Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Hell’s House

Last night I watched a 1932 B movie directed by Howard Higgin called Hell’s House, notable primarily for early performances by Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien. When it was first released, the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall found it “hardly adult” despite a few “moderately interesting interludes.” Its very ordinariness, though, is central to its popular character. In spite of what might seem to some elitist, intellectual, and counter-cultural tendencies (I don’t care to watch most contemporary popular films), my pleasure in watching such a narrative doubtless derives from the same source as its original broad audience. The specific “popular” character of such works may thus transcend the decades in the same way that today’s mass market movies leap across seas both physical and cultural to claim the international audiences that American films have enjoyed since Hollywood’s founding.

In its themes popular art undeniably tends to reinforce attitudes which are socially normative, the sort their critics might call idées reçues. On the other hand “high art,” especially since the Romantic Movement, has sought especially to suggest problems, contradictions, and tensions in established ideas, if not to challenge or replace them altogether. Every work may be located somewhere along this continuum.

Hell’s House, like many popular works, is lavish with sentiment, melodrama, and shocking horror. At the outset our young hero Jimmy’s mother dies in his arms; the reformatory where he finds himself practices harsh discipline that borders on the absurd. Boys work like slaves in a brickyard are subjected to such punishments as standing toes to a line staring at a point on the wall and being sent to solitary confinement so neglectful it can be lethal. Once the hapless Jimmy’s own suffering is relieved (in a typical happy ending), the film-maker inserts then a recollection of the deceased Shorty to allow a wallow of emotion and send viewers out of the theater with a tear in the eye.

But such recreational indulgence in excessive pity and fear cannot itself explain my affection for Hell’s House and the success, not just of American films worldwide, but also of such different genres as Bollywood musical productions and Hong Kong martial arts films, suggests that their appeal is not exclusively thematic, though they do comfort the consumer by reaffirming his community’s specific preexisting attitudes. There is in addition a formal, structural delight in seeing oppositions raised and then dissolved that more resembles the patterning of a musical piece than it does other sorts of less predictable stories.
As the movie is presently little-remembered by either critics or cultists, it is doubtless necessary to explain the plot. I hope the parallels with a thousand other works will suggest themselves.

The film opens with an idyll of country life. Jimmy appears as consistently virtuous and naïve, a model of filial piety despite what the viewer imagines to be his wholesome and active boy-life. Suddenly, without reason or warning, the calamity of his mother’s death strikes. Dissolved in tears, he cradles her lifeless body.

The specter of mortality itself is here multiplied by the distress of the boy, the more shocking since it was caused by a callous hit-and-run driver. Yet, in the film, this problem is rapidly resolved. Jimmy travels to the city where a kindly Uncle Henry and aunt Emma Clark take him in. Lingering mourning, a unqualified or uninterested relative, a host of possible complications are all ignored to introduce the next opposition: honesty and dishonesty.

It seems a certain Matt Kelly (played by Pat O’Brien) boards with the Clarks. A boastful but amiable fellow, he claims to have high-level connections, though in fact he is a low-level bootlegger. Bette Davis plays his girlfriend Peggy Gardner, a character who consorts with petty crooks, yet seems altogether decent herself, if a bit street-smart.

Impressed by Kelly’s blather and exceedingly naïve, Jimmy becomes entangled in his business and gets arrested and sent to a reformatory while the real criminal remains free. Here the story’s central theme is established: an exposé of the juvenile justice system. The time-serving superintendent of the institution is not so much vicious as opportunistic. He would like to have the resources to run the place responsibly, but, failing that, he conceals its cruelty, presumably protecting the politicians who gave him his position. He acts as though he will assist campaigning newspaperman Frank Gebhardt, but conceals his institution’s failings. Despite its reformist theme, Hell’s House fails to evoke even a hint of the drama and pathos of Ford’s Grapes of Wrath or even Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

In the reform school, Jimmy meets his bunkmate, Shorty, who is not only small of stature but has a bad heart. At their first encounter, Shorty proactively knocks him down, suggesting the place’s pervasive brutality, but they soon become friends. Taking a rap for Jimmy, Shorty ends up in an isolation cell where his illness becomes critical. Desperate to assist him, Jimmy finds a way to escape and enlists Peggy’s help. They contact the crusading writer who is able gather from Jimmy the facts he needs to enlighten the public about the school’s shortcomings. Matt is pressured by his concerned girlfriend to confess his own role, exonerating Jimmy, but it too late for Shorty who dies, alone and ignored. The senseless death of Jimmy’s mother at the hands of an irresponsible driver is echoed in a nice unifying touch by Shorty’s death in a society that shirks responsibility for its “delinquent” youth.

Just as Jimmy’s orphan status was relieved by the generosity of his kindly uncle and aunt, Matt Kelly’s criminal habits are erased. Due to beneficent female influence, he is willing to abandon his lying and bootlegging, do his time, and presumably return to society prepared to marry Peggy and live as an upright citizen. It seems the newspaper’s coverage will be sufficient to produce more humane and effective juvenile facilities, and all is well in the world again, as in the opening rural idyll. Mortality itself, individual immorality, and social injustice are all resolved, though the closing scene milks poor Shorty’s memory for just a bit more pathos.

Like one of Dickens’ individual philanthropists saving a suffering poor boy from the dog-eat-dog lower depths, Gebhardt’s intervention magically settles the social question. This maneuver is no more convincing on the realistic level than the swift replacement of Jimmy’s mother or Matt’s moral awakening, but it doesn’t matter. Even on the thematic level, such stories are a sort of sympathetic magic. By such “happy endings” popular culture reassures its audience that all is well, that life is livable, people may stray but are all right in the end, and society is in fact operating smoothly -- any problems require nothing more than the spotlight of publicity.

Even apart, though, from the satisfaction derived from such exemplary unknotting of contradictions, there is surely an abstract pleasure in the pattern of thesis, antithesis, synthesis that goes beyond specific cultural data. This is one reason that widely divergent audiences in different lands who share few values may enjoy the same stories, and a critic who believes little of the moral, psychological, or social implications such a film presents about lived experience can still watch an inconsequential film with satisfaction. Such a narrative generates complacency beyond any ideology, reassuring the viewer that, despite difficulties and even traumas, all will come right in the end.

Lady Maisry

In language, theme, and style, “Lady Maisry” is representative of the ballad tradition. Though much literary criticism, even of oral materials, privileges innovation and individuality while minimizing the value of similarities between a text and others, such common elements may be centrally important, particularly in the case of popular genres. This may be exemplified by a consideration of this classic song, in many ways a typical border ballad.

Since the text was first transcribed from oral performance in 1799 “for his own amusement” by a Greek professor with antiquarian tastes, it has proven quite popular. It appears not only as Childs ballad 65 and in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1910 Oxford Book of Ballads, but in such non-scholarly journals as Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. [1] In academic circles it has acquired variations, sources, and influences while, ever since the sixties, it has never lacked interpreters among modern folk-style performers. [2]

The emotional focus is one of the most popular world-wide, evoking an exceedingly old gender stereotype: the persecuted lady, familiar from Greek tragedy, Yuan dynasty plays, and The Perils of Pauline. Just as the favorite theme of lyric is romantic love, commonly obstructed or unrequited, in the sentimental and melodramatic ballad genre, love frequently inspires a tragedy marked by a loss of sexual purity. In the classic dodge used by Andreas Capellanus and the Pearl-Poet (in Cleanness) as well as by many exploitation filmmakers, one can describe every sort of immorality if one simply concludes by drawing a cautionary moral. Thus the listener is free to savor Lady Maisry’s grand affair and then to shiver in horror at the violence that follows.

A certain ambiguity is established at the outset as the Lady spurns the honorable suits of her fellow-countrymen who approached in a respectable manner through her family and gave her gifts. While her rejection of the “young lords o’ the north country” could signify arrogance, it might also be construed as indicating the purity of her love, independent of family or local ties. It is, at any rate, tempting fate, as the sequel demonstrates.

Indeed, she not only has chosen an English lover; she openly declares as much to the local lads, and this ill-advised candor sets the narrative in motion. A low menial, a “kitchy-boy,” relays the information that she is pregnant to her brother to whom the news is an intolerable disgrace requiring immediate and extreme action, an “honor killing” much like that expected of families in some contemporary Muslim cultures. He confronts his sister, threatening her with death unless she forsakes her lover.

In this dilemma, she calls on the aid of her lover Lord William through the agency of a loyal servant, but he arrives too late. She has been burned to death, and he resolves to burn her kin in revenge, and finally, unable to go on without her, to cast himself into the flames. The song ends with a thrill of horror and this vision of general conflagration.

The thematic emphasis falls heavily on the competing demands of the morality of love, where the lady and her William defy social convention yet behave in a romantically noble fashion, sacrificing all for passion. A possible patriotic theme vanishes as the English lord acquits himself well, sealing his tragic valor with a pledge of suicide. The representative of traditional values, the brother, concerned for the honor of the family, is portrayed in a wholly unattractive way, so harsh and unfeeling that his moral position is undermined. He threatens her with immediate death the moment he confronts her. [3] Similarly, the class issue is raised by the low status of the treacherous kitchen worker, ignoble in deeds as in birth, only to be canceled by the readiness of the “bonny boy,” certainly a servant or dependent, who carries her message to her champion. With these bipolar oppositions nicely balanced, the story of star-crossed love may play out.

The song thus insists on the primacy of desire – there is no denying the lady’s willful love-death. The issues of nationalism, morality, and class do not vanish but are subsumed in the ungovernable passion that drives the story. Received ideas govern: ladies are passive (if stubborn), males active to the point of violence. The manor-house setting raises interest in the story, as people today take a lively interest in the affairs of British royalty and Hollywood celebrities. Like viewers of many a modern movie, the listener to “Lady Maisry” can enjoy the second-hand experience of what must be understood as a story of sexual misconduct – after all, the lady’s liaison is secret and violates her obligations to Christian morality, family and community – without violating any norms. In fact, the song could pass for an object lesson in the damage potential of unloosed sexuality.

The charm of this particular song, I think, is that it provides all the reassuring affirmation of popular art while retaining knots of ambiguity. The simpler art will portray one hundred per cent heroes and villains. Here one can only react with some ambivalence to each of the three main characters. The lady who loves so well might seem a trifle stand-offish to her local suitors, what the troubadours called daungereux (not far from what a more modern idiom would condemn as “hincty”), while engaging in a secret and forbidden premarital liaison. The brother who represents the conventional morality that governs most listeners’ lives is cold and brutal. The lordly lover, while valiant and loyal, having failed to sweep her off to safety at his own estate, comes, in the end, only tardily to her aid. In spite of the formulaic plot, the song hints at the complexities of lived experience.

Further, while acknowledging the contradictions of gender, ethnicity, and class, the song spotlights desire as the primary motive force for life, the principal cause of conflict and drama. The governing opposition of the song is the lady’s reckless search for love and her brother’s conviction that he must control eros in the name of honor, however harsh the means. In the world of the ballad as in the Eden story and the real world, people suffer because if desire. The individual who has experienced this in life may, upon hearing the song, enjoy the role of spectator, relishing like the viewer of tragedy the fact that it is others who suffer this time while knowing that similar, if less lurid, calamities occur regularly.

While, like other popular and oral texts, “Lady Maisry” reinforces received ideas and accepted behavior, it also illustrates literature’s particular ability to reflect the contradiction, ambivalence, and mystery of lived experience. The listener is able at once to take pleasure in the sensationalism of an illicit affair and a gruesome denouement while feeling some kinship with the passionate lady, the moralistic brother, and the lover who fails to save his lady. Issues of gender, class, nationalism, family, and sexual purity fade, leaving the listener to reflect on the turbulence stirred by irresistible desire.

1. For January 1845.

2. John Jacob Niles collected it in 1934 in the Appalachians and vividly recreates the scene in his Ballad Book. A contemporary U.K. group not only recorded the song but calls itself Lady Maisery.

3. In an odd detail, he threatens to kill the messenger if the bad news he brings be a lie, yet also promises a “malison” or curse should the information be accurate.


THE YOUNG lords o’ the north country
Have all a-wooing gone,
To win the love of Lady Maisry,
But o’ them she wou’d hae none.


O they hae courted Lady Maisry 5
Wi’ a’ kin kind of things;
An’ they hae sought her Lady Maisry
Wi’ brooches an’ wi’ rings.


An’ they ha’ sought her Lady Maisry
Frae father and frae mother; 10
An’ they ha’ sought her Lady Maisry
Frae sister an’ frae brother.


An’ they ha’ follow’d her Lady Maisry
Thro’ chamber an’ thro’ ha’;
But a’ that they cou’d say to her, 15
Her answer still was Na.


‘O haud your tongues, young men,’ she says,
‘An’ think nae mair o’ me;
For I’ve gi’en my love to an English lord,
An’ think nae mair o’ me.’ 20


Her father’s kitchy-boy heard that,
An ill death may he dee!
An’ he is on to her brother,
As fast as gang cou’d he.


‘O is my father an’ my mother well, 25
But an’ my brothers three?
Gin my sister Lady Maisry be well,
There’s naething can ail me.’—


‘Your father an’ your mother is well,
But an’ your brothers three; 30
Your sister Lady Maisry ’s well,
So big wi’ bairn gangs she.’


‘Gin this be true you tell to me,
My malison light on thee!
But gin it be a lie you tell, 35
You sal be hangit hie.’


He ’s done him to his sister’s bow’r,
Wi’ meikle doole an’ care;
An’ there he saw her Lady Maisry
Kaiming her yellow hair. 40


‘O wha is aught that bairn,’ he says,
‘That ye sae big are wi’?
And gin ye winna own the truth,
This moment ye sall dee.’


She turn’d her right and roun’ about, 45
An’ the kame fell frae her han’;
A trembling seiz’d her fair body,
An’ her rosy cheek grew wan.


‘O pardon me, my brother dear,
An’ the truth I’ll tell to thee; 50
My bairn it is to Lord William,
An’ he is betroth’d to me.’—


‘O cou’d na ye gotten dukes, or lords,
Intill your ain country,
That ye draw up wi’ an English dog, 55
To bring this shame on me?


‘But ye maun gi’ up the English lord,
Whan your young babe is born;
For, gin you keep by him an hour langer,
Your life sall be forlorn.’— 60


‘I will gi’ up this English blood,
Till my young babe be born;
But the never a day nor hour langer,
Tho’ my life should be forlorn.’—


‘O whare is a’ my merry young men, 65
Whom I gi’ meat and fee,
To pu’ the thistle and the thorn,
To burn this woman wi’?’—


She turn’d her head on her left shoulder,
Saw her girdle hang on a tree; 70
‘O God bless them wha gave me that,
They’ll never give more to me.


‘O whare will I get a bonny boy,
To help me in my need,
To rin wi’ haste to Lord William, 75
And bid him come wi’ speed?’—


O out it spake a bonny boy,
Stood by her brother’s side:
‘O I would run your errand, lady,
O’er a’ the world sae wide. 80


‘Aft have I run your errands, lady,
Whan blawn baith win’ and weet;
But now I’ll rin your errand, lady,
Wi’ saut tears on my cheek.’


O whan he came to broken briggs, 85
He bent his bow and swam,
An’ whan he came to the green grass growin
He slack’d his shoone and ran.


O whan he came to Lord William’s gates,
He baed na to chap or ca’, 90
But set his bent bow till his breast,
An’ lightly lap’ the wa’;
An’, or the porter was at the gate,
The boy was i’ the ha’.


‘O is my biggins broken, boy? 95
Or is my towers won?
Or is my lady lighter yet,
Of a dear daughter or son?’—


‘Your biggin is na broken, sir,
Nor is your towers won; 100
But the fairest lady in a’ the land
For you this day maun burn.’—


‘O saddle me the black, the black,
Or saddle me the brown;
O saddle me the swiftest steed 105
That ever rade frae a town!’


Or he was near a mile awa’,
She heard his wild horse sneeze:
‘Mend up the fire, my false brother,
It’s na come to my knees.’ 110


O whan he lighted at the gate,
She heard his bridle ring;
‘Mend up the fire, my false brother,
It’s far yet frae my chin.


‘Mend up the fire to me, brother, 115
Mend up the fire to me;
For I see him comin’ hard an’ fast,
Will soon mend it up to thee.


‘O gin my hands had been loose, Willy,
Sae hard as they are boun’, 120
I would have turn’d me frae the gleed,
And casten out your young son.’—


‘O I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry,
Your father an’ your mother;
An’ I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry, 125
Your sister an’ your brother.


‘An’ I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry,
The chief of a’ your kin;
An’ the last bonfire that I come to,
Mysel’ I will cast in.’ 130

Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics

The reader of Huckleberry Finn who thinks that the author has perhaps exaggerated the violent, semi-lawless towns with their drunks, duels, feuds, and frauds, all enacted against the violent background of chattel slavery, finds in William Otter’s autobiography History of My Own Times a putatively nonfiction depiction of much the same scene.

Little is known about why or how Otter, a plasterer by trade, happened to publish this volume in 1835. The curious thing about Otter’s narration is not his working-class perspective, but his self-concept. The subtitle promises “A Series of Events, and Musical Incidents Altogether Original.” In fact, the word “musical” here apparently means something like entertaining, and to Otter nothing was more amusing than causing pain to people and animals. He was a tavern habitué and progressed from youthful adventures in which he and his crew would simply overrun a drinking spot in order to steal liquor and break things to elaborate conspiracies with fellow drinkers to play pranks which sometimes resulted in real physical harm as well as destruction of property. The entire book consists of his boastful narration of his endless “sprees” and “frolics,” mostly directed against blacks, Irish Catholics, or trusting acquaintances, though occasionally with an affluent butt such as the “dandy,” Dr. Vanpike, in whose face he contrives to piss. Otter is the sort of joker who purchases itch powder and laxatives; he tricks a man into drinking turpentine and tosses lime into a monkey’s face. He is a large man who was quite willing to have a physical confrontation. He relates a contest on which two men grab each other by the ears and then head-butt. Otter by his telling had far the hardest head.

He was particularly fond of attacking minorities. He describes ushering in Christmas by lurking outside the midnight mass to harass the Catholics when they emerged and participated in rioting against the Irish in New York City. He sent a goat up the aisle of a black church and then beat the worshippers to the ground when they emerged, noting that he spared neither sex or age. He liked to pick up extra cash by capturing escaped slaves. By his own account he caused livestock and pets to be badly injured and tortured, and killed a dog in front of its owner (whose tears inspire his laughter). He had no hesitation about stealing in small ways, though he was a hard-working tradesman as well.
Disreputable, nasty, and wicked as these activities sound, he seems to have had little trouble recruiting comrades to assist his plots. Though often the initiator, he elicited applause from his cronies what they regarded as his enterprise and wit. In middle age he was popular enough to be elected burgess (or mayor) of his town.

The story is organized by his “frolics,” with most every paragraph running until the episode has ended, some paragraphs going on for pages with great strings of paratactic, coordinated clauses. Otter’s use of slang and colloquial syntax and grammar is entertaining and his stories rapidly moving. In spite of the repetitive accumulation of similar anecdotes, the book reads smoothly; one hears the waggish tone of the raconteur. Apart from hanging out in barrooms, the author later owned one, and there can be little doubt that many of these tales found oral expression a great many times before they were written.

Literary parallels pointed out by Otter’s editor, Richard B. Scott, include George Washington Harris’ Sut Lovingood and Davy Crockett’s popular autobiography, and Scott also speculates on the political and historic implications of the book. Otter was a Jacksonian Democrat. The gentility of the rising American middle class would never tolerate his high jinks, and the Great Awakening of his day would see him simply as a lost sinner. Yet perhaps the most significant reading of the data encoded in Otter’s autobiography would focus on the unselfconscious, unrestrained ego assertion so often associated with masculinity, so high-spirited, so at home with alcohol and violence. He managed to set down upon the page sufficient information that we can almost understand Jackass films, the schoolyard bully, and the dreadful grins often evident in photos of the perpetrators of lynchings.

William Otter, Richard B. Scott ed. History of My Own Times or, the Life and Adventures of William Otter, Sen. Comprising A Series of Events, and Musical Incidents Altogether Original. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.