Anne Tyler | Critical Essay by Alice Hall Petry

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Anne Tyler.
This section contains 2,905 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Alice Hall Petry

Critical Essay by Alice Hall Petry

SOURCE: "Bright Books of Life: The Black Norm in Anne Tyler's Novels," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 7-13.

In the following essay, Petry discusses how Tyler uses black characters as repositories of wisdom and knowledge in her novels.

To be frank, black characters do not loom large in the twelve novels of contemporary Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler. Most of them function as domestics, such as the housekeeper Clotelia of A Slipping-Down Life or Richard the gardener in The Clock Winder; others are barely-delineated background figures, like the superstitious clients of the fortune-teller Madame Olita in Searching for Caleb or the silent, shifty-eyed gamblers frequenting the No Jive Cafe in Morgan's Passing. But even as one makes these sweeping observations, one must counter them. For if there is one insistent quality about Tyler's fictional vision, it is her humanity—a humanity that prevents her from resorting to stereotypes or sentimentality, from using black characters either as comic "stage darkies" or as their late twentieth-century counterparts in the white popular imagination:ne'er-do-wellswhose lives revolve around drugs and sex and numbers and welfare checks. For from the dawn of her career, Anne Tyler chose to go against the grain, not only to depict blacks more positively than American society has been wont to do, but more importantly, to empower them to articulate her most salient themes. Often the most clear-eyed and admirable characters in her novels, they do more than "endure," like Faulkner's Dilsey Gibson. They live; they thrive; they derive happiness from the very fact of existence. Though there are some exceptions, for the most part Anne Tyler's black characters are splashes of brightness in novels striated with the "grayness" that drove Beck Tull to abandon his family in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

The special status of blacks is evident even in Tyler's first novel, If Morning Ever Comes. As young Ben Joe Hawkes dashes home to Sandhill, North Carolina, from law school in New York, he shares his train car with several black families, including fellow Sandhill residents Matilda and Brandon Hayes, and their baby Clara Sue. To us consciousness-raised readers of the 1990s, there's plenty to offend in Tyler's depiction of these blacks: the children's hands are like "four little black spiders"; the men sit in the back of the train, "tipping hip flasks"; the women eat fried chicken and wax eloquent over collard greens and okra; they say things like "Law, law"; and they subscribe to folk tales: Matilda knew her baby would be a girl because "I got fatter and fatter in the behind all the time I [was] carrying her." But however offensive these stereotypes may be, one must look beyond them to the spirit underlying them. Matilda's folk wisdom, for example, was accurate: she did indeed have a daughter. And in fact these blacks are depicted as repositories of the kinds of knowledge, and attitudes, and values that Ben Joe and others in his white circle should possess. Black Matilda is shocked that Ben Joe's "coldhearted" mother Ellen, who drove her physician-husband into an affair with a factory worker, did not even travel to Kansas when her daughter gave birth. It is clear that Matilda could not imagine a black grandmother-to-be acting in such an unfeeling fashion. But with her innate dignity, Matilda refuses to condemn Ellen, excusing her on the grounds that she probably was prevented from being with Joanne due to family responsibilities in Sandhill. Likewise, Matilda tries to comfort Ben Joe about his father's death by asserting that it probably was "a dignified passing." When Ben Joe's embarrassed silence indicates otherwise, Matilda's husband Brandon says—"soothingly"—"Oh, I sure it was very dignified." So complete is the innate good breeding of these black characters that even though Brandon is so drunk that he inadvertently sits down on another passenger, he is able to apologize profusely and sincerely. No wonder these black characters unsettle Ben Joe, the "yellow-haired gentleman" whose family has been racked by infidelity, who is just starting Columbia Law School at the ripe age of twenty-five because he doesn't know what else to do, who like a child wraps himself in his crazy quilt from home and who reads literally upside-down—the perfect emblem of his messy white world. Both Ben Joe and his elderly white double from the train—eighty-four-year-old "Jamie" Dower, who has come home to Sandhill to die—scarcely conceal their envy of their black fellow passengers, who appreciate the importance, and indeed the necessity, of warm family ties and the food which is as symbolic of love as it is nutritive:

[Y]ou know them colored folks off the same train as us? [asks Jamie]. Know what they're doing now? Setting down to the table with their relations, partaking of buckwheat cakes and hot buttered syrup and them little link sausages. Makes me hungry just thinking of it.

Ben Joe even knows "almost for a certainty" what the homes of these blacks are like; but "Who could be that definite about where he came from?" Appropriately, there is no one to greet either Ben Joe or Jamie at the train station; "pale and plain" Ben Joe must walk back to the "big pale frame house" in which he was raised, and where still reside the mother and sisters who neither need nor want him around, while the black Hayes family is welcomed home by "a dusty black Chevrolet … stuffed with laughing brown faces, piled three deep." That "whole wealth of brightly dressed Negroes" underscores how spiritually poor Ben Joe truly is.

Tyler's use of blacks as repositories of good sense and emotional stability is likewise evident in her second novel, The Tin Can Tree. A story about the response of a family and its friends to the death of six-year-old Janie Rose Pike in a tractor accident, this novel presents Tyler's ideas primarily through what Joseph C. Voelker identifies as a "choral" character, a "huge and black" woman named Missouri. Rendered with less sentimentality than the blacks in If Morning Ever Comes, Missouri displays annoyance and even anger when her fellow tobacco workers don't work fast enough, and is blunt enough to deem "silly" a co-worker's well-intended but ill-considered plan to ease Janie Rose's mother out of her grief. Missouri speaks her mind, and yet she is sensitive to human psychology: she can criticize Mrs. Hall's plan while yet acknowledging that renewed contact with her sewing customers is necessary for Mrs. Pike's recovery. She is also more effective than the males around her, activating a recalcitrant mule by pulling on its ears; is feminist enough to declare, "In the end, it's the women that work"; and is secure enough in her racial identity to joke that white photographer James Green is "going to change races" if he stays in the sun much longer. Physically and spiritually strong, Missouri states the novel's main theme: "Bravest thing about people … is how they go on loving mortal beings after finding out there's such a thing as dying."

Beginning with her third novel, A Slipping-Down Life, Tyler integrates black characters more fully into her white family circles by having them serve as domestics, but they still retain their choral function, often possessing knowledge that is inaccessible to their white employers. In A Slipping-Down Life, the housekeeper Clotelia seems to be a peculiar cross between Hazel and Angela Davis, sporting an Afro and an African cape, kicking dust bunnies with her "cream suede high-heeled boot," and steadfastly refusing to be a mammy figure: after four years of employment "other people would have turned into members of the family" grouses Evie, the motherless teenage daughter of the Decker family. But Clotelia has ample reason to hold herself emotionally aloof from her white employers, a family even more dysfunctional than the Hawkeses of If Morning Ever Comes. Clotelia, after all, deals with reality. To be sure, she talks about soap opera characters "as if they were relatives," but Clotelia knows they are not—and more to the point, she knows the false images of love and marriage, the "sweet-talk" that soaps and other aspects of popular culture convey, are distortive and unreal. Clotelia would never do what white Evie did—carve the name of a local would-be rock star in her forehead with fingernail scissors—because she would never buy into sentimental notions of romance. Clotelia does not share Evie's surprise that the object of Evie's ardor ignores her: "Ha. Thought that Casey boy would come riding up and spirit her away, once he heard what she done…. I don't see him beating down no doors. Do you?" Ultimately Evie will come to see the emotional healthiness underlying Clotelia's bluntly realistic ideas about man/woman relations, but it will take a failed marriage to "that Casey boy," a baby and the death of her father to achieve it.

There are two black domestics in Tyler's next novel, The Clock Winder, and although they are even less prominent than Clotelia, they nonetheless serve important functions. Alvareen the housekeeper seems at first glance to be a comic black domestic, a "black hulk" unable even to "warm up a brown-and-serve pie." But as Alvareen points out, her mistress, Mrs. Pamela Emerson, is even less capable of cooking than she—an important shortcoming for a novelist who (witness Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) regards feeding as a vital expression of familial love. Not surprisingly, the Emersons are yet another white Tyler family running amok, what with elopements, failed marriages, mental instability and suicide. Significantly, in the epistolary sequence at the center of The Clock Winder, only the letters of Alvareen the black maid are clear, direct and astute. Those of the white Emersons and their circle may be more grammatically correct, but they nevertheless are masterpieces of evasion and incoherence written, we are told, at the level of "a fifth-grader." The other black domestic in this novel, Richard the gardener, opens The Clock Winder by urinating on Mrs. Emerson's rosebush, for which she promptly fires him. But as he warns her, she cannot function alone, and he is right, as her prim spiked heels literally sink into her well-trimmed lawn. He articulates on behalf of Tyler that we do not, and cannot, function in isolation. Her surname notwithstanding, Mrs. Emerson can never achieve complete self-reliance, nor can anyone else. That we need one another for survival renders the breakdown of Tyler's many white fictional families all the more tragic.

Looming even less largely in Tyler's sixth novel, Searching for Caleb, are black husband-and-wife domestics, Lafleur and Sulie Boudrault, but their significance is in inverse proportion to their importance in the story. It is Lafleur who introduces young Caleb Peck to ragtime, "a disreputable, colored kind of music"—and a kind he loves so much that he runs away from his luxurious home in Baltimore to be a street musician in the black districts of New Orleans. With his honorary black name of "Stringtail Man," Caleb earns his keep as a fiddler, composer and guide to an old black guitarist named "White-Eye." Caleb is supremely happy in that black world, but his horrified family vows to find him and return him to the fold. Significantly, the Pecks had no idea where Caleb had run off to and did not think to hire a detective to find him until a bit later—sixty years later, in fact. But all the while, Lefleur's wife Sulie had known where Caleb had gone; the only problem, as her husband points out, is that no one thought to ask her: "Them [white] folks don't think you know nothing." Once again, it is blacks who have specialized and quite practical knowledge—Sulie even knew Caleb's New Orleans address—which whites unfortunately choose not to use.

That status is perhaps most dramatic in Tyler's eleventh novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons. In part 2, Tyler describes the encounter between Maggie and Ira Moran and Mr. Daniel Otis, a "stoop-shoulderedman the color of a rolltop desk." Neither a domestic nor a musician, Mr. Otis had been a roofer in North Carolina until debilitated by arthritis. He meets Maggie and Ira on the road as they confront such dramatic changes as the breakdown of their son's marriage, their daughter's departure for college and the early death of a high school friend. They meet Mr. Otis in a moment of anger: his dangerously slow driving leads them to go off the highway, and they retaliate against him by lying that his car's front wheel is loose. The lie brings out Maggie's guilt: "Not only was he old…. He was black." Fearing that he thought them members of the Ku Klux Klan, they compensate for their in-sensitivity by befriending him and taking him to the service station for help. Significantly, Maggie and Ira are never sure if Mr. Otis is as mild-mannered and grateful as he seems: the "haughty, hooded expression" caused by his lowered eyelids may indeed have meant he realized Maggie had lied about the wheel, and Ira even wonders if his inconvenient request to be driven to the Texaco station "might be Mr. Otis's particularly passive, devilish way of getting even." Tyler never says outright. But in that very reticence she is making a statement: Mr. Otis embodies all that is unknown and uncertain in this world—and yet he articulates the central theme of the novel. As both Morans chafe at the sense of time passing—and, more importantly, at the sense of personal potential left unrealized—Mr. Otis explains that loss need not be debilitating: "Could be what you throw away is all that really counts; could be that's the whole point of things, wouldn't that be something? Spill it! Spill it all, I say! No way not to spill it." That loss is inevitable is a harsh truth softened by the anecdote of Bessie, the dog who assumed her ball was lost forever simply because it was blocked by a chairback: a lot of us, muses Mr. Otis, have "blind spots" which make us fail to appreciate what we have not lost. Neither truth changes the harshness of reality; they simply shift perspectives a bit. It took an old black man living in a car, "his eyes so yellow … they were almost brown," to convey these simple truths to this comparatively well-off, healthy white couple.

Perhaps Mr. Otis, that angel bearing a message of survival, could ascertain these truths precisely because he, as an elderly black man, had always been an outsider. As someone excluded from the mainstream of southern white society for decades, he did not have the luxury of falling into the counterproductive lifestyle of those with more opportunities, more education, more money. He had to learn to see things aright in order to survive, just as the Hayes family of If Morning Ever Comes had to find their happiness and stability in a strong family unit, in a secure (albeit modest) home and in the simple pleasures of food lovingly prepared. That stable foundation enables them to weather the shock of sudden change, or of gradual change (witness the words "White" and "Colored" fading slowly from the wall of the once segregated railroad station waiting room), or indeed of no change at all. When Brandon Hayes casts an eye on the Sandhill cityscape and remarks, "See they ain't fixed the clock on the Sand-Bottom Baptists' steeple tower yet," he evinces no particular emotion. Why rail against what he, as a southern black, cannot control? Better to invest one's energies in the things that matter, such as the family, and to cultivate the values and acquire the kinds of practical knowledge needed to survive and to be happy. One may go "bumbling along" like Mr. Otis, but the destination will be reached eventually.

To be sure, various critics have noted that Tyler rarely uses black characters in her fiction and that she skates handily around anything that smacks of racism. Edward Hoagland, in a 1988 review of Breathing Lessons, for example, remarks that Tyler "is not unblinking. Her books contain scarcely a hint of the abscesses of racial friction that cat at the very neighborhoods she is devoting her working life to picturing. Her people are eerily virtuous, Quakerishly tolerant of all strangers, all races." Similarly, Voelker points to those fading letters on the waiting-room wall as an emblem of "the persistence of racism"—but notes further that the novel "moves swiftly inward, toward domestic matters, and never addresses the intriguing questions it raises." But even as one acknowledges that Tyler avoids facing the complexities of southern racism, it cannot be gainsaid that she has come a long way from her earliest attitude toward blacks, as expressed in a 1965 interview in a Baton Rouge newspaper: "And I love the average Southern Negro—they speak a language all their own." As her career has progressed—and as she herself has matured—Tyler has evinced increasingly less interest in such "picturesque" aspects of black life as colorful dialect, and increasingly more concern with the capacity of blacks to survive and thrive in a hostile world. Tyler once wrote to this author that "I would feel presumptuous writing about black life as if I really knew what it was like," but that is not to deny that she sees blacks as possessing qualities that whites would do well to acquire. Thanks to the wisdom and dignity of her black characters, Anne Tyler's novels—striated though they are with sudden death, dysfunctional families and disappointment—are indeed ultimately bright books of life.

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