The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
So I glanced again at the young man at work, a proper-looking candidate for the armed services, and realized the plain, homely fact: he was not preparing a possible shelter, something to cower under trembling; he was restoring a beautiful surface to put his books and papers on, to serve his plates from, to hold his cocktail tray and his lamp. He was full of the deep, right, instinctive, human belief that he and the table were going to be around together for a long time. Even if he is off to the army next week, it will be there when he gets back. At the very least, he is doing something he feels is worth doing now, and that is no small thing.
At once the difficulty, and the hope, of our special time in this world of Western Europe and America is that we have been brought up for many generations in the belief, however tacit, that all humanity was almost unanimously engaged in going forward, naturally to better things and to higher reaches. Since the eighteenth century at least when the Encyclopedists seized upon the Platonic theory that the highest pleasure of mankind was pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, progress, in precisely the sense of perpetual, gradual amelioration of the hard human lot, has been taught popularly not just as theory of possibility but as an article of faith and the groundwork of a whole political doctrine. Mr. Toynbee has even simplified this view for us with picture diagrams of various sections of humanity, each in its own cycle rising to its own height, struggling beautifully on from craggy level to level, but always upward. Whole peoples are arrested at certain points, and perish there, but others go on. There is also the school of thought, Oriental and very ancient, which gives to life the spiral shape, and the spiral moves by nature upward. Even adherents of the circular or recurring-cycle school, also ancient and honorable, somehow do finally allow that the circle is a thread that spins itself out one layer above another, so that even though it is perpetually at every moment passing over a place it has been before, yet by its own width it will have risen just so much higher.
These are admirable attempts to get a little meaning and order into our view of our destiny, in that same spirit which moves the artist to labor with his little handful of chaos, bringing it to coherency within a frame; but on the visible evidence we must admit that in human nature the spirit of contradiction more than holds its own. Mankind has always built a little more than he has hitherto been able or willing to destroy; got more children than he has been able to kill; invented more laws and customs than he had any intention of observing; founded more religions than he was able to practice or even to believe in; made in general many more promises than he could keep; and has been known more than once to commit suicide through mere fear of death. Now in our time, in his pride to explore his universe to its unimaginable limits and to exceed his possible powers, he has at last produced an embarrassing series of engines too powerful for their containers and too tricky for their mechanicians; millions of labor-saving gadgets which can be rendered totally useless by the mere failure of the public power plants, and has reduced himself to such helplessness that a dozen or less of the enemy could disable a whole city by throwing a few switches. This paradoxical creature has committed all these extravagances and created all these dangers and sufferings in a quest—we are told—for peace and security.
How much of this are we to believe, when with the pride of Lucifer, the recklessness of Icarus, the boldness of Prometheus and the intellectual curiosity of Adam and Eve (yes, intellectual; the serpent promised them wisdom if. . .) man has obviously outreached himself, to the point where he cannot understand his own science or control his own inventions. Indeed he has become as the gods, who have over and over again suffered defeat and downfall at the hands of their creatures. Having devised the most exquisite and instantaneous means of communication to all corners of the earth, for years upon years friends were unable even to get a postcard message to each other across national frontiers.* The newspapers assure us that from the kitchen tap there flows a chemical, cheap and available, to make a bomb more disturbing to the imagination even than the one we so appallingly have; yet no machine has been invented to purify that water so that it will not spoil even the best tea or coffee. Or at any rate, it is not in use. We are the proud possessors of rocket bombs that go higher and farther and faster than any ever before, and there is some talk of a rocket ship shortly to take off for the moon. (My plan is to stow away.) We may indeed reach the moon some day, and I dare predict that will happen before we have devised a decent system of city garbage disposal.
This lunatic atom bomb has succeeded in rousing the people of all nations to the highest point of unanimous moral dudgeon; great numbers of persons are frightened who never really had much cause to be frightened before. This world has always been a desperately dangerous place to live for the greater part of the earth’s inhabitants; it was, however reluctantly, endured as the natural state of affairs. Yet the invention of every new weapon of war has always been greeted with horror and righteous indignation, especially by those who failed to invent it, or who were threatened with it first. . . bows and arrows, stone cannon balls, gunpowder, flintlocks, pistols, the dumdum bullet, the Maxim silencer, the machine gun, poison gas, armored tanks, and on and on to the grand climax—if it should prove to be—of the experiment on Hiroshima. Nagasaki was bombed too, remember? Or were we already growing accustomed to the idea? And as for Hiroshima, surely it could not have been the notion of sudden death of others that shocked us? How could it be, when in two great wars within one generation we have become familiar with millions of shocking deaths, by sudden violence of most cruel devices, and by agonies prolonged for years in prisons and hospitals and concentration camps. We take with apparent calmness the news of the deaths of millions by flood, famine, plague—no, all the frontiers of danger are down now, no one is safe, no one, and that, alas, really means all of us. It is our own deaths we fear, and so let’s out with it and give up our fine debauch of moralistic frenzy over Hiroshima. I fail entirely to see why it is more criminal to kill a few thousand persons in one instant than it is to kill the same number slowly over a given stretch of time. If I have a choice, I’d as lief be killed by an atom bomb as by a hand grenade or a flame thrower. If dropping the atom bomb is an immoral act, then the making of it was too; and writing of the formula was a crime, since those who wrote it must have known what such a contrivance was good for. So, morally speaking, the bomb is only a magnified hand grenade, and the crime, if crime it is, is still murder. It was never anything else. Our protocriminal then was the man who first struck fire from flint, for from that moment we have been coming steadily to this day and this weapon and this use of it. What would you have advised instead? That the human race should have gone on sitting in caves gnawing raw meat and beating each other over the head with the bones?
And yet it may be that what we have is a world not on the verge of flying apart, but an uncreated one—still in shapeless fragments waiting to be put together properly. I imagine that when we want something better, we may have it: at perhaps no greater price than we have already paid for the worse.
The Never-Ending Wrong
FOR several years in the early 1920s when I was living part of the time in Mexico, on each return to New York, I would follow again the strange history of the Italian emigrants Nicola Sacco a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti a fishmonger, who were accused of a most brutal holdup of a payroll truck, with murder, in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in the early afternoon of April 15, 1920. They were tried before a Massachusetts court and condemned to death about eighteen months later.
In appearance it was a commonplace crime by quite ordinary, average, awkward gangsters, the only unusual feature being that these men were tried, convicted, and put to death; for gangsters in those days, at any rate those who operated boldly enough on a large scale, while not so powerful or so securely entrenched as the Mafia today, enjoyed a curious immunity in society and under the law. We have only to remember the completely public career of Al Capone, who, as chief of the bloodiest gang
That of course was in a time later than this episode, this case of Sacco and Vanzetti which began so obscurely and ended as one of the important turning points in the history of this country; not the cause, but the symptom of a change so deep and so sinister in the whole point of view and direction of this people as a nation that I for one am not competent to analyze it. I only know what happened by what has happened to us since, by remembering what we were, or what many of us believed we were, before. We were most certainly then of a different cast of mind and feeling than we are now, or such a thing as the Sacco-Vanzetti protest could never have been brought about by any means; and I much doubt such a commotion could be roused again for any merciful cause at all among us.
Four incidents a good many years apart are somehow sharply related in my mind. Long ago a British judge was quoted as saying he refused clemency at popular demand to uphold the principle of capital punishment and to prove he was not to be intimidated by public protest. During Hitler’s time, Himmler remarked that for the good of the state, popular complaints should be ignored, and if they persisted, the complainers should be punished. Judge Webster Thayer, during the Sacco–Vanzetti episode, was heard to boast while playing golf, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards?” and the grim little person named Rosa Baron (she shall come later) who was head of my particular group during the Sacco-Vanzetti demonstrations in Boston snapped at me when I expressed the wish that we might save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti: “Alive—what for? They are no earthly good to us alive.” These painful incidents illustrate at least four common perils in the legal handling that anyone faces when accused of a capital crime of which he is not guilty, especially if he has a dubious place in society, an unpopular nationality, erroneous political beliefs, the wrong religion socially, poverty, low social standing—the list could go on but this is enough. Both of these unfortunate men, Sacco and Vanzetti, suffered nearly all of these disadvantages. A fearful word had been used to cover the whole list of prejudices and misinformation, and in some deeply mysterious way, their names had been associated with it—Anarchy.
If there really was a South Braintree gang as it is claimed, to which two Anarchists belonged, it seems to have been a small affair operating under rather clumsy leadership; its real crime seems not to have been exactly robbery and murder, but political heresy: they were Anarchists it was said who robbed and murdered to get funds for their organization—in this case, Anarchy—another variation on the Robin Hood myth.
Anarchy had been a word of fear in many countries for a long time, nowhere more so than in this one; nothing in that time, not even the word “Communism,” struck such terror, anger, and hatred into the popular mind; and nobody seemed to understand exactly what Anarchy as a political idea meant any more than they understood Communism, which has muddied the water to the point that it sometimes calls itself Socialism, at other times Democracy, or even in its present condition, the Republic. Fascism, Nazism, new names for very ancient evil forms of government—tyranny and dictatorship—came into fashion almost at the same time with Communism; at least the aims of those two were clear enough; at least their leaders made no attempt to deceive anyone as to their intentions. But Anarchy had been here all the nineteenth century, with its sinister offspring Nihilism, and it is a simple truth that the human mind can face better the most oppressive government, the most rigid restrictions, than the awful prospect of a lawless, frontierless world. Freedom is a dangerous intoxicant and very few people can tolerate it in any quantity; it brings out the old raiding, oppressing, murderous instincts; the rage for revenge, for power, the lust for bloodshed. The longing for freedom takes the form of crushing the enemy—there is always the enemy!—into the earth; and where and who is the enemy if there is no visible establishment to attack, to destroy with blood and fire? Remember all that oratory when freedom is threatened again. Freedom, remember, is not the same as liberty.
On May 15, 1927, Nicola Sacco wrote from the prison in Charlestown, where he had been in and out of the death cell since July 1921, to his faithful friend Leon Henderson: “I frankly tell you, dear friend, that if he [Governor Fuller of Massachusetts] have a chance he’ll hang us, and it is too bad to see you and all the other good friends this optimism while today we are facing the electric chair.”
Bartolomeo Vanzetti, his fellow prisoner, wrote as early as 1924, after four years in prison under sentence of death, with a reprieve: “I am tired, tired, tired: I ask if to live like now, for love of life, is not rather than wisdom or heroism mere cowardness.” He did consent to live on: he wished so dearly to live that he let his life be taken from him rather than take it himself. Yet near the end, he arrived apparently without help at a profound, painful understanding: “When one has reason to despair and he despairs not, he may be more abnormal than if he would despair.”
They were put to death in the electric chair at Charlestown Prison at midnight on the 23rd of August, 1927, a desolate dark midnight, a night for perpetual remembrance and mourning. I was one of the many hundreds who stood in anxious vigil watching the light in the prison tower, which we had been told would fail at the moment of death; it was a moment of strange heartbreak.
The trial of Jesus of Nazareth, the trial and rehabilitation of Joan of Arc, any one of the witchcraft trials in Salem during 1691, the Moscow trials of 1937 during which Stalin destroyed all of the founders of the 1924 Soviet Revolution, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial of 1920 through 1927—there are many trials such as these in which the victim was already condemned to death before the trial took place, and it took place only to cover up the real meaning: the accused was to be put to death. These are trials in which the judge, the counsel, the jury, and the witnesses are the criminals, not the accused. For any believer in capital punishment, the fear of an honest mistake on the part of all concerned is cited as the main argument against the final terrible decision to carry out the death sentence. There is the frightful possibility in all such trials as these that the judgment has already been pronounced and the trial is just a mask for murder.
Both of them knew English very well—not so much in grammar and syntax but for the music, the true meaning of the words they used. They were Italian peasants, emigrants, laborers, self-educated men with an exalted sense of language as an incantation. Read those letters! They also had in common a distrust in general of the powers of this world, well founded in their knowledge of life as it is lived by people who work with their hands in humble trades for wages. Vanzetti had raised himself to the precarious independence of fish peddler, Sacco had learned the skilled trade of shoemaker; his small son was named Dante, and a last letter to this child is full of high-minded hopes and good counsel. At the very door of death, Sacco turned back to recall a glimpse of his wife’s beauty and their happiness together. Their minds, each one in its very different way, were ragbags of faded Anarch
This was a state of mind, or point of view, which many of the anxious friends from another class of society found very hard to deal with, not to be met on their own bright, generous terms in this crisis of life and death; to be saying, in effect, we are all brothers and equal citizens; to receive, in effect, the reserved answer: No, not yet. It is clear now that the condemned men understood and realized their predicament much better than any individual working with any organization devoted to their rescue. Their friends from a more fortunate destiny had confidence in their own power to get what they asked of their society, their government; courts were not sacrosanct, they could be mistaken; it was a civic duty now and then to protest their judgments, persuade them by one means or another to reverse their sentences. The two laboring men, who had managed to survive and scramble up a few steps from nearly the bottom level of life, knew well from the beginning that they had every reason to despair, they did not really trust these strangers from the upper world who furnished the judges and lawyers to the courts, the politicians to the offices, the faculties to the universities, who had all the money and the influence—why should they be turning against their own class to befriend two laborers? Sacco wrote to Gardner Jackson, member of an upper-middle-class family, rich enough and ardent enough to devote his means and his time to the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee: “Although we are one heart, unfortunately we represent two opposite class.” What they may not have known—we can only hope they did not know—was that some of the groups apparently working for them, people of their own class in many cases, were using the occasion for Communist propaganda, and hoping only for their deaths as a political argument. I know this because I heard and saw. By chance and nothing else I was with a committee from the Communist line of defense. The exact title is of no importance. It was a mere splinter group from the national and world organization. It was quiet, discreet, at times the action seemed to be moving rather in circles; most of the volunteers, for we were all that, were no more Communists than I was. A young man who did a lot of running about, on what errands I never tried to discover, expressed what most of us thought when we learned that we were working under Communist direction: “Well, what of it? If he’s fighting on my side, I’ll go with the Devil!”*