Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Her Father's Daughter: A eugenic dream

Thinking I might enjoy something along the lines of Laddie, I downloaded another by Gene Stratton-Porter from Project Gutenberg. I'd recently finished Catherine: A Story by William Makepeace Thackeray, which was written to deliberately alienate the reader from all characters; none were sympathetic. Since Little Sister and her brother had charm to spare, I thought Her Father's Daughter would be along the same lines. I couldn't be more wrong.

Yes, there were sympathetic characters, but perhaps not the ones intended by the author. When, in the first speech by the heroine, she refers to a student at the head of her class as a "Jap," I tried to think, well, that may have been normal for the time, much as other terms have come and gone out of polite use. I read on only to find it got worse. She really meant it in the derogatory sense.

Once she got going, there was little question of her hatred for the Japanese. I'll give just one sample:
There is just one way in all this world that we can beat Eastern civilization and all that it intends to do to us eventually. The white man has dominated by his color so far in the history of the world, but it is written in the Books that when the men of color acquire our culture and combine it with their own methods of living and rate of production, they are going to bring forth greater numbers, better equipped for the battle of life, than we are. When they have got our last secret, constructive or scientific, they will take it, and living in a way that we would not, reproducing in numbers we don't they will beat us at any game we start, if we don't take warning while we are in the ascendance, and keep there.
Repulsed by this attitude, I kept reading on the off-chance Stratton-Porter would lead her heroine -- a precocious high school student -- to a change of viewpoint. The benefit-of-my-doubt was not rewarded. Subsequent speeches -- and there are a lot of them for someone who is portrayed as 17-going-on-18 -- are peppered with phrases about white supremacy, "white blood," "America for Americans," "yellow menace," "they all look alike," and so on. Clearly, she ascribed to the idea that biology is destiny, that personality traits are passed through the blood, and embraced Margaret Sanger's doctrine of "more from the fit, less from the unfit."

One might be able to argue that since her heroine appreciates and collects Native American methods and lore she must be open to races beside her own, but I'm not sure Stratton-Porter was aware of this hypocrisy. While saying that only the white race has produced anything of value to the world, her protagonist profits handsomely by publishing Indian recipes that make use of locally-grown wild plants. She had acquired their culture!

Other ironies include:
  • A villain with a name as Anglo-Saxon as they come
  • Another antagonist who uses hair dye to achieve ideal Aryan looks
  • This second villain, nevertheless, has a redemptive awakening by the end of the book -- which should have been impossible, according to the author's point of view, because she was tainted by "bad blood."
Eugenics may have been fashionable back when this was written, but I don't think there's now a need to defend these views as Peter Eickmeier does in "A Closer Look at Gene Stratton-Porter and Her Father’s Daughter." He attempts to prove that, contrary to being a racist, Stratton-Porter was actually an early civil rights activist! . . . that a "closer analysis" reveals "subliminal" messages that uplifted non-white races and enlightened young readers. Maybe I just take things at face-value too much, but I think you'd have to live in Bizarro World to reach that conclusion. The novel read like a tract for limiting immigration to western Europeans. Janet Malcolm's "Capitalist Pastorale" in The New York Review of Books reassured me that I wasn't seeing things that weren't there.

There are other things not to like about this book: didacticism and triumphalism, to name a few. I grew annoyed at the main character's know-it-all bossy-ness -- apparently a trait of her creator.

For those interested in a biblical view of race (that there is only one human blood), I leave you with a link to Answers in Genesis' helpful collection of writings on the subject: http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers/topic/racism.

1 comment:

hopeinbrazil said...

Sad to read this. I have really enjoyed several of GSP's novels. The ones I didn't enjoy were too syrupy, but not racist. This book sounds awful!