Plucking Orchids With Ice Tongs

Sherwood Anderson

I picked up a novel called Poor White by Sherwood Anderson, who was a buddy of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and John Steinbeck and lots of other literary luminaries including my grandmother’s cousin Edmund Wilson. It’s a long boring kind of weird book that I had to battle my way through because every time I picked it up I wound up falling asleep.

It has its points of interest, though. It’s about the America’s transformation from a farm economy of small towns to an industrial economy of big cities. The main character — can’t really call him a hero — is a Southerner from Mudcat Landing, Missouri:

“Practically all the people of Hugh’s home town were of Southern origin.  Living originally in a land where all physical labor was performed by slaves, they had come to have a deep aversion to physical labor. In the South their fathers, having no money to buy slaves of their own and being unwilling to compete with slave labor, had tried to live without labor.

For the most part they lived in the mountains and the hill country of Kentucky and Tennessee, on land too poor and unproductive to be thought worth cultivating by their rich slave-owning neighbors.

Their food was meager and of an enervating sameness and their bodies [were] degenerate. Children grew up long and gaunt and yellow like badly nourished plants. Vague indefinite hungers took hold of them and they gave themselves over to dreams.

The more energetic among them, sensing dimly the unfairness of their position in life, became vicious and dangerous. Feuds started among them and they killed each other to express their hatred of life.”

To make a very long story short, Hugh winds up moving to Ohio and becoming an inventor.

This book is also notable because, back in 1920, it introduced a lesbian character, Kate Chanceller, “who wore skirts and had the body of a woman [but] was in her nature a man.”

Clara Butterworth,  who later marries Hugh, meets Kate when she goes away to college. The two are walking along when two men ask if they can walk with them. One of the men says it’s a fine night, and Kate gives them what for:

 “Well you wanted to talk with us: what for? We were walking and talking of women and what they were to do with their lives. We were expressing opinions, you see. I don’t say either of us had said anything that was very wise, but we were having a good time and trying to learn something from each other.

“You interrupted our talk and wanted to walk with us: what for? You wanted to be in our company: now tell us what you’ve got to contribute. You can’t just come and walk with us like dumb things. What have you got to offer that you think will make it worth while for us to break up our conversation with each other and spend the time talking to you?”

One of the men makes a sign to the the other and says, “Come on, let’s get out of here. We’re wasting our time. It’s a cold trail. They’re a couple of highbrows.”

Kate Chanceller is the most interesting character in the book, but she just kind of appears and disappears. I wanted to hear more of her.

“Men hate such women as myself,” she says. “They can’t use us, they think. What fools! They should watch and study us. Being part woman, we know how to approach women. We are not blundering and crude. Men want a certain thing from you. It is delicate and easy to kill. Love is the most sensitive thing in the world. It’s like an orchid. Men try to pluck orchids with ice tongs, the fools.”