Book Review: “The Wages” — A Powerful Folk Tale About Slavery

By Lucas Spiro

We need stories like The Wages to expose the hypocrisy and incoherence of the institutions that we are supposed to believe are pillars of justice.

The Wages by Fanny Howe. Pressed Wafer Press, 304 pages, $15.

It might be strange to write about a book, right after black history month, that was originally published with the title The White Slave. There would be good reason to suspect that a book about a white slave might be a response to rising tides of white victimhood washing up in certain sectors of online culture, academia, and mainstream political discourse. Perhaps this is a Proud Boy manifesto equating the experience of Irish immigrants in America to the institution of slavery. But Fanny Howe’s The White Slave, originally published in 1980 and reprinted in 2018 as The Wages, is not that kind of book. It is a fictionalized version of the true story of Peter McCutcheon, who was born out of wedlock to a white woman and a visiting Scotch-Irishman. He was immediately given, unbeknownst to his mother, to a black slave woman — who is sent away to another farm to cover up the scandal.

This is a difficult review to write, especially in light of the recent revelations that Virginia Democrats participated in racist blackface practices, when memories of Jim Crow are evoked by mass incarceration and police shootings of unarmed people of color, and the horror of Nazi/white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Some critics might argue that this is not the right time to draw attention to the story of “a bone white slave.” The charge that this book hijacks the black experience in America is valid. But McCutcheon, in history and in Howe’s novel, does not choose to put on an identity. As an unfree person, he is forced into the prison of servitude. The Wages explores why America upholds immoral, illogical institutions — because confronting that sin would be too great a threat to those who maintain power through the profitable preservation of an entrenched system.

The literature about mixed-race or light skinned black people is an established tradition. William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter is the first novel published by an African American. The story focuses on fictional mixed race daughters of Thomas Jefferson, who we know had children by the slave Sally Hemmings, who was herself perhaps only one-quarter black. Laws like partus sequitur ventrem ensured that Hemmings’s children would be born in bondage, no matter who their father was, or how “white” they were. ‘Passing’ comes up in the works of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, William Faulkner, Chester Himes, and Langston Hughes. Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain is a contemporary example. The genre has been inspired by America’s obsession with race and identity, a fetish for calculations of blood, racial, or ethnic percentages. A primary conflict explored in such works, including The Wages, is the rejection or acceptance of ‘passing’ as a mode of being, making them stories of becoming.

The Walt Whitman epigraph at the beginning of the Howe’s novel sets up this conflict:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part
Of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

Peter is the rejected child of a planter’s daughter, and he is forced into the care of Betty, one of the planter’s slaves. He is thrust into her life of violence and degradation. John Howard, Betty’s master, rapes and impregnates her, and then murders her newborn child before abandoning his own grandson to be raised a slave. Mrs. Howard, John Howard’s wife, advises Betty to “Call him your own… Name him whatever you want. Make up a story. He’s yours now, your son, and will be put to work as a slave, just like you. He was born in disgrace and will live out his fate.” Peter spends his youth uncertain about his origins, believing “he came from nowhere.” He is deeply disturbed  by “his own potential for violence,”  but he sees that it is a reaction to the hard conditions of his life.

Howe contrasts Peter’s harsh reality with touching scenes of domestic life in the slave quarters on plantations, elevating her characters through  simple prose, their humanity standing as defiance to the causal brutality as well as the systematic degradation of their rights. On the plantation, Peter’s whiteness sets him apart. Off the plantation, Peter’s experience in bondage makes him afraid of other white people — after all, he has been raised as “black.” On a trip into town he meets a stranger heading west who finds his meekness odd but, assuming he is just a poor white kid (which he is), the stranger invites him to join up with his wagon train and “Get some experience out in the Territory” as a “regular boy.” Of course, Peter is and isn’t a regular boy. He wishes to escape, but he is bound by a deep attachment to his family and friends — he can’t bear to leave them behind just because he of his skin color.

In Howe’s note to the reprint, she admits to being “embarrassed by the dated language” and admits that she feels “uneasy with the word ‘slave’ and by the title. She claims to have “re-translated [her] own first version of the story.” Unfortunately, some of Howe’s language does not match the severity of the novel’s subject. Perhaps this was symptomatic of a time in her career when she was less confidant (as I once heard her talk about at a public event) in her ability to strike the right balance between style and plot. On the one hand, the plot compels because its stakes are so high, much as in Colson Whitehead’s lauded novel Underground Railroad.

However, The Wages contains more than a few bizarre narrative interjections that come off as juvenile. For example, after a particularly terrifying scene, Peter’s “own identity seemed to fall away from him there in the darkness; he clutched wildly at the thought of his mother; but then that thought, too, failed him as he wondered if Betty was in fact his mother. Maybe not!” Maybe not? Why end the passage this way? The exclamation mark indicates exasperation, but it isn’t emotionally convincing. I’m not sure we learn anything new about Peter’s grief that we haven’t already learned. Exclamations like the above are peppered throughout the book.

The Wages hybrid form might provide some answers to the awkward language. One has to take into account the fact that the “book is the work of many hands over time.” It’s mix of fiction and nonfiction, writes Howe, makes the novel unusual in terms of “slave narratives,” which is not actually true (think of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano). This mix of fact and fiction raises intriguing avenues of investigation regarding the genre, raising important questions about the ethics and aesthetics of reworking first-hand accounts produced by slaves and their descendants.. Even for an exceptional writer such as Howe, the material sometimes gets away from her.

In her defense, Howe claims that The Wages is an attempt to uncover painful family secrets as well as tell a compelling story. The narrative has “the quality of a folk tale.” I appreciate this perspective because a folk tale — because of its popularist nature — can have far-reaching implications for larger social structures. Looked at from this angle, The Wages is a powerful indictment of our national history and the institutions we have chosen to defend through violence, war, imperialism, and the ballot box. Essentially, it amounts to a powerful condemnation of the devastation those choices have wrought on so many. We need stories like this, especially at a time when people argue that preserving bipartisan political discourse is more valuable than opposing bipartisan support for empire and regime change in poor countries, regardless of the resulting humanitarian disaster. We need stories like The Wages to expose the hypocrisy and incoherence of the institutions that we are supposed to believe are pillars of justice.

Lucas Spiro is a writer living outside Boston. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin and his fiction has appeared in the Watermark. Generally, he despairs. Occasionally, he is joyous.

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