of nature. Time was, this place was for real.In the same way, Lively uses Teresa’s husband Maurice to further poke holes in the surface story. A scholar of cultural history, Maurice is spending the summer refining his book on tourism and making frequent weekend visits to tourist attractions. While most of us understand that there is a kind of sliding scale of touristic honesty—the difference say between a guided tour of York Minster on one end of the spectrum, with the time machine ride at JORVIK Viking Centre at the other. But which of us isn’t susceptible to the enjoyment of ersatz reality on some level? Do we think about the conceits required to enjoy those experiences? Raise your hand if you have never purchased a bar of soap, pot of honey, or other such memento not even remotely related to the site visited. Pauline is on the case:
Worsham is doing good business. Raking it in. Each of these visitors will spend something, presumably, if only on refreshments and a postcard. Quite a few will fall for a pot of allegedly home-made chutney, or framed assemblage of dried flowers, or a patchwork cushion. Acquisition is one of the purposes of a day out, after all – the acquisition of new sights bolstered by something a bit more tangible. And Worsham has centuries of marketing experience – it has been a trading centre all its life, though traditionally for more essential commodities than dried flowers.Lively’s deconstruction of these tourist outings and other elements of her daily life feel interestingly dated to me. Published in 1996, the cynicism in Heat Wave feels very much of its time. Perhaps it is just my own personal experience in the 1990s. As a graduate student in American Studies in the middle of the decade, it was hard not to have a hyper-critical eye trained on the details of daily life. But it also seems like the decade was rejecting the la-la land of the Reagan ‘80s as it rushed to embrace the tech bubble of the ‘90s and the heady march toward Y2K. Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t the ‘90s the decade where we all became so fascinated with the recent past? With an attitude that said “we are enjoying this, but only ironically” we embraced swing dancing, Rhino Records started re-releasing nostalgic music collections by the score, TVLand came into existence filling cable TV with Mary Tyler Moore Mondays and enough Brady Bunch and I Dream of Jeanie to put us all in a time travel coma. Wasn’t this the same period when twenty-somethings started to carry lunchboxes and wearing t-shirts with Sesame Street characters? But we did it all with a wink and a nudge that said that we knew better. In many ways I feel like the cultural assessments in Heat Wave are indicative of the kind of critical reckoning that many of us had in the mid-90’s that eventually led to the “who cares, we know it is lame but are enjoying it anyway” late-90s and beyond. Lively’s criticism seems part of the trajectory of cultural criticism that eventually led some of us the “post” world. That is, the world where we got so tired of our own cynicism that we became post-everything: post-feminist, post-gay, post-racial. What else could explain how former warriors of the political correct movement turn into rabid fans of Family Guy like myself and so many of my college cohort?