The Appalling American Eugenics Movement

Good Blood, Bad Blood: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks by J. David Smith and Michael L. Wehmeyer

This is a beautiful book: an apple tree on the front cover, half with red apples and green leaves and half blasted black. It has many wonderful black and white illustrations of life at the School for the Feeble Minded. What caught me, though, was mention of the Kallikaks, the family of putative bad genes famous in the first half of the twentieth century. My father, a high school biology teacher used to tell me stories of the Jukes and the Kallikaks, families who were all retarded and/or criminal–clear examples of heredity in action.

My father wasn’t a eugenicist, but he had been educated in the years when the Kallikaks were presented as scientific evidence of hereditary degeneration. This book debunks the science and even the integrity of the social scientists who wanted so much to prove that people passed down traits, especially intelligence and morality, in the same clearly observable way as Mendel’s peas.

In the foreground of the book is the sad story of Emma Wolverton, called Deborah Kallikak, who spent sixty plus years incarcerated not for anything she did, but because she was the illegitimate child of someone deemed “feeble-minded.” And her feeble-minded mother was labelled feeble-minded because she had illegitimate children.

Emma wasn’t tortured or starved–she was even petted a little and given responsibilities and pleasures within her institution (see the photo above). She was, on the other hand, never given freedom, never made decisions for herself. She was good at music, crafts, writing friendly letters. She did various jobs like waitressing and child care. Was she a mental giant? Who could possibly know? Might she have had bad things happen to her in life had she been free? Why not? Bad things happen to many of us.

So the book first tells her story, and then gives a summary of the history of eugenics in the United States. There was an active movement in the U.S. to connect genes to intelligence to race–and some American publications were praised highly by Hitler himself. I don’t suppose we should really be surprised during the years of lynching of black people and fear of southern European immigrants that we also had a movement to cull out and isolate or sterilize or euthanize those who didn’t make the grade.

Other things of note: there was a failure to grasp that genetically controlled qualities are not one-to-one: that is, skin color, hair texture, and certainly something as complex as intelligence, are combinations of many genes plus the complexities of environment.

Henry Goddard, author of The Kallikak Family (1912)  and the central figure at the Vineland (NJ) Training School where Emma Wolverton was kept (originally “The New Jersey Home for the Education and Care of Feebleminded Children”), made up something vaguely scientific to support his pre-existing beliefs. Goddard’s book on the Kallikaks posited two genetic lines from a single revolutionary war soldier, one set of descendents normal and successful, one degenerate and feeble minded. Goddard’s facts were later discovered to have been misinterpreted– and made up.

Goddard was also deeply involved in intelligence testing, repeatedly “proving” that the majority of immigrants were feeble-minded! The categories my father learned from his biology textbooks were idiots, imbeciles, and morons– the morons a category created by Goddard and some others to cover those just below normal.
A handful of culturally and experientially derived questions, and people, like southern European immigrants and Emma Wolverton were labeled–and incarcerated–for life.

The book has lots more about the development of intelligence testing, and how prostitutes and women with illegitimate children were considered ipso facto feeble-minded. Goddard believed he and his employees could take one quick look and identify morons and other feebleminded.

We are now a hundred years past the height of the American eugenics movement, and I have to remind myself that a hundred years from now, if there is clean air left for us to breathe, we may be looking back at our present selves in horror.

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Jane Lazarre: Interview on Writing Memoir and the Intersection of Politics and Literature

Jane Lazarre was interviewed by Deborah Kalb on”Book Q & A’s with Deboarah Kalb.”  She talks about her latest book, The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter, and discusses how she refuses to separate literature and politics.

The book is really wonderful.  It centers on Lazarre’s father, born in Kishinev, famous for pogroms at the beginning of the twentieth century.  He, Bill, and his immediate family emigrated to the United States when he was a teenager. He learned English with great speed, worked, joined the Communist Party, did a stint in prison, and always read widely, but especially Marx, Lenin, Dostoevsky, Theodore Dreiser and other masterful critics of the status quo.

In fact, Bill Lazarre’s reading list, and what he and his daughters read together and discussed, is one of the threads that binds the book together. For this is a memoir about people who constantly think and discuss, and feel as passionately as they think.

As a young man, Bill went to Spain with the International Brigades to fight fascism, and this remained one of the high points of his life. His life in the Party back in the United States was also rich: he wrote and spoke publicly and taught, but the heroic days were gradually undermined by intra-party struggles as well as rumors that justice was not being meted out in the Soviet Union. He was eventually thrown out of the party for reasons associated with the last days of Stalin when any disagreement was tantamount to betrayal. The ideology he had built his life around for its clear path to a better world no longer seemed to work.

After losing his Party positions, he had trouble finding work that would support him and his two daughters. Harassed by the FBI and eventually taken before the HUAC committee, he stood firm and revealed nothing to implicate his old comrades, in spite of a real danger of deportation, even though he was an American citizen.

In his final years, he found some satisfaction in a quiet life, a worker hired by former comrades, reading all the papers, finding a second love. He also had a little time with his first grand-child, Jane’s oldest son whose heritage is half Eastern European Jewish radicalism and half southern African-American. This becomes part of Bill Lazarre’s hope for the future–for a time when international union will be the human race.

The author, meanwhile, as she grew up–and this is almost as much her story as his–turned to psychoanalysis and literature as a language for finding meaning in the complexities of life.

Telling these things about this book, of course, give no hint of its texture: it attempts and largely succeeds in creating a nuanced view of Bill Lazarre’s emotional and political experience and the world he lived and suffered in, which was also the world the author grew up in. He has his heroic days recruiting workers for the righteous cause, and he has personal catastrophes when both his adored wife and then a second love die of virulent breast cancer. The author creates his life using his letters and notes, stories told and books written by his old comrades, and she also imagines scenes of him as a boy in Kishinev and alone in his apartment at the end of his life.

She also writes about what it was like to be a Communist Child, when the families gathered in living rooms over food and discussion, with the children loved by all the adults– a hint, perhaps of the yearned for Utopia of equality and camaraderie.

The book is organized in generally chronological sections, but within those sections, it works by association, by retelling dreams, by including transcripts of and commentary on court proceedings. It is a collection of materials, insights, incidents, and imagery formed into a brilliant whole by Jane Lazarre’s skill and patience.

It ought to be a classic of twentieth century American life.

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Answering Fire

Answering Fire by John Wheat croft is a small book consisting of a short story and a novella, centering on the World War II experiences of a young sailor. The short story “Kamikaze,” is wonderfully dark: we experience with the teen-aged protagonist some of the daily life of a big air craft carrier that is under constant threat from the Japanese suicide planes. The tension and horror of that are bad enough, but there is a possibly hallucinatory story line about another sailor, repeated described as silent, animal-like, and unintelligent, who hates their noncommissioned officer and gradually draws the protagonist into a mutual crime that is a deep look at the secret dark side of the human soul. It’s an intense little piece, and a perfect mood-setter for the longer story.

“Answering Fire” is about an aging, highly civilized and thoughtful protagonist, who may be the young man from the first story fifty years later, on holiday in England with his wife. He is thrown back in memory by an encounter with another vacationer, a teacher from Japan. He begins to remember his experiences when the American naval forces, who had been told like the rest of America, that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had saved the U.S. forces from a devastating resistance if they invaded Japan. Instead, the sailors, even far away from the nuclear devastation, find flattened cities and people living in holes, trading any saved valuables for cigarettes. This is an unusual and excellent book about what even that so-called righteous war did to combatants and victors as well as to victims.

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Don’t Forget Shelley Ettinger’s Read Red Book blog…

Recent suggestions for reading about the Russian Revolution as well as her take on Elsa Ferrante’s books and a lot more.

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Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth is usually described as a roman à clef about Roth’s marriage to Claire Bloom, but I pretty much missed all of that, and just read it as a Roth novel. I love many of the characters, especially the ones Roth loves (one of whom is not Nathan Zuckerman the protagonist). It’s hard not to feel for the spectacularly flawed “Iron Zinn,” and even more the older brother, Nathan’s teacher, who as a ninety year old narrates most of the story. The background is wonderfully detailed, especially the romance of communism for a brainy Jewish kid growing up in Newark, NJ at the end of the thirties and during WWII. We get a lot of the black list and McCarthyism of course, and it goes on too long in places. I like how Roth gets excited about various crafts (glove making in American Pastoral, taxidermy and rock collecting here), but he probably uses more of his research than the novel requires.

I don’t know if this is prime Roth, but second rate Roth is better than nine tenths of the books you read. Read and enjoy, Iron Inn and Murray the Teach and even tremulously manly Nathan Z., as they try to figure out America..

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Anti-Keystone Pipeline poems by Karl Patten

Here’s a link to a series of anti-Keystone pipeline poems by one of my favorite professors, Karl Patten.  The poems are introduced by Cynthia Hogue.

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Grace Paley Would Have Been 94….

… and here’s a lovely piece about her by Emily Temple:

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Shelley Ettinger on Kia Corthron’s The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter

Earlier this month I finished reading Kia Corthron’s magnificent first novel The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet. I’ve been dying to talk to someone about it but no one I know has read it yet–it did after all just come out–so I’m going to talk about it a little bit here. On Read Red. Which I herewith declare reborn.

The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is, as any great work of art must be, several things at once. It is a book of amazing craft and innovative technique. The whole first third or so, all of which is written from the POV of four different children, is dazzling. The kind of writing that makes other writers shake our heads in wonder and wonder gee how in the world did she do that. But it’s not the off-putting, fancy-but-unreadable kind of dazzling that in some quarters passes for laudable language manipulation, the kind of trickery for its own sake that accomplishes nothing except displaying the writer’s self-regard. No. This is the pull-you-deep-inside-the-characters’-minds-and-spirits kind of literary magic that so many try but so few can pull off. I don’t know how many times in the weeks since I finished the book I’ve heard little Elliot’s full-of-wonder voice in my head saying ‘I love Mom! I love pork and beans!’ Which might sound like a minor silly example but is not, because these early passages that so thoroughly bring Elliot the young child to life have everything to do with how the reader is engaged with his story as it develops in his adulthood.

Well not everything. For the adult Elliot’s story, who he becomes and what he does, speaks to another facet of what this book accomplishes. This is political art of the highest order. As we meet the four main characters–Elliot and his brother Dwight who are Black children growing up in Maryland, and white brothers B.J. and Randall in Alabama–it is 1941. Jim Crow is in full force. The U.S. is about to enter World War II. And we know that these two sets of brothers will come of age at the time of the start of the civil rights movement, and into full adulthood in the 1960s. What we don’t know yet as the novel begins, what I didn’t dare hope even as I was falling in love with it as literature, is that the story will open and deepen and tackle the big stuff. It does. And so as we read on, always engaged in a specific story about specific characters, we also engage with the history of the U.S.  in the 20th and 21st centuries. Racism and racist violence. Divisions and solidarity. War. Class. Poverty. LGBTQ oppression. Disability and disabled oppression. Palestine! And more.

Anyone who’s ever read any of my posts on this blog during the years I kept it up–or anyone who now reads its title–or anyone who scrolls through and reads some of the archive as I now invite new visitors to do–will know from even my too-brief words here about this book that it meets every criterion for what I consider great literature. It is political art. On the side of the workers and oppressed. Full of passion, wit, charm and heart, this fine novel makes the case, and by doing so flies in the face of the U.S. literary establishment’s anti-political-art rules, for what people’s fiction can truly be.
I mentioned heart. Some paragraphs back I wrote that this book is several things at once, and of course I’ve failed to delineate what all those things are yet written too much already, so you’ll just have to discover them all for yourself when you read The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. But I do want to touch in closing on one facet that absolutely blew me away: the amazing, searing big-heartedness of this beautiful beautiful book. In the closing pages Corthron draws all the threads of the story together satisfyingly and effectively, with grace and skill–but more than that, with an unsentimental depth of emotion that shocked me into the kind of sobbing that makes it hard to read. I won’t say anything specific that would be a spoiler, but I found myself feeling deep compassion for not only the characters I’d grown to love, the characters I could in one way or another identify or empathize with, but also for a character for whom I would never have thought I would or could or would ever want to weep. That Corthron made me cry for this character speaks, I think, not only to her deeply generous humanity, to her powerful insight into human beings, but, most important for a red reader, it speaks to her broad vision of the purpose of literature. She’s making a case for change. For the possibility of change, and the necessity of change. For social change that can and does happen, brought about by people joining together and fighting for it, no matter how hard the sacrifice needed. For the future. And literature’s place in forging it.

Hope, then. This is the abiding emotion you’re left with when you close this book. You’re left thinking about how hard it all is, but also how much better it’s become, how far we have to go but also how fully capable we are of moving forward. What a gift.

Shelley Ettinger  (From Read Red)


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Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

WVelma-Wallishat makes this novel political, to my mind, is how it offers a view of community and individualism that is at once exotic to me and written in a way that opens itself to my understanding.  Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, has apparently been a best seller, although I only recently heard of it. It is sometimes classified as a book for adults, sometimes for children, perhaps because it’s small. The writer is a Gwich’in Athabascan Indian, born in 1960, and she hasn’t published a lot.   I looked for an image of her via Google, and one picture I found was of her a few years back speaking about the sad death of one of her brothers who was homeless and burned to death.

I don’t know her present world or her cultural past, but Two Old Women is wonderful. It is in the form of a legend told by a mother to a daughter. It tells of two elder-women left behind by their nomadic band to die during a time of extremely tight resources. They are not simply victims– indeed, it turns out they have been demanding and lazy for a long time.   At the same time, they have rich memories of their own lives and also of how to do things.  In fact, their pooled knowledge allows them to do extremely well on their own for a whole year.  They accumulate large stores of dried fish and meat, rabbit fur gloves and homemade coats. They are contacted again by their band, who are still starving, and there is guilt and distrust on all sides, and then a slow, painstaking reconciliation. Everyone learns respect, and the two old women learn not to expect always to be taken care of– that they need to share their efforts and knowledge. This is a really interesting happy ending that is about group growth rather than individual fulfillment.

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Shelley Ettinger’s Best Books of 2015

The best novels I read this year are: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa, The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar, Tumbledown by Robert Boswell, and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.


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