April 15, 2004

Thank You, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another Jeeves and Wooster novel, like unto the rest for the most part, though it has its distinguishing features, and almost entirely enjoyable.

It is thanks to one of these features that I say "almost entirely", but more of that anon.

The basic plot is familiar. One of Bertie's chums and one of his ex-fiancees wish to marry, but are prevented by Members of the Older Generation with their Hands on the Purse Strings. Bertie wishes to do all he can to help. However, Bertie and Jeeves have fallen out due to some innovation of Bertie's. Jeeves will naturally save the day, and Bertie will abandon his innovation in gratitude.

The first unique feature of this particular volume is that the innovation has nothing to do with Bertie's dress or appearance. He is not wearing clocked socks; he does not have a brightly-colored cummerbund; he has not grown a mustache. Instead, he has taken to playing the banjolele, an instrument so vile that he is evicted from his London flat when he refuses to give it up. More--when Bertie proposes to retire to a small cottage in the country where he will devote himself heart and soul to the pursuit of excellence with the banjolele, Jeeves refuses to go with him! The horror! In fact, Jeeves leaves Bertie's service altogether. It seems that Jeeves has developed a horror of the banjolele, and the thought of being incarcerated with one in the confines of a small cottage is simply too much.

The banjolele, incidentally, is a real instrument; it's a banjo body with a ukelele neck. It has four strings like a ukelele, and is tuned like a ukelele, and is intended to allow ukelele players to sound something sort of like banjo players. Apparently back in the 1920's or so there was a fad for this sort of thing, and every combination of mandolin, banjo, and ukelele bodies and necks were available. I found this out by Googling on "banjolele"; the number page not only answered the question, but quoted this particular book.

The distinguishing feature that mars the book is a distressing bit of racial foolishness. In the vicinity of Bertie's cottage is a troupe of what are described as "nigger minstrels". We never meet them, and it's never entirely clear whether they really are black, or whether they simply perform in black-face, though (since sometimes the phrase "negro minstrels" is used) I suspect the former. Either way, the "N-word" appears multiple times. And a good bit of the plot depends on Bertie being in black-face, and therefore being both unrecognizeable and indistinguishable from one of the minstrels.

Now, Wodehouse had no intention of being racist. When this book was written there really were minstrel troupes, and they really were named as I've described, and were undoubtedly so-called even by the minstrels themselves. And you can't accuse him of presenting blacks in a bad way, as they do not in fact actually appear. And the whole thing with black-face wasn't intended to be anything but entirely silly.

In short, this is not a racist book. And yet one of the effects of forty years of advances in civil rights in this country is that I can't read a period book that uses the "N-word" with no intent to offend without feeling dirty. There's something wrong with that. On the one hand, I'd never call anyone a "nigger"; it's impossible to use the word today without offending. But why should that offense be allowed to work its way backward to taint a book with no harm in it, that doesn't perpetuate racial stereotypes, that simply uses the word as it was once commonly used?

In short, I'm less annoyed that the book uses a term that some find offensive, and more annoyed that I can't read the book without thinking about how some other people might be offended by it.


Posted by Will Duquette at April 15, 2004 08:23 PM

Craig Clarke said:

One of the things I most regretted about "progress" was that my beloved Tom and Jerry cartoons were defiled for future viewings. You may remember the result of an explosion in someone's face: a blackface rendition of that person. I have rewatched several cartoons of the period somewhat recently, and now the film inevitable fades out just after the explosion.

Now, I think we all know that explosions are not inherently funny; it's their consequences that make the joke, and I always found this hilarious, even when I knew what the implication was. I think they either need to reinsert the offending clip, or not show the explosion at all--perhaps not show that cartoon at all. I don't think any child in the modern age would even know to what it refers, but would simply laugh at the "silly cat."

But, then again, I've also been accused of being terribly naive.

Deb said:

Hmmmm...I've only gotten to the part where they are evicted. I dont think Jeeves took a dislike to the instrument, per se. More like he couldnt stand Bertie's playing of the instrument and, ack, his singing!