28 March 2020

Greenmantle, White Men

John Buchan’s second spy novel featuring Richard Hannay was Greenmantle, published in 1916 even as the Great War was raging.

Like Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps the previous year, the story is primarily a chase. Hannay and his fellow British secret agents make their way across Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Turkey to the Russian front in various guises.

There’s no doubt the book is well written and gripping. But ultimately it was unsatisfying. Though Hannay is our narrator and lead protagonist, by far the most important figure in the mission is his friend Sandy, who travels up through the Near East. Yet we hardly ever see what adventures Sandy has.

Another supporting character, Peter, becomes crucial at the end, but he gets a whole chapter to himself, reportedly told to Hannay later. For the rest of the book we’re traveling with Hannay, who’s resourceful and lucky in equal measures, but ultimately accomplishes little beyond staying alive and stumbling across a map.

In contrast, Sandy disguises himself as an Arab and undermines German efforts through the local society. He recruits a band of loyal aides, infiltrates the villainess’s household, and rescues Hannay on several occasions. Yet almost all that work and all those suspenseful moments are off stage.

Furthermore, that whole plotline just underscores shows how the racism of Greenmantle goes well beyond its rhetoric. And the rhetoric is unmistakably bad. Hannay says things like:
  • “Gaudian was clearly a good fellow, a white man and a gentleman. I could have worked with him for he belonged to my own totem.”
  • “‘Europe is a poor cold place,’ said Peter, ‘not worth fighting for. There is only one white man's land, and that is South Africa.’ At the time I heartily agreed with him.”
  • “Then we were always being stopped by sentries and having to show our passes. Still the ride did us good and shook up our livers, and by the time we turned for home I was feeling more like a white man.”
  • “Peter had a compass, but he didn't need to use it, for he had a kind of ‘feel’ for landscape, a special sense which is born in savages and can only be acquired after long experience by the white man.”
To be sure, the book also reflects Buchan’s time in how it describes different European nationalities and sexes. The character of Blenkiron is a provocative portrait of an American industrialist, but since he’s the only Yank, it’s hard to know how idiosyncratic he was supposed to be.

To get back to Sandy, he doesn’t spout the same nonsense about non-whites. He actually seems to respect the non-British culture he blends into. But his success in disguise gives rise to another racist trope: this Scotsman becomes a better Arab than any Arab we meet.

Sandy not only blends in completely, he’s not only the leader of his little cult, but he ends up becoming the “Greenmantle” himself—the reincarnation of a Muslim prophet whom a German agent was hoping to use to energize the Turks.

In that setup, Buchan was evidently inspired by the Islamic tradition of the Mahdi, a returning savior. This belief is especially strong in Shi’a Islam, but also has many adherents in Sunni Islam. However, to Buchan as a British colonist in Africa, “the Mahdi” meant a particular ruler of Sudan in the late 1800s who claimed that title. Thus, Buchan invented “Greenmantle” as a new term for that Islamic savior.

Buchan’s first novel, Prester John, also involved a messianic uprising of locals against the British Empire. Evidently it was a danger he felt keenly.

Such movements remained inscrutably foreign to Buchan, and thus to Hannay. I see that as tied into the author’s inability to tell Sandy’s story from within Islamic society, much less to tell the story of someone from that society instead of someone infiltrating it. Instead, the real action in Greenmantle remains off-stage, submerged, and unfathomable.

26 March 2020

“Literary texts might be doubly infectious”

I just learned about this book, but I had a tag all set up for it already.

Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print, by Annika Mann:
Eighteenth-century British culture was transfixed by the threat of contagion, believing that everyday elements of the surrounding world could transmit deadly maladies from one body to the next. Physicians and medical writers warned of noxious matter circulating through air, bodily fluids, paper, and other materials, while philosophers worried that agitating passions could spread via certain kinds of writing and expression. Eighteenth-century poets and novelists thus had to grapple with the disturbing idea that literary texts might be doubly infectious, communicating dangerous passions and matter both in and on their contaminated pages.

In Reading Contagion, Annika Mann argues that the fear of infected books energized aesthetic and political debates about the power of reading, which could alter individual and social bodies by connecting people of all sorts in dangerous ways through print. Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Tobias Smollett, William Blake, and Mary Shelley ruminate on the potential of textual objects to absorb and transmit contagions with a combination of excitement and dread. This book vividly documents this cultural anxiety while explaining how writers at once reveled in the possibility that reading could transform the world while fearing its ability to infect and destroy.
This eighteenth-century worry seems to have resurfaced now that we’re are hunkering down with reading material and mail-order packages while word goes around that those same packages might carry the virus we’re hunkering down to avoid.

However, as science journalist Zeynep Tufekci tweeted: “Future generations will be driven batty by the amount of concern over contamination from cardboard boxes—a tail risk: porous surface, exponential decay—compared with protecting the pathways to OUR RESPIRATORY SYSTEM WITH MASKS FOR A RESPIRATORY ILLNESS WITH ASYMPTOMATIC SPREAD.”

14 March 2020

The Magic Wand of Tudor Jenks

I’ve been enjoying the Magic Wand book set by Tudor Jenks, published in 1905.

This collection of modern fairy tales first came to my attention because the volumes were illustrated by John R. Neill in between his work on L. Frank Baum’s Marvelous Land of Oz and John Dough and the Cherub. His style is immediately and delightfully recognizable.

Tudor Jenks was Baum’s near contemporary, born in 1857 and dying in 1922. He was a child of New York City rather than Syracuse, however, and he enjoyed the benefits of Yale College and Columbia Law School.

Jenks started a career in the law, interrupted that to spend fifteen years as an associate editor of St. Nicholas Magazine, and then went back to the law. But he continued to churn out books for young people, mostly nonfiction.

It was shortly after stepping away from the editorial desk that Jenks wrote the Magic Wand series for the Henry Altemus Company. The series consists of six short books about magic:
Each volume is a little over 100 pages long, printed in black and red, with many simple line drawings by Neill. None appears to have been in print for a very long time, but I’ve linked to scans of them all.

The stories are all independent. Some are set in what seems like modern America with a touch of magic. Others take place in countries with kings, queens, dragons, fairies, witches, and similar elements of European fairy tales—but also party line telephones, bicycles, and corporations that offer princess-rescuing services.

The tales show lots of fondness for traditional fairy stories but not too much reverence. They remind me of E. Nesbit’s “The Deliverers of Their Country,” George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, and some of Baum’s American Fairy Tales from the same years.

The plots can be perfunctory, possibly cut off once word or page counts had been achieved. Jenks had what feels to me like a lazy habit of naming his characters after roles from Shakespeare or everyday objects, as in Duchess Darningneedle or the pony Gallopoff. But his narrative voice is charming.

It’s also striking how often Jenks tells stories from an adult’s point of view, even though the protagonists are almost always children or teens. The result is a series of magical tales that kids of 1905 might well have enjoyed but that really reflect the sensibility of adults who would rather not be working office jobs.

12 March 2020

Stupendo Takes Off!

I’m pleased to report that the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for Boston Powers, the Boston Comics Roundtable’s collection of all-ages superhero comics, was successful.

And Brendan Tobin has done wonders with the art for our story. Here’s a slightly blurred preview as Stupendo and Secret Girl discuss the challenge of being a hero from another planet.