The majority of the writing that we have done thus far in the course has been more on the creative end of the writing spectrum. In this lesson you will have the opportunity to write a much more academic type of paper. Nevertheless, you are still going to apply the Six Traits, and hopefully you can even enjoy this assignment.
If you follow directions carefully, and do what is asked, you should do quite well.
Introduction To The Literature-Based Essay
The first step in writing a literature-based essay is to read and analyze literature. (You have definitely done that already in the course). After you have analyzed the literature, you then need to come up with a specific idea or focus that you want to talk about in your essay. (If you took the response journals seriously, then you have already done quite a bit of analysis of the literature. Your response journals are an excellent place to look for a topic for your literature-based essay.) Then, in your essay you explore that topic, and you use the literature as evidence to support your view.
Really, this is just a type of persuasive writing (as is most writing). The best analogy I’ve found to help explain any kind of persuasive writing is to compare writing to a court case. Look at the following comparisons, and hopefully the explanation that follows will help you understand your task when you are asked to do this type of writing.
* Judge/Jury—Reader (your audience)
* Lawyer pleading the case—You (writer)
* The Case on Trial—Your topic or thesis
* Evidence/witnesses—Your specific supporting arguments, details, examples, quotes from the literature
* Ruling/verdict—Your grade/Assessment
Now if you want to be a successful lawyer, the first thing you need to do is define exactly what you are defending or prosecuting. You need to know the case well, so that you can then determine what evidence you are going to use to help you in your case. Obviously, you want to stick specifically to your case. You don’t want to start bringing up evidence for other cases that are unrelated to the case you are working on. The next thing you do, after you know what case you will be arguing, is to decide what evidence is going to be most beneficial and persuasive to your audience—the judge and/or jury. Remember that everything you say or present in the courtroom should point toward persuading them to see your side of the case. Once you have all your evidence, then you need to decide how you are going to present it. What order, and in what ways will the evidence be most effective? Then comes the final part of actually going through the trial. When you are done with the arguments, and you have presented the court with the evidence and witnesses, then you will be done with your part. Last, the case goes to the judge or jury, and they assess your job and give you a verdict.
Persuasive writing is incredibly similar. The first thing you want to do as a writer is define exactly what the topic (case) is. After you know what your topic is, then you want to determine what passages/quotes/examples you will use to support the topic. And, remember to use only the literature examples that will further your topic. After you have the quotes/examples, etc. (evidence) you need to decide what order you will present it, and in what manner it will be presented. Finally, you actually write the paper. When you are done, you turn it in to be assessed.
Note: The one place where this analogy breaks down is that in writing you get to revise and change your arguments as much as you want before you turn it in. If the first draft is terrible, you get the opportunity to fix it, or even start over. In the courtroom, you get one chance to do it right. So, take advantage of the revision process.
Hopefully you have a little better idea of what your task is on this writing assignment. The following will help guide you through the process of writing the literature-based essay.
Choosing Your Topic (Case)
The first thing you want to do is choose your topic. I am giving you complete freedom in your topic for two reasons. First, if you choose something that interests you, then you will write a better paper than if I gave you a very specific question that does not interest you. The second reason that I am letting you choose your essay is that it makes you really think about the different pieces of literature in a way that you wouldn’t if I just assigned you a topic. The third reason is selfish—I don’t want to read the exact same response a thousand times every year.
The first suggestion I have in your selection of a topic is to review your response journals and some of the literature and decide what pieces of literature interested you, and then think about why they interested you.
Once you have done that, then you want to create a thesis statement that defines what your paper is going to be discussing. Below I will give good and bad examples of thesis statements. As you create your thesis statement, keep the following considerations in mind:
* Keep the topic narrow and focused. Avoid vague topics.
* Go beyond the obvious by exploring the topic just past the surface information.
Don’t create a vague, boring thesis like these three examples—
1. Some of the literature in this course teaches interesting lessons.
2. Victor Frankl was incredibly strong to survive the concentration camps.
3. Steven Covey’s and Hyrum Smith’s excerpts were very inspiring.
These three examples are lousy because they violate both of the considerations that I mentioned above. They are all vague, and none of them go beyond the obvious.
Look at the next three example thesis statements. They take the same lousy example above and turn them into topics that are focused and interesting. I expect you to come up with a topic at least this good.
1. Several characters in the literature show us with powerful realism the importance of education, and they show that education is much more than going to school.
2. It was Victor Frankl’s moral strength and view of life that allowed him to survive the concentration camps.
3. Steven Covey’s and Hyrum Smith’s excerpts are inspiring because they give real life applications that we understand and relate to.
Finding the Support for Your Paper (Evidence)
Once you have your topic, you will then want to come up with the evidence to support what you are claiming in your topic. For example, I will show you some of the examples and quotes that I would pick to support topic 1 above. Since I have decided to talk about education, I would first go back through any literature that I think might have characters that will help me prove my thesis. The ones that I think could work in this paper are:
* excerpt from Kaffir Boy
* excerpt from The Autobiography of Helen Keller
* excerpt from Black Boy
* the short story “The Bet”
Next I want to paraphrase what it is specifically about each of these that relates to education and how education goes beyond school.
1. Kaffir Boy shows how education opens up opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be there, and it shows how education is sometimes the only way to escape from poverty or other undesirable circumstances.
2. Helen Keller shows the power that teachers have to open up new worlds, and she also shows that through education life has more meaning.
3. Richard Wright in Black Boy shows how important it is to understand how to relate what we learn to our own lives and situations.
4. The character in “The Bet” shows that even though you can learn everything there is to know, if it is not used then it is no better than not ever learning it in the first place.
Hopefully you can see that my paper is already beginning to take shape. Basically the four items above are the beginnings of paragraphs in the body of the paper. The thesis is the beginning of the introductory paragraph, so really all I am missing is a conclusion. Of course, we’ve still got a way to go before we’re done. The two things I want to accomplish before we move on are to find specific quotes from each piece that help support the thesis, and then I want to organize the different examples into an order that is logical and persuasive. I am only going to go step-by-step through one paragraph, but you’ll get the idea.
These are the quotes that I think I can use from Kaffir Boy:
* “They, like myself, had grown up in an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized; where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell but how to fight and steal and rebel.”
* The lady they saw in the street said of her son, “he shunned school and, instead, grew up to live by the knife. And the same knife he lived by ended his life. That’s why whenever I see a boy child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini.”
* He asked his mother, “Why do you want me to go to school, Mama?”
* She replied, “I want you to have a future, child . . . school is the only means to a future.”
* “Education will open doors where none seem to exist. It will make you soar, like a bird lifting up into the endless blue sky, and leave poverty, hunger, and suffering behind.”
Once you have the quotes you think support the thesis well, then you want to write them into your paragraph so that they flow smoothly into your paper. Be sure to embed the quotes, or give them context. It is very awkward if you don’t. The following is an example of how I would embed the above quotes into a paragraph.
In Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane gives us a glimpse of how important education is in an environment where his mother had to go to great lengths to even be allowed to have him go to school. Mathabane grew up in “an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized; where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell but how to fight and steal and rebel.” He always thought that going to school was a waste of time, but several experiences changed that. First, a lady in the street saw him trying to run away from having to go to school. She told him about her own son. She said, “He shunned school and, instead, grew up to live by the knife. And the same knife he lived by ended his life. That’s why whenever I see a boy child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini.” Later, after his father beat his mother for taking him to school, he asked his mother why she wanted him to go to school. She replied, “I want you to have a future, child . . . school is the only means to a future.” Through these experiences, Mark Mathabane realized that there really is more to education than just going to school. As his mother told him, “Education will open doors where none seem to exist.” He realized that an education was what would allow him to become that bird that lifts into the sky, leaving “poverty, hunger, and suffering behind.”
After you have finished developing all of your paragraphs like that, or before you develop them, it is crucial to put them in the order that you think will be the most persuasive. This is the order that I would put my different evidence.
1. Introduction with thesis
2. Helen Keller
3. Kaffir Boy
4. Richard Wright
5. “The Bet”
As you write your paper, put all of these different pieces of evidence together. Be sure to use smooth transitions that lead from one topic to the next and tie all evidence back to the thesis.
In addition to that, keep in mind that you want to make your introduction interesting so that it catches the attention of the reader. And, make your conclusion interesting. Try to leave the reader something that will make him continue to think about your topic. The following is my example. The transitions are bolded to help you see how easy it can be to tie all the different support together.
Ferris the Fraud
We live in a society that glorifies Ferris Beuhler. Granted, I remember pretending to have a sore throat so that I didn’t have to go to school. I was actually lucky, because it seemed that I had a condition on my tonsils that made it look like my throat was always sore. Therefore, when I got the urge to stay home I pulled out the flashlight and opened my mouth for my mom. It worked every time. I remember watching the movie Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off, in which Ferris is the hero for creating an elaborate scheme to avoid going to school. The teachers in the movie drone on, and are portrayed as barely more than tape recorders with low batteries, and all the students consequently hate school. It was funny, and unfortunately too many students in our culture want to be like Ferris, but in actuality, Ferris is a fraud. There are several characters in the literature that show us the power of education, and they show that education goes beyond school. Movies like Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off may be funny and entertaining, but they lie about what education is all about.
One person that definitely portrays the truth about the power of education is Helen Keller. Keller grew up deaf and blind and lived in a world that was dark both literally and intellectually. At the age of almost seven she was incredibly ignorant because she didn’t have the ability to learn with her handicaps. She says that her existence was like being in a “dense fog . . . it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in.” Then her teacher, Anne Sullivan came to her and gave her the light of learning. She taught her how to learn language, and Keller says it “awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.” Education gave meaning to Keller’s life, and made it worth living.
Mark Mathabane was also denied education until about the same age as Keller, but for different reasons. In his book Kaffir Boy, he describes how hard it was to get an education as a black boy in the face of apartheid South Africa. Mathabane gives us a glimpse of how important education is in an environment where his mother had to go to great lengths to even be allowed to have him go to school. Mathabane grew up in “an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized; where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell but how to fight and steal and rebel.” He always thought that going to school was a waste of time, but several experiences changed that. First, a lady in the street saw him trying to run away from having to go to school. She told him about her own son. She said, “he shunned school and, instead, grew up to live by the knife. And the same knife he lived by ended his life. That’s why whenever I see a boy child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini.” Later, after his father beat his mother for taking him to school, he asked his mother why she wanted him to go so badly. She replied, “I want you to have a future, child . . . school is the only means to a future.” Through these experiences, Mark Mathabane realized that there really is more to education than just going to school. As his mother told him, “Education will open doors where none seem to exist.” He realized that an education was what would allow him to become that bird that lifts into the sky, leaving “poverty, hunger, and suffering behind.”
Like Mathabane, Richard Wright also had a difficult time getting a formal education because of his racial background. Nevertheless, Wright did all he could on his own to learn. He got library books on someone else’s card so that he could read H.L. Mencken. When he started reading the book, he realized Mencken “was fighting, fighting with words . . . He was using words as a weapon.” The most important lesson that Wright points out, though, is not that reading was fun, or learning was neat. The lesson he seems to be teaching in Black Boy is that when we apply what we learn, and take education beyond school, then the real power of education is manifest. He says, “Could words be weapons? Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon.” Way too often it seems students learn information for a test, and then as they leave the testing room, all the information leaks out both ears never to be touched again. Richard Wright does just the opposite. He takes what he learns from his reading and tries to apply it. It opens up new worlds to him.
Richard Wright is an excellent example of applying what you learn, and realizing that education goes beyond school. The last example “The Bet” shows in a negative way that there is much more to education than just learning. In this story, two men make a bet in which one agrees to spend the next fifteen years in solitary confinement. If he stays the full fifteen years, the other man must pay him two million dollars. While he was in solitary confinement, he “read the classics,” and many other books. He studied “languages, philosophy, and history.” In four years he read more than 600 volumes. Despite all the learning he did, he hated life and was extremely lonely. He was unable to apply anything that he had learned for the good of others. At the end of the fifteen years he said, “your books have given me wisdom.” Yet, he goes on to say, “I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world.” When put in a situation in which he could learn anything, but not be able to use it for anything, it seems that he became miserable and depressed. Therefore, it shows how important it is to apply what we know, and not just learn things for no other purpose.
From these, and many other examples, we realize how crucial education is to our existence. It opens opportunities, and makes our lives better, especially when we apply what we know. Our culture will still be full of kids with the attitude of Ferris Beuhler, and there will likely be other movies that portray and promulgate that attitude, but the truth is that education is powerful and important. I bet Ferris Beuhler would even have a change in attitude if he had the opportunity to meet Mark Mathabane or Richard Wright.
Hopefully this example is useful to you. Notice a couple of things in this example.
First, remember to always put direct quotes from the text in quotation marks. Also, if you use a quote longer than five lines the whole thing should be indented. I would discourage you from using gigantic quotes, unless the entire thing is absolutely necessary to your paper. Huge quotes in a paper like this can be distracting. Instead, you can paraphrase parts, and then quote the really important words.
Second, give your paper an interesting title. It serves as a “hook” to get your reader interested in what you have to say.
There are a thousand different topics for you to choose for this paper. Don’t think you have to copy my idea, or the idea that follows in the student example that I give you. Come up with something original that interests you.
One more thing—I haven’t given you a length for this paper. Make it complete. If you can do a great job in two pages double spaced, that is great. If you need four pages to make it complete, that is fine also.
Word of Warning: Don’t even dream about turning in a paper that you wrote last year about some other literature. You must use the literature from this course, and if you don’t, you will not pass lesson eight. You will be given an “E” or an “I” and you will be asked to redo the paper to pass the class.
The following essay is a good student example of what I expect you to do. The reason I chose this one was because it follows pretty well the criteria I describe above. It also happened to follow the theme of journeys that the course follows. This essay was actually written before this course was rewritten, so it refers to other literature that you didn’t read for the course, so don’t get confused by that.
“The Moral Journey”
Life is full of journeys, from physical travels around the globe, to mental excursions in the world of literature, and beyond. But the most important journey through life is life itself. Through the literature in this course I have come to see that all the journeys through life are related to the moral journey of life. All the reading I have done has shown me that virtue is the best way to live. Whether it gives pain or not, the end will be for the best.
The story of The Persian Letters by Montesquieu is a wonderful example of life with, and without, virtue. This story gives excellent examples of what simply being virtuous can do to people. The story begins with a tribe, the Troglodytes, who based their lives on themselves, total and complete selfishness. They had no government, and the few times that one was there, the people simply got tired of it and killed the ruling people. They would do nothing for anyone else. They would not share, or help the needy. Even if the hungry die of starvation, it is none of their concern. The Troglodytes were even unwilling to pay a doctor who came from a distant foreign country to save their lives from a dreadful illness. Then, after the doctor had left, the illness sprang up once again, and they came pleading to him for help. The doctor would not help them, due mostly to the fact that they had treated him so poorly before.
You have seen, my dear Mirza, how the Troglodytes perished by their wickedness and became victims of their own injustice. Only two families in the entire nation escaped its ruin. For there were in this country two remarkable men, who were humane, just, and lovers of virtue.
By McDougall Littell’s definition, “Virtue is general moral excellence, right action and thinking.” These families lived virtuously and raised their kids the same way. They created a whole new race essentially. This new race created its own community, but they had no government, because they had no need. Their ruling body, so to speak, consisted of their virtues. The new community built itself up and was a nearly perfect community, as opposed to the early Troglodytes who created their own destruction. These two examples are extremely different, due to one little thing, virtue. It just goes to show you how much one thing can matter on life’s journey.
Another sample of literature is “The Tale of the Anklet” from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a Cinderella story. This simple, but well known, story is about how devastating jealousy can be, if left unchecked. The main character, Delilah, has two older stepsisters who are jealous of her natural outer, and inner, beauty, but mostly the outer beauty. One day Delilah bought a “magic” vase from an old merchant. The vase turned out to be truly magical. One day Delilah decided to dress up, with the vase’s help, and visit the castle. She wandered through the castle and chanced to see the prince. Delilah fell in love with him at first sight. But before she could meet him, Delilah saw her sisters heading for home, so she took off to get there first. When she was running away, she dropped her anklet in a watery ditch. The anklet was later found in the ditch. The Prince saw it, as well as the king. Then the Prince vowed to marry the girl who could fit the little anklet over her foot. They searched the kingdom for her. The Prince found Delilah eventually, and she started preparations to marry the Prince. Delilah gave the vase to her sisters so that they, too, could enjoy its magic, but the sisters, in their jealousy, used the vase to create three hairpins to turn Delilah into a dove. Delilah went and visited the Prince in that form everyday. Eventually he found the hairpins in the dove’s head. He removed them and Delilah returned to herself. She then proceeded to relate how she became a dove. When the sisters found out Delilah was back, they hid in the magic vase. Delilah left them there to whatever fate might befall them.
“Shall I order the vase to give up your sisters so that they can be beaten soundly and turned into jackdaws?” asked the Prince. “No,” said Delilah. “Place the vase on the highest shelf in the palace, and if someone should discover its secret in the years to come, that person can decide what to do with two big-footed girls and enough envy to fill a barn.”
The extreme jealousy of the stepsisters ended up leading to their entrapment, and thus the end of their reign of terror over Delilah. If they had but treated Delilah with the respect that she deserved as their sister, she would never have bought the vase, which brought about the destruction of the stepsisters. Alas, their jealousy prevented that from happening. So you see, jealousy can be nearly as bad as an overall lack of virtue on the journey of life.
The next selection of literature was “How Much Land Does a Man Need” by Leo Tolstoy, a story of what greed can to do a simple farmer in the country. The story starts with two sisters having a chat over tea. The elder sister is boasting about how good life in the city is. The younger sister is satisfied with country living. Her family can provide itself with everything it needs to survive. The younger sister’s husband is listening to this conversation. He becomes boastful to himself about how good their lives are, but they could use some more land. The whole while, the devil is there, listening. He sets his sights on bringing the husband under his power, by giving him more land. As the story progresses, they acquire more and more land. Eventually the man’s greed costs him not only the love and respect he received from his neighbors and associates, but his life, prematurely ending his journey.
The section of Blood Brothers, by Elias Chacour, required for this segment on moral journeys had an excellent lesson about happiness in life, whether now or later, whether momentary or eternal. Elias is in school at this time, but it is about to end. He has to decide whether or not to go back home and be with his family and help people now, or continue with his education. If he continues with his education he will be more able to help the people of Biram, as well as the rest of his country, with the greater knowledge and wisdom he would gain from going to extended schooling. He decides in the end to continue his education so that he may better serve God. He also has a friend, Faraj, go with him through all his schooling. This friend helps Elias determine his destiny. Elias finishes school and ends up going home for a time before his ordination ceremony in Nazareth. Later he would receive his calling to help his people. It became very apparent to Elias, and the reader, that it was extremely beneficial for him to have continued his education. He would certainly be a better person because of it, and he would be much more helpful in the journey to come.
With all this literature showing the effects of morals on life’s journey, it is obvious that they can empower or destroy. It all depends on how I, or anyone, decide to use it on our journey through life.
Excerpt from “Kaffir Boy” by Mark Mathabane
“Education will open doors where none seem to exist.”
When my mother began dropping hints that I would soon be going to school, I vowed never to go because school was a waste of time. She laughed and said, “We’ll see. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” My philosophy on school was that of a gang of ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-olds whom I so revered that their every word seemed that of an oracle.
These boys had long left their homes and were now living in various neighbourhood junkyards, making it on their own. They slept in abandoned cars, smoked glue and benzene, ate pilchards and brown bread, sneaked into the white world to caddy and, if unsuccessful, carried back to the township to steal beer and soda bottles from shebeens, or goods from the Indian traders on First Avenue. Their lifestyle was exciting, adventurous and full of surprises; and I was attracted to it. My mother told me that they were no-gooders, that they would amount to nothing, that I should not associate with them, but I paid no heed. What does she know? I used to tell myself. One thing she did not know was that the gang’s way of life had captivated me wholly, particularly their philosophy on school: they hated it and considered an education a waste of time.
They, like myself, had grown up in an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized, where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell, but how to fight and steal and rebel; where the money to send children to school was grossly lacking, for survival was first priority. I kept my membership in the gang, knowing that for as long as I was under its influence, I would never go to school.
One day my mother woke me up at four in the morning.
“Are they here? I didn’t hear any noises,” I asked in the usual way.
“No,” my mother said. “I want you to get into that washtub over there.”
“What!” I balked, upon hearing the word washtub. I feared taking baths like one feared the plague. Throughout seven years of hectic living the number of baths I had taken could be counted on one hand with several fingers missing. I simply had no natural inclination for water; cleanliness was a trait I still had to acquire. Besides, we had only one bathtub in the house, and it constantly sprung a leak.
“I said get into that tub!” My mother shook a finger in my face.
Reluctantly, I obeyed, yet wondered why all of a sudden I had to take a bath. My mother, armed with a scropbrush and a piece of Lifebuoy soap, purged me of years and years of grime till I ached and bled. As I howled, feeling pain shoot through my limbs as the thistles of the brush encountered stubborn callouses, there was a loud knock at the door.
Instantly my mother leaped away from the tub and headed, on tiptoe, toward the bedroom. Fear seized me as I, too, thought of the police. I sat frozen in the bathtub, not knowing what to do.
“Open up, Mujaji [my mother’s maiden name],” Granny’s voice came shrilling through the door. “It’s me.”
My mother heaved a sigh of relief; her tense limbs relaxed. She turned and headed to the kitchen door, unlatched it and in came Granny and Aunt Bushy.
“You scared me half to death,” my mother said to Granny. “I had forgotten all about your coming.”
“Are you ready?” Granny asked my mother.
“Yes—just about,” my mother said, beckoning me to get out of the washtub.
She handed me a piece of cloth to dry myself. As I dried myself, questions raced through my mind: What’s going on? What’s Granny doing at our house this ungodly hour of the morning? And why did she ask my mother, “Are you ready?” While I stood debating, my mother went into the bedroom and came out with a stained white shirt and a pair of faded black shorts.
“Here,” she said, handing me the togs, “put these on.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Put them on I said!”
I put the shirt on; it was grossly loose-fitting. It reached all the way down to my ankles. Then I saw the reason why: it was my father’s shirt!
“But this is Papa’s shirt,” I complained. “It don’t fit me.”
“Put it on,” my mother insisted. “I’ll make it fit.”
“The pants don’t fit me either,” I said. “Whoseare they anyway?”
“Put them on,” my mother said. “I’ll make them fit.”
Moments later I had the garments on; I looked ridiculous. My mother started working on the pants and shirt to make them fit. She folded the shirt in so many intricate ways and stashed it inside the pants, they too having been folded several times at the waist. She then choked the pants at the waist with a piece of sisal rope to hold them up. She then lavishly smeared my face, arms and legs with a mixture of pig’s fat and vaseline. “This will insulate you from the cold,” she said. My skin gleamed like the morning star and I felt as hot as the centre of the sun and I smelled God knows like what. After embalming me, she headed to the bedroom.
“Where are we going, Gran’ma?” I said, hoping that she would tell me what my mother refused to tell me. I still had no idea I was about to be taken to school.
“Didn’t your mother tell you?” Granny said with a smile.”You’re going to start school.”
“What!” I gasped, leaping from the chair where I was sitting as if it were made of hot lead. “I am not going to school!” I blurted out and raced toward the kitchen door.
My mother had just reappeared from the bedroom and guessing what I was up to, she yelled, “Someone get the door!”
Aunt Bushy immediately barred the door. I turned and headed for the window. As I leaped for the windowsill, my mother lunged at me and brought me down. I tussled, “Let go of me! I don’t want to go to school! Let me go!” but my mother held fast onto me.
“It’s no use now,” she said, grinning triumphantly as she pinned me down. Turning her head in Granny’s direction, she shouted, “Granny! Get a rope quickly!”
Granny grabbed a piece of rope nearby and came to my mother’s aid. I bit and clawed every hand that grabbed me, and howled protestations against going to school; however, I was no match for the two determined matriarchs. In a jiffy they had me bound, hands and feet.
“What’s the matter with him?” Granny, bewildered, asked my mother.”Why did he suddenly turn into an imp when I told him you’re taking him to school?”
“You shouldn’t have told him that he’s being taken to school,” my mother said. “He doesn’t want to go there. That’s why I requested you come today, to help me take him there. Those boys in the streets have been a bad influence on him.”
As the two matriarchs hauled me through the door, they told Aunt Bushy not to go to school but stay behind and mind the house and the children.
The sun was beginning to rise from beyond the veld when Granny and my mother dragged me to school. The streets were beginning to fill with their everyday traffic: old men and women, wizened, bent and ragged, were beginning their rambling; workless men and women were beginning to assemble in their usual coteries and head for shebeens in the backyards where they discussed how they escaped the morning pass raids and contemplated the conditions of life amidst intense beer drinking and vacant, uneasy laughter; young boys and girls, some as young as myself, were beginning their aimless wanderings along the narrow, dusty streets in search of food, carrying bawling infants piggyback.
As we went along some of the streets, boys and girls who shared the same fears about school as I were making their feelings known in a variety of ways. They were howling their protests and trying to escape. A few managed to break loose and make a mad dash for freedom, only to be recaptured in no time, admonished or whipped, or both, and ordered to march again.
As we made a turn into Sixteenth Avenue, the street leading to the tribal school I was being taken to, a short, chubby black woman came along from the opposite direction. She had a scuttle overflowing with coal on her doek-covered(cloth-covered) head. An infant, bawling deafeningly, was loosely swathed with a piece of sheepskin onto her back. Following closely behind the woman, and picking up pieces of coal as they fell from the scuttle and placing them in a small plastic bag, was a half-naked, potbellied and thumb-sucking boy of about four. The woman stopped abreast. For some reason we stopped too.
“I wish I had done the same to my oldest son,” the strange woman said in a regretful voice, gazing at me. I was confounded by her stopping and offering her unsolicited opinion.
“I wish I had done that to my oldest son,” she repeated, and suddenly burst into tears; amidst sobs, she continued, “before the street claimed him . . . and . . . turned him into a tsotsi [a flashily dressed street thug].”
Granny and my mother offered consolatory remarks to the strange woman.
“But it’s too late now,” the strange woman continued, tears now streaming freely down her puffy cheeks. She made no attempt to dry them.”It’s too late now,” she said for the second time, “He’s beyond any help. I can’t help him even if I wanted to. Uswile [He is dead].”
“How did he die?” my mother asked in a sympathetic voice.
“He shunned school and, instead, grew up to live by the knife. And the same knife he lived by ended his life. That’s why whenever I see a boy-child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini [heartbreak].”
Having said that, the strange woman left as mysteriously as she had arrived.
“Did you hear what that woman said!” my mother screamed into my ears. “Do you want the same to happen to you?”
I dropped my eyes. I was confused.
“Poor woman,” Granny said ruefully. “She must have truly loved her son.”
Finally, we reached the school and I was ushered into the principal’s office, a tiny cubicle facing a row of privies and a patch of yellowed grass.
“So this is the rascal we’d been talking about,” the principal, a tall, wiry man, foppishly dressed in a black pin-striped suit, said to my mother as we entered. His austere, shiny face, inscrutable and imposing, reminded me of my father. He was sitting behind a brown table upon which stood piles of dust and cobweb-covered books and papers. In one upper pocket of his jacket was arrayed a variety of pens and pencils; in the other nestled a lily-white handkerchief whose presence was more decorative than utilitarian. Alongside him stood a disproportionately portly black woman, fashionably dressed in a black skirt and a white blouse. She had but one pen, and this she held in her hand. The room was hot and stuffy and buzzing with flies.
“Yes, Principal,” my mother answered, “this is he.”
“I see he’s living up to his notoriety,” remarked the principal, noticing that I had been bound. “Did he give you too much trouble?”
“Trouble, Principal,” my mother sighed, “He was like an imp.”
“He’s just like the rest of them, Principal,” Granny sighed.”Once they get out into the streets, they become wild. They take to the many vices of the streets like an infant takes to its mother’s milk. They begin to think that there’s no other life but the one shown them by the tsotsis. They come to hate school and forget about the future.”
“Well,” the principal said. “We’ll soon remedy all that. Untie him.”
“He’ll run away,” my mother cried.
“I don’t think he’s that foolish to attempt that with all of us here.”
“He is that foolish, Principal,” my mother said as she and Granny began untying me. “He’s tried it before. Getting him here was an ordeal in itself.”
The principal rose from his seat, took two steps to the door and closed it. As the door swung closed, I spotted a row of canes of different lengths and thicknesses hanging behind it. The principal, seeing me staring at the canes, grinned and said, in a manner suggesting that he had wanted me to see them, “As long as you behave, I won’t have to use any of those on you.”
“Use those canes on me?” I gasped. I stared at my mother—she smiled; at Granny—she smiled too. That made me abandon any inkling of escaping.
“So they finally gave you the birth certificate and the papers,” the principal addressed my mother as he returned to his chair.
“Yes, Principal,” my mother said, “they finally did. But what a battle it was. It took me nearly a year to get all them papers together.” She took out of her handbag a neatly wrapped package and handed it to the principal. “They’ve been running us around for so long that there were times when I thought he would never attend school, Principal,” she said.
“That’s pretty much standard procedure, Mrs. Mathabane,” the principal said, unwrapping the package. “But you now have the papers and that’s what’s important.”
“As long as we have the papers,” he continued, minutely perusing the contents of the package “we won’t be breaking the law in admitting your son to this school, for we’ll be in full compliance with the requirements set by the authorities in Pretoria.”
“Sometimes I don’t understand the laws from Pitori,” Granny said. “They did the same to me with my Piet and Bushy. Why, Principal, should our children not be allowed to learn because of some piece of paper?”
“The piece of paper you’re referring to, Mrs. Mabaso [Granny’s maiden name],” the principal said to Granny, “is as important to our children as a pass is to its adults. We all hate passes; therefore, it’s only natural we should hate the regulations our children are subjected to. But as we have to live with passes, so our children have to live with the regulations, Mrs. Mabaso. I hope you understand, that is the law of the country. We would have admitted your grandson a long time ago, as you well know, had it not been for the papers. I hope you understand.”
“I understand, Principal,” Granny said, “but I don’t understand,” she added paradoxically.
One of the papers caught the principal’s eye and he turned to my mother and asked, “Is your husband a Shangaan, Mrs. Mathahane?”
“No, he’s not Principal,” my mother said. “Is there anything wrong? He’s Venda and I’m Shangaan.”
The principal reflected for a moment or so and then said, concernedly, “No, there’s nothing seriously wrong. Nothing that we can’t take care of. You see, Mrs. Mathabane, technically, the fact that your child’s father is a Venda makes him ineligible to attend this tribal school because it is only for children whose parents are of the Shangaan tribe. May I ask what language the children speak at home?”
“Both languages,” my mother said worriedly, “Venda and Shangaan. Is there anything wrong?”
The principal coughed, clearing his throat, then said, “I mean which language do they speak more?”
“It depends, Principal,” my mother said, swallowing hard. “When their father is around, he wants them to speak only Venda. And when he’s not, they speak Shangaan. And when they are out at play, they speak Zulu and Sisotho.”
“Well,” the principal said, heaving a sigh of relief. “In that case, I think an exception can be made. The reason for such an exception is that there’s currently no school for Vendas in Alexandra. And should the authorities come asking why we took in your son, we can tell them that. Anyway, your child is half-half.”
Everyone broke into a nervous laugh, except me. I was bewildered by the whole thing. I looked at my mother, and she seemed greatly relieved as she watched the principal register me; a broad smile broke across her face. It was as if some enormously heavy burden had finally been lifted from her shoulders and her conscience.
“Bring him back two weeks from today,” the principal said as he saw us to the door. “There’re so many children registering today that classes won’t begin until two weeks hence. Also, the school needs repair and cleaning up after the holidays, if he refuses to come, simply notify us, and we’ll send a couple of big boys to come fetch him, and he’ll be very sorry if it ever comes to that.”
As we left the principal’s office and headed home, my mind was still against going to school. I was thinking of running away from home and joining my friends in the junkyard.
I didn’t want to go to school for three reasons: I was reluctant to surrender my freedom and independence over to what I heard every school-going child call “tyrannous discipline.” I had heard many bad things about life in tribal school—from daily beatings by teachers and mistresses who worked you like a mule to long school hours—and the sight of those canes in the principal’s office gave ample credence to rumors that school was nothing but a torture chamber. And there was my allegiance to the gang.
But the thought of the strange woman’s lamentations over her dead son presented a somewhat strong case for going to school: I didn’t want to end up dead in the streets. A more compelling argument for going to school, however, was the vivid recollection of all that humiliation and pain my mother had gone through to get me the papers and the birth certificate so I could enroll in school. What should I do? I was torn between two worlds.
But later that evening something happened to force me to go to school.
I was returning home from playing soccer when a neighbour accosted me by the gate and told me that there had been a bloody fight at my home.
“Your mother and father have been at it again,” the neighbour, a woman, said.
“And your mother left.”
I was stunned.
“Was she hurt badly?”
“A little bit,” the woman said, “But she’ll be all right. We took her to your grandma’s place.”
I became hot with anger.
“Is anyone in the house?” I stammered, trying to control my rage.
“Yes, your father is. But I don’t think you should go near the house. He’s raving mad. He’s armed with a meat cleaver. He’s chased out your brother and sisters, also. And some of the neighbours who tried to intervene he’s threatened to carve them to pieces. I have never seen him this mad before.”
I brushed aside the woman’s warnings and went. Shattered windows convinced me that there had indeed been a skirmish of some sort. Several pieces of broken bricks, evidently broken after being thrown at the door, were lying about the door. I tried opening the door; it was locked from the inside. I knocked. No one answered. I knocked again. Still no one answered, until, as I turned to leave:
“Who’s out there?” my father’s voice came growling from inside.
“It’s me, Johannes,” I said.
“Go away, you bastard!” he bellowed. “I don’t want you or that whore mother of yours setting foot in this house. Go away before I come out there and kill you!”
“Let me in!” I cried. “Dammit, let me in! I want my things!”
“What things? Go away, you black swine!”
I went to the broken window and screamed obscenities at my father, daring him to come out, hoping that if he as much as ever stuck his black face out, I would pelt him with the half-a-loaf brick in my hand. He didn’t come out. He continued launching a tirade of obscenities at my mother and her mother, calling them whores and bitches and so on. He was drunk, but I wondered where he had gotten the money to buy beer because it was still the middle of the week and he was dead broke. He had lost his entire wage for the past week in dice and had had to borrow bus fare.
“I’ll kill you someday for all you’re doing to my mother,” I threatened him, overwhelmed with rage. Several nosey neighbours were beginning to congregate by open windows and doors. Not wanting to make a spectacle of myself, which was something many of our neighbours seemed to always expect from our family, I backtracked away from the door and vanished into the dark street. I ran, without stopping, all the way to the other end of the township where Granny lived. There I found my mother, her face swollen and bruised and her eyes puffed up to the point where she could scarcely see.
“What happened, Mama?” I asked, fighting to hold back the tears at the sight of her disfigured face.
“Nothing, child, nothing,” she mumbled, almost apologetically, between swollen lips. “Your papa simply lost his temper, that’s all.”
“But why did he beat you up like this, Mama?” Tears came down my face. “He’s never beaten you like this before.”
My mother appeared reluctant to answer me. She looked searchingly at Granny, who was pounding millet with pestle and mortar and mixing it with sorghum and nuts for an African delicacy. Granny said, “Tell him, child, tell him. He’s got a right to know. Anyway, he’s the cause of it all.”
“Your father and I fought because I took you to school this morning,” my mother began. “He had told me not to, and when I told him that I had, he became very upset. He was drunk. We started arguing, and one thing led to another.”
“Why doesn’t he want me to go to school?”
“He says he doesn’t have money to waste paying for you to get what he calls a useless white man’s education,” my mother replied. “But I told him that if he won’t pay for your schooling, I would try and look for a job and pay, but he didn’t want to hear that, also. ‘There are better things for you to work for,’ he said. ‘Besides, I don’t want you to work. How would I look to other men if you, a woman I owned, were to start working?’ When I asked him why shouldn’t I take you to school, seeing that you were now of age, he replied that he doesn’t believe in schools. I told him that school would keep you off the streets and out of trouble, but still he was belligerent.”
“Is that why he beat you up?”
“Yes, he said I disobeyed his orders.”
“He’s right, child,” Granny interjected, “He paid lobola [bride price] for you. And your father ate it all up before he left me.”
To which my mother replied, “But I desperately want to leave this beast of a man. But with his lobola gone I can’t do it. That worthless thing you call your husband shouldn’t have sold Jackson’s scrawny cattle and left you penniless.”
“Don’t talk like that about your father, child,” Granny said. “Despite all, he’s still your father, you know. Anyway, he asked lobola only because he had to get back what he spent raising you. And you know it would have been taboo for him to let you or any of your sisters go without asking for lobola.”
“You and Papa seem to forget that my sisters and I have minds of our own,” my mother said. “We didn’t need you to tell us whom to marry, and why, and how. If it hadn’t been for your interference, I could have married that schoolteacher.”
Granny did not reply; she knew well not to. When it came to the act of “selling” women as marriage partners, my mother was vehemently opposed to it. Not only was she opposed to this one aspect of tribal culture, but to others as well, particularly those involving relations between men and women and the upbringing of children. But my mother’s sharply differing opinion was an exception rather than the rule among tribal women. Most times, many tribal women questioned her sanity in daring to question well-established mores. But my mother did not seem to care; she would always scoff at her opponents and call them fools in letting their husbands enslave them completely.
Though I disliked school, largely because I knew nothing about what actually went on there, and the little I knew had painted a dreadful picture, the fact that a father would not want his son to go to school, especially a father who didn’t go to school, seemed hard to understand.
“Why do you want me to go to school, Mama” I asked, hoping that she might, somehow, clear up some of the confusion that was building in my mind.
“I want you to have a future, child,” my mother said. “And, contrary to what your father says, school is the only means to a future. I don’t want you growing up to be like your father.”
The latter statement hit me like a bolt of lightning. It just about shattered every defense mechanism and every pretext I had against going to school.
“Your father didn’t go to school,” she continued, dabbing her puffed eyes to reduce the swelling with a piece of cloth dipped in warm water, “that’s why he’s doing some of the bad things he’s doing. Things like drinking, gambling, and neglecting his family. He didn’t learn how to read and write; therefore, he can’t find a decent job. Lack of any education has narrowly focused his life. He sees nothing beyond himself. He still thinks in the old, tribal way, and still believes that things should be as the were back in the old days when he was growing up as a tribal boy in Louis Trichardt. Though he’s my husband, and your father, he doesn’t see any of that.”
“Why didn’t he go to school, Mama?”
“He refused to go to school because his father led him to believe that an education was a tool through which white people were going to take things away from him, like they did black people in the old days. And that a white man’s education was worthless insofar as black people were concerned because it prepared them for jobs they can’t have. But I know it isn’t totally so, child, because times have changed somewhat. Though our lot isn’t any better today, an education will get you a decent job. If you can read or write you’ll be better off than those of us who can’t. Take my situation: I can’t find a job because I don’t have papers, and I can’t get papers because white people mainly want to register people who can read and write. But I want things to be different for you, child. For you and your brother and sisters.
I want you to go to school, because I believe that an education is the key you need to open a new world and a new life for yourself, a world and life different from that of either your father’s or mine. It is the only key that can do that, and only those who seek it earnestly and perseveringly will get anywhere in the white man’s world. Education will open doors where none seem to exist. It’ll make people talk to you, listen to you and help you; people who otherwise wouldn’t bother. It will make you soar, like a bird lilt tog up into the endless blue sky, and leave poverty, hunger and suffering behind. It’ll teach you to learn to embrace what’s good and shun what’s bad and evil. Above all, it’ll make you a somebody in this world. It’ll make you grow up to be a good and proud person. That’s why I want you to go to school, child, so that education can do all that, and more, for you.”
A long, awkward silence followed, during which I reflected upon the significance of my mother’s lengthy speech. I looked at my mother; she looked at me.
Finally, I asked, “How come you know so much about school, Mama? You didn’t go to school, did you?”
“No, child,” my mother replied. “Just like your father, I never went to school.” For the second time that evening, a mere statement of fact had a thunderous impact on me. All the confusion I had about school seemed to leave my mind, like darkness giving way to light. And what had previously been a dark, yawning void in my mind was suddenly transformed into a beacon of light that began to grow larger and larger, until it had swallowed up, blotted out, all the blackness. That beacon of light seemed to reveal things and facts, which, though they must have always existed in me, I hadn’t been aware of up until now.
“But unlike your father,” my mother went on, “I’ve always wanted to go to school, but couldn’t because my father, under the sway of tribal traditions, thought it unnecessary to educate females. That’s why I so much want you to go, child, for if you do, I know that someday I too would come to go, old as I would be then. Promise me, therefore, that no matter what, you’ll go back to school. And I, in turn, promise that I’ll do everything in my power to keep you there.”
With tears streaming down my cheeks and falling upon my mother’s bosom, I promised her that I would go to school “forever.” That night, at seven and a half years of my life, the battlelines in the family were drawn. My mother on the one side, illiterate but determined to have me drink, for better or for worse, from the well of knowledge. On the other side, my father, he too illiterate, yet determined to have me drink from the well of ignorance. Scarcely aware of the magnitude of the decision I was making or, rather, the decision which was being emotionally thrusted upon me, I chose to fight on my mother’s side.
Chapter Four from The Autobiography of Helen Keller
The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March 1887, three months before I was seven years old.
On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch and fell on my upturned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was, “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
I felt approaching footsteps I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.
The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it, but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.
One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me, “Like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for new day to come.
The Bet (translated by Constance Garnett)
It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things, they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian states. In the opinion of some of them, the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.
“I don’t agree with you,” said their host, the banker, “I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment lulls a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?”
“Both are equally immoral,” observed one of the guests, “for they both have the same object—to take away life. The state is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot restore when it wants to.”
Among the guests was a young lawyer, a young man of five-and-twenty. When he was asked his opinion, he said, “The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all.”
A lively discussion arose. The banker, who was younger and more nervous in those days, was suddenly carried away by excitement, he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the young man, “It’s not! I’ll bet you two million you wouldn’t stay in solitary confinement for five years.”
“If you mean that in earnest,” said the young man, “I’ll take the bet, but I would stay not five, but fifteen years.”
“Fifteen? Done!” cried the banker. “Gentlemen, I stake two million!”
“Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!” said the young man
And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoiled and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man and said: “Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”
And now the banker, walking to and fro, remembered all this and asked himself: “What was the object of that bet? What is the good that man’s losing fifteen years of his life and throwing away two million? Can it prove the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part greed for money. . . .”
Then he remembered what followed that evening. It was decided that the young man should spend the years of his captivity under the strictest supervision in one of the lodges in the banker’s garden. It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted music, wine, and so on—in any quantity desired, by writing an order, but could receive them only through the window. The agreement provided for every detail and every trifle that would make his imprisonment strictly solitary and bound the young man to stay there exactly fifteen years, beginning from twelve o’clock of November 14, 1870, and ending at twelve o’clock of November 14, 1885. The slightest attempt on his part to break the conditions, if only two minutes before the end, released the banker from the obligation to pay him two million.
For the first year of his confinement, as far as one could judge from his brief notes, the prisoner suffered severely from loneliness and depression. The sounds of the piano could heard continually day and night from his lodge. He refused wine and tobacco. Wine, he wrote excites the desires, and desires are the worst foes of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one. And tobacco spoiled the air of his room. In the first year the books he sent for were principally of a light character—novels with a complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so on.
In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics. In the fifth year music was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him through the window said that all that year he spent doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed, frequently yawning and talking angrily to himself. He did not read books. Sometimes at night he would sit down to write, he would spend hours writing and in the morning tear up all that he had written. More than once he could be heard crying.
In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies—so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years, some six hundred volumes were procured at his request. It was during this period that the banker received the following letter from his prisoner :
“My dear Jailer, I write you these lines in six languages. Show them to people who know the languages. Let them read them. If they find not one mistake, I implore you to fire a shot in the garden. That shot will show me that my efforts have not been thrown away. The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages, but the same flame burns in them all. Oh, if you only knew what unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them!”
The prisoner’s desire was fulfilled. The banker ordered two shots to be fired in the garden.
Then, after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospels. It seemed strange to the banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension. Theology and histories of religion followed the Gospels.
In the last two years of his confinement, the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another.
The old banker remembered all this and thought, “Tomorrow at twelve o’clock he will regain his freedom. By our arrangement I ought to pay him two million. If I do pay him, it is all over with me, I shall be utterly ruined.”
Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets. Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation, and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune, and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments. “Cursed bet!” muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair. “Why didn’t the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange, while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar and hear from him every day the same sentence: ‘I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life; let me help you!’ No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!”
It struck three o’clock. The banker listened; everyone was asleep in the house, and nothing could be heard outside but the rustling of the chilled trees. Trying to make no noise, he took from a fireproof safe the key of the door which had not been opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out of the house.
It was dark and cold in the garden. Rain was falling. A damp, cutting wind was racing about the garden, howling and giving the trees no rest. The banker strained his eyes but could see neither the earth nor the white statues, nor the lodge, nor the trees. Going to the spot where the lodge stood, he twice called the watchman. No answer followed. Evidently the watchman had sought shelter from the weather and was now asleep somewhere either in the kitchen or in the greenhouse.
“If I had the pluck to carry out my intention,” thought the old man, “suspicion would fall first upon the watchman.”
He felt in the darkness for the steps and the door and went into the entry of the lodge. Then he groped his way into a little passage and lighted a match. There was not a soul there. There was a bedstead with no bedding on it, and in the corner there was a dark cast-iron stove. The seals on the door leading to the prisoner’s rooms were intact.
When the match went out, the old man, trembling with emotion, peeped through the little window. A candle was burning dimly in the prisoner’s room. He was sitting at the table. Nothing could be seen but his back, the hair on his head, and his hands. Open books were lying on the table, on the two easy chairs, and on the carpet near the table.
Five minutes passed and the prisoner did not once stir. Fifteen years’ imprisonment had taught him to sit still. The banker tapped at the window with his finger, and the prisoner made no movement whatever in response. Then the banker cautiously broke the seals off the door and put the key in the keyhole. The rusty lock gave a grating sound and the door creaked. The banker expected to hear at once footsteps and a cry of astonishment, but three minutes passed and it was as quiet as ever in the room. He made up his mind to go in.
At the table a man unlike ordinary people was sitting motionless. He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones, with long curls like a woman’s, and a shaggy beard. His face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it. His hair was already streaked with silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one would have believed that he was only forty. He was asleep. In front of his bowed head there lay on the table a sheet of paper, on which there was something written in fine handwriting.
“Poor creature!” thought the banker, “he is asleep and most likely dreaming of the millions. And I have only to take this half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign of a violent death. But let us first read what he has written here. . . .”
The banker took the page from the table and read as follows:
“Tomorrow at twelve o’clock I regain my freedom and the right to associate with other men, but before I leave this room and see the sunshine, I think it necessary to say a few words to you. With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.
“For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true I have not seen the earth or men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boats in the forests, I have loved women. . . . Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night and have whispered m my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountaintops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God. In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms. . . .
“Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you.
“And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.
“You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sort, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse, so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don’t want to understand you.
“To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money, I shall go out from here five minutes before the time fixed and so break the compact . . . .”
When the banker had read this, he laid the page on the table, kissed the strange man on the head, and went out of the lodge, weeping. At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home, he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him for hours from sleeping.
Next morning the watchmen ran in with pale faces and told him they had seen the man who lived in the lodge climb out of the window into the garden, go to the gate, and disappear. The banker went at once with the servants to the lodge and made sure of the flight of his prisoner. To avoid arousing unnecessary talk, he took from the table the writing in which the millions were renounced and, when he got home, locked it up in the fireproof safe.
excerpts from Black Boy
“Go ahead. Let me see what you get,” he said.
That afternoon I addressed myself to forging a note. Now, what were the names of books written by H.L. Mencken? I did not know any of them. I finally wrote what I thought would be a foolproof note: Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy—I used the word “nigger” to make the librarian feel that I could not possibly be the author of the note—have some books by H.L. Mencken? I forged the white man’s name.
I entered the library as I had always done when on errands for whites, but I felt that I would somehow slip up and betray myself. I doffed my hat, stood a respectful distance from the desk, looked as unbookish as possible, and waited for the white patrons to be taken care of. When the desk was clear of people. I still waited. The white librarian looked at me.
“What do you want, boy?”
As though I did not possess the power of speech, I stepped forward and simply handed her the forged note, not parting my lips.
“What books by Mencken does he want?” she asked.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” I said, avoiding her eyes.
“Who gave you this card?”
“Mr. Falk,” I said.
“Where is he?”
“He’s at work, at the M—Optical Company,” I said. “I’ve been in here for him before.”
“I remember,” the woman said. “But he never wrote notes like this.”
Oh, God, she’s suspicious. Perhaps she would not let me have the books? If she had turned her back at that moment, I would have ducked out the door and never gone back. Then I thought of a bold idea.
“You can call him up, ma’am,” I said, my heart pounding.
“You’re not using these books, are you?” she asked pointedly.
“Oh, no, ma’am. I can’t read.”
“I don’t know what he wants by Mencken,” she said under her breath.
I knew now that I had won; she was thinking of other things and the race question had gone out of her mind. She went to the shelves. Once or twice she looked over her shoulder at me, as though she was still doubtful. Finally she came forward with two books in her hand.
“I’m sending him two books,” she said. “But tell Mr. Falk to come in next time, or send me the names of the books he wants. I don’t know what he wants to read.”
I said nothing. She stamped the card and handed me the books. Not daring to glance at them, I went out of the library, fearing that the woman would call me back for further questioning. A block away from the library I opened one of the books and read a title: A Book of Prefaces. I was nearing my nineteenth birthday and I did not know how to pronounce the word “preface.” I thumbed the pages and saw strange words and strange names. I shook my head, disappointed. I looked at the other book; it was called Prejudices. I knew what that word meant; I had heard it all my life. And right off I was on guard against Mencken’s books. Why would a man want to call a book Prejudices? The word was so stained with all my memories of racial hate that I could not conceive of anybody using it for a title. Perhaps I had made a mistake about Mencken? A man who had prejudices must be wrong.
When I showed the books to Mr. Falk, he looked at me and frowned.
“That librarian might telephone you,” I warned him.
“That’s all right,” he said. “But when you’re through reading those books, I want you to tell me what you get out of them.”
That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words . . . Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.
Occasionally I glanced up to reassure myself that I was alone in the room. Who were these men about whom Mencken was talking so passionately? Who was Anatole France? Joseph Conrad? Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoevski, George Moore, Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Frank Harris, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, Lola, Norris, Gorky, Bergson, Ibsen, Balzac, Bernard Shaw, Dumas, Poe, Thomas Mann, O. Henry, Dreiser, H. G. Wells, Gogol, T. S. Eliot, Gide, Baudelaire, Edgar Lee Masters, Stendhal, Turgenev, Huneker, Nietzsche, and scores of others? Were these men real? Did they exist or had they existed? And how did one pronounce their names?
I ran across many words whose meanings I did not know, and I either looked them up in a dictionary or before I had a chance to do that, encountered the word in a context that made its meaning clear. But what strange world was this? I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.
As dawn broke I ate my pork and beans, feeling dopey, sleepy. I went to work, but the mood of the book would not die; it lingered, coloring everything I saw, heard, did. I now felt that I knew what the white men were feeling. Merely because I had read a book that had spoken of how they lived and thought, I identified myself with that book. I felt vaguely guilty. Would I, filled with bookish notions, act in a manner that would make the whites dislike me?
I forged more notes and my trips to the library became frequent. Reading grew into a passion. My first serious novel was Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. It made me see my boss, Mr. Gerald, and identify him as an American type. I would smile when I saw him lugging his golf bags into the office. I had always felt a vast distance separating me from the boss, and now I felt closer to him, though still distant. I felt now that I knew him, that I could feel the very limits of his narrow life. And this had happened because I had read a novel about a mythical man called George F. Babbitt.
The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And to me, everything was something different. Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days. But I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently.
Whenever I brought a book to the job, I wrapped it in newspaper—a habit that was to persist for years in other cities and under other circumstances. But some of the white men pried into my packages when I was absent and they questioned me.
“Roy, what are you reading those books for?”
“Oh, I don’t know, sir.”
“That’s deep stuff you’re reading, boy.”
“I’m just killing time, sir.”
“You’ll addle your brains if you don’t watch out.”
I read Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie and they revived in me a vivid sense of my mother’s suffering; I was overwhelmed. I grew silent, wondering about the life around me. It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel, and I could not read enough of them.
Steeped in new moods and ideas, I bought a ream of paper and tried to write; but nothing would come, or what did come was flat beyond telling. I discovered that more than desire and feeling were necessary to write and I dropped the idea. Yet I still wondered how it was possible to know people sufficiently to write about them? Could I ever learn about life and people? To me, with my vast ignorance, my Jim Crow station in life, it seemed a task impossible of achievement. I now knew what being a Negro meant. I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger.
In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, hotter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world about me was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls.
I did not discuss my reading with Mr. Falk, who had lent me his library card; it would have meant talking about myself and that would have been too painful. I smiled each day, fighting desperately to maintain my old behavior, to keep my disposition seemingly sunny. But some of the white men discerned that I had begun to brood.
“Wake up there, boy!” Mr. Olin said one day.
“Sir!” I answered for the lack of a better word.
“You act like you’ve stolen something,” he said.
I laughed in the way I knew he expected me to laugh, but I resolved to be more conscious of myself, to watch my every act, to guard and hide the new knowledge that was dawning within me.
If I went north, would it be possible for me to build a new life then? But how could a man build a life upon vague, uninformed yearnings? I wanted to write and I did not even know the English language. I bought English grammars and found them dull. I felt that I was getting a better sense of the language from novels than from grammars. I read hard, discarding a writer as soon as I felt that I had grasped his point of view. At night the printed page stood before my eyes in sleep.
Mrs. Moss, my landlady, asked me one Sunday morning:
“Son, what is this you keep on reading?”
“Oh, nothing. Just novels.”
“What you get out of ‘em?”
“I’m just killing time,” I said.
“I hope you know your own mind,” she said in a tone which implied that she doubted if I had a mind.
I knew of no Negroes who read the books I liked and I wondered if any Negroes ever thought of them. I knew that there were Negro doctors, lawyers, newspapermen, but I never saw any of them. When I read a Negro newspaper I never caught the faintest echo of my preoccupation in its pages. I felt trapped and occasionally, for a few days, I would stop reading. But a vague hunger would come over me for books, books that opened up new avenues of feeling and seeing, and again I would forge another note to the white librarian. Again I would read and wonder as only the naive and unlettered can read and wonder, feeling that I carried a secret criminal burden about with me each day.