Friday, January 14, 2011

The strangeness of the obsolete

Late in Rebecca West's Cousin Rosamund, sisters Rose and Mary, first introduced to readers as children three books back in The Fountain Overflows, now professional musicians, are advised by their agents that they need not go on tour "in America" anymore; the stock market crash of 1929 has put a stop to the "good tours" they once could expect.

But they've had difficulty processing what's actually gone wrong there; they've grown up believing, indeed have experienced on previous concert trips, the providence of an "emptying [of] a vial of prosperity over the United States" and the conviction that anyone "poor and oppressed" there "would soon be rich."

As Rose expresses it, "We believed the Americans when they told us this. The United States is the child of Great Britain, and no parents wish to think that their children are not to be eternally happy. Also it seemed a shame, if people took the trouble to sail six thousand miles over the ocean and face the hardships of emigration, in order to found a society better than the one they had left, that they should not get what they wanted. It would have been as if, after all our practising, we had not been able to play any better than other people."

So they go to the United States and while staying at the white frame New England home of the composer Arthur Todd whose sonatas they will be performing, they encounter a poor, starving man whose physical collapse on the sidewalk in front of the house shakes them from these convictions:

"We had till then thought of starving people as slum-dwellers, or peasants in a blighted land, who would claw at food when it was offered them. A starving man so thoroughly geared to a complicated society that he dared not relieve his hunger till he had consulted a doctor struck on my understanding as strangely as atonal music strikes on an untrained ear. We were to be more disconcerted after he had gone, when we asked the Todds how much unemployment benefit the man would be getting, and we learned that he would get none. Mrs. Todd told us of neighbourhood projects to help the unemployed, and again what we heard struck us as strange, though not with the strangeness of novelty, but of the obsolete. This was Victorian charity of the soup-kitchen sort, which in England had long been rejected, because it offended against the idea of equality, which one had thought was specially dear to the Americans. The poor should not be put in the position of dependants on the rich; the state could not exist without their work, and therefore the state should keep them if by some accident it had for a time no work for them to do. . . .  there came to us a frightened sense of America as an artificial society with insufficient artifice; and that had always to be succeeded by the admission that up till them America had certainly had all the artifice it needed. This was not a thoughtless, not a cruel country. It had been visited by an unpredictable event which had afflicted on it wounds of a sort it had not known before, and it had not yet improvised the bandage and the tourniquet."

One wishes Rebecca West were still around to help us with the continuing improv.


  1. I am intrigued by the line 'The United States is the child of Great Britain'. No one in the UK, I think, would support that sentiment now. How quickly concepts can change. I've not read anything by Rebecca West. I must see if I can hold of a copy of 'The Fountain Overflows'.

  2. I started reading The Fountain Overflows a few years ago, but the timing was wrong and I had too many books started and you know how that goes. But I did love The Soldier Returns. I will be reading something by her this year, I've decided.

  3. Annie, I wonder how many would have supported it at the time she said it. West's views are often out of synch with everyone else's. :)

    Danielle, I still think The Birds Fall Down is the best fit for you.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.