Intersections of the Personal and the Political in “The Last September” and “Solar Bones”

Learning to navigate the intersections between different identities is an almost constant process when one inhabits supposedly conflicting spheres of existence. What has fascinated me throughout this process has been the questions: Where do these identities come from? How are they formed? Who gets a say in how they should be performed? I’ve decided to look specifically at Irish Literature due to the history of English occupation and the tensions created through defining identity as what one is not just as much as what one is. The political and the personal become inseparable when we look at national or cultural identity as a construct both adopted and assigned.

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Published in 1929, following both the First World War and the Irish War of Independence, Elizabeth Bowen’s second novel, The Last September, follows Lois Farquar as she navigates what it means to be a woman in the post-war era but surrounded by the murmurs of Irish unrest. Lois Farquar is living with her Aunt and Uncle, Lady and Lord Naylor, and their nephew, Laurence.The family goes through the motions of the everyday–receiving visitors, attending social events, eating meals, reading, playing tennis–while the presence of conflict becomes ever more integrated into their thoughts and story. Their lives are marked by the arrival of long-term guests, such as the Montmorencys and Miss. Norton, who continue to complicate Lois’s understanding of her family and personal identity.

This novel has been held up as a prime example of Big House literature, in which Anglo-Irish families are given positions of power due to their economic success in the colony. The novel itself is separated into three parts: The Arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency, the Visit of Miss Norton, and The Departure of Gerald. This separation of story, of time and action, by the people who arrive feels important for understanding the way that Lois comes to learn about the world. In the final section, Gerald, the romanticized British soldier who Lois had been hoping to mary is killed by an Irish ambush (307). The novel ends with the three big houses of the neighborhood vacant, burning to the ground (314). The novel therefore ends with the violent dispelling of anything perceived as English and imperial from Cork, however throughout the work, the younger generation of Anglo-Irish occupiers are relatively detached from the politics that will determine their own lives. The ways in which similar, yet distinctive, identities are navigated throughout the novel (such as English v. Anglo-Irish v. Native Irish) demonstrated the complexities that come with who creates identity, how they decide what counts as “in” or “out,” and how this impacts individuals without them necessarily recognizing it.

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Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016), is the story of Marcus Conway, a deceased civil engineer from county Mayo who has been pulled back into consciousness on All Souls’ Day. Told in a first person limited perspective, the novel begins with the ringing of the Angelus church bells and the confusion of Conway as he is transported into the moment and then realizes that he is home alone (McCormack 1-3). Over the next few hours, as he waits for his wife, Mairead, to come home, Conway sits reading the paper, and later watching the news, reflecting on current events and diverging quickly into his own train of thoughts about his own history, focusing on his relationships with his father, and children–Darragh and Agnes. His thoughts linger on media, politics, environmental disaster, and the economic crash that have all shaped his county, Ireland, and his understanding of the world.

What is deeply fascinating about this work is that the entirety of the 217 pages are comprised of one singular sentence, which never receives punctuation at its end. The stream of consciousness and continuity between one moment to the next flows in a slightly disorienting, but entirely captivating fashion. The transition between the personal and the political is seamless, as Conway considers himself a well informed and politically conscious individual. Conway repeatedly connects the body and existence of those around him to the political at large through short comments, often interrupted by another thought. In thinking about the “metaphysical reality” of his daughter’s birth, Conway comments on her status as a citizen and maps the political onto her body within days of her coming into the world (McCormack 34). He maps the environmental crisis in Mayo following the introduction of an oil pipeline in the north of the county on to the body of his wife through her illness as a result of environmental contamination (McCormack 96). This novel is deeply entrenched in the relationship between the personal and the political, in a way that is unexpected from a man who only has a few hours of consciousness due to peculiar circumstance. Solar Bones complicates my research thus far by forcing me to think about how form factors into remembrance of personal, local, and national histories, since McCormack’s structure can not be ignored.

Both novels contend with what it means to exist in both a local, personal, and political manner. Both manipulate temporality as a way to comment on identity. McCormack collapses an entire life, an entire history, into a few short hours, making the reader feel scattered throughout time and space. Bowen, on the other hand, lilts time, making her characters feel trapped in a repetitive circle that Lois can not seem to break. Solar Bones was published in 2016, meaning that there is no real body of criticism addressing the work yet. However, using a contemporary piece which interacts with Ireland’s history in the way that this novel does would be interesting in mapping how perceptions of norms, culture, local identity and national identity evolve or change over time. Writing about Bowen, on the other hand, means trying to contend with decades worth of scholarship, which would leave me unsure of where my own voice and thoughts fit into the conversation. Currently, I am leaning towards McCormack’s work due to its form.

 

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Bowen, Elizabeth. The Last September. The Dial Press, 1929.

McCormack, Mike. Solar Bones. Tramp Press, 2016.

Labor Exploitation and the Immigrant Worker in The Jungle and Under the Feet of Jesus

As my thesis will be exploring narratives of food labor in literature, the fields of study I have found to be most useful in framing this exploration and my understanding of my primary texts are Food Studies, Labor in Literature, and Migration in Literature.  While Food Studies is not specifically dedicated to literature, the discipline has been useful to me so I can ground literary depictions of food production at different points in history to the realities of this production as explained by food historians. The study of depictions of labor in literature is admittedly one that can be broad and subjective at points.  However, from the research I have conducted so far, this field has lent me ideas on how to put the literary in conversation with discourses of labor justice and alternatives to exploitative labor systems (such as Socialism and Marxism). In addition to these two fields, Migration in Literature is of prime importance as I plan on centering the narratives of food laborers who specifically hold migrant or undocumented status.  This field centers the experiences and narratives of immigrants/ migrants, and in studying this, I have been able to learn more about different literary depictions about and told through the voices of Latinx migrant food laborers.

The central question that has led my research on this topic is:  Why do stories about our food resonate with us more than those of the people who provide us with this food?  This was born out of the realization that in most discourses about and depictions of ‘food’ in literature, scholars and writers almost always seem to prioritize the culinary and the act of consumption (in an eating and purchasing sense).  I found this to be concerning, as the invisibility of the stories of food laborers can lead to the obscuring of the exploitation they face in reality. While this question has led me to forming ideas specifically about food labor exploitation, I have also been forming ideas about the interactions between this labor exploitation and systems of racism and xenophobia- and how they culminate in the stories of immigrant food laborers.

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The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair

Of the two primary texts I will be focusing on in this blog post, The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair is responsible for introducing me to narratives of food labor, as it is often considered to be a foundational text in this respect.  Detailing the lives of a large family of Lithuanian immigrants who migrate to the United States for a better life, the novel follows them as they arrive in Chicago’s meatpacking district, try to survive and navigate the brutalities of this area and industry, and eventually find themselves either dead or trapped in abject poverty.  Relayed by a third person narrator, the stories of these individual family members ultimately revolve around the central narrative of Jurgis Rudkus’ experiences as an immigrant and worker in a slaughterhouse. It is he who helps bring his father Dede and the extensive family of his new bride- the teenage Ona- to America. And it is his journey from an immigrant who is hopeful of the prosperity he believes America will provide, to a widowed, homeless, and traumatized man serves as Sinclair’s metaphor for the lecherous nature of capitalism and worker exploitation.  It is not until he has reached his lowest point, following the death of Ona and their baby during childbirth, the successive death of their only surviving child- known as Baby- due to the repulsive conditions of their neighborhood, and Jurgis’ descent into alcoholism and self destruction, that Jurgis finds a semblance of salvation in the newly emerged Socialist party after literally stumbling into a Socialist lecture.

From my understanding, The Jungle is a foundational text in the field of literary food labor.  Therefore, when considering its legacy in the general sense, I find it interesting to view its immediate reception as foreshadowing what would become my main criticism of food writing and discourses of food.  However, it has become important to me to figure out the different factors and figures (including and especially Sinclair himself), that can be responsible for the prioritization of consumption over production.  To unpack this, I plan to turn to the text and analyze the language and aesthetics used to characterize the labor, workers, and settings.  As I would like to focus on the racialized and xenophobic oppression that immigrant laborers face, Sinclair’s lack of dedication to these specific oppressions- that his characters like Jurgis undoubtedly struggle against- is something that will complicate my analysis and that I will be contending with.  

Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) by Helena Maria Viramontes

Where Sinclair’s narrator follows the struggles of a family of immigrant laborers in the Chicago meatpacking industry in the early 1900s, Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) by Helena Maria Viramontes similarly explores the struggles of a family of immigrant laborers.  However, Viramontes’ novel is set about 90 years after the events of The Jungle and thousands of miles away from the Chicago slaughterhouses to the farmworker communities in Southern California.  Additionally, in the vein of Sinclair, the novel’s third person narrator makes sure to outline the different experiences and hardships of the individual family members, but ultimately places those of 13-year-old Chicana farmworker Estrella at the forefront of the text.  While Estrella is a US citizen, her mother Petra and most of the Chicanx laborers she works along with in the fruit fields are undocumented, forcing Estrella and her family into a vulnerability that leads to poverty, anxiety, and constant movement between different labor camps in search of work.  These consequences of their vulnerability are culminated in Viramontes’ descriptions of the exploitation the family faces at labor camps and the physical and psychological pain they endure as farmworkers. Upon meeting a fellow farmworker boy, Alejo, Estrella finds strength and hope in their new romance, which motivates her to begin questioning the structures that have forced her and her family into these conditions.  When Alejo’s life is threatened by pesticide poisoning and he is in desperate need of medical attention, Estrella’s resentment of the racist and exploitative structures that have contributed to his poisoning comes to a head. Presented in a powerful moment where she physically threatens a white nurse who took her family’s scarce savings and disregarded Alejo’s health crisis, Estrella finds herself resisting further exploitation.  While the novel intentionally does not reveal Alejo’s fate, it concludes with Estrella hoping to seek further freedom despite the weight of her struggles.

I would like to unpack the role of agency amongst the novel’s different farmworkers.  Specifically, how Viramontes navigates the difficult territory of mapping out exploitation and struggle without completely victimizing these characters and stripping them of their agency.  In figuring this out, I am also hoping to understand what the extent of the sociopolitical agency held by the different characters in this novel actually is. As Viramontes privileges the stories and voices of these fictional farmworkers, is there space to privilege their ability to organize and resist their exploitation in a labor activist awakening that echoes the Socialist awakening of Jurgis?  I am hoping to unpack these themes and questions further throughout my thesis research process through close reading of this primary text and by consulting with various sources that analyze Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) and narratives of migrant food laborers.

Conclusion + Concerns

The main challenge that I am concerned about as I begin to unpack The Jungle and Under the Feet of Jesus for my thesis is the tone I choose when I discuss both texts.  In other words: as both texts have different elements I see as negative and positive, I’m wondering whether I will end up using one text’s positives to criticize the other text’s negatives.  This is an issue I find in how I might frame my writing on The Jungle, as I do have strong hesitations on Sinclair’s ability to humanize the workers in his novel.  However, I am also aware of the novel’s intention and significance in the greater history of food labor justice, and do not want to discount that.  Additionally, I find shortcomings in Under the Feet of Jesus as I feel the novel’s message could benefit from a stronger tie to an anti-capitalist exploitation stance.  But again, I do not want to discount its influence. As my thesis will be taking on a comparative route, I would rather not condemn or praise one over the other too much.

Blog Post #6

Works Cited:

Sinclair, Upton.  The Jungle.  Doubleday, 1906.

Viramontes, Helena M.  Under the Feet of Jesus.  Plume, 1995.