Southern Gothic by Harry Crews Alientates
Lummy, the African-American helper of Joe Lon, is the only character with an internal monologue to which the reader can understand and develop sympathy.
Few other characters can claim to have earned such a position. A reader may understand in an abstract, psychological sense, the self-destructive motives Joe Lon or his father, but that is not the same thing as feeling sympathy. Victor, also, seems to operate on a different mental plateau, and his snake-handling and cryptic language mark him as a shamanistic figure who is outside the bounds of normal society. As such, he too is removed from the experiences of most readers.
One can pity Lottie Mae and Beeder, but since they are abused or crazed, it is difficult if not impossible for the typical reader to put his or herself in their position. Elfie and Enrique are self-effacing leaving them with not much of a personality with which to be sympathetic. As with Lottie Mae and Beeder, the reader may feel badly for them, but that is qualitatively different from being able to see one’s self in the position of these characters. Feeling for the position these characters find themselves in is not the same as knowing them as individuals.
It may be Crew’s intention to force the reader into identifying the most with a poor, African-American, scarcely educated, blue-collar worker thereby forcing the reader to affirm the humanity of what has traditionally been the most oppressed and degraded type of character. In the novel African-Americans are rarely referred to as human beings or treated with anything resembling dignity. Joe Lon considers it a mark of shame he has to cater to African-Americans—that his livelihood hinges upon them.
Worlds Within the American South
Lummy intuitively understands the dichotomy of his role as evidenced when Crew’s writes, “His job was to be a nigger .... That’s the way it had to be as long as he was around a white man. As soon as he was not around a white man, he quit being a nigger and thought about many, many things that he did not ordinarily think about” (149). A whole world opens to the reader, briefly. It is a world that goes unnoticed by all the other white characters. It is a world that could teach characters like Joe Lon about living a life that has no hope of improvement. Lummy as a reasonable person forced into a particular role because of his race.
Lummy the Everyman
All that being said, Lummy, with his simple pleasures and easy-going lifestyle, likely resembles a great many Crews’s readers. It is a rare and difficult task to be the Good Samaritan, and that is why it is such a great a virtue. The other characters in the novel are all anomalies. Lummy, though, is more of an everyman, and his acceptance and willingness to endure the circumstances of his life without resorting to extreme behavior mirrors that of the readers’.
Crews, Harry. A Feast of Snakes. New York: Atheneum, 1976.
© 2010 Seth Tomko