Race in Keeler:
Some Pieces of the Puzzle
by Richard Polt
First published in Keeler News No. 8, August 1997
All race hatred and race detestation is really race fear. --The Box from Japan
Keeler's world is a weird, involuted reflection of twentieth-century America. And just as race is an ever-present dimension of American life, it is always in the background, and often in the foreground, of Keeler's idiosyncratic creations. Every new Keeler I read reveals some new and ambiguous aspect of this theme, so this article can hardly be considered definitive. But here are some observations on this controversial topic for your consideration.
Let's start with the most obvious point. In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to getting Keeler reprinted is not his sheer strangeness, but his gratuitously offensive racial characterizations. What can decent-minded readers do but cringe when they run across sentences like this? "Isberian Jones ... dolefully wedged his way closer to the exhibit. He literally had to spread apart a short man and a short woman ... and an ebony colored black gorilla" (The Book With the Orange Leaves). Or: "He ... wore round tortoise-shell spectacles which, against his tightly-drawn parchment-like lemon-colored Japanese skin, looked like nothing so much as a pair of spectacles perched on a skull" (The Mysterious Mr. I). This sort of grotesque caricature is just not going to fly in an age when Huck Finn gets banned from grade schools. The stereotyping goes beyond looks to include character: there are greedy Jews, lazy blacks, hot-headed Italians, and much more. And of course, there are the many flavors of Keelerian dialect--but that's a theme for a whole other issue.
Keeler knew that he lived in a racist society, knew that he couldn't do a thing to change it, hated racism deeply, but refused to be solemn about the subject and insisted on his right to express himself in a way that could be misinterpreted.
--Francis M. Nevins, "The Wild and Woolly World of Harry Stephen Keeler"
As one peruses a Keeler opus, not only is one reminded of all the ethnic stereotypes that inhabit the American mind, but one is also likely to discover some new prejudices along the way. For instance, in The Mysterious Mr. I we learn that MacLeish MacPherson, M.D., is so stingy that he's the "spirit of Armenia personified." And are you enough of a connoisseur of bigotry to know the derogatory term for a Swede? (It's "Swodock." Apologies to our two Swedish members.) Plus, there are abundant stereotypes that go beyond ethnicity: Keeler readily lampoons groups such as homosexuals and the mentally retarded, as well. His heroes, especially in his earlier novels, are almost invariably young, able-bodied, decidedly heterosexual white men with vaguely Anglo-Saxon names.
In his pioneering articles on Keeler in the Journal of Popular Culture, Mike Nevins argues that although Keeler's heroes and narrators are consistently racist, Keeler himself is not. Sounds paradoxical, doesn't it? Bill Pronzini, for one, is unconvinced. B ut Mike has a point. Keeler may never pass as a sensitive and gentle writer on things racial, but there are quite a few passages that suggest that, by the standards of his time, and in his own way, he was a defender of the downtrodden.
We find such evidence as early as the 1920s. There is a dramatic anti-racist passage in Sing Sing Nights which we'll look at below, and in "The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction" (1928) Keeler remarks that "white people like to hear" that "the white race is superior to all other races and will survive all others" because such stuff "acts as a sop to their individual inferiority complexes." This was hardly the politically correct thing to say in the twenties--so Keeler must have meant it.
Harry Stephen may not have been a card-carrying white supremacist, but neither was he an advocate of the NAACP or the Italian Anti-Defamation League. At best his racial attitudes might have been ambivalent.
--Bill Pronzini, Son of Gun in Cheek
How is it that Keeler developed any anti-racist opinions at all, when he inhabited an age saturated with racial prejudice? This is a matter for speculation, but I'd suggest, first, that Keeler perceived himself as an outsider, and sympathized with the mocked and marginalized. I imagine the young Harry as an intelligent but awkward lad who must have been bullied in school. There's a streak of defiantly nutty clowning in Keeler, the sort of attitude that the class nerd develops in self-defense when he becomes the class clown. Think of Tuddleton Trotter, the impoverished and mocked old eccentric who turns out to be a genius. Think of Simon Grundt, the retarded sleuth who puts on such a grotesque yet triumphant show at the end of The Green Jade Hand. Keeler identifies with the outcasts. Authority tends to be menacing: the police threaten to give characters "the third degree" (a vicious beating) or lock them up in an insane asylum. The rich tend to be ruthless.
A second factor is Keeler's upbringing in a vaudeville atmosphere in Chicago. Having been steeped in flamboyant diversity since birth, how could he agree with anyone who hated the ethnic variety of our planet? We've all run across Harry's favorite nickname for Chicago: "London of the West." The moniker is explained best in the opening of Thieves' Nights: Chicago and London share "the confusion, the babble of tongues of many lands, the restless, shoving throng containing faces and features of a thousand racial castes." Keeler loves the babble of Chicago, and celebrates it.
Of course, his love is not unmixed. Today we might call Chicago's diversity "multiculturalism"--but the tame, arts-and-crafts-fair connotations of that word are far from the reality of a great American city. The hero of The Five Silver Buddhas looks at "a Chicago map so tinted as to show only the myriad foreign districts within its boundaries": "It came to him then, as never before, what a gargantuan thing was this great, 500-square mile sprawling ink blot, crawling with humans like a dead dog's carcass with maggots."
This ambivalence may explain some of HSK's more distasteful racial caricatures--or they may simply be explained by the fact that such images were omnipresent in his culture, ready to be used for humor, drama, and quick characterizations. Harry's own wife could draw caricatures with the worst of 'em (see the opening of Finger! Finger! or her portrait of Eluk the Eskimo in "The Versatile Mr. Pan," a tale included in The Case of the Transposed Legs). Apparently Hazel was given to racial speculation. Chapter VIII of the Phoenix edition (but not the Ward Lock edition) of Transposed Legs gives us the priceless information that the "half Norwegian" Hazel's "hobby, avocation, whatever you want to call it, is investigation of all known scientific data proving that the Spanish and Portuguese, and the Norwegian race, at least the brunette members thereof, are an identical race. A race called Iberian."
Keeler is at his best on race not in his thumbnail sketches of minor ethnic characters, but in works where non-whites play a major role. A case in point is The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne. This remarkable book is one of Keeler's best. It's carefully crafted and unusually serious, despite the basic comedy of the webwork plot. Keeler's disgust with the "Dog-Eat-Dog" capitalist system comes out very clearly, as do his anti-racist sentiments. His non-white characters are interesting and sympathetic, and more than one of them is double-crossed by a racist white man in this novel. Even the white hero of the story doesn't act particularly white: he considers himself an honorary Chinese, and is fond of quoting "Kong-Fu-Tse."
The non-whites in Scheme are not just non-whites, but outcasts who don't fit comfortably into any race. One is Kwan Yung, who was adopted by Caucasians as a young boy and thus became persona non grata to the Chinese--which proves that whites don't have a monopoly on prejudice. Kwan Yung is cheng fong gwai--which, according to Keeler, means "same-like-foreign-devil-and-not-of-us." In a broader sense, it means someone who's caught in the margins between categories, spurned by those who belong. Keeler has a special affection for cheng fong gwai Chinese: other such characters include Charley Lee of The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman and Y. Cheung, hero of Y. Cheung, Business Detective.
The other prominent non-white in Scheme is Ebenezer Sitting-Down-Bear. Ebenezer is also a cheng fong gwai, in the larger sense: he's half American Indian, a quarter black, and a quarter white. But he's more than just a formula--he is one of the most memorable and complex Keeler characters. I wouldn't call him realistic, but he is striking. Unable to live as a "normal" American, he lives on the edge and at an extreme. A deep and justified resentment smolders inside him. He is a religious and political fanatic at heart, who longs for austerity and revolution. Keeler puts some of his strongest anti-racist sentiments into Ebenezer's mouth.
Keeler's racial portraits are certainly not always so appealing. Often it's hard to decide whether they're racist or not. But readers should try not to jump to conclusions--for sometimes Harry hooks us into a racist characterization, only to reverse it later on, toying with our own biases. An example is John Very-Bad-Man-Makes-All-White-Men-Tremble, from The Iron Ring. When Mr. Very-etc. comes on the scene, he's a stereotypical redskin whose dialogue is liberally laced with "ughs." Decent readers flinch, bigoted readers smirk knowingly. But a few pages later, we learn that in fact, John is a Ph.D. who's written books on metaphysics and ethics! His "primitive" get-up and talk was a sham. (Another Native American with a Ph.D. plays a part in Thieves' Nights. I haven't found any negative passages about Indians in Keeler.) In another novel, a sinister character who is described as having yellow skin turns out, many pages later, to be a Caucasian with a jaundice-like disease.
The Search for X-Y-Z (or The Case of the Ivory Arrow, in its Phoenix incarnation) features several anti-racist episodes and characters, including a Yale-educated Chinese gunman and a brilliant black woman poet, Olivia Debrevois (see my review in KN #1). Now, the skeptic might ask: was Keeler really trying to get in a good jab at his racist contemporaries--or did he himself see these cultured minority characters as freaks, whom he introduced just for novelty? I think novelty was probably part of it, but one of Olivia Debrevois' remarks strongly suggests that it was not all of it. When a white hobo confesses he "can't make head nor tail" out of one of her poems, she answers, "Thank you, Tom ... I've long, long believed that my work sells on the sheer novelty of having been authored by an educated colored woman born in the Negro district of Birmingham, Alabama. Now I'm confident that people don't understand my poems at all." (The poem itself, titled "Patience," appears only in Ivory Arrow.)
"Which part of the word 'Nigger-Injun' stigmatizes me?" asked Ebenezer defiantly, looking at his employer boldly. "Or is it the actual possession of those two bloods that stigmatizes me?"
"Hrmph!" retorted Thorne, at this categorical question. "What I meant to say, Ebenezer, is, don't ever--well--don't disparage yourself--in words or thought. No. Sometimes we--er--white people, to be sure, forget--and use such terms about you people of other races. But--"
"And we Nigger-Injuns--we mongrels, never forget," declared Ebenezer vehemently.
"And right there," expostulated Thorne, testily, is where you demonstrate conclusively your mixed neg--oh, Ebenezer, let's skip it! Let's forget about it. We'll agree that the present social system is all wrong--and that the white race forms an upper caste--and that interest on money is a false note in human affairs--and all that. But here we are--and here we be--having to earn our living."
"Yes, that's just it," said the half-Indian, darkly. "We starve to death--amidst plenty--if we don't play the game--as we find it."
--The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne
Perhaps the quintessential Keeler racial obsession is "Celestials"--the Chinese. He was hardly the only American to have this obsession. In Keeler's early years, the "Yellow Peril" was on everyone's mind, and plots by Asians were seen everywhere. (Of course, Pearl Harbor showed that this feeling was not completely absurd. As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid don't mean they ain't out to get you.) This was the heyday of Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer's hallucinatory, bizarre, and super-intelligent Oriental villain.
It may seem that Keeler's books play right into such fears. The cover illustration for The Box from Japan shows a sinister Japanese and a menacing pair of hands. A. L. Burt even advertised The Mask of Fu-Manchu on the back flap of their dustjacket for The Box from Japan ("Dr. Fu-Manchu, triumphant in his search for drugs which would arrest the ravages of age, has returned to his ambition to raise the society of the Si-Fan to world-domination, an ambition which possession of the mask will fulfill"). The racial fears don't stop with the book's cover: at the start of the novel, hero Carr Halsey reflects that Yellow cabs have gained a monopoly on the taxi business, "as even the yellow race itself must someday outgrow white man, with his modest birth rate, and, so it was claimed, would someday swarm over all the territory now held in fanciful security by him."
"So it was claimed." Again, let's not jump to conclusions, for Keeler loves to mislead. There are indeed Oriental villains in The Box from Japan, but they hardly compare with Fu Manchu. Notably, there's a mad Japanese emperor who soaks his typewriter ribbons in his own blood before typing treaties, because he's under the delusion that he has the power to will his blood into invisibility. Every bit as weird as anything Rohmer ever wrote, but not nearly as scary! And other Japanese are much less menacing--the next emperor turns out to be a soft gourmet who won't start a war with the U.S. for fear of imperiling his supply of Virginia ham. Although Keeler seems to like the Japanese less than the Chinese, he doesn't lump them all into a sinister and inhuman menace. Near the end of The Box from Japan's 765 pages, a character makes the insightful comment that I've chosen as the motto for this article.
So what did Keeler think of Sax Rohmer? Consider this passage from The Riddle of the Yellow Zuri (AKA The Tiger Snake), where an ignorant Appalachian girl speaks to a lawyer:
"All Chineymen are very bad, bean't they, Mr. Wolff?"
"Lord no, child. You've been drinking in Sax Rohmer's 'Fu Manchu,' that's all. The Chinese are a super-race. They are more patient, persevering, trustworthy, frugal, hard-working and last but far from least, honest, than any white man who ever walked in two shoes. Just a bit inclined to accept blindly certain supersti--well, by that word, Lola, I mean beliefs. Beliefs that have no foundation. See?"
Keeler may consider the Chinese superstitious, but he still has a special regard for Chinese wisdom. Books of Chinese philosophy turn up in works such as The Green Jade Hand and The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman. In Keeler's The Way Out series (beginning with The Peacock Fan), such a book takes center stage and shows HSK to be a true Sinophile. The Way Out is a collection of Chinese epigrams, arranged by a Western scholar in such a way as to be applicable to every modern problem. Characters invariably mock this book early in the story, but are proved wrong when it turns out to contain a nugget of wisdom that solves a riddle. These epigrams, which include such gems as, "No more can a Lie remain permanently concealed than can a gnat digest the carcass of a dead elephant," were mostly made up by Keeler himself. He writes in a letter to Jack Cuthbert: "I nearly busted my cerebellum making them up. I combed thousands of real Chinese proverbs, but with the exception of but two cases could never find anything to fit the theme of any story." Keeler shows that he really did comb through Chinese texts when he attributes one of his sayings to a certain Wu Wei: wu wei is a term of art in Taoism, meaning non-action.
In the United States, the question of race means, above all, the question of black and white. What were HSK's views on blacks?
First, we have to admit that there is a profusion of minor black characters who show Keeler at his worst. They're shiftless, stupid, superstitious, and criminal. And of course, they speak the most grotesque parody of Ebonics imaginable. Mike Nevins reports that such stereotypes inhabit the Keeler canon right down to the very end, including his last completed novel, The Scarlet Mummy.
But coexisting with these caricatures are a number of more enlightened passages. For instance, according to Tuddleton Trotter in The Case of the Barking Clock, the Emancipation Proclamation is "the greatest historical document of all times." (Trotter indignantly tells us that during the Chicago Fire, the Chicago Historical Society actually saved a section of a tapeworm in a glass bottle, but let a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation burn. HSK provides a footnote: "True fact. Author.")
The Box from Japan (1932) anticipates the struggles of the civil rights movement, in a typically outlandish, Keelified way. In the near future of Keeler's imagination, the neo-prohibitionist Dry-as-Dust party has won power in 1936 by recruiting the African-American vote and providing militiamen to escort Southern blacks to the polls. But as soon as the party is elected, it no longer defends the Southern Negro's right to vote, and he is left "shaking in his burlap wrapped shoes on election day and keeping well hid.... But, of course...like all apparently well-laid plots...this one contains its fatal defect for the Dry-as-Dust Party. I refer to the Vigesimal Mail Vote which they held out as additional bait and security to the Negro: the national provision by which every twenty years...elections will be held through the United States mails.... The Southern Negro--the Northern Negro too--is going to rise up fully 99.99 strong in the...first vigesimal mail election, and crush to atoms the party that tricked him in 1936."
Two novels are must-reads for anyone interested in Keeler's views on black-white relations: Two Strange Ladies and The Man Who Changed His Skin. In Ladies, one of the Way Out books, HSK takes us to "Southern City," where struggling Yankee reporter Tommy Skirmont observes Jim Crow in its most absurd manifestations. When two unidentified corpses, one "a chunk of Africanism" and one white, are laid out for public viewing, the police form separate but unequal lines into the basement morgue, marked "THIS WAY DOWN" and "NIGGERS, THIS SIDE." "It was thus that the two lines of onlookers had been enabled to travel past the two corpses, lying in and on a direct line connecting the two downstairs doors of the morgue room, the two lines never touching, never crossing, the Negroes, however, getting, due to the two opposite turns in the two stairways, by far the longer arc of travel!" In this atmosphere, Skirmont is taken to task by the editor of the Southern City Democrat for having the nerve to interview a black man about conditions in the city. The conclusion of the story is a weird, yet scientifically based satire of racial categorizing. I can't be more specific without spoiling the plot--let me just say that the book has to be read to the very end.
W.E.B. Dubois writes in The Souls of Black Folk, "Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it." The question is: "How does it feel to be a problem?"--In the late 1950s, this question became especially urgent. John Howard Griffin decided to discover the answer firsthand: he darkened his skin and lived in the South as a black man. The result was Black Like Me. Keeler had his own answer: The Man Who Changed His Skin (originally titled Nigger Nigger Never Die). This weird farce is set in the Boston of 1855, and it tells the tale of Clark Shellcross, a young man "more Anglo-Saxon than Britain and Saxony combined!" who, thanks to a mysterious pellet of Oguva gum given to him by a Utopian-Socialist ragpicker, ends up in the body of an ex-slave with pure African blood, "the jettest black that could exist."
According to one of his "Walter Keyhole" newsletters, Keeler considered this novel "too controversial to be ever published in America." Could be--or, just possibly, publishers were put off by a style replete with thick dialect, incomplete sentences, and absurd coincidences. In any case, the novel was published only in Spain--and in very limited numbers. I have this book in Spanish, but Mike Nevins kindly copied the original manuscript for me. Reading it in Spanish might actually have been easier, because indefatigable translator Fernando Noriega has rendered Keeler's apostrophe-studded dialect into flawless Castilian. But the Spanish version also obliterates important differences among racial terms: "black man," "colored man," "Negro" and "nigger" all become negro.
I am happy to report that HSK acquits himself well here, and proves that he is indeed on the right side of the race issue. Shellcross is a well-meaning young man, but he's under two delusions that Keeler wants to shatter. First, Shellcross thinks that blacks are content with their lot:Negroes--Negroes were too happy-go-lucky--so far as employment went, food went, clothes went, lodging went, finances went--another day meant always, for them, a complete new deal of the cards. They never suicided--because they lacked always motive--to suicide. They didn't want much. They never had much. They never got much. They didn't mind if they hadn't something they hadn't--or had less.But secondly, and somewhat inconsistently, Shellcross feels it's terrible to be black. When he's convinced that he's really stuck in a black man's body, and it's not a dream, he reacts with despair: "Goodbye, Future! Goodbye, happiness. Goodbye, life."
Now, it just so happens that Shellcross once acted in a college play where he learned to speak Negro dialect, so he can pass as a freedman who does menial labor. As such, he learns first-hand what little respect and few comforts a black man tends to get. Keeler doesn't lay it on thick here, but provides just enough for Shellcross to realize that blacks are capable of real unhappiness.
But Keeler's main goal seems to be to show that blacks are also capable of real happiness, a full human life. A webwork novel has to have a happy ending--and in fact, with whiplash speed our hero finds himself not only blessed with a cushy job, but even lounging in bed with a smart and beautiful black wife, and concludes, to his own surprise, that he is "the happiest man in the whole, entire, limitless Universe."
"My solution is a radical one--but only one," she said simply. "And I think, Mr. Jason H. Barton, that you will agree with me. What is race? It is not color--although color is always one of visible characteristics. As to color--pigmentation--science will overcome that in less than few hundred years. Science will make us all of one shade. But race is something deeper--far deeper--than mere color. Racial distinctions date back thousands of years; they are rooted too deep to be outweeded by professors working in laboratories. And my solution is so--so simple. It is intermarriage! Intermarriage must take place between all races of earth until so-called racial distinctions are breeded out. Then, when in a thousand or five thousand years a great homo--homo--oh, dear, what is that terrible word in English?--homogeneous race shall people the earth, then shall there no longer be any race but human race. Then shall there be no race hatred--no war. You see, Mr. Jason H. Barton, so long as the desire for war may remain in hearts of men, even though war itself is made impossible, then humanity is not yet even on road to reach its--its capabilities. Race antagonism must go, you see. Hence race and pride of race must disappear!"
--Sing Sing Nights
The most explicit statements in this novel about racism and its causes are made by the Rev. Dr. Callixtus Fearnaught, who believes in "destroying ruthlessly the false belief that the black is mentally deficient--proving that he even has a mind equal to the white man." "This," says Fearnaught, "is the essential step of Abolitionism. To demonstrate that the Negro is a highly intelligent man. Capable of absorbing knowledge--and of transmitting it."
Is this Keeler's solution to the problem of racism? Destroying false beliefs? Ah, if only things were so simple. By setting his novel in 1855, Keeler suggests that Fearnaught's solution is too intellectual, too idealistic. A Civil War is necessary--and more.
Keeler proposes a more effective solution to racism in one of his earliest novels. In a charming scene in "The Twelve Coins of Confucius," one of the stories in Sing Sing Nights, journalist Jason Barton interviews the Chinese princess O Lyra Seng, who is both lovely and cultured. The princess proposes a simple yet radical solution, one that works not just on the mind but on the body: interbreeding! Now we understand why mixed-race couples are so prevalent in the Keelerian universe. When everyone is cheng fong gwai, no one will be cheng fong gwai.
Lest we think that the princess's views have been cooked up just as another bizarre plot element, or as an excuse to create sexual interest between her and Barton, the narrator of this story, Krenwicz, makes it clear that he himself holds these views. Krenwicz proposes that a universal language and "giant air-liners" will lead to "a greater intermingling of human folks than the world has ever dreamed." His fellow prisoners, an Englishman and an American Southerner, scoff at his theory: how is an African or Malay man going to be acceptable to "a delicate English or American girl?" Krenwicz's answer is that endocrinology and plastic surgery will do the trick. "Need a white girl of America or England feel compunctions against marrying with a de-negroized native of Africa, educated in an African university, speaking her language, familiar with her city, possessing straight hair--yellow, if you wish it--with body slim or muscular as is desired, with aquiline nose, normal lips--and last, but not least courteous deportment?"--Keeler's anti-racist passages can sometimes come out sounding pretty racist! Does Keeler/Krenwicz really mean to suggest that the Caucasian look should be the norm? Or is this just a temporary concession to the prejudices of today's "white girls"? Still, in a time when whites almost universally abhorred "miscegenation," these are brave things to say.
I confess that, goofy as it sounds, the intermarriage theory strikes me as having a good deal of truth. In my experience, interracial couples and their children are the people least prone to racial stereotyping. I also tend to fear that Keeler's right: eliminating racism is not a matter for a generation or two, but for thousands of years. Keeler knows that racism is deep-rooted. He imagines a way out, but sees it as extremely distant.
Keeler really did hate racism, even though he himself was enmeshed in the racist imagery of his age. What looks like race detestation in Keeler may be an underlying race fear of which he could not rid himself. What is surprising is not that he had some racial biases, but that he also resisted them. Keeler's books are valuable to anyone interested in racial attitudes because he was unusually race-conscious--and sometimes, in his peculiar way, unusually conscientious.
The White Circleand Strange Journey, time travel stories from Keeler's old age, involve a character from the distant future who is a product of the millennia of interbreeding foretold by O Lyra Seng. And although he is of mixed race, it's obvious that he still doesn't come from a culture where racial categories have disappeared. Hazel's theories have made progress, though! Let's close these remarks with the sheer joy of quoting his glorious name:
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