Saturday, March 3, 2012

"He" - Poverty during the Great Depression

My parents were born in the years during the Great Depression in America: the early 1930s.  This was a time when jobs were lost and no work was available; when finances were ruined, and weather patterns (the farmers who did not practice good crop rotation and soil conservation in the Midwest) saw their homes and land destroyed by erosion.Although the United States is considered a land of great opportunity, it can also be a land of great failure and poverty that goes unnoticed or forgotten.

Katherine Anne Porter wrote about one such family who experienced these hard times:  the Whipples.  Before we meet them and their story, remember that it is now 2012, and we are once again seeing financial ruin and job loss, hardships, and more in America once again.  As I have noted in a previous post, what we do not learn will be repeated again and again and....

As you read this story, think about the following questions and prepare to answer them in an essay:  (1) Why are we not told the child's name?  Why is this child referred only by a pronoun?  (2)  Is Mrs. Whipple insensitive to her son by the way she treats him and what she says about him?  How does she deal with the events that the family faces in view of her son's condition? (3) She has been called "cruel" for the way the story ends. Argue for or against this comment, and give examples to back up your view.
(4) Having read Flowers for Algernon and the story of Charlie Gordon, compare and contrast Mrs. Whipple with Mrs. Gordon and the ways they felt about and cared for their retarded sons. 
(5) What does the last sentence mean that the neighbor would not look in the rear-view mirror as he drove the family to the hospital. Use the concept of guilt to answer this--for both him and the family.

"He" by Katherine Anne Porter

Life was very hard for the Whipples. It was hard to feed all the hungry mouths, it was hard to keep the children in flannels during the winter, short as it was: “God knows what would become of us if we lived north,” they would say: keeping them decently clean was hard. “It looks like our luck won’t never let up on us,” said Mr. Whipple, but Mrs. Whipple was all for taking what was sent and calling it good, anyhow when the neighbors were in earshot. “Don’t ever let a soul hear us complain,” she kept saying to her husband. She couldn’t stand to be pitied. “No, not if it comes to it that we have to live in a wagon and pick cotton around the country,” she said, “nobody’s going to get a chance to look down on us.”

Mrs. Whipple loved her second son, the simple-minded one, better than she loved the other two children put together. She was forever saying so, and when she talked with certain of her neighbors, she would even throw in her husband and her mother for good measure.

“You needn’t keep on saying it around,” said Mr. Whipple, “you’ll make people think nobody else has any feelings about Him but you.”

“It’s natural for a mother,” Mrs. Whipple would remind him. “You know yourself it’s more natural for a mother to be that way. People don’t expect so much of fathers, some way.”

This didn’t keep the neighbors from talking plainly among themselves. “A Lord’s pure mercy if He should die,” they said. “It’s the sins of the fathers,” they agreed among themselves. “There’s bad blood and bad doings some­where, you can bet on that.” This behind the Whipples’ back. To their faces everybody said, “He’s not so bad off. He’ll be all right yet. Look how He grows!”

Mrs. Whipple hated to talk about it, she tried to keep her mind off it, but every time anybody set foot in the house, the subject always came up, and she had to talk about Him first, before she could get on to anything else. It seemed to ease her mind. “I wouldn’t have anything happen to Him for all the world, but it just looks like I can’t keep Him out of mischief. He’s so strong and active, He’s always into everything; He was like that since He could walk. It’s actually funny sometimes, the way He can do anything; it’s laughable to see Him up to His tricks. Emly has more accidents; I’m forever tying up her bruises, and Adna can’t fall a foot without cracking a bone. But He can do anything and not get a scratch. The preacher said such a nice thing once when he was here. He said, and I’ll remember it to my dying day, ‘The innocent walk with God—that’s why He don’t get hurt.’” Whenever Mrs. Whipple repeated these words, she always felt a warm pool spread in her breast, and the tears would fill her eyes, and then she could talk about something else.

He did grow and He never got hurt. A plank blew off the chicken house and struck Him on the head and He never seemed to know it. He had learned a few words, and after this He forgot them. He didn’t whine for food as the other children did, but waited until it was given Him; He ate squatting in the corner, smacking and mumbling. Rolls of fat covered Him like an overcoat, and He could carry twice as much wood and water as Adna. Emly had a cold in the head most of the time—“she takes that after me,” said Mrs. Whipple—so in bad weather they gave her the extra blanket off His cot. He never seemed to mind the cold.

Just the same, Mrs. Whipple’s life was a torment for fear something might happen to Him. He climbed the peach trees much better than Adna and went skittering along the branches like a monkey, just a regular monkey.

“Oh, Mrs. Whipple, you hadn’t ought to let Him do that. He’ll lose His balance sometime. He can’t rightly know what He’s doing.”

Mrs. Whipple almost screamed out at the neighbor. “He does know what He’s doing! He’s as able as any other child! Come down out of there, you!” When He finally reached the ground she could hardly keep her hands off Him for acting like that before people, a grin all over His face and her worried sick about Him all the time.

“It’s the neighbors,” said Mrs. Whipple to her husband. “Oh, I do mortally wish they would keep out of our business. I can’t afford to let Him do anything for fear they’ll come nosing around about it. Look at the bees, now. Adna can’t handle them, they sting him up so; I haven’t got time to do everything, and now I don’t dare let Him. But if He gets a sting He don’t really mind.”

“It’s just because He ain’t got sense enough to be scared of anything,” said Mr. Whipple.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said Mrs. Whipple, “talking that way about your own child. Who’s to take up for Him if we don’t, I’d like to know? He sees a lot that goes on, He listens to things all the time. And anything I tell Him to do He does it. Don’t never let anybody hear you say such things. They’d think you favored the other children over Him.”

“Well, now I don’t, and you know it, and what’s the use of getting all worked up about it? You always think the worst of everything. Just let Him alone, He’ll get along somehow. He gets plenty to eat and wear, don’t He?” Mr. Whipple suddenly felt tired out. “Anyhow, it can’t be helped now.”

Mrs. Whipple felt tired too, she complained in a tired voice. “What’s done can’t never be undone, I know that as good as anybody; but He’s my child, and I’m not going to have people say anything. I get sick of people coming around saying things all the time.”

In the early fall Mrs. Whipple got a letter from her brother saying he and his wife and two children were coming over for a little visit next Sunday week. “Put the big pot in the little one,” he wrote at the end. Mrs. Whipple read this part out loud twice, she was so pleased. Her brother was a great one for saying funny things. “We’ll just show him that’s no joke,” she said, “we’ll just butcher one of the suckling pigs.”

“It’s a waste and I don’t hold with waste the way we are now,” said Mr. Whipple. “That pig’ll be worth money by Christmas.”

“It’s a shame and a pity we can’t have a decent meal’s vittles once in a while when my own family comes to see us,” said Mrs. Whipple. “I’d hate for his wife to go back and say there wasn’t a thing in the house to eat. My God, it’s better than buying up a great chance of meat in town. There’s where you’d spend the money!”

“All right, do it yourself then,” said Mr. Whipple. “Christamighty, no wonder we can’t get ahead!”

The question was how to get the little pig away from his ma, a great fighter, worse than a Jersey cow. Adna wouldn’t try it: “That sow’d rip my insides out all over the pen.” “All right, old 'fraidy,” said Mrs. Whipple, “He’s not scared. Watch Him do it.” And she laughed as though it was all a good joke and gave Him a little push towards the pen. He sneaked up and snatched the pig right away from the teat and galloped back and was over the fence with the sow raging at His heels. The little black squirming thing was screech­ing like a baby having a tantrum, stiffening its back and stretching its mouth to the ears. Mrs. Whipple took the pig with her face stiff and sliced its throat with one stroke. When He saw the blood He gave a great jolting breath and ran away. “But He’ll forget and eat plenty, just the same,” thought Mrs. Whipple. Whenever she was thinking, her lips moved making words. “He’d eat it all if I didn’t stop Him. He’d eat up every mouthful from the other two if I’d let Him.”

She felt badly about it. He was ten years old now and a third again as large as Adna, who was going on fourteen. “It’s a shame, a shame,” she kept saying under her breath, “and Adna with so much brains!”

She kept on feeling badly about all sorts of things. In the first place it was the man’s work to butcher; the sight of the pig scraped pink and naked made her sick. He was too fat and soft and pitiful-looking. It was simply a shame the way things had to happen. By the time she had finished it up, she almost wished her brother would stay at home.

Early Sunday morning Mrs. Whipple dropped everything to get Him all cleaned up. In an hour He was dirty again, with crawling under fences after a possum, and straddling along the rafters of the barn looking for eggs in the hayloft. “My Lord, look at you now after all my trying! And here’s Adna and Emly staying so quiet. I get tired trying to keep you decent. Get off that shirt and put on another, people will say I don’t half dress you!” And she boxed Him on the ears, hard. He blinked and blinked and rubbed His head, and His face hurt Mrs. Whipple’s feelings. Her knees began to tremble, she had to sit down while she buttoned His shirt. “I’m just all gone before the day starts.”

The brother came with his plump healthy wife and two great roaring hungry boys. They had a grand dinner, with the pig roasted to a crackling in the middle of the table, full of dressing, a pickled peach in his mouth and plenty of gravy for the sweet potatoes.

“This looks like prosperity all right,” said the brother; “you’re going to have to roll me home like I was a barrel when I’m done.”

Everybody laughed out loud; it was fine to hear them laughing all at once around the table. Mrs. Whipple felt warm and good about it. “Oh, we’ve got six more of these; I say it’s as little as we can do when you come to see us so seldom.”

He wouldn’t come into the dining room, and Mrs. Whipple passed it off very well. “He’s timider than my other two,” she said, “He’ll just have to get used to you. There isn’t everybody He’ll make up with, you know how it is with some children, even cousins.” Nobody said anything out of the way.

“Just like my Alty here,” said the brother’s wife. “I sometimes got to lick him to make him shake hands with his own grandmammy.”

So that was over, and Mrs. Whipple loaded up a big plate for Him first, before everybody. “I always say He ain’t to be slighted, no matter who else goes without,” she said, and carried it to Him herself.

“He can chin Himself on the top of the door,” said Emly, helping along.

“That’s fine. He’s getting along fine,” said the brother.

They went away after supper. Mrs. Whipple rounded up the dishes, and sent the children to bed and sat down and unlaced her shoes. “You see?” she said to Mr. Whipple. “That’s the way my whole family is. Nice and considerate about everything. No out-of-the-way remarks—they have got refinement. I get awfully sick of people’s remarks. Wasn’t that pig good?”

Mr. Whipple said, “Yes, we’re out three hundred pounds of pork, that’s all. It’s easy to be polite when you come to eat. Who knows what they had in their minds all along?”

“Yes, that’s like you,” said Mrs. Whipple. “I don’t expect anything else from you. You’ll be telling me next that my own brother will be saying around that we made Him eat in the kitchen! Oh, my God!” She rocked her head in her hands, a hard pain started in the very middle of her forehead. “Now it’s all spoiled, and everything was so nice and easy. All right, you don’t like them and you never did—all right, they’ll not come here again soon, never you mind! But they can’t say He wasn’t dressed every lick as good as Adna—oh, honest, sometimes I wish I was dead!”

“I wish you’d let up,” said Mr. Whipple. “It’s bad enough as it is.”

It was a hard winter. It seemed to Mrs. Whipple that they hadn’t ever known anything but hard times, and now to cap it all a winter like this. The crops were about half of what they had a right to expect; after the cotton was in it didn’t do much more than cover the grocery bill. They swapped off one of the plow horses, and got cheated, for the new one died of the heaves. Mrs. Whipple kept thinking all the time it was terrible to have a man you couldn’t depend on not to get cheated. They cut down on everything, but Mrs. Whipple kept saying there are things you can’t cut down on, and they cost money. It took a lot of warm clothes for Adna and Emly, who walked four miles to school during the three-months session. “He sets around the fire a lot, He won’t need so much,” said Mr. Whipple. “That’s so,” said Mrs. Whipple, “and when He does the outdoor chores He can wear your tarpaullion coat. I can’t do no better, that’s all.”

In February He was taken sick, and lay curled up under His blanket looking very blue in the face and acting as if He would choke. Mr. and Mrs. Whipple did everything they could for Him for two days, and then they were scared and sent for the doctor. The doctor told them they must keep Him warm and give Him plenty of milk and eggs. “He isn’t as stout as He looks, I’m afraid,” said the doctor. “You’ve got to watch them when they’re like that. You must put more cover onto Him, too.”

“I just took off His big blanket to wash,” said Mrs. Whipple, ashamed. “1 can’t stand dirt.”

“Well, you’d better put it back on the minute it’s dry,” said the doctor, “or He’ll have pneumonia.”

Mr. and Mrs. Whipple took a blanket off their own bed and put His cot in by the fire. “They can’t say we didn’t do everything for Him,” she said, “even to sleeping cold ourselves on His account.”

When the winter broke He seemed to be well again, but He walked as if His feet hurt Him. He was able to run a cotton planter during the season.

“I got it all fixed up with Jim Ferguson about breeding the cow next time,” said Mr. Whipple. “I’ll pasture the bull this summer and give Jim some fodder in the fall. That’s better than paying out money when you haven’t got it.

“I hope you didn’t say such a thing before Jim Ferguson,” said Mrs. Whipple. “You oughtn’t to let him know we’re so down as all that.”

“Godamighty, that ain’t saying we’re down. A man is got to look ahead sometimes. He can lead the bull over today I need Adna on the place.”

At first Mrs. Whipple felt easy in her mind about sending Him for the bull. Adna was too jumpy and couldn’t be trusted. You’ve got to be steady around animals. After He was gone she started thinking, and after a while she could hardly bear it any longer. She stood in the lane and watched for Him. It was nearly three miles to go and a hot day, but He oughtn’t to be so long about it. She shaded her eyes and stared until colored bubbles floated in her eyeballs. It was just like everything else in life, she must always worry and never know a moment’s peace about anything. After a long time she saw Him turn into the side lane, limping. He came on very slowly leading the big hulk of an animal by a ring in the nose, twirling a little stick in His hand, never looking back or sideways, but coming on like a sleepwalker with His eyes half shut.

Mrs. Whipple was scared sick of bulls; she had heard awful stories about how they followed on quietly enough, and then suddenly pitched on with a bellow and pawed and gored a body to pieces. Any second now that black monster would come down on Him, my God, He’d never have sense enough to run.

She mustn’t make a sound nor a move; she mustn’t get the bull started. The bull heaved his head aside and horned the air at a fly. Her voice burst out of her in a shriek, and she screamed at Him to come on, for God’s sake. He didn’t seem to hear her clamor, but kept on twirling His switch and limping on, and the bull lumbered along behind him as gently as a calf. Mrs. Whipple stopped calling and ran towards the house, praying under her breath: “Lord, don’t let anything happen to Him. Lord, you know people will say we oughtn’t to have sent Him. You know they’ll say we didn’t take care of Him. Oh, get Him home, safe home, safe home, and I’ll look out for Him better! Amen.”

She watched from the window while He led the beast in, and tied him up in the barn. It was no use trying to keep up, Mrs. Whipple couldn’t bear another thing. She sat down and rocked and cried with her apron over her head.

From year to year the Whipples were growing poorer and poorer. The place just seemed to run down of itself, no matter how hard they worked. “We’re losing our hold,” said Mrs. Whipple. “Why can’t we do like other people and watch for our best chances? They’ll be calling us poor white trash next.”

“When I get to be sixteen I’m going to leave,” said Adna. “I’m going to get a job in Powell’s grocery store. There’s money in that. No more farm for me.”

“I’m going to be a schoolteacher,” said Emly. “But I’ve got to finish the eighth grade, anyhow. Then I can live in town. I don’t see any chances here.”

“Emly takes after my family,” said Mrs. Whipple. “Ambitious every last one of them, and they don’t take second place for anybody”

When fall came Emly got a chance to wait on table in the railroad eating-house in the town near by, and it seemed such a shame not to take it when the wages were good and she could get her food too, that Mrs. Whipple decided to let her take it, and not bother with school until the next session. “You’ve got plenty of time,” she said. “You’re young and smart as a whip.”

With Adna gone too, Mr. Whipple tried to run the farm with just Him to help. He seemed to get along fine, doing His work and part of Adna’s without noticing it. They did well enough until Christmas time, when one morning He slipped on the ice coming up from the barn. Instead of getting up He thrashed round and round, and when Mr. Whipple got to Him, He was having some sort of fit.

They brought Him inside and tried to make Him sit up, but He blub­bered and rolled, so they put Him to bed and Mr. Whipple rode to town for the doctor. All the way there and back he worried about where the money was to come from: it sure did look like he had about all the troubles he could carry.

From then on He stayed in bed. His legs swelled up double their size, and the fits kept coming back. After four months, the doctor said, “It’s no use, I think you’d better put Him in the County Home for treatment right away. I’ll see about it for you. He’ll have good care there and be off your hands.”

“We don’t begrudge Him any care, and I won’t let Him out of my sight,” said Mrs. Whipple. “I won’t have it said I sent my sick child off among strangers.”

“I know how you feel,” said the doctor. “You can’t tell me anything about that, Mrs. Whipple. I’ve got a boy of my own. But you’d better listen to me. I can’t do anything more for Him, that’s the truth.”

Mr. and Mrs. Whipple talked it over a long time that night after they went to bed. “It’s just charity,” said Mrs. Whipple, “that’s what we’ve come to, charity! I certainly never looked for this.”

“We pay taxes to help support the place just like everybody else,” said Mr. Whipple, “and I don’t call that taking charity I think it would be fine to have Him where He’d get the best of everything... and besides, I can’t keep up with these doctor bills any longer.”

“Maybe that’s why the doctor wants us to send Him—he’s scared he won’t get his money,” said Mrs. Whipple.

“Don’t talk like that,” said Mr. Whipple, feeling pretty sick, “or we won’t be able to send Him.”

“Oh, but we won’t keep Him there long,” said Mrs. Whipple. “Soon’s He’s better, we’ll bring Him right back home.”

“The doctor has told you and told you time and again He can’t ever get better, and you might as well stop talking,” said Mr. Whipple.

“Doctors don’t know everything,” said Mrs. Whipple, feeling almost happy “But anyhow, in the summer Emly can come home for a vacation, and Adna can get down for Sundays: we’ll all work together and get on our feet again, and the children will feel they’ve got a place to come to.”

All at once she saw it full summer again, with the garden going fine, and new white roller shades up all over the house, and Adna and Emly home, so full of life, all of them happy together. Oh, it could happen, things would ease up on them.

They didn’t talk before Him much, but they never knew just how much He understood. Finally the doctor set the day and a neighbor who owned a double-seated carryall offered to drive them over. The hospital would have sent an ambulance, but Mrs. Whipple couldn’t stand to see Him going away looking so sick as all that. They wrapped Him in blankets, and the neighbor and Mr. Whipple lifted Him into the back seat of the carryall beside Mrs. Whipple, who had on her black shirt waist. She couldn’t stand to go looking like charity

“You’ll be all right, I guess I’ll stay behind,” said Mr. Whipple. “It don’t look like everybody ought to leave the place at once.”

“Besides, it ain’t as if He was going to stay forever,” said Mrs. Whipple to the neighbor. “This is only for a little while.”

They started away, Mrs. Whipple holding to the edges of the blankets to keep Him from sagging sideways. He sat there blinking and blinking. He worked His hands out and began rubbing His nose with His knuckles, and then with the end of the blanket. Mrs. Whipple couldn’t believe what she saw; He was scrubbing away big tears that pulled out of the corners of His eyes. He sniveled and made a gulping noise. Mrs. Whipple kept saying, “Oh, honey, you don’t feel so bad, do you? You don’t feel so bad, do you?” for He seemed to be accusing her of something. Maybe He remembered that time she boxed His ears, maybe He had been scared that day with the bull, maybe He had slept cold and couldn’t tell her about it; maybe He knew they were sending Him away for good and all because they were too poor to keep Him. Whatever it was, Mrs. Whipple couldn’t bear to think of it. She began to cry, frightfully, and wrapped her arms tight around Him. His head rolled on her shoulder: she had loved Him as much as she possibly could, there were Adna and Emly who had to be thought of too, there was nothing she could do to make up to Him for His life. Oh, what a mortal pity He was ever born.

They came in sight of the hospital, with the neighbor driving very fast, not daring to look behind him.

No comments: