Uncle Peter’s Eloquence

Rather than get into a long essay on erroneous use of terms for language (the temptation is great, but I will resist), I will simply state an observation: it’s never a good idea to try to convey variation in spoken language in terms of spelling. The best (and maybe the only) way to make this clear is by example. Take a look at this exchange from Gone with the Wind. In this scene, there is an elderly black man named Peter, a slave, and he’s upset with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ ’cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

You’ll note that the author attempts to portray Peter’s speech by playing with spelling. The idea being, I suppose, that he doesn’t speak English as it is written (something nobody does, by the way, unless you happen to be having a conversation with the ghost of somebody who lived in the 15th century). The author feels it is important to make the distinction between Peter’s speech and Scarlett’s…. why? Because he’s a slave, and she’s a free white woman of means? Because he is uneducated and she is … a little more educated? Let’s approach this differently, by rewriting the passage:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

I haven’t changed the dialog one bit — I’ve only changed the spelling. In Peter’s case all the grammatical points of his speech are maintained, such as the invariant use of third person singular verb forms (‘he say’). The distinctive lexical items remain, too (hoppergrass) and the syntax (”I ain’t never been call’). If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical and syntatic variations without resorting to spelling. Uncle Peter’s eloquence is still there.

I’ve done to Scarlett’s dialog what the author did to Peter’s — I changed the spelling to approximate how she would have pronounced the words. The result? It’s amusing and condescending — the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy. The lesson here is simple: don’t play with spelling unless you have a really good reason. Playing with spelling will almost always work as a trivialization of the character, and that’s never good. If it’s important to portray dialect, do that in other ways.

To be clear, this is not the only thing wrong with the novel. Oh no. I’ve considered the novel in more detail elsewhere, and brought down the anger of the masses on my head, so right now I’ll just point you to this post by Justine Larbalestier.  which covers the basic issues, both about the movie, and about reactions to the movie.

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White Doves at Morning — James Lee Burke ****+

coverThis might best be called creative non-fiction, as Burke has written a novelized version of his own family history and an ancestor, Willie Burke, the son of Irish immigrants who settled in New Iberia, Louisiana. Willie Burke — impulsive and idealistic — is drawn into the Civil War with his best friends, despite his doubts about the cause and his dislike of slavery. The story moves back and forth between his experiences (including the bloody battle at Shiloh) and what’s going on in New Iberia, where women and a few men who have evaded fighting for one reason or another continue to fight wars of their own. Abigail Dowling, a nurse from Boston, is an abolitionist who is not well loved by the local patriarchy, but she struggles to carry on. The pivotal character is a slave called Flower, the daughter of a slave woman and the plantation owner. Flower’s struggle to maintain some semblance of dignity and independence (from her father/owner as well as from the abolitionists) is sensitively portrayed, without sliding into the realm of the sentimental.

I have a low tolerance for Civil War novels; I think I overdosed on them some years ago, and so it takes an unusual story to really capture my attention. This one did, although I will also say that I wonder how far Burke went in his fictionalization and idealization of an ancestor with such enlightened sensibilities.

anachronistic heroes

Following the discussion at LanguageHat on anachronisms in historical fiction, particularly in terms of language, this interesting comment was posted by aldiboronti:

…with people we cheerfully accept, nay demand, that, the heroes and heroines of popular fiction, no matter what period it is set in, are fully equipped with 21st century mindsets. Only the villains are permitted to share the prevailing opinions of their times.

There is certainly some truth to this, although my first reservation has to do with the idea that this sin is committed in popular fiction. It seems to me that the tendency to this kind of anachronism shows up in all kinds of fiction in all genres, including what might be considered more literary (and yes, I am sidestepping the very fraught issue of popular/literary for the moment; I’ve certainly posted enough about it in the past, for example, here and here). The first such example that came to mind is the Victorian poet Ash in Byatt’s novel Possession. I find him not typical of his time or background, but if he had been, the central conflict of the story would have been nullified, and I like to story the way it is. But aldiboronti’s observation is an important one in a more general way because it gets to the heart of the matter when talking about language anachronisms.

The reason I might hesitate to put an eighteenth century term for African slaves into the mouth of a hero is, of course, because I don’t want him to be prejudiced, and neither do my readers. If he’s going to be an admirable character, he can’t believe (as most of his contemporaries did) that African natives and their descendents were cowardly, sullen, dishonest, “remorseless of tyrants to men and animals when invested with authority. Promiscuous, licentious and dissolute, incapable of love or affection.” I apologize right now for not being able to provide the citation for this quote, which comes from the late eighteenth century. As soon as I track it down in my notes, I’ll post a follow up. Unless somebody beats me to it here.

Is it possible to write a character who lives in London in (say) 1790, who believes these things about Africans, and who is acceptable to readers as a protagonist? Probably only if, over the course of the novel, he or she changes and comes to be more open minded. Most readers will not tolerate anything else, maybe because most writers are not capable of writing such a character in a way that transcends the shock value of having that character really be typical of the times.

Having said that, I’d like to point out that there were prominent examples of men who not only rejected the negative evaluation of Africans, but who wrote about it eloquently and who worked against slavery. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was one such person, active in the abolitionist movement in England. He wrote of Phyllis Wheatly and Ignatius Sancho that such accomplished individuals would be nothing unusual “if the minds of the Africans were unbroken by slavery; if they had the same expectations in life as other people, and the same opportunities of improvement, they would be equal, in all the various branches of science ….inferiority of their capacities is wholly malevolent and false.”

So the writer of historical fiction has only a few choices. Sidestep the problem by never having the protagonist (a) encounter anyone of another race or (b) talk about the news of the times (the morally ambiguous don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach); cast the progatonist not such much as an anachronism but as one of the rare individuals of his or her time and place, ala Clarkson; find a way to write a protagonist who confronts current sensibilities but in such a way that the modern reader is willing to accept it.

Let me point out, just to be clear, that this difficulty extends far beyond the matter of slavery. For most of known history men in general and many women have not been supportive of women’s rights; religious freedom was considered a bad idea; labor practices were atrocious; and the list goes on.

dialect, revisited

I made Johnn mad. Here’s the comment he posted in response to my post on the misuse and misrepresentation of dialect, most particularly in Gone with the Wind.

Before you make comments on how to write dialect, you might first want to make sure you have written a book that’s sold a tenth as well as the one you’re detracting. Writing dialect is tricky, but you picked an example that works, at least according to world wide sales of the book. In future, choose an example that helps novice writers, not one that simply identifes your own likes and dislikes.
Posted by: Johnn Gualt at March 20, 2004 12:15 PM

I’m being accused here of criticizing the representation of dialect in GwtW, to which I can only plead guilty.

Actually I’m surprised it took this long for somebody to jump up and cry foul — you don’t have to look very far to find some very acrimonious discussions about Gone with the Wind on the web, courtesy of the two major camps in this controversy: Those who dislike the book (and the movie) because of the way it glorifies racism and slavery, and those who have decided that GwtW is perfection and must not be criticized for any reason. I belong to the first camp; Johnn, to the second.

There’s a lot of material on the web about GwtW, including an interesting essay by Ruth Nestvold which deftly summarizes the novel’s primary flaw:

there is one point of criticism that remains no matter how you look at it: even if this popular classic is perhaps informed by a feminist impulse, even if it is not as apologetic as it is made out to be, it is unremittingly and unforgivably racist. With the exception of Mammy, the personification of the earth mother, and Uncle Peter, the exemplary father figure, “darkies” are almost always children in need of a guiding hand or children gone wrong. Gone With the Wind may not simplistically recreate the moonlight and magnolia myth, but it does argue that Southern society, complete with slavery, would have been a fine institution if uncultured, ignorant Yankees hadn’t come along and ruined it all.

One of the ways that GwtW encapsulates racism is by its differentiated use of dialect, as I discussed in that earlier post. John thinks that because GwtW has sold so many copies, I should not say such a thing. But in my view, it’s important to discuss racism in GwtW precisely because it has sold so many copies, and has influenced so many people’s views and understanding of the south. And not, I would claim, in a good way.

I am very interested in the way language is represented in dialog, because it’s an integral part of characterization. I will continue to write about it now and then. As to presenting my opinions here in the process of trying to be helpful to novice writers: of course. This is my blog. I would argue that my opinions are informed, given my academic specialization and publications, but of course people who stop by here are free to take what they need, and leave the rest.

Finally, if you’d like to look at some of the Unconditional Love arguments about GwtW, have a look at Mr. Cranky’s movie review, which sparked a sharp debate by means of this statement:

this film probably single-handedly set back Civil Rights a full ten years.