Books: September-October 2006

October 1, 2006

 

The Interpreter By Alice Kaplan

The Interpreter
By Alice Kaplan. Free Press, 2005.
240 pages. $25.

In November 1944, in the French village of Plumaudan, the U.S. Army hanged Private James Hendricks for murder and attempted rape—crimes the twenty-one-year-old certainly seemed guilty of. According to Hendricks' own confession and testimony from his commanding officer, the private, drunk one August night and vowing, "I'm going to get some," pounded on the door of a farm family. Receiving no response, he turned violent, twice firing his M-1 rifle through the wood door, killing one Victor Bignon. Forcing his entry, the soldier then exposed himself to the farmer's wife, Noèmie, and tried unsuccessfully to assault her.

These horrific crimes occurred almost simultaneously with the issue of a memo from General George S. Patton, expressing "grave concern" over the increase in violence against French civilians by (largely black) service troops. So perhaps it seems justifiable that Hendricks' military tribunal swiftly condemned the African-American private to death.

Yet nothing is that simple. When Alice Kaplan, Lehrman Professor of Romance Studies and professor of literature and history at Duke, dug into the case for her intriguing book, The Interpreter, what struck her was the larger picture of life—and, ultimately for Hendricks, death—in the "Jim Crow" Army of that time.

The particular racial division Kaplan explored was even scarier: "In France, 130 of the 180 men charged with rape were African Americans," she writes, citing a postwar report.

"Seventy men were executed for capital crimes in the European Theater of Operations between 1943 and 1946. Fifty-five of them of them were African Americans. That's 79 percent in an Army that was only 8.5 percent" black.

She notes that that report's only comment on these statistics was its paternalistic advice that recruiters check "the standard of intelligence and morality among Negro Americans" considering military duty. The report never once commented on the role segregation played in creating this disparity.

To plumb that segregation, Kaplan needed a human touch. And this she found in the now-deceased Louis Guilloux, the "interpreter" of the book's title. Guilloux was hired by the Army VII Corps' Judge Advocate's Office overseeing Hendricks' and other soldiers' courts-martial.

But Guilloux wasn't just any Frenchman with a flair for English. In 1935 his epic novel, Le Sang noir, about the effects of World War I on his native Brittany, had nearly the impact on France that All Quiet on the Western Front had on Germany.

A leading intellectual, Guilloux moved in the same circles as André Gide and Albert Camus. He was also an outright leftist who assisted the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation—and lived to tell about it.

One reason for Guilloux's longevity may have been his insight into the human condition—and the damage it can cause. After taking up interpreting duties at GIs' trials, the writer observed that "the guilty were always black, so much so that even the stupidest of men would have ended up asking himself how it was possible that there be so much crime on one side, and so much virtue on the other." Guilloux witnessed six black GIs condemned to life in prison for rape and two more sentenced to hang for rape and murder.

His final trial, however, focused on a white officer who also committed murder, but walked free—even dining that night with members of the tribunal that had judged him. Guilloux's rage simmered for thirty-two years, until he published his thinly veiled fictional OK, Joe. The French novel with the ultra-American title compares Hendricks' case with that of white defendant George Whittington.

Whittington, then thirty-two and highly decorated for his D-Day bravery, was tried for killing a naturalized French paratrooper named Francis Moraud, whose German accent led Whittington to mistake him for a spy. After a night of hard drinking, Whittington cornered Moraud and shot him.

Kaplan lays out these details like the writer of a mystery thriller—a very readable thriller—as she explores the strange connections between Hendricks' and Whittington's trials. One was the overlap of several officers at the trials, including Brooklyn-born lawyer Joseph Greene, who proved as able a prosecutor of Hendricks as he was an able defense attorney for Whittington.

Then there were the theatrics of Whittington, who testified in his own defense; in contrast, Hendricks, a farm kid, stayed mute at his hearing. Such twists lead Kaplan to conclude that "the real culprit and difference between the trials was the unfairness of a system that could assign such different fates to two trigger-happy, drunken soldiers. The Army hadn't tried Whittington so much as it had protected him."

The Intepreter's epilogue drives home this division. Kaplan recounts her journey to Macon, North Carolina, to interview Hendricks' surviving relatives. In 1944 they were informed only that James was executed for "willful misconduct," which they took to mean "sassing off" a white officer. Kaplan also traveled to France to interview a Bignon daughter and visit "Plot E," near Paris, the "anti-memorial" graveyard for the "dishonorable dead." Of that cemetery's ninety-six executed men, eighty were black, two were Hispanic, and one was Navajo.

Is it possible, as Guilloux pondered, that there was so much virtue on one (racial) side, and so much guilt on the other? It is not. And while we as a nation struggle with the ambiguities of another war and other charges of soldiers raping and murdering civilians, The Interpreter is a chilling reminder from 1944 France that the "liberation" of a country is often anything but.


The Hummingbird Cabinet:  A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors

The Hummingbird Cabinet:
A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors
By Judith Pascoe '82. Cornell University Press, 2006. 222 pages. $35.00.

Writing on collecting and museums has exploded in an era that seeks to revisit cultural commonplaces from interdisciplinary perspectives, and with good reason. Two centuries ago, modern museums were created from a nexus of political, economic, aesthetic, historical, and scientific collecting practices that cannot be neatly disentangled, even as they shape individual disciplines. Lately, literary scholars have joined their colleagues in art history, history, and anthropology in using collecting to generate new insights into culture and identity. Focusing on Britain around 1800, Judith Pascoe's The Hummingbird Cabinet unravels familiar perceptions of the Romantic era, putting the stories of poets, scientists, showmen, a Queen, and the objects they loved into a mix that rethinks literature and collecting alike.

One of Pascoe's most urgent tasks is to demonstrate just how much the story of modern poetry and fiction intertwines with collecting. Her account begins when a cultural divide was being established between the lofty domain of imaginative literature and the dusty vaults of collected artifacts, and she seeks to show that each realm interpenetrated the other. Around 1800, British society was developing a modern consumer culture, with cycles of obsolescence and fashionable novelty beginning to disrupt culture.

According to Pascoe, the Romantics responded to burgeoning modernity in one of two ways: "At the same moment when romantic poets sought to escape the material realities of the actual world through a poetry that celebrated the transcendent power of the imagination, their contemporaries gathered, assembled, catalogued, and fictionalized the physical detritus of history." Driven by similar fears and longings, poets and collectors overlapped in how they fashioned identities. Despite denouncing the "grasping acquisitiveness" represented by the Elgin Marbles, Byron wrote some of his best poetry while collecting mementos of Napoleon's military conquests and literary souvenirs.

Romantic collectors, meanwhile, emphasized their enterprises' transcendence by invoking Romantic verse and by attaching themselves to the relics of poets' lives, such as Keats' hair and Shelley's guitar. This obsession with poetry's material remains, Pascoe shows, helped to cement an image of the Romantics "as spiritual emissaries of a less materialistic age." The divide between the literary imagination and the collector's physical world was established by narratives that collectors, following the poets' characterizations of their own transcendence, wove around the objects the poets left behind.

Pascoe manifests palpable sympathy for collectors and their treasures. But while cataloguing a diverse array of objects, ranging from hummingbirds, fossils, and hair, to theatrical prints, Napoleon's carriage, and Egyptian tomb artifacts, Pascoe also recovers the lost narratives her collectors told using objects. Her model collector is Walter Benjamin, a twentieth-century German scholar and theorist whose own passions for collecting and literature produced a nuanced way of thinking about the interplay of collecting, storytelling, and memory. Benjamin's understanding of collecting diverged from that of Freudian theorists such as Susan Stewart or Jean Baudrillard. Unlike Baudrillard, who regarded collecting as a "tempered mode of sexual perversion"—Stewart is less reductive—Benjamin insists that the intimacy of the collector's relationship to his or her objects provides the key to understanding collecting's myriad effects on culture and identity, particularly how the collector renews and refigures culture through reverent forms of possession and storytelling.

But while Benjaminian thinking is consonant with her accounts, he is not the presence he could be in Pascoe's book. Because she cites him only in the opening and concluding paragraphs, treatments of Stewart and Baudrillard in the book's core make their thinking seem more valuable to her. Yet more than fleeting mention of Benjamin's key writings on collecting could have helped readers more readily grasp, for instance, why the collecting of writing and the collecting of artifacts go hand in hand, an issue with which the chapter on the fossil collector Mary Anning seems to struggle. Moreover, Benjamin's beautiful formulations on collecting—especially in his essay "While Unpacking My Library"—would have complemented Pascoe's gift for producing theoretically informed writing that eschews opacity.

Pascoe's book benefits from focusing on personal collecting; and the stories she tells are important also because she discards traditional assumptions by showing that Romantic women also collected extensively. Her text, however, sometimes remains so riveted on the British Romantics that it ignores to what extent these selected individuals acted in the context of modern museum formation. After the French Revolution, the public museum was predicated on rhetoric of democratizing knowledge and forming national identity. This rhetoric was fully exploited by Napoleon. Once remade to hold Europe's looted art, his Louvre attracted Europeans' fascination, scorn, and envy.

But while an entire chapter discusses the desires attached to the public display of Napoleon's carriage in Britain, scant consideration is given to how much this practice itself owes to Napoleonic cultural policy, or to how the display of the carriage affected British national identity. Linkages between national identity, conquest, and public display could have likewise informed discussions of the scramble for ancient artifacts. Inclusion of existing scholarship would have made this fascinating book even more remarkable by building bridges from continental developments to British practices, breaking down the insularity of both.