Within the Net of Sound: The Fiction of John Andrew Rice by Suzanne Penuel

Within the Net of Sound: The Fiction of John Andrew Rice
by Suzanne Penuel
The University of South Carolina Lancaster 

In the mid-twentieth century, renowned academic malcontent John Andrew Rice, second member of a three-man dynasty of college presidents, was probably best known for his position as rector and co-founder of Black Mountain College. After being dismissed from an academic post for the second or third or fourth time (for offenses including frequent criticism of his superiors along with the wearing of what was by all accounts a very displeasing translucent white bathing suit) he turned to writing fiction. Rice’s collection Local Color appeared in 1955. In a foreword to those stories, Erskine Caldwell neglects to mention Black Mountain, Rollins College, or any other place where Rice taught or was fired. Caldwell instead comments on Rice’s skill as a writer and racial reconciliator: “It has been a long time in American fiction since a storyteller has been able to achieve anything like the fusion of two races of people as John Andrew Rice has done in this volume” (7). Rice, having been pushed out of the University of Nebraska, out of Rollins, and finally, out of his own brainchild, Black Mountain, would seem to have moved on to an entirely new arena.

A quick overview of Local Color’s plot-lines supports this hypothesis. Its first story, “Monday Come Home,” involves the triumph of Razor Belle, a woman who defends herself against an attacker by cutting him—badly—with one of seven razors labeled with the days of the week. The eponymous character in “The Last Maltby,” a meditation on the puzzling workings of race in an island off the South Carolina coast, is the son of a white man and does not know his mother is black. “You Can Get So Much Justice” features a young black gardener who cannot prevent his white employer from being unjustly convicted of murdering her lover’s wife. In other stories, a fisherman rescues a boy held captive by an escaped German prisoner of war (“Island of Fear”) and a formerly grande dame reconciles with her offended cook (“Miss Hattie”). “Grand Shoes” reverses “You Can Get Just So Much Justice”; a near-autistic shoeshine man ensures that justice is done when a lawyer shoots an aristocrat’s unfaithful wife and then prosecutes the husband for the crime.

Rice’s collection is not alone among his fiction that departs from the subject of life in school, the concern that structured much of his life and his justly celebrated 1942 autobiography, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century. His uncollected New Yorker fiction from the 1940s moves from ups and downs in the marriage of two Croat immigrants (“The Metamorphosis of Mr. Cracovaner”), to the story of British expatriates in Florida who turn their son into their butler (“Content with the Station”), and from there to a middle-aged man’s efforts to get his vacation funded by an autocratic benefactor (“Aunt Lettie and the Absolute”). The uncollected Collier’s stories from the 1950s are likewise diverse in theme. A woman protects her son-in-law from her daughter’s unrealistic expectations (“Where Love Begins”), and a Charleston couple’s domestic harmony is disrupted by belief in the supernatural (“The Yankee”). “A Man Possessed” imagines a man, dominated by his mother and sister, who retreats into a pretense of paralysis. In the body of work as a whole, the ostensible subject matter is people’s attempts to reconcile conflicting values—sometimes racial, sometimes national, sometimes neither.

Even though Caldwell describes Local Color as a “fusion of two races,” Rice’s prose says more about conflict than about race relations and socio-historical conditions the African-American community faced. For example, near the start of his autobiography, Rice writes of his grandmother’s dogmatic cook Winnie, in the “priesthood of service [as was] her slave mother before her,” with stunning cruelty: “She was also expert in the rearing of children, for had she not brought twenty-one into the world and were not seven of them still living?” (5). Ultimately, Rice’s project seems something other than the encouragement of harmony. 

In a few of Rice’s short stories, one can see how his project emerges and differs from this encouragement of harmony between races. Razor Belle, the central figure of Local Color’s “Monday Come Home,” is a black woman who initially appears dehumanized in the narrative. The contents of her “feed sack” produce a “grunt of satisfaction,” Rice writes. The import of his phrasing is made clear when he tells us the sack conceals a slab of pork. “[D]rops of sweat” fall when she moves her “huge body”; the image echoes a paragraph later in the salt pork’s “drop[s] of fat” (9). In short, Razor Belle is hoggish. (Rice does not seem to disapprove, particularly.) We learn that she is hiding at the edge of a swamp with her feed sack of pork because she has slashed a white man’s face with her razor, and the extent to which her act is justified is never made entirely clear. After taking shelter on the grounds of the Dupres place, seat of a family so vicious few come near, Belle is eventually detected by Jeff Dupres, a depraved deputy sheriff. “[N]ot even a white man was safe when Jeff had a couple of drinks in him, and he usually had,” she muses. “You’d think white folks would have better sense” (12-13). But Jeff’s unnamed aunt, a woman of encroaching blindness both physical and moral, prevails upon the deputy to give up the twenty-five-dollar reward for turning Razor Belle in—she needs a cook. She confiscates Belle’s razor, one with “Monday” written on the handle in gold letters. Belle, locked up in an outbuilding at night, is more or less enslaved until the deputy dies in a car wreck and she has the courage to take back the razor—at which point, instead of leaving, she moves into the house as symbolic co-owner.

“Monday Come Home” is certainly a story of the comeuppance that follows white arrogance. Razor Belle’s victim thinks that “because he was a white man and he had a gun he was safe,” and the deputy sheriff’s remark that Belle is “twenty-five bucks’ worth of nigger” is followed by his aunt’s “Ain’t no nigger wuth that much” (13-14). Along with Belle’s literacy, which outstrips the reading ability of the aging aunt, her move into the house on equal footing with its legal owner underscores the general impression that the Jim Crow-era Rice, regardless of the story’s earlier paralleling of Razor Belle to meat, means to create a character more deserving and intelligent than her white captors. Nonetheless, the story’s racial dimension is layered onto a more subtle theme. 

The very literacy that indicates Belle’s competence is also a problem. The Dupres aunt makes her read the entire paper aloud every night, even after both women are too sleepy to pay attention. The obituaries are the main attraction for the older woman, and “there was no going to bed until the reading was complete” (20). Razor Belle is hardly Scheherazade. Her verbal ability does not prolong her life but instead makes it more difficult. When the aunt correctly suspects Belle of trying to take back the razor, the newspaper becomes part of further restriction: “‘I’ll go with you to fetch the paper—ev’y night.’ She let her tone say that from now on her prisoner would be under guard all the time” (23). Reading is also a problem in Belle’s dealings with Jeff Dupres, who is consistently aggressive and reduces her to a state “frozen with fear, the cold sweat dripping unheeded down her forehead,” on Mondays in particular (21). Why? Because Belle has a straight razor for every other day of the week, Tuesday through Sunday—Monday’s has been taken. Literal-minded (in the most literal sense of that lettered term), she will not use a razor marked “Tuesday” on Monday, and this obedience to the written word keeps her from fleeing. Just as in the case of the obituaries, literacy is the site of death and limitation. When Belle learns of Jeff Dupres’s death, she laughs, tears up the newspaper, and throws it on the ground (23).

Many of Rice’s stories, no matter the plot, betray an underlying suspicion of literacy. Unlike Razor Belle, the protagonist of “You Can Get Just So Much Justice” is on the verge of a middle-class life (48). Ben is the young kitchen help and gardener for several households, and a good student headed for Tuskegee. When Ben’s beleaguered employer Mr. Staples is on the verge of leaving his cruel wife for a kind woman named Miss Mary Lou, Mrs. Staples threatens the other woman with a gun—and Miss Mary Lou ends up killing her in self-defense. But the county prosecutor convinces the jury that Miss Mary Lou has planned the shooting from the beginning. By the story’s end, she is set to go to prison for life. Ben alone knows that Miss Mary Lou comes to the Staples home only because Mrs. Staples asks her to; he is the sole person who knows the fatal encounter is not her idea. However, he does not testify. He tells his story to the presiding judge, Tolliver, and though Tolliver believes him, he advises Ben to say nothing:

[H]e leaned forward and put his hands on the desk and said, and his voice was hard and bitter, “It wouldn’t do any good, not a particle of good. Know why? Because they wouldn’t believe you. They’d believe you were lying, they’d believe you were paid to lie. They’d believe it because that’s what they want to believe. And they’d never forgive you, not as long as you live. Every time they saw you they’d say to themselves, ‘He was telling the truth,’ and they’d hate you like poison.” (83)

Earlier parts of the narrative make it clear that Judge Tolliver’s estimate of the townspeople is accurate. In Rice’s representation, the judge is not a cynic but a realist. Ben takes his advice. But Tolliver offers Ben something other than a chance to save Miss Mary Lou: “Go to Tuskegee and make something of yourself” (83). Ben’s father, a letter carrier who comes home exhausted, dreams of this for his son too—“I want you to learn to use your head. [ . . . ] Muscle is cheap, son” (54). Since the local school for black children “[i]sn’t much,” he uses newspapers and the Bible to teach his son to read. Ben spends long hours at night studying English, learning the speech of his employers (54). Father and son idolize Booker T. Washington. In fact, when Mrs. Tolliver mentions “Booker T.,” Ben does not know who she’s talking about—in his house, the name is never anything but “Mr. Washington” (55). Ben’s father is so moved when the acceptance letter from Tuskegee comes in the mail that he cries. But after the trial, Ben, whose entire life has been an effort to get to Tuskegee, decides against college. The story’s last line is his embittered revelation: “I ain’t going, Pa” (84).

What is most surprising about “You Can Get Just So Much Justice” is its suggestion that Ben is right to reject formal schooling. Judge Tolliver, for all his education and eloquence, can no more prevent Miss Mary Lou’s unjust conviction than Ben can. The shoeshine man in “Grand Shoes,” about whom Rice’s narrator says he does not know “whether Jacob was really dumb or only acted dumb,” does much better, his bare-bones testimony exonerating an innocent man (122). Rice represents the way in which both formal education and formal literacy itself do more harm than good. Ben’s father gets worn down carrying mail. A written invitation triggers Mrs. Staples’s death and Miss Mary Lou’s life imprisonment. Of that invitation, Ben tells us, “I was scared. It was just like the letter was something hot in my hand. It meant trouble, some kind of trouble. I knew that” (65). Miss Mary Lou knows too: “She stood there holding the letter, her hand trembling so much that the letter fluttered [ . . . ] Her eyes had a dead look” (66). Just as Razor Belle tears up the newspaper that keeps her subject to her captor’s will,  Miss Mary Lou tears up the letter “in narrow strips. [ . . .] and let[s] them go” (66). The codified word is rejected, be it written or oral. The shooting victim just before her death “had never [ . . . ] talk[ed] so careful and proper,” Ben says (68). Rice subtly suggests that education is a handicap. Razor Belle’s primary memory of her own schooling in “Monday Come Home”  is of her teacher unsuccessfully trying to get the left-handed Belle to use her right (write?) hand instead. Her attacker “howl[s . . .] with amazement” at the razor strike that comes from an unexpected side.  Belle’s summary judgment: “Teacher had been wrong” (10). The sentiment applies equally well to “You Can Get Just So Much Justice.”

It also applies to an uncollected Rice story published in Collier’s, 1955’s “A Man Possessed.” The piece opens with narrator Jim reminiscing about the first time he sees the title character, home for Christmas. One might assume Jim is the “man possessed”—his mentor, a doctor, worries about his African-American protégé’s being used as a “slave” —but that possessed man turns out to be Henry Stafford, law student and scion of a prominent family (61). Henry is active, privileged, and loved, especially by a quiet woman named Annie Carpenter. But just before the two are to marry, Henry falls off a ladder and is paralyzed from the waist down. His mother Mattie and his sister Flora nurse him, with help from Jim and Annie—until it becomes apparent to Jim and the doctor that the paralysis is psychological. They keep Henry’s secret, and the “recovery” proceeds up to the day he is strong enough to go to work. This time the accident involves not a ladder, but an “awful racket, bumping and sliding on the stairs” (66). Henry has fallen once again. Or more likely, Jim thinks, he has been shoved by his sister, who does not want Henry to marry and leave her alone in the house with the domineering matriarch. But Annie Carpenter’s loyalty to her fiancé is staunch. Eventually it becomes clear that the two will marry despite the paralysis, until Henry’s sister Flora, suspecting that the problem is not physical the second time either, spills hot tea on her brother’s legs to make him jump. As Jim tells us, she has “made him show what was”—that is, a man who would rather be a child in his mother’s house forever (67). Both Jim and Annie leave, evidently never to return.

The occasions of Henry’s falls—the ladder, the stairs—are hardly coincidental. When his judge-father dies, his mother has “just [been] getting fixed to get the judge elected governor and [ . . . ]  she would have to start all over with her son” (60). She plans a reception for the day Henry is to open his law practice in his father’s old office, inviting “everybody could be of any use.” Her voice gets “higher and higher” as the festivities near (64). Henry, pushed to social-climb as high as he can, counteracts the threat of unwanted career elevation with physical falls. He happily confines himself to chairs and his bed. When Annie reads to her immobilized betrothed, he sits and listens contentedly until the revelation of his deception interrupts their interlude of peaceful, irresponsible literacy. “What happened to Mr. Henry happened right after he finished law school,” Jim tells us; “he was paralyzed from the waist down” (60). The juxtaposition of above-the-neck success and lower-body failure is significant. But “that school up in Virginia,” as Annie calls it, is not the sole object of suspicion when it comes to academic credentials (58). Jim tells us that when Mattie consults physicians other than his mentor, she does not hear anything but “doctor talk, which amounted to nothing except that they didn’t know what to do” (61). 

Rice’s stories are perhaps best understood through the lens of his nonfiction. The notion that underneath the concerns with race, family life, and cultural change lies a distaste for education is not a huge surprise, perhaps, to students of Rice’s career or to anyone who notices the quotation from Eton headmaster John Keate in his autobiography: “It doesn’t matter what a boy studies, just so he hates it” (I Came Out 216). I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century makes evident what is half-submerged in his fiction. Of the University of Virginia as Thomas Jefferson’s ideal training ground for leaders of a democracy, Rice writes, “It had now, a century later, been taken over by the aristocracy as a playground for their sons” (71). Of Indiana University: it was “like other state universities, different from the high school in having a larger stock of information to dispense, and like in its unconcern with meaning” (267). Of faculty at Swarthmore and elsewhere: “even the most callous members are semiconscious of secret sin; they know that they are not much good and that what they are doing will bear no scrutiny” (268). Nor are South Carolina institutions exempt from Rice’s criticism. After jabs at the products of Wofford, South Carolina College, Clemson, Winthrop, and the Citadel, he observes that for students at Columbia Female College, “Between the aristocratic ideal of doing nothing and the puritan fear of doing anything, life moved in a narrow groove” (77). As the autobiography represents it, formal education is merely formulaic. Rice’s suspicion of literacy and language itself is more startling.

Rice’s work suggests the problem with education is in large part a problem with its medium, words. Jim’s physician mentor in “A Man Possessed,” one who generally does know what to do, advises  that Jim “[l]isten to silence” (61). Words apparently are not of much use. Annie herself, a musician, “d[oes]n’t talk much” (60). Even when she reads (the “only real nice time of day was in the afternoon when Miss Annie came to read to Mr. Henry”), Jim listens not to hear the words, but rather, to hear her voice (61). “A Man Possessed” rejects language and learning as the accompaniments and perhaps even the causes of failure. So does I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century.

One of the few teachers Rice does not rebuke in his autobiography is one who, he says, “knew that [ . . . ] a thing said three times is no longer true” (212). What he and his body of work sometimes seem to prefer, in common with Black Mountain’s other master of the inaudible, John Cage, is the sound of silence. (The motif of silence appears throughout Rice’s oeuvre.) Words are not knowledge’s messenger but its destroyer:

Truth is an easy thing to come by when one is young, but once life is fitted into sharp-edged words, imagination begins to lose its wings and sympathy admits constraint. We learn to live in a world of words, no longer able to see things as a child first sees them, to live uncontaminated by thought, letting images, ideas, feelings, flow in and find their own resting place. [ . . . ] even love can wither in the bonds of language. (163)

Language acquisition is the fall. And when in a later aside Rice calls grammar “the skeleton of knowledge,” the verbal world’s postlapsarian nature is emphasized by its link to bony mortality (213). The passage about maturation above is both an echo and a reversal of 1 Corinthians 13:11-12—“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” To Rice, a college president who feared education, a teacher who condemned teaching, and a writer who distrusted words, the child’s dark vision is the accurate one.

That darkness is both metaphorical and literal. Local Color’s treatment of education and literacy are interwoven with Rice’s musings on race, with which this essay opens. Much of his work envisions an escape from the problems of the word in black culture. Although the short fiction is realistic about the conditions facing African-Americans in the segregated South, in his autobiography Rice sometimes romanticizes those conditions, and even envies them:

Behind [the race barrier], and protected by it, forever free from the fierce competition of the white world, the Negro developed a gracious life all his own. There is an advantage in knowing that you can never be President. There is an advantage, as the artist has always known, in the limitations of a medium. [ . . . ] A visit to a Negro school is a revelation; here are calm and quiet faces such as are seldom seen in a white school [ . . . ] They used to say among themselves that the reason a Negro never committed suicide was that when he got to ‘studyin’ he went to sleep. (192-93)

In another striking passage, Rice’s memory of his grandmother’s black workers voices a preference for music over words, and with it, traditional limitations over educational ambitions:

There came, as if from the sun itself, the sound of the field hands singing. I hurried towards them and as I got near I found them working close together, part of the day’s ritual, and saw their bodies moving within the song, feet and shoulders marking the beat, while each pair of hands darted in and out weaving their individual patterns of intricate rhythm. It was as though the hands matched in their motion the soaring voices of the women, voices that moved above the song of the men like willful violins, and yet returned again and again to the central theme, free and unfree, caught within the net of sound. (39-40)

Rice’s own literary output evinces the freedom involved in literacy as well as in its lack, of course, and the passage’s association of the field workers with their body parts is arguably dehumanizing. But equally notable is its ambivalence about sound itself—the precursor to words, to literacy, and to much of schooling—and a testament to Rice’s profound fear of being trapped in their net.

The persistent resistance to education in John Andrew Rice’s otherwise varied body of work forms part of a more general anti-literacy tradition in a region historically relying on physical rather than mental labor. The conflicts Rice represents are still relevant in our educational institutions. Advanced literacy raises a possibility of fearsome change, among other things, and perhaps it should not be so startling that in the final sentence of I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, the former academic insurgent Rice confesses that if he could relive his life, he would live in the eighteenth century — for, among other things, “its simple faith in simple words.” The rarity of truly simple words in his work acknowledges that the fantasy is impossible. Perhaps this is in part why he makes the following non-simple claim about the “sadness” of teachers, creatures of the verbal world: that sadness is on “the threshold of final knowledge, which is tragedy” (217). Ultimately, Rice’s autobiography and fiction reveal what Black Mountain College and its teachers provided, an unsentimental education about education itself.

Bibliography

Caldwell, Erskine. Foreword to Local Color, by John Andrew Rice. New York: Dell, 1955.

Rice, John Andrew. “Aunt Lettie and the Absolute.” The New Yorker, March 3, 1945.

———. “Content with the Station.” The New Yorker, January 27, 1945.

———. “Grand Shoes.” In Local Color, 122-160. New York: Dell, 1955.

———. I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1942.

———. “Island of Fear.” In Local Color, 85-110.

———. “The Last Maltby.” In Local Color, 26-51.

———.  Local Color. New York: Dell, 1955.

———. “The Metamorphosis of Mr. Cracovaner.” The New Yorker, October 14, 1944.

———. “Miss Hattie.” The New Yorker, October 11, 1947.

———. “A Man Possessed.” Collier’s, November 11, 1955.

———. “Monday Come Home.” In Local Color, 9-25.

———. “Where Love Begins.” Collier’s, February 3, 1951.

———. “The Yankee.” Collier’s, April 4, 1953.

———. “You Can Get Just So Much Justice.” In Local Color, 52-84