Friday, February 19, 2010

OUT OF STEP

Donald Ogden Stewart Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind (New York: George H. Doran, 1923)

An early friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, Donald Ogden Stewart lived, for most of his life, in a charmed world. After graduating from Yale University, Stewart began writing satires in the manner of Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker and others, and, while writing for Broadway, become a member of the renowned Algonquin Round Table. After a stint in Paris, where he developed close friendships with Hemingway (he was the model for Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises), Dos Passos, Tristan Tzara and numerous others, he returned to write screenplays for Hollywood, winning an Oscar for his adaptation of his friend Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story.

Previously he had also adapted Barry's Holiday, and wrote the screenplays of That Uncertain Feeling and Life with Father, among others. Djuna Barnes' interview with him in 1930 was brimming with sarcasm of his enormous successes. At interview's end Barnes finally comes full out with her disdain for him:

We said: "Do you want to die?"
"No," he answered lightly, "do you?"
"We don't mind," we answered, stepping into the night.

One of Stewart's most noted satirical works, Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind, a seemingly gentle riff on WASP culture and values, sat for years in my library until I recently aired it out.

Aunt Polly, concerned about the education and behavior of her sister's three children, takes it upon herself over a period of a few weeks to share with them her version of the history of mankind, a delightfully Panglossian tale of the endless progress of man from caveman to the present day, culminating in the perfect family of herself, her husband Frederick, a banker, and her sweetly behaved son, David.

Sweeping them up into her limousine after school, Polly skims over various historical periods, "Egypt and Mesopotamia," "Greece," "Rome and the Christian Crusaders," and "European Monarchies and the American Revolution," portraying them each as a "step forward" to "The Glorious Present," a post World War I paradise of her family's wealth and privilege in a world where there will never again be war.

The perfect David is, contrarily shown by the author, to be an absolute monster who poisons his dog, begins fights from which he runs, and financially takes advantage of his classmates.
Meanwhile, his cousin Samuel and his two sisters, who have obviously grown up in a more liberal atmosphere, are naturally curious and pepper Polly with numerous questions that she determines are certain signs of their impoliteness, discouraging, accordingly, any deeper entry into her bumbling recounting of the past.

"Egyptians did build up a certain form of civilization although of course
the wrong form and did not last."
"How long did it last, Aunt Polly?" asked Samuel.
"Why—I think about five or six thousand years," replied Polly.
"That's longer than America, isn't it?" said Mary.
"Why, yes, dear," replied Aunt Polly, 'but, children, you must remember that all that happened a long, long time ago when time didn't really matter so much. ...An Egyptian didn't have anything to do all day compared to a person to-day. He had no magazines, no books, no shopping, no church work, no lectures, no social duties, so, don't you see, time didn't really matter."


Had Stewart kept his entire tale at this level, however, we might consider this a slightly humorous piece, without any serious satirical bite. But Polly's bland musings on "the best of all possible worlds," are constantly undercut by the series of good deeds she, the church, and the school inflict upon the children, with David as the centerpiece.

After being told about the Crusaders and visited soon after by a War veteran, her husband and her son cook up the idea of creating a crusader group of young boys, with David as their leader.

The boys proudly march for a while, but David's dog gets in the way and the boys soon lose their patience with the child's pointless commands. A day later, the dog is found dead, and David insists it is the work of another school class. Now with an enemy on the horizon, most of the boys return to their marching. Frederick buys them uniforms, and, with his father's help, David purchases air-rifles at a discount, selling them back to the boys at the regular price. The crusader company is formed, and the other class develops its own competing group. When the church gets involved, they change their name to the Christian Scouts.

David's cousin, Samuel, however, refuses to join, and is labeled a "slacker" by David and the other boys, who refuse to speak to him. Joining up with the only Black and Jewish boys in the school, Samuel begins a newspaper. Insisting that he intends to investigate the poisoned dog episode, David and others begin to fear what he might say, ultimately dressing, like Klu Klux Klan members, in white robes, beating up Samuel, destroying his printing press, and frightening his partners off.

The two competing Christian Scout troupes, meanwhile, plan to march in the Armistice Day Parade, to show themselves ready to fight. All the Allies are represented by flags the boys carry, but as they meet one another upon the stage, the two groups cannot resist a all-out battle; only David escapes unharmed. The book ends with him safely ensconced in his bed counting out the money he has earned from his rifle sales.

Stewart's parody, accordingly, has some tooth: not only does he comically predict World War II, but unknowingly points to his own end. During the McCarthy era, Stewart was named as a Communist and was blacklisted in 1950. A year later he immigrated to England where lived out his life. He died in 1980 at the age of 86, Barnes outliving him by four years.

Los Angeles, February 19, 2010

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