anna karenina is a negro spiritual
the social novel, negro spirituals, etc.
I am thinking about the social novel lately because in the fall, I am starting a fellowship at the Cullman Center to work on a novel called Group Show. Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the novel a little bit, and in doing so, I’ve come to conceive of Group Show as a kind of social novel. Where my previous novels and writing have been very much about the individual, I view this novel as the opposite. There are times when this feels like a dubious project for a black writer. After all, who wants to read another novel where black people talk like sharecroppers or bad 90s rappers as written by white sitcom writers. Who wants to read a novel where to write about greasy foreheads and black-eyed peas is somehow the same thing as moral rigor or real art. I don’t know, there’s just something cheaply populist about what has come to signify black literature in the context of a social novel. It’s all slavery and getting spat on by white people or being microaggressed, I guess. I don’t know. I mean, can a black writer take on the social novel in a contemporary context without falling prey to boring racial ideas. Not to get all Thomas Chatterton-Williams about it, but it feels somehow that to write a social novel as a black person is to find oneself getting jerked around by your own bad ideas and fears, or worse, acting out somebody else’s ideas.
What even is a social novel anyway.
It’s funny to me in a way I can’t quite express that social novel has also somehow come to mean real novel. As in, not autofiction, as in anti-individualistic. I suppose the social novel is a means for people to retreat from what has been deemed an improper or uninteresting focus on individual biography, from the political, as it were in literature. The social novel is the working class white men of novels—which is to say, often invoked, often mythologized, often endowed with an undue sense of importance and access to what is true. Which, fine, okay.
But, I also think that white writers have somehow snowed the American reading public into thinking that a social novel is somehow divested from questions of identity. Which, if you think about it, is kind of wild in this country given how identity is so crucial to the American myth.
Then again, there’s a novel of singular genius like Ann Petry’s The Street which in remarkable, fluid strokes captures American life in Post-War Harlem. It’s a novel of tremendous force and power. What she does with point of view in that novel alone should make it mandatory reading for anyone setting out to write a novel. And the fact that she was so young when she wrote, and yet could deliver scenes in the points of view of men and women, young and old, white and black. All brought together without sentimentality but with tenderness, love, humor, lightness of touch. You read a novel like that, and it’s like, oh, it can be done, it has been done, it will never be this good again.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to write a novel like The Street. Because there is our American Anna Karenina. Our negro spiritual as social novel, social novel as negro spiritual. There’s this scene in The Street, where Lutie is thinking about the weirdness of her relationship to the Chandlers, the family for whom she is a maid, and it brings to mind something that Tolstoy could not do, not really, in Anna Karenina, which was to imagine totally, the subjectivity of the underclass. They were objects of consideration, yes, but so seldom did they get to narrate their own lives. It’s in Ann Petry’s hands that this becomes the active realm of the novel:
Sometimes, when she was going to Jamaica, Mrs. Chandler would go to New York. And they would take the same train. On the ride down they would talk-about some story being played up in the newspapers, about clothes or some moving picture.
But when the train pulled into Grand Central, the wall was suddenly there. Just as they got off the train, just as the porter was reaching for Mrs. Chandler's pigskin luggage, the wall suddenly loomed up. It was Mrs. Chandler's voice that erected it. Her voice high, clipped, carrying, as she said, 'I'll see you on Monday, Lutie.’
There was a firm note of dismissal in her voice so that the other passengers pouring off the train turned to watch the rich young woman and her colored maid; a tone of voice that made people stop to hear just when it was the maid was to report back for work. Because the voice unmistakably established the relation between the blond young woman and the brown young woman.
And it never failed to stir resentment in Lutie. She argued with herself about it. Of course, she was a maid. She had no whom it was only incidental that one of them was white and the other black?
Even while she argued with herself, she was answering in a noncommittal voice, 'Yes, ma'am.' And took her battered suitcase up the ramp herself, hastening, walking faster and faster, hurrying toward home and Jim and Bub. To spend four days cleaning house and holding Bub close to her and trying to hold Jim close to her, too, in spite of the gap that seemed to have grown a little wider each time she came home.
Lutie must traverse the white world where she is a laborer and functions in a subject position to the white overclass in order to return home. Btu when she arrives home, she finds that things are not as good as she would like. Her husband is straying. She spends her time working far away, looking after someone else’s child while her own suffers and wants for his mother, while her husband takes up with another woman, while things get a little worse. Still, she must work. She finds herself in an intractable position. Her solution is to leave her husband, which means finding another place to live. Which means finding more work. These are the events that have precipitated Lutie to look for the apartment that is introduced in the first scene of the novel. This building, this street, will become a character in the sense that Russia and its unruly mass is a character in Tolstoy. The material reality of mid-century life in Harlem forms the spiritual underdark of The Street in the way that the material reality of the landed gentry forms the spiritual underdark of Anna Karenina. Anyway, I could go on forever about The Street and why it is a perfect novel, but this is about Anna Karenina.
So, I have been reading a lot of Anna Karenina. I have to read a novel like three times before I really get it, not counting all the false starts and what not. I first read the novel as a high school student. I had one of those tiny hardcovers with minuscule type. The cover had a woman in a large white dress on it, looking demurely to the side. What I remember most about that first read is nothing to do with the novel at all. I remember that I underlined certain sentences in a red Bic pen. That’s what I remember, the red Bic I chewed on for all of one summer, the way the ends split open and turned blue then translucent as I chewed away the white paint. I remember how smoothly the ink went onto the yellow pages. I remember the flaking laminate of the cover, peeling it off bit by bit. I remember how the book got warm in the sun when I left it by the window at my grandparents’ house. I remember the stiff creak of the spine. I got through it, but I didn’t really understand anything about it.
Then I read it in undergrad. I thought Now I am a wise person who possesses wisdom. By wisdom, I mostly meant that I had now had sex with boys of my own volition. I could look a man in the eye and know that I wanted him and I could express this to two friends, feeling a giddy thrill. Like being able to state your desire meant that you had some control over it. Like saying That guy is so hot, oh my God meant that I had agency and free will. This was my idea of wisdom. And I thought, with my new wisdom, I will reread Anna Karenina and be an aloof presence in the world. I was reading a lot of French modernist literature in French at the time, trying to impress a professor. I had this thought that he would see me reading Anna Karenina and like characters in Tolstoy, he’d slide a note across my desk and ask me to stay behind to talk. To talk, I would say in my mind. And sit there during Intermediate French while he taught us about le subjonctif in French. I’d watch his long eyelashes and study the loose, cute curl of his hair. The freckles across the bridge of his nose, and the careful way he spoke, trying to make his vowels full and loud so that we could follow him. Teaching us French must have felt like dragging the bottom of the ocean, slow, dull, heavy work. But I’d sit there with Anna Karenina perched on the edge of my side of the table, watching him, hoping that he was watching me back, feeling the friction between my legs as I squirmed in my chair, feeling hot and cold at the same time, like if he so much as brushed his hand against my arm I’d lose it.
Alabama in the 2010s was, in some respects, as far away from a Tolstoy novel as one could get. Yet, in others, it was perfectly Tolstoyan. It had everything: the bucolic rurality, the plight of an agrarian society trying to modernize, a corrupt aristocracy venting its power through municipal government, collisions between God and man, faith and science, materialism and nature, commerce and equality. And on and on. As one example from my own life, when I came home from college in 2008 at the end of the semester, I found that people had sold off their trees for booze money. The trees were meant to serve as timber to fuel America’s housing bubble. Well, you know how that went, right? So here I was standing in these bald patches in the woods where I had played as a child, wondering what the fuck had gone wrong. I’d stand at the top of the big hill looking down and see these gray gaps in the treeline, and also thin layer of smoke or haze hanging over everything. All through the night, you could hear the trucks rumbling as they came to collect the felled trees. And people were having BBQs and parties. Buying school clothes and school supplies. Drinking themselves stupid. Drinking until they were falling down and not getting up. Then they were fighting because all the beer and liquor were gone. All the cigarettes were smoked. And where do you think the money for that came from? It came from the trees. They sold off the trees. To build houses that didn’t get sold. To build developments that stood empty for a decade. I remember Cobbs Ford Road getting dug out and incorporated. I remember the shopping center going in, how I’d pass it in my aunt’s car and think, maybe they’ll open a new Blockbuster. A new Movie Gallery. A new GameStop. A new Barnes and Noble. We got a Firehouse Subs. We felt like we were living large. I remember the hideous mass-produced frefab neoclassical strip mall aesthetic. Those long strips of pale “stone” with gorgeous, high windows in every store front. The arches and cornices. The sky deep Alabama blue. How vast and low our skies were then. You do not know the elation I felt upon coming home to Prattville and finding, wonder of wonders, a Books-A-Million! A Starbucks. In Prattville. A Target! We were delirious.
My city, Prattville, Alabama, in Autauga County, was the fastest growing city in the state. And then it wasn’t. But we didn’t have any more trees.
Anyway, so I read Anna Karenina in college to seductively lure my professor into an affair with me. It did not work. Because my life was not a Tolstoy novel. Yet. Materially, it kind of was. But I wouldn’t understand that until later.
When you tell people that you are reading Anna Karenina, sometimes they act like you’ve just said a rude word. Or they sometimes say that they liked all the drama but none of the stuff about Levin and his scything of the land. All that stuff about land management in 19th century Russia. Or, worse, socialism. It’s like what people say about the whaling in Moby-Dick or the theology in Middlemarch or what they might say about the Romanticism in Herzog if anybody still read Saul Bellow (though they should). You could say the same thing about the banking in Zola’s Money or all the war parts of War and Peace. Or, if you’re really unwell, you could say it about the farming in The Grapes of Wrath, though in that case, what would you be left with? The novel is…about farming. Really, it’s about the harrowing condition of the human soul under the crushing material conditions of poverty, the inexorable spiritual cost of living in a world governed by capital. The way that a material death becomes a social death and the way that social death precipitates a spiritual death. It’s about the human need and human capacity for transcendence. But also it is a reconstitution, by way of bringing the reader into the privation and suffering of the characters, of the relation between the master and the slave, the governor and the governed, those who benefit from labor and those whose labor is exploited. In this way, the farming becomes at once subject, theme, and mode. But this is not about The Grapes of Wrath. This is about Anna Karenina.
I believe that people dislike the mowing and farming sections of the novel because they imagine that these sections are tangential to the novel’s primary dramatic aims. They seem superfluous to all the amusing and thrilling drama of Anna’s affair with Vronsky or Karenin’s heartsick moral melancholy over Anna’s abandonment. Perhaps contemporary readers imagine that the central pulse of Tolstoy’s great novel is centered on the turnings of the domestic sphere. Oblonsky’s affair with the governess and Dolly’s subsequent progress toward forgiving him and reconstituting their family. Or Kitty falling back in love with Levin after Vronsky breaks her heart and drives her to the point of death. I imagine also that readers are electrified by that great steeplechase scene when Anna watches on as Vronsky is almost crushed beneath his horse, the sight of which is what prompts her to finally, finally, say in no uncertain terms to Karenin that she loves only one man, Vronsky.
It is true that these scenes, these moments, are among the most beautiful, vital scenes in all of literature. I would add to them some of my personal favorites: when Karenin first gives Anna a chance to come clean about the affair, before the steeplechase, when he suspects her of behaving in a way that will bring shame to their family, and Anna rebuffs him. Or the scene when Vronsky, overcome by guilt at ruining Anna’s life, shoots himself. And the scene, too, of the men out hunting, the care with which Tolstoy unfolds not just their thoughts, but seems to inhabit the mind of nature itself. All the birds and leaves and even the dog Laska.
The stand-shooting was capital. Stepan Arkadyevitch shot two more birds and Levin two, of which one was not found. It began to get dark. Venus, bright and silvery, shone with her soft light low down in the west behind the birch trees, and high up in the east twinkled the red lights of Arcturus. Over his head Levin made out the stars of the Great Bear and lost them again. The snipe had ceased flying; but Levin resolved to stay a little longer, till Venus, which he saw below a branch of birch, should be above it, and the stars of the Great Bear should be perfectly plain. Venus had risen above the branch, and the ear of the Great Bear with its shaft was now all plainly visible against the dark blue sky, yet still he waited.
“Isn’t it time to go home?” said Stepan Arkadyevitch.
It was quite still now in the copse, and not a bird was stirring.
“Let’s stay a little while,” answered Levin.
“As you like.”
They were standing now about fifteen paces from one another.
“Stiva!” said Levin unexpectedly; “how is it you don’t tell me whether your sister-in-law’s married yet, or when she’s going to be?”
Levin felt so resolute and serene that no answer, he fancied, could affect him. But he had never dreamed of what Stepan Arkadyevitch replied.
“She’s never thought of being married, and isn’t thinking of it; but she’s very ill, and the doctors have sent her abroad. They’re positively afraid she may not live.”
“What!” cried Levin. “Very ill? What is wrong with her? How has she...?”
While they were saying this, Laska, with ears pricked up, was looking upwards at the sky, and reproachfully at them.
“They have chosen a time to talk,” she was thinking. “It’s on the wing.... Here it is, yes, it is. They’ll miss it,” thought Laska.
But at that very instant both suddenly heard a shrill whistle which, as it were, smote on their ears, and both suddenly seized their guns and two flashes gleamed, and two bangs sounded at the very same instant. The snipe flying high above instantly folded its wings and fell into a thicket, bending down the delicate shoots.
And the scene when Dolly finally comes to forgive Stiva because she witnesses an act of love and devotion among her children. What scenes!
But, I also think that the mowing scenes and the scenes where the characters argue about land usage and the fitness of socialist principles in Russian society, and Levin’s long ruminations on how a just society can be run, are equally important to the novel for a couple of different reasons.
The primary and perhaps most obvious reason is that such scenes and subject matter constitute Tolstoy’s efforts to render the material reality of his characters. What I mean is that it’s one thing to say that Levin is a member of the landed class who is spiritually anxious both about his own place in the world and that of his country, and it is quite another to portray it, to dramatize it, to not use it as a prop or gimmick to characterize someone and then to deploy that character in the drama of narrative. Instead, what we get is the dramatic enactment of Levin’s traits and characteristics. In practical terms, what I’m getting at is the old show, don’t tell.
We understand that Levin is religiously lapsed. He considers himself quite a practical man. Very much about order and routine. That everything and everyone has a place and a time, an appointed station in the great mechanism of the world. But we see also that he longs for something outside of himself. He longs for a sense of transcendence. To be in contact with the sublime. In this way, Levin is, like his dying socialist brother, a romantic:
Levin kept between them. In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work to him. The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun, that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigor and dogged energy to his labor; and more and more often now came those moments of unconsciousness, when it was possible not to think what one was doing. The scythe cut of itself. These were happy moments. Still more delightful were the moments when they reached the stream where the rows ended, and the old man rubbed his scythe with the wet, thick grass, rinsed its blade in the fresh water of the stream, ladled out a little in a tin dipper, and offered Levin a drink.
“What do you say to my home-brew, eh? Good, eh?” said he, winking.
And truly Levin had never drunk any liquor so good as this warm water with green bits floating in it, and a taste of rust from the tin dipper. And immediately after this came the delicious, slow saunter, with his hand on the scythe, during which he could wipe away the streaming sweat, take deep breaths of air, and look about at the long string of mowers and at what was happening around in the forest and the country.
It is through work that Levin attains both spiritual peace and a sense of fellowship. Consider the imagery of communion and the Eucharist evoked when Tit hands him the dipper in which Levin can taste the rust of the scythe and the green grass. And what happens after Levin is rinsed and refreshed? He looks out and over the world and sees in a great chain, all the other mowers moving across the land as if they were all bound up in one collective will. A vision made possible because, through his labor and through the dipper, he is brought into communion, brotherhood, with them. What Levin strives for during the mowing is a sense that he is one of them. He does not want to be considered apart from them. In early section, when he struggles, we hear:
The first row, as Levin noticed, Tit had mowed specially quickly, probably wishing to put his master to the test, and the row happened to be a long one. The next rows were easier, but still Levin had to strain every nerve not to drop behind the peasants.
He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible.
And after he has drunk from the cup, what do we see but a kind of religious processional in which the old man, the worker, is priest and Levin a congregant:
The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.
It was only hard work when he had to break off the motion, which had become unconscious, and to think; when he had to mow round a hillock or a tuft of sorrel. The old man did this easily. When a hillock came he changed his action, and at one time with the heel, and at another with the tip of his scythe, clipped the hillock round both sides with short strokes. And while he did this he kept looking about and watching what came into his view: at one moment he picked a wild berry and ate it or offered it to Levin, then he flung away a twig with the blade of the scythe, then he looked at a quail’s nest, from which the bird flew just under the scythe, or caught a snake that crossed his path, and lifting it on the scythe as though on a fork showed it to Levin and threw it away.
Alongside the physical labor or perhaps because of it, Levin also begins to think very deeply about the role agriculture plays in structuring and ordering life in Russia. The fate and prospects of the peasants and nobles, land owners, alike. He sets out to write a book about agriculture and land use in Russia, that quickly becomes a book about the plight of the human soul. Levin is a philosopher, you see. At one point, turning over the various issues at hand with respect to the organization of Russian society and what can be done about it, Levin reflects:
The business of reorganizing the farming of his land absorbed him as completely as though there would never be anything else in his life. He read the books lent him by Sviazhsky, and copying out what he had not got, he read both the economic and socialistic books on the subject, but, as he had anticipated, found nothing bearing on the scheme he had undertaken. In the books on political economy—in Mill, for instance, whom he studied first with great ardor, hoping every minute to find an answer to the questions that were engrossing him—he found laws deduced from the condition of land culture in Europe; but he did not see why these laws, which did not apply in Russia, must be general. He saw just the same thing in the socialistic books: either they were the beautiful but impracticable fantasies which had fascinated him when he was a student, or they were attempts at improving, rectifying the economic position in which Europe was placed, with which the system of land tenure in Russia had nothing in common. Political economy told him that the laws by which the wealth of Europe had been developed, and was developing, were universal and unvarying. Socialism told him that development along these lines leads to ruin. And neither of them gave an answer, or even a hint, in reply to the question what he, Levin, and all the Russian peasants and landowners, were to do with their millions of hands and millions of acres, to make them as productive as possible for the common weal.
There are many long (and to my mind, hilarious) conversations in Anna Karenina about the state. About bureaucracy. About politics. Philosophy. It is a novel which those with authority haggle over the circumstances of those without. In this way, the novel dramatizes the court intrigue that occurs in our halls of power. Tolstoy is stripping away the Godlike distance that common people are prone to project onto their authority figures and shows us a cast of bald, winking, petty aristocrats who scheme and maneuver and try to outflank each other over seemingly minor differences. Take Karenin and Stremov, a rival bureaucrat in government:
Alexey Alexandrovitch had gained a brilliant victory at the sitting of the Commission of the 17th of August, but in the sequel this victory cut the ground from under his feet. The new commission for the inquiry into the condition of the native tribes in all its branches had been formed and despatched to its destination with an unusual speed and energy inspired by Alexey Alexandrovitch. Within three months a report was presented. The condition of the native tribes was investigated in its political, administrative, economic, ethnographic, material, and religious aspects. To all these questions there were answers admirably stated, and answers admitting no shade of doubt, since they were not a product of human thought, always liable to error, but were all the product of official activity. The answers were all based on official data furnished by governors and heads of churches, and founded on the reports of district magistrates and ecclesiastical superintendents, founded in their turn on the reports of parochial overseers and parish priests; and so all of these answers were unhesitating and certain. All such questions as, for instance, of the cause of failure of crops, of the adherence of certain tribes to their ancient beliefs, etc.—questions which, but for the convenient intervention of the official machine, are not, and cannot be solved for ages—received full, unhesitating solution. And this solution was in favor of Alexey Alexandrovitch’s contention. But Stremov, who had felt stung to the quick at the last sitting, had, on the reception of the commission’s report, resorted to tactics which Alexey Alexandrovitch had not anticipated. Stremov, carrying with him several members, went over to Alexey Alexandrovitch’s side, and not contenting himself with warmly defending the measure proposed by Karenin, proposed other more extreme measures in the same direction. These measures, still further exaggerated in opposition to what was Alexey Alexandrovitch’s fundamental idea, were passed by the commission, and then the aim of Stremov’s tactics became apparent. Carried to an extreme, the measures seemed at once to be so absurd that the highest authorities, and public opinion, and intellectual ladies, and the newspapers, all at the same time fell foul of them, expressing their indignation both with the measures and their nominal father, Alexey Alexandrovitch. Stremov drew back, affecting to have blindly followed Karenin, and to be astounded and distressed at what had been done. This meant the defeat of Alexey Alexandrovitch. But in spite of failing health, in spite of his domestic griefs, he did not give in. There was a split in the commission. Some members, with Stremov at their head, justified their mistake on the ground that they had put faith in the commission of revision, instituted by Alexey Alexandrovitch, and maintained that the report of the commission was rubbish, and simply so much waste paper. Alexey Alexandrovitch, with a following of those who saw the danger of so revolutionary an attitude to official documents, persisted in upholding the statements obtained by the revising commission. In consequence of this, in the higher spheres, and even in society, all was chaos, and although everyone was interested, no one could tell whether the native tribes really were becoming impoverished and ruined, or whether they were in a flourishing condition.
You cannot read such a passage and not think of the dangerously ineffectual absurdity of our own contemporary politics. Two people who in all likelihood have every reason to agree getting locked up in a personal contest of wills due to hurt feelings in a way that puts any beneficial outcome in danger. Those poor native tribes! Will they ever get what they need? And the way that the debate spills over into the realm of the social. How it matters not what is said and done within the halls of government but the way it plays out in public perception. The intellectual ladies and newspapers! I mean! How often have we seen that play out on Twitter, in The Cut, and elsewhere.
It could be said that it’s very boring to read about socialism or to read people arguing about ideas in fiction. That what one wants is the juice of conflict between Anna and Karenin, between Vronsky and Levin over Kitty, between Stiva and Dolly, or between Vronksy and Karenin. To be sure, the moment when Anna almost dies in childbirth and Karenin calls for Vronsky to be at her side is one of the most beautiful moments in the novel. Because there, the three principal parties in the affair are brought together. We think we know what will happen. An argument! Hurt feelings! Brutal violence! But instead, what happens is love. Karenin’s love and fear for Anna’s life. His desire for her to be comfortable, safe. This love for Anna brings Karenin to a place where he forgives her and Vronsky. He makes up his mind that he will find a way to live with what Anna has done. He will demand that she not see Vronsky. And Vronsky, upon witnessing this act of generosity, is driven to harm himself. And Anna is made miserable because she thinks Karenin is acting out of disinterest instead of love. Karenin’s big fault is that he cannot demonstrate his love. He cannot demonstrate his feeling in a way that is legible to Anna. So she considers him cold and unloving. Meanwhile, Karenin is heartsick and lonely in his marriage. He can’t understand why she doesn’t see how much passion he has. It’s all terribly heartbreaking to witness.
Yet, I think this only works because we so deeply inhabit the material reality of the characters. Their concerns, the urgencies of their lives, their obsessions, are all real to us because Tolstoy treats us to the long arguments about politics and land usage. Because we see them rib each other and argue and laugh and play and think deeply about the world and their place in it. His characters have whole inner and intellectual and spiritual lives, and all of which plays out in these glorious passages.
“Show, don’t tell” is not merely about implication and subtext, or about action. “Show, don’t tell” at its core, I believe, is about generating an inner life for the story. Often, we consider this telling. Long stretches of exposition or interiority. What I called the underdark in a previous newsletter. That Freudian realm of the narrative, where the spiritual concerns of the story churn and roil and shape what happens on the narrative surface. I think it’s crucial to the power of Tolstoy, to any great novel.
Over the years I that I have edited and taught creative writing, the point of feedback I come to again and again is “what of the material reality of these characters?” It’s often neglected in pursuit of “narrative” without fully appreciating that the material reality of a character’s life is what gives a narrative is real, human stakes. We believe in the depth of Anna’s despair, her feeling that her fate is intractable, because Tolstoy has demonstrated the limits and bounds of the world in which she seeks to live and act. We understand that Karenin’s life as a politician has come to an end because we understand the petty intrigues at play, and the cost of Anna’s affair. We understand Levin’s spiritual anxiety because we know how crucial faith is not just to him but to the world in which he seeks to participate. The stakes of the novel feel urgent to the characters and therefore to us because we understand the world in which the characters must live. The world puts pressure on these characters and their choices. There are consequences. If characters are to reveal themselves through their actions, those actions must leave some impression on the surrounding world and that world must respond accordingly. And the world of a novel can only be brought to life through careful, meticulous attention to its material reality. In other words, the spiritual and the material must operate in concert.
This is the organizing principle of the social novel. Also, the organizing principle of negro spirituals, as discussed in “The Double Meanings of Spirituals” by Charshee Charlotte Lawrence-McIntyre:
Slave music represented the ultimate distillation of all slave experiences. Some were protest songs; others, songs of adaptation. All sought to help the slave transcend the inhuman condition of slavery. Most important, however, slaves used their music as a medium of communication. They looked at this world clearly and left us documentation, through their songs, as to how they viewed life.
When people say “I liked it except the mowing” or the “whaling,” they are essentially rejecting the material reality of the novel, and by putting their emphasis on, I suppose, the “drama” and the “interpersonal” as though those parts of the novel exist in some higher, better realm, they are essentially performing the kind of behavior described by Lawrence-McIntyre in the same article:
The primary propositions in the spirituals are that slaves desired freedom and escape from bondage; judgment and punishment for their enslavers; redemption and salvation for themselves. This interpretation served for both master and slave. However, the masters' interpretation placed the setting for the realization of these desires in an inverse relationship to the slaves' interpretation. In other words, the slaves wished for freedom here on earth, but the master accepted only the idea of freedom for the slaves in an "otherworld" heaven.
The slave songs presented a world in which the positives on earth might be the masters', but in terms of Heaven, the God who resided there would reverse conditions. Someday, the slaves would enjoy the positives, and the masters, perhaps the negatives. For Blacks, spirituals transmitted messages about changing conditions here on earth. For masters, these same songs were invocations to heaven in hopes for better conditions in the afterlife. In the spirituals one hears the determination of a people to be in a society that denied their existence[…]
In this way, maybe we can consider negro spirituals to be a kind of social novel. And that’s the kind of social novel I want to write. A distinctively black expression of spiritual longing for transcendence. But not black in the idiomatic, externally obvious ways we’ve come to confuse for actual blackness. I mean, so deeply, centrally black that there is no need to gesture at obvious markers of blackness. I want to write a social novel that opens onto the world from my own particular black point of view. As Lawrence-McIntyre puts it: “In the spirituals one hears the determination of a people to be in a society that denied their existence.”