Friday, May 31, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 38: Alice Brown, Golden Baby (#114)

Alice Brown, "Golden Baby" (1910) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

The Library of America says that Alice Brown was one of the trio of women regionalists of New England, along with Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett. (Or rather, they quote Russian-American critic Elias Lieberman, which seems to be their standard operation procedure: quote some guy who sounds authoritative. Who is Lieberman? Why did he get chosen?)

But even though she's presented as a regionalist, the LoA gives us as atypical Alice Brown story: a man on a boat with a bunch of other people tells a story about another boat trip he took. That story involves the passengers all hating each other; the boat being supernaturally stopped; and a "coolie" woman with a little saintly baby who helps make everyone love each other and gets off at Haiti to join the revolution.

There's a lot to enjoy about this story, starting from the amusing depiction of the characters on the first boat: the blotto scion of an old family who contributes nothing but remarks on how old his family is; the  man going around on the world on his own fortune to find a bug to kill other bugs, who is explaining himself (and boring) a merchant of seersucker; and the guy who narrates the story, who has a William Morris look to him--a reference to a man with at least one foot in utopian dreams. (The note on the LoA website connects Morris to the arts-and-crafts movement, which is accurate but almost beside the point: this in-story narrator keeps talking about how to make the world better, which clearly makes the connection with William Morris as utopian writer.)

Then there's the enjoyment of this William Morris-esque narrator's story, with its descriptions of that original trip and all the different classes of people: mothers kitting out their daughters so as to sell them on the marriage market, "copper kings," idle scions of old families, etc. There's a certain eerieness to the ship stopping and some fun interchange between the narrator and the wireless operator of the stopped ship. There's the promising weirdness of this saintly golden baby, which seems to prefigure Du Bois's strange and neglected 1928 Dark Princess, with its golden baby and pan-colored conference. (Does Alice Brown mean Chinese/Asian when the character describes the mother/nurse as a "coolie"? If so, then we have a pan-color collaboration, with Asian woman and golden child coming to help black Haitians.)

There's even, if you're bent this way, a pleasure to be had from how the story doesn't quite make sense: what was this golden baby doing in New York when the ship started? Why did the baby stay on board the ship the first time they passed Haiti? What does this baby have to do with class struggle since everything else about it is marked as racial? Why doesn't the baby's magical love powers work from the very beginning? And then, at the end, why does the story end with a return to the frame story and remarks by a "minor poet" that this story is the same as the "Ancient Mariner" when it really isn't? Why does it end there?

So if you're looking for a clear tale, this story-within-a-story is not it. But looking back on it now, it seems like a bridge between an older style of weird tale and the dreaminess of Kelly Link.

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