Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  It is, however, true that Hurston rejected the “neutral universal” for her novels—she wrote unapologetically in the black-inflected dialect in which she was raised. It took bravery to do that: the result was hostility and disinterest. In 1937, black readers were embarrassed by the unlettered nature of the dialogue and white readers preferred the exoticism of her anthropological writings. Who wanted to read about the poor Negroes one saw on the corner every day? Hurston’s biographers make clear that no matter what positive spin she put on it, her life was horribly difficult: she finished life working as a cleaner and died in obscurity. It is understandable that her reclaiming should be an emotive and personal journey for black readers and black critics. But still, one wants to make a neutral and solid case for her greatness, to say something more substantial than “She is my sister and I love her.” As a reader, I want to claim fellowship with “good writing” without limits; to be able to say that Hurston is my sister and Baldwin is my brother, and so is Kafka my brother, and Nabokov, and Woolf my sister, and Eliot and Ozick. Like all readers, I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not by my melanin count. These forms of criticism that make black women the privileged readers of a black woman writer go against Hurston’s own grain. She saw things otherwise: “When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue. . . . the cosmic Zora emerges. . . . How can anybody deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me!” This is exactly right. No one should deny themselves the pleasure of Zora—of whatever color or background or gender. She’s too delightful not be shared. We all deserve to savor her neologisms (“sankled,” “monstropolous,” “rawbony”) or to read of the effects of a bad marriage, sketched with tragic accuracy:The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value.

  The visual imagination on display in Their Eyes Were Watching God shares its clarity and iconicity with Christian storytelling—many scenes in the novel put one in mind of the bold-stroke illustrations in a children’s Bible: young Janie staring at a photograph, not understanding that the black girl in the crowd is her; Joe Starks atop a dead mule’s distended belly, giving a speech; Tea Cake bitten high on his cheekbone by that rabid dog. I watched the TV footage of Hurricane Katrina with a strong sense of déjà vu, thinking of Hurston’s flood rather than Noah’s: “Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet . . . [but] the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment. . . .”

  Above all, Hurston is essential universal reading because she is neither self-conscious nor restricted. She was raised in the real Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town; this unique experience went some way to making Hurston the writer she was. She grew up a fully human being, unaware that she was meant to consider herself a minority, an other, an exotic or something depleted in rights, talents, desires and expectations. As an adult, away from Eatonville, she found the world was determined to do its best to remind her of her supposed inferiority, but Hurston was already made, and the metaphysical confidence she claimed for her life (“I am not tragically colored”) is present, with equal, refreshing force, in her fiction. She liked to yell “Culllaaaah Struck!”9 when she entered a fancy party—almost everybody was. But Hurston herself was not. “Blackness,” as she understood it and wrote about it, is as natural and inevitable and complete to her as, say, “Frenchness” is to Flaubert. It is also as complicated, as full of blessings and curses. One can be no more removed from it than from one’s arm, but it is no more the total measure of one’s being than an arm is.

  But still, after all that, there is something else to say—and the “neutral universal” of literary criticism pens me in and makes it difficult. To write critically in English is to aspire to neutrality, to the high style of, say, Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson. In the high style, one’s loves never seem partial or personal, or even like “loves,” because white novelists are not white novelists but simply “novelists,” and white characters are not white characters but simply “human,” and criticism of both is not partial or personal but a matter of aesthetics. Such critics will always sound like the neutral universal, and the black women who have championed Their Eyes Were Watching God in the past, and the one doing so now, will seem like black women talking about a black book. When I began this piece, it felt important to distance myself from that idea. By doing so, I misrepresent a vital aspect of my response to this book, one that is entirely personal, as any response to a novel shall be. Fact is, I am a black woman,10 and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason. And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, “Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,” it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem “extraliterary.” Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient buildup of cultural residue that is (for convenience’s sake) called “Blackness”11 are the parts that my own “Blackness,” as far as it goes, cannot help but respond to personally. At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.12 These forms of identification are so natural to white readers—(Of course Rabbit Angstrom is like me! Of course Madame Bovary is like me!)—that they believe themselves above personal identification, or at least believe that they are identifying only at the highest, existential levels (His soul is like my soul. He is human; I am human). White readers often believe they are colorblind.13 I always thought I was a colorblind reader—until I read this novel, and that ultimate cliché of black life that is inscribed in the word soulful took on new weight and sense for me. But what does soulful even mean? The dictionary has it this way: “expressing or appearing to express deep and often sorrowful feeling.” The culturally black meaning adds several more shades of color. First shade: soulfulness is sorrowful feeling transformed into something beautiful, creative and self-renewing, and—as it reaches a pitch—ecstatic. It is an alchemy of pain. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, when the townsfolk sing for the death of the mule, this is an example of soulfulness. Another shade: to be soulful is to follow and fall in line with a feeling, to go where it takes you and not to go against its grain.14 When young Janie takes her lead from the blossoming tree and sits on her gatepost to kiss a passing boy, this is an example of soulfulness. A final shade: the word soulful, like its Jewish cousin, schmaltz,15 has its roots in the digestive tract. “Soul food” is simple, flavorsome, hearty, unfussy, with spice. When Janie puts on her overalls and joyfully goes to work in the muck with Tea Cake, this is an example of soulfulness.16

  This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston’s skill. She makes “culture”—that slow and particular17 and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance—seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called “the romance of onself,” a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes “black woman-ness” appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions. . . .

  Almost—but not quite. Better to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t norma
lly. Things like “She is my sister and I love her.”

  Two

  E . M. FORSTER, MIDDLE MANAGER

  1

  In the taxonomy of English writing, E. M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under Notable English Novelist, common or garden variety. Yet there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was largely free of vices commonly found in novelists of his generation—what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the pope or queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin or Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a handbasket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum or foreigners swamping the cities.

  Still, like all notable English novelists, he was a tricky bugger. He made a faith of personal sincerity and a career of disingenuousness. He was an Edwardian among modernists, and yet—in matters of pacifism, class, education and race—a progressive among conservatives. Suburban and parochial, his vistas stretched far into the East. A passionate defender of “Love, the beloved republic,” he nevertheless persisted in keeping his own loves secret, long after the laws that had prohibited honesty were gone. Between the bold and the tame, the brave and the cowardly, the engaged and the complacent, Forster walked the middling line. At times—when defending his liberal humanism against fundamentalists of the right and left—that middle line was, in its quiet, Forsterish way, the most radical place to be. At other times—in the laissez-faire coziness of his literary ideas—it seemed merely the most comfortable. In a letter to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Forster lays out his casual aesthetics, casually:All I write is, to me, sentimental. A book which doesn’t leave people either happier or better than it found them, which doesn’t add some permanent treasure to the world, isn’t worth doing. . . . This is my “theory,” and I maintain it’s sentimental—at all events it isn’t Flaubert’s. How can he fag himself to write “Un Coeur Simple”?

  To his detractors, the small, mild oeuvre of E. M. Forster is proof that when it comes to aesthetics, one really better be fagged: the zeal of the fanatic is what’s required. “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot,” thought Katherine Mansfield, a fanatic if ever there was one. “He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there aint going to be no tea.” There’s something middling about Forster; he is halfway to where people want him to be. Even the editors of this exhaustive collection of his broadcasts find it necessary to address the middlebrow elephant in the room with almost unseemly haste (page 9):Forster, though recognized as a central player in his literary milieu, has been classed by most cultural historians of this period as secondary to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or TS Eliot . . . relegated not quite to the lesser lights of modernism, but perhaps to the “middle lights,” if we might invent this term.18

  Conscientious editors, they defend their subject fiercely and at length. It feels incongruous, for never was there a notable English novelist who wore his status more lightly. To love Forster is to reconcile oneself to the admixture of banality and brilliance that was his, as he had done himself. In this volume that blend is perhaps more perfectly represented than ever before. Whether that’s a good thing or not is difficult to say. At any rate, what we have here is a four-hundred-page selection of the talks Forster delivered over the wireless. The great majority of them were about books (he titled the series Some Books); a quarter of them concern—and were broadcast to—India and its people. Scattered among the remainder is a miscellaneous hodgepodge of topics that tickled Forster’s fancy: the Great Frost of 1929, the music of Benjamin Britten, the free wartime concerts given in the National Gallery, and so on. The tone is resolutely conversational, frothy and without academic pretension (“Now you have to be cool over Yeats. He was a great poet, he lived poetry, but there was an element of bunkum in him.” “What is the use of Art? There’s a nasty one”), the sort of thing one can imagine made T. S. Eliot—also broadcasting for the BBC during this period—sigh wearily as he passed Forster’s recording booth on the way to his own. Eliot was very serious about literary criticism; Forster could be, too, but in these broadcasts he is not, at least not in any sense Eliot would recognize. For one thing, he won’t call what he is doing literary criticism, or even reviewing. His are “recommendations” only. Each episode ends with Forster diligently reading out the titles of the books he has dealt with, along with their exact price in pounds and shillings. In place of Eliot’s severe public intellectual we have Forster the chatty librarian, leaning over the counter, advising you on whether a book is worth the bother or not—a peculiarly English aesthetic category. It’s a self-imposed role entirely lacking in intellectual vanity (“Regard me as a parasite,” he tells his audience, “savoury or unsavoury who battens on higher forms of life”), but it’s a mistake to think it a lazy or accidental one. Connection, as everyone knows, was Forster’s great theme; between people, nations, heart and head, labor and art. Radio presented him with the opportunity of mass connection. It went against his grain to put any obstacle between his listeners and himself. From the start, Forster’s concern—to use the parlance of modern broadcasting—was where to pitch it. Essentially it was the problem of his fiction, writ large, for he was the sort to send one manuscript to Virginia Woolf, another to his good friend the policeman Bob Buckingham, and fear the literary judgment of both. On the air, as on the page, Forster was never free from the anxiety of audience. His rupture from his modernist peers happens here, in his acute conception of audience, in his inability not to conceive of an audience. When Nora Barnacle asked her husband, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?” her husband ignored her and wrote Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s ideal reader was himself—that was his purity. Forster’s ideal reader was a kind of projection, and not one entirely sympathetic to him. I think of this reader as, if not definitively English, then of a type that abounds in England. Lucy Honeychurch (A Room with a View) is one of them. So are Philip Herriton (Where Angels Fear to Tread) and Henry Wilcox (Howards End) and Maurice Hall (Maurice). Forster’s novels are full of people who’d think twice before borrowing a Forster novel from the library. Well—they’d want to know—is it worth the bother or not? Neither intellectuals nor philistines, they are the kind to “know what they like” and have the “courage of their convictions,” though their convictions are not entirely their own and their courage mostly fear. They are capable of cruelty born of laziness, but also of an unexpected spiritual greatness born of love. The right book at the right moment might change everything for them (Forster only gave the credence of certainty to Love). It’s worth thinking of these cautious English souls, with their various potential for greatness and shabbiness, love and spite, as Forster’s radio audience: it makes his approach comprehensible. Think of Maurice Hall and his groundskeeper lover, Alec Scudder, settled by their Bakelite radio waiting for the latest installment of Some Books. Maurice, thanks to his superior education, catches the literary references but, in his suburban slowness, misses much of the spirit. Alec, not having read Wordsworth, yet grasps the soul of that poet as he listens to Forster recount a visit to the Lake District, Wordsworth country: “Grey sheets of rain trailed in front of the mountains, waterfalls slid down them and shone in the sun, and the sky was always sending shafts of light into the valleys.” Early on, Forster voiced his determination to plow the middle course: “I’ve had nice letters from people regretting that my talks are above them, and others equally nice regretting that they are below; so hadn’t I better pursue the even tenor of my way?”

  Well, hadn’t he?

  2

  I’ve made up an imaginary person whom I call “you” and I’m going to tell you about it. You
r age, your sex, your position, your job, your training—I know nothing about all that, but I have formed the notion that you’re a person who wants to read new books but doesn’t intend to buy them.

  But here Forster is too humble: he knew more of his audience than the contents of their passports. Take his talk on Coleridge of August 13, 1931. A new Collected is out, it’s a nicely printed edition, costs only three shillings sixpence, and he’d like to talk to you about it. But he senses that you are already sighing, and he knows why:Perhaps you’ll say “I don’t want a complete Coleridge, I’ve got ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in some anthology or other, and that’s enough. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ and perhaps the first half of ‘Christabel’—that’s all in Coleridge that really matters. The rest is rubbish and not even good dry rubbish, it’s moist clammy rubbish, it’s depressing.” So if I tell you that there are 600 pages in this new edition, you’ll only reply “I’m sorry to hear it.”

 
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