Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thicker than Water

Vera Caspary is almost completely forgotten today, but in her day she was something of a literary pioneer. The White Girl (1929), her first book, was one of the earliest American novels about “passing.” Her play One Beautiful Evening, rewritten as Blind Mice with Winifred Lenihan in 1930, was described by the press as “manless”: its cast was composed exclusively by women. Her story “Suburbs,” filmed in 1932 as The Night of June 13th, unmasked the quiet desperation of suburban lives thirty years before Richard Yates got around to it. An unapologetic Leftist, she was one of the few American writers to speak out publicly on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys. In Laura, her best-known book, a 1942 mystery in which the detective falls for a crime victim, filmed by Otto Preminger two years later, she may have invented the genre of the psycho thriller.

Caspary’s most ambitious and unusual project was Thicker than Water (1932), a 425-page chronicle of a Sephardic Jewish family living in Chicago. Although I have been unable to confirm my hunch, chances are that Caspary based the novel on her own family. The daughter of a buyer for a Chicago department store, she was born in November 1899 into a “mixed marriage.” Her father’s father was a German Jew, but her mother’s father was a Sephardi whose family had settled in Amsterdam after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. In the novel, a suitor is dismissed with a single scornful phrase: “But he’s a German.” And when a Sephardic child marries “a Jew of humbler stock,” he is “disowned by his parents, mourned as if he were dead.” The family jealously guards “the Portugese purity” of their blood:

They could trace their history back to those days when their ancestors were rich and powerful, patrons of art, friends of dukes and intimates of princes, holders of vast properties, vintners of fine wines, builders of great castles, and always learned scholars. When, in 1499, they had been forced to flee their home, they had settled in Holland with a group of refugees, as self-conscious and aloof in their poverty as they had been in the days of their grandeur. The refugees had again become prosperous, although they were never granted the privileges of citizens in this land, and they had intermarried among themselves as if they had been the few proud members of a dwindling royalty.By the time the novel opens in 1885, the family fortune has disappeared, and all that remains is the family pride and the family traits—a thin parrot nose, sunken cheeks, and “inkily shadowed eyes.”

Rosalia Piera is the main character. Well-aware that the family traits have prevented her from being a beauty, she brags about being plain and compensates with a hypercritical biting mind. The first female Jewish intellectual in American literature, Rosalia detests the local Canaan Literary Society—its chatty Oprah Book Club-like atmosphere has nothing to do with the mental life—and yet she attends its meetings, hoping secretly to meet “the tall, fine suitor of Spanish and Portugese blood, with whom she had carried on so many phantom conversations.” Instead, her heart is captured when, intending to embarrass a dandy from a rich German Jewish family who had read a sentimental poem in praise of her large-breasted cousin at an earlier meeting, she is lacerated by pity for him. She “emerge[s] from a dark place where she had been hidden for years.” Within a year she and Adolph Reisinger are married. Thus begins the family whose history Caspary chronicles through three generations.

Caspary has been enrolled among the radical novelists, but in Thicker than Water she raises no placards. Perhaps anti-capitalist pluck emboldens her portraits of the Jewish businessmen who log long hours, earning money and talking about it endlessly and coming home too exhausted to attend to their wives, but far more noticeable is her knowledge of the millinery and department-store trades, which she might well have acquired from her father. The novel spans the rise and fall of the family’s silk-jobbing business—and its eventual sale—while Rosalia’s brother Saul leaves the firm to become a partner in a West Side department store and a relative by marriage leaves to join a brokerage. The third generation abandons business altogether for art, romance, or philanthropy.

Throughout it all, Caspary’s focus remains on the branching and leafing family—its marriages, homes, children—and the changing notions of status. Book One, “Prejudices,” comes to a head when a cousin marries a sharp-eyed salesman named Smith, who turns out to be a Polish Jew originally named Slivowski. “He’s a kike,” says Rosalia’s husband Adolph. “You can always depend upon them to take advantage of a situation.” Caspary elaborates:Such an attitude was not unusual. No doubt most of the good stolid German-Jewish merchants . . . said the same thing about kikes. . . . With the exodus of Jews from Russia and Polish Russia in the two decades since a bomb had been hurled at Alexander II, bitter prejudice had risen among American Jews against their Russian co-religionists. This bitterness did not ferment so rapidly in the Middle West as in the Eastern cities where the greatest number of immigrants sttled. But gradually as they came to Chicago, as the section around Maxwell Street grew crowded with uncouth, unclean strangers, speaking a guttural jargon, the old solid citizens felt their security threatened, their place in the community, the respect of their Gentile neighbors, their social position and their prosperity.In time, though, Rosalia’s practical-minded advice carries the day: “Perhaps you’re right,” she tells her husband. “Only it was that very thing, that ruthlessness and that quickness at seeing an advantage that made him so valuable to you.” The family “kike” stays in the business, and because of him, the business prospers.

Book Two, “Possessions,” details the family’s prosperity. Through marriage, the Pieras ally themselves to an even more prominent Chicago Jewish family—the descendants of a peddler. Caspary’s moral seems to be that, in America, money creates caste. “Descendant of a family who could trace its adventures from the fifteenth century,” Rosalia is amused that the “sons of meat packers, wheat farmers and steel puddlers had become the nobility of the Western world.” But it might just as easily be said that business knocks down the barriers of prejudice in its ruthless demand for the best talent and the most customers. Caspary does not show that the pursuit of financial success leads to cruelty and unhappiness, if that is what she is trying to do. The lives of the third generation are largely empty, and they are also strangers to Jewish tradition, badly educated, and concerned with little beyond pleasure. If capitalism is to blame, you couldn’t prove it by Thicker than Water.

The family chronicle is a native form of Jewish narrative. In the book of Genesis, the first family chronicle in Jewish literature, Abraham receives three promises from God, but they are not fulfilled in his lifetime. Since then the Jews have understood that several generations may be required for a promise to work its way through the system. Early on, Rosalia reflects that “no one living could remember the day when there had been anything but intelligence and good blood in the dark Piera family,” but by the conclusion of the novel, the family has intermarried, acquired land and valuable possessions, and given birth to many grandchildren. The blood may have thinned, but it is still Thicker than Water.


R/T said...

Thank you for the interesting background on Vera Caspary and THICKER THAN WATER. Now, because I very much respect your literary tastes and judgment, I have one more author and at least one more novel to add to my ever-growing list of "must read" books.

D. G. Myers said...

Good luck finding a copy!

R/T said...

My early searches through local libraries and all the state's university libraries confirms your assertion that I will need luck finding a copy.

Ah, well, the used bookstores in the area often contain treasures and surprises, so those shelves will be the next targets.

In any event, I still have plenty to keep me quite busy. The treasure quest, though, is always stimulating. So, I will not lose hope.

Jonathan said...

First come, first served.