LAND, SHARECROPPING, OWNERSHIP, AND ETHNIC RESENTMENT IN SOUTHERN OKLAHOMA
There are three outstanding features of Thompson’s novel: (1) the Shakespearean intensity of love and hate depicted in closely bound men and women; (2) the simmering resentment, shame, and fear existing between Oklahomans and Native American descendants of the Five civilized Tribes; and (3) Thompson‘s and Caldwell’s versions of Southern Gothic melodrama.
As Robert Polito explains in his classic bio Savage Art, Lion Books editor Arnold Hano often showed a prospective writer plot synopses, hoping s/he would choose one to turn into a saleable newsstand thriller. Thompson changed and vastly improved what he was shown. The first result was The Killer Inside Me (1952). Cropper’s Cabin, later the same year, was the second. For that one, Hano hoped to capitalize on Erskine Caldwell’s Southern Gothic best sellers. Lion’s Cropper’s Cabin’s salacious cover is evidence of that. He was aware that Caldwell’s respect with critics was due to the sympathy the writer projected for the poverty, passionate hopes and dreams, and perseverance in hardscrabble acres which his characters had too much pride to leave for urban factory grunt work. A different, but just as remote rural environment is one of the features Thompson feelingly dramatized in Cropper. Another feature is the way the sharecroppers and Choctaw folk of eastern Oklahoma wear their grit and deformities as badges of identity.
Hano and Thompson were highly simpatico. The latter appreciated Lion’s respect for Thompson’s idiosyncratic talent. The firm let him loose to write “the only way I knew how.” Hano’s Flint, written under the pseudonym Gil Dodge, was an attempt to recast, with Thompson’s permission, Savage Night as a Western. Jim was flattered by Hano’s project.
There are three outstanding features of Thompson’s novel. They are (1) the Shakespearean intensity of love and hate depicted in closely bound men and women; (2) the simmering resentment, shame, and fear existing between Oklahomans and Native American descendants of the Five civilized Tribes; and (3) Thompson‘s and Caldwell’s versions of Southern Gothic melodrama.
1. Shakespearean intensity
Michael McCauley notes Hano’s admiration for Thompson’s ability to bring “the inevitability of Greek Tragedy” to the mass market crime story. That was one of Hano’s editorial projects. In The Killer Inside Me, Lou Ford’s cruelty has roots in his physician father’s having him emasculated, upon realizing that the woman in whom he had entrusted Lou’s upbringing was a flagellant. Lou’s sadism burgeons as he matures, and it ends in “all of us” being damned. In Cropper’s Cabin, Tom Carver’s hatred for his father has similar conscious and subconscious consequences. There are also hints of incest. Tom’s father (“Pa”), who was sleeping with the prostitute Mary while Tom’s mother died giving birth to him, entrusted his son to Mary’s care. The shadows of incestuous sexual attraction between Tom and Mary have a Southern gothic flavor of sex and sin in perfect tandem.
Cropper’s Cabin is a version of Hamlet “turned into a modern suspense novel,” as Hano put it. Tom’s ambivalence for Mary, whom he often insults, reflects Hamlet’s for his mother. Tom’s relationship with Mary—both hate and fear Pa—has Oedipal implications. Tom’s Pa, like Hamlet’s foster father, King Claudius, seducer of Gertrude, wants Tom to disappear permanently, so he will not have to share with him the anticipated wealth of leasing the land he farms for its owner Matthew Ontime to an oil corporation. Both Hamlet and Claudius, and Tom and his Pa, know that only one of the pair will survive, albeit, and because, they are bound in kinship. Tom often tells the reader that it is only a matter of time and circumstance before he kills Pa. But after Pa’s brazen final attempt to extort money from Tom’s wealthy Native American girlfriend Donna, thus draining the pair’s affection, Tom realizes the only way to get his integrity back is to disown Pa.
Tom is very bright; his teachers love him; but he is distracted and reclusive, hounded by familial and environmental forces beyond his control. They have paralyzed his will to trust anyone except Donna, and he fears he is unworthy of her love. “You don’t know how it is when you’re so sick inside, sick and hopeless-feeling, that you want someone to cross you a little, just enough so’s you’ll have an excuse to make them feel bad too.” He can be both verbally abusive and a punishing fighter. Tom Carver is another of Thompson’s plain-spoken narrators who, engaging and sympathetic at times, makes the reader’s skin crawl at others as he “pulls the anger and shame out of himself.” It surfaces in his plans to kill his father, his bullying of the janitor Abe Toolate, in his pommeling of neighbors Nate and Pete (“I didn’t want to stomp them to death, and I knew I would if they said anything”), and especially in his boorishness toward subservient Mary. These instances of nastiness bring to mind Hamlet’s contempt for Ophelia’s father, whom he kills by mistake, and his accompanying sarcasm (“I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room)” about the man whose death unhinges Ophelia’s sanity.
The mixture of admirable and vicious traits is the result of a perceptive youth’s existence in a region split by racial and economic inequalities. Knowing that his distrustful and insecure neighbors believe he has not fulfilled his potential, he has his own resentments, including self doubt. To return to the Hamlet allusion, Tom’s position is made worse by having an imperious, belligerent father like Claudius (there is even a hint of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the local louts Nate and Pete) and a guilt-ridden, self-hating foster mother like Gertrude. Mary, whose background in prostitution has destroyed her self-worth, fears any contradiction from Pa, even in order to prioritize Tom’s safety over his greed. She cares for both Pa and Tom in her own too-timid way: the hint of Hamlet’s mother’s fear of Claudius is another element in the mass-market thriller version of a Shakespearian classic.
Other intense relationships exist between Tom and his Native American, and therefore ambivalent, girlfriend Donna; between Native Americans granted privileges as landowners and those who are not; and between Pa and Matthew Ontime, owner of the land on which Pa works. Matthew refuses to allow Pa to lease his acres to a company which will drill for oil.
2. Simmering resentment, shame, and fear existing between Oklahomans and Native Americans
Tom is never a more engaging narrator than when he explains how the American government dealt with problem of allotting land to the Native Americans in Oklahoma. By the 1893 Dawes Act, which ended the Indian’s right to determine his/her own rights and privileges, a date was set after which native tribes (Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee) could no longer leally apply for land allotment. “He was just a plain hard-up Indian. . . . That’s the story behind names like Toolate and Online, and a lot of others that have been switched around so much you can hardly recognize ‘em for what they were.” These were the same “Five Civilized [i.e., Christianized] Tribes” who had been, in the 1830s, forcibly marched off their land in the Midwest and. South. On the “Trail of Tears,” about 30,000 died on their way to eastern Oklahoma.
Tom explains that both those who applied in time and those who did not were victimized by a fate beyond their ability to change. Thus, the novel’s Abe Toolate was a penniless janitor, while Matthew Ontime, Donna’s father, was the landowner on whose extensive estate Tom’s Pa had been working forty acres. Pa yearns to lease his acres for oil drilling, but Matthew refuses to let him. It would prioritize oil profits over the needs of poor locals, and prevent the tenant farmers from making a living. Pa could not care less: “bunch of white trash an’ niggers and half-breeds.” But Matthew does. He dismisses Pa and divides his former land among the other sharecroppers.
The area’s resentments progress from ill wishes to murder. It is Matthew, the man most interested in a stable future for sharecroppers, who is the victim, stabbed with a knife people have seen in Tom’s hand. He spends time in jail until the devilishly smart Kossmeyer stifles his resignation and gets him acquitted. Pa is suspiciously indifferent. He tells Tom no one will trust him in future, so he should get as far away from Oklahoma as possible. That would prevent him from making any claims on Pa’s possible future earnings. It would also restore his exclusive access to Mary’s bed.
But it was not Pa who killed Matthew, but Abe The Toolate. The latter, in possession of Tom’s knife, murdered his fellow Native American. Resentment of the latter’s wealth, and especially of the bullying he had taken from an ill-tempered Tom as the novel opens, had conquered lowly Abe’s “keep what you have” inferiority to both the whites and the “ontime” Indians. It meant, of course, his downfall, resulting in a ritual ostracism from his fellow Choctaws. Thomson describes the ritualized process as more horrible than an American prison’s gallows.
Thompson adeptly uses the popular fiction story-within-a-story to dramatize the ubiquitous hostilities within a community where ethnic, social, and income inequalities strangle mutual trust. Ironically, they cost the life of the one member of that community capable of bringing it some comfort and relief. It is another example of what Thompson knew so well: the popular crime novel’s potential to tell a failure story with the implications of classic Westerns such as A B Guthrie’s The Big Sky, E L Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, or Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog.
3. Southern Gothic
If Hano wanted Thompson to produce the sensational, often humorous, and always bizarre episodes that got Erskine Caldwell renowned, he may have been disappointed. The cloud of futility among Thompson’s plowers and sowers is just as debilitating as it is among Caldwell’s “white trash” in the uplands of Georgia and South Carolina. However, in God’s Little Acre for example, Ty Ty, Ellie May, Darling Jill, Jeeter, and Sister Bessie are not self-hating, brooding, vengeful, or resigned to being lowest of the low. Ty Ty is, like Thompson’s Pa, narrowly focused on using his land to mine riches. But his use of an albino to find gold, the latter’s making love to Darling Jill, and Ty Ty’s voyeurism on that occasion, provide Ty Ty with a rogueish mischievousness that would destroy the bleak ambience in which Tom, Pa, Mary, Abe, and Matthew move. The same applies to the naive, and pitiable, incidents in Tobacco Road: the harelip Ellie May’s crawling seductively toward Lov and his bag of fresh turnips; and the fate of Bessie’s new car at the hands of Dude and Jeeter (deprived of oil and water, loose bearings, cracked windshield, displaced axle). Both Caldwell’s and Thompson’s characters persevere, but the former’s display a much more life-affirming brand.
What the two writers’ narratives share is the conventions of Southern gothic. By portraying idiosyncratic responses that are contrary to those predominant and tolerated in a community, a gothic writer can command shocked attention. In Cropper’s Cabin, the ostracism of Abe Toolate is effected by the medicine man’s shouts, and the graphic description, seen as Tom narrates it, of symbolic burial and subsequent disappearance. Abe has been sentenced to permanent solitary confinement. Walking the streets, he is invisible. It’s the closest one can come to experiencing the nothingness of a tree falling in a forest where no living thing can hear it.
This punishment has a surprising consequence: it allows the descendants of the Civilized Tribes to keep their own cultural integrity instead of adopting that of the whites. That a member of the White community narrates it reinforces its gothic weirdness. The state of Oklahoma’s legal system is manipulated by The devilish Kossmeyer. Tom wants no part of his defense, until Kossmeyer scares him with gothic horror stories of electrocuted criminals, even “with their guts cut out,” struggling to break out of their coffins, with their “gutted bellies and melted eyes.” Nothing Tom had ever heard of prepared him for this jolt to his understanding. It intellectually paralyzes him. Kossmeyer’s images of death beyond death contrast with the stringent reality of the medicine men’s justice, as raging madness might contrast to the harshly equitable.
Gothic style uses shifting time sequences (“The past was all mixed up with the future,” Tom observes), colloquial dialect, paralyzing fears, life-threatening missteps, remote settings, and explicit sex and violence. The latter, such as Ellie May’s seductive crawling for a few turnips, makes readers confront their uneasiness with prurient arousal, since it brings them closer to the Gothic excesses of the characters than they would be likely to admit. Another example is the way an aroused Donna attacks Tom while he is fixing a tire. Her scratching, biting, moaning, and pounding end in her weeping. She’s made Tom think of how pretty she is, and imagine what she looks like naked. Beyond the bizarre eroticism is the embodiment of psychic confusion resulting from living with people of a divergent culture and sensibility. Fascination and repulsion are jarringly adjacent. Even love, to Donna, is adjacent to hate and fear. It’s a fact of life in eastern Oklahoma. Southern gothic is a natural, even inevitable technique to put sharecropper frustration and Oklahoman -Native American distrust before the reader. Gothic flourishes, most notably in Flannery O’Connor’s work, when an intolerably dysfunctional culture strangles the desires and ambitions of people like Ty Ty, Sister Bessie, Tom and Donna, Abe Toolate, Matthew Ontime, and Mary.
Jay A. Gertzman has written on the distribution and censorship of erotic literature, the publisher Samuel Roth’s unauthorized editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses, the publishing history of Chatterley, and the crime novels of David Goodis. His Pulp According to David Goodis was nominated for a 2019 Anthony Award in the category Best Critical or Non-Fiction Work. He has published on Western crime fiction in Paperback Parade, Mystery Readers Journal, Tough (website), Down & Out Books Newsletter, and Academia.com. His latest book, Beyond Twisted Sorrow: The Promise of Country Noir, is now available in print and as an ebook from Down & Out Books.