by Leah Vahjen
While there are many economic statistics and definable political events surrounding post-World War II America, the literature of this period uniformly expresses an increasing feeling of disorientation and unrest among the American people. At this time, the Modernist notions of distrust in once-revered social constructs began to metamorphose into the contemporary beliefs that there is no center, no “Truth,” and no calculable definition of reality. These burgeoning ideologies created new perspectives concerning social analysis and personal revolution. Amid the very hopeless beginnings of the Postmodern era, Carson McCullers chose to believe in the opportunity for people to define their personal spirit, and to bring that new constitution forward in order to bolster the American nation. In her 1946 short story, “Untitled Piece,” McCullers uses an anecdote, in which children attempt to build and fly a glider, as a means of demonstrating the struggles that postmodern Americans faced while taking the next step in transitioning away from old, traditional values and towards grounding themselves in their new sense of individual spirit.
In the wake of WWII, America became a global powerhouse, complete with an unrivaled military and great economic prosperity. War, itself, and the need for larger industry during wartime helped create new job positions for African Americans and women, resulting in “new aspirations among both majority and minority populations. New possibilities for action empowered individuals and groups in the pursuit of personal freedom and individual self-expression” (Baym 4). While the notion of the conformist “American Dream” seemed to take hold in the 1950’s, the social discontent and internal-discord that had been roiling since the early 1900’s only seemed to be further agitated by this white-male-based privilege. Equality movements roared onto the scene, and all was televised and spread through new forms of popular media. One form of entertainment that found itself on the rise was the short story, which was often used as a means of conversing about and working towards an understanding of the shifting philosophies of the American people. In contrast to the many authors of the Modernist era who reflected on feeling lost, or attempted to cope with losing those beliefs which had formerly provided a sense of structure, McCullers embraced the beginnings of the Postmodern era, pushing her readers into looking towards the future. In “Untitled Piece,” for example, she showcases a young, black female and a young, white sibling trio who are bravely and desperately working to rally their spirits and fly forward. The underlying optimism that this piece presents functions in a way that allows us to see the initial shifting from the Modern to the Contemporary era in literature.
At the time “Untitled Piece” was published, McCullers was 29 years-old, and had lived through the entirety of WWII, the Great Depression, the rise of national connection through media and technology, and the fall of many social practices. Through these experiences, she found great interest in loneliness and the idea of the spirit, declaring, “spiritual isolation is the basis of most of my themes” (The Mortgaged Heart 921). She did not mourn these circumstances, but instead seemed fascinated by them and even hopeful because of them; she regarded this thematic concept as an opportunity for redemption and progress, proclaiming that “the right to establish our individual spiritual values—that is the breath of the American ideal” (The Mortgaged Heart 782). She felt that through this window, Americans could “integra[te] with something greater than themselves,” providing a sense of stability and purpose to a population without a sense of permanence (The Mortgaged Heart 480). In “Untitled Piece,” we can see a group of children working towards this goal, as they fixate on a task and find hope and pleasure in working towards accomplishing it.
In the glider anecdote, three Motherless siblings, Andrew, Sara, and Mick Leander, along with Vitalis, a young African American woman who works for the children’s white family, share the experience of hoping that a home-made glider will allow the children to fly. The older siblings, Andrew and Sara, “read about gliders in a science magazine in the school library,” and they work together to make one from imagined blueprints and items they can scrounge up for construction (“Untitled Piece” 81). We see both the influences of contemporary entertainment and the implication of a child’s ability to cultivate belief in spite of the adult epidemic of disbelief, when the narrator says that the glider “seemed very different from the ones they had seen in the movies – but he and Sara kept telling each other that it was just as good and that there was nothing to keep their ship from flight” (“Untitled Piece” 81). The fact that the children maintain their belief in something that they decided was important to them, rather than submitting to the woes of society at the time, expresses McCullers’ perspective about the power and potential of the individual spirit. As McCullers states in her the outline for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, “human beings are innately cooperative, but an unnatural social tradition makes them behave in ways that are not in accord with their deepest nature,” and if they are to break those traditions and follow their individual spirits, they will be able to exhibit and practice the same tenacity and faith as the children in “Untitled Piece” (The Mortgaged Heart 467). This would ultimately lead towards social progress for the American people—a post-modern hope that presents itself in many contemporary works of literature.
As the glider story progresses, we begin to see McCullers’ themes manifest in her characters’ physical forms. This is a common characteristic of McCullers’ writings, as her characters are “often maimed or crippled, [while] their bodies mime the distortions of their spirit” (Hassan 68). The euphoria and anticipation of these characters first climaxes to a nearly sexual place, as Sara is described with “full, almost sullen lips” that are “red and dry as though from a fever,” and similarly, Vitalis is “picking at her swollen quivering lips” (“Untitled Piece” 81-82). These descriptions rest between erotic and unsightly or barren, which speaks to the idea that these characters are poised between a chance at something new and stimulating, and something that will drag them down into desolation and unhealthy fear.
After the failed attempts at flight, both Andrew and Sara are physically injured; Andrew has the wind viciously knocked out of him, while Sara ends up with a swollen eye, a “big bruise on her thigh,” and a “long bloody smear on her knee where the skin had scraped off” (“Untitled Piece” 84-85). The children suffer bodily harm as their attempts at flight fail, which further enforces McCullers’ own comments about her characters when she says she writes about “people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love—their spiritual isolation” (The Mortgaged Heart 921). Here, rather than presenting completely incapacitated characters who are irreversibly hardened by their experience, McCullers presents children who can make a change; children, who can heal; characters who can choose to believe in the glider, and ground themselves in goals and values of their personal preference, despite growing up without a Mother in a time period fraught with disillusionment. This freedom to root one’s faith in his or her own beliefs, rather than those belonging to the masses is a frightening and uncertain proposition to the minds of post-WWII Americans, but McCullers sees that it is an incredible opportunity for fulfillment of “true” personal happiness. The disparity in the two children’s injuries can be interpreted as a representation of the different levels of impact that this mental transition and social evolution will have on either gender—a concept that is played out in the remainder of the story.
It is no accident that Andrew and Sara are the characters in the foreground of “Untitled Piece”; they are of an age where they are still impressionable, but capable of making their own decisions, judgments, and mistakes. They are two among many children who might be catalysts for change, particularly including the reassembling of national spirit via the individual spirit. While they are both white Americans, it is important to again note that one is male and one is female; McCullers makes it a point throughout the story to express how these changes will provide different obstacles for the male and female populations, but what is special about the glider story is that the children have not yet reached that gender-based separation in their journeys.
In the background of the scenes are two other females, Mick and Vitalis. Mick, a very young, white female allows McCullers to show that the attempts made by older children towards progress and self-belief will inspire future generations, leading to an entire spiritual revolution throughout America. Although Mick spends most of the story sitting in the background with “her hands on her fat little knees, not saying much but gazing at everything they did with a wondering look to her face and with her little mouth softly open,” the one line she does insist on saying is that “when [she is] twelve years old and a big girl [she is] going to fly and [she is] not going to fall” (“Untitled Piece” 82-84). Even though she is watching her older brother and sister brutally crash into the hard earth from their failed glider, she further shows her resolve to follow in their footsteps by proclaiming of her own future, “You just wait and see” (“Untitled Piece” 84).
Vitalis is equally as significant, as she is representing not only women, but the position of African American women in postmodern America. At 25 years-old, she is depicted as child-like and oppressed, still working as a servant in a white home, and failing at exerting any sort of power over the white children, who continue to act as they please, disregarding her attempts at being responsible and warning them about the dangers of the glider. There are important racial issues being included here which can be complicated by arguments about McCullers’ own views based on the location and time period she lived in, but in the context of the glider as a representation of American change, Vitalis’ beliefs and reactions serve to display the struggles and hopes of another demographic of the American people, as they function within the larger national equation.
Vitalis’ words and beliefs show an awareness of the intensity of the struggles to come for the African American population. The narrator of “Untitled Piece” says, “there was something about the glider that excited her as much as it did the rest of them – and that scared her too” (82). Can Vitalis possibly follow the example being set by the white children? She says, “I have been having this here feeling all day that something bad ghy happen from that thing,” and the narrator states, “But no matter what she said Vitalis believed in the glider as much as any of them (“Untitled Piece” 82-83). McCullers seems to be addressing difficult questions, such as whether or not the African American community can safely act as a part of this contemporary movement, and it seems as though she is leaving that answer up to the people of the nation. Her characterization of Vitalis seems to imply that she believes that all Americans, regardless of race, can potentially have the opportunity to be an equal part of postmodern progress, provided that they are accepted—and they know they may not be. This is further expressed both when Vitalis wonders what the children will even do if they manage to lift off, and in the fact that she does not want to watch what happens, so she goes inside and peeks out from the safety of the house (“Untitled Piece” 83-84). Both of these fearful responses align with the anxieties that African Americans have continued to face since this point in time when they began establishing themselves as equal citizens, unsure of consequences from the white community.
While the glider anecdote could be interpreted as a despairing, sorrowful story, it holds many important, redeeming sentiments that champion McCullers’ hopes for the American people. After crashing for the first time, Andrew is confused and injured, “but for some reason that did not matter at all” (“Untitled Piece” 84). He continues to try to fly the glider, and the narrator says that he and Sara “both knew that this second trial would be just like the first and that their glider would not fly… but there was something that would not let them think about it – the wanting and the excitement that would not let them be quiet or stop to reason” (“Untitled Piece” 83). McCullers is showing that the individual process of learning to believe in one’s self, and the national process of transitioning into a new, healthy social state will not come easy, or be quick, or be painless. It will be built by the hands of the new generations, and they will suffer—but it is as McCullers states in “We Carried Our Banners—We Were Pacifists, Too” when she says:
We have been demoralized. It has taken us long, too long, to come to terms with our inward selves, to adjust our traditions to necessity, to reach the state of conviction that impels action. We have had to re-examine our ideals, and to leave much behind. We have had to face a moral crisis for which we were scantily equipped. But at least we have reached our conclusions and we are ready to act. We have come through. (The Mortgaged Heart 781-782)
The Leander children are acting, and they are not backing down. Even after all their efforts had failed, and their glider was unrecognizable, and their bodies were wounded, Sara still states that she would rather they have tried at all, and Andrew is more puzzled by why it didn’t work than he is devastated that they failed (“Untitled Piece” 85).
McCullers’ ultimate point seems to be best vocalized when she says, “America is useful, but it cannot always be young. Like an adolescent who must part with his broken family, America feels now the shock of transition. But a new and serene maturity will come if it is worked for” (The Mortgaged Heart 747-748). Throughout the story, Andrew and Sara both encounter many more pains and plenty more confusion after the glider episode. In the largest frame of the narrative, Andrew has been traveling out in the world, still expectant, and still working towards the integration of his personal spirit into the American culture (“Untitled Piece” 81). Through all of the loneliness, uncertainty, and disappointment of growing up, these children do not give up because they possess strong individual spirit. Andrew is “drunk drunk” and “lost lost” at the end of the story, but we can still see the resistance of his spirit when the narrator says, “But somehow it didn’t matter. He felt strong… He was drunk and there was power in him to shape things” (“Untitled Piece” 102-103). Through this story, and especially within the glider anecdote, McCullers is posing a contemporary solution to the ailments of postmodern America, urging individuals to turn inward and believe in themselves in order to create new happiness, and encourage national progress and solidarity.
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McCullers, Carson. The Mortgaged Heart. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005. Print.
—. “Untitled Piece.” Collected Stories. New York: Mariner Books, 1998. 80-103. Print.