DSQ > Winter/Spring 2007, Volume 27, No.1-2
Abstract

American novelist and teacher John Gardner (1933-1982) grew up near the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, a town that boasted a large and vibrant blind community up into the 1970s. This experience is surely why his novels include blind characters with fully imagined histories and inner lives, an extreme rarity in literary history. Esther Clumly in The Sunlight Dialogues, for example, is not only the presiding spirit of the novel but also a rounded and dynamic major character with a realistic blind-school background and a web of friends and community. What's remarkable is how Gardner controls the distance between his own views — that blind people are numerous, competent, interesting, and yet essentially ordinary — and those of his characters, some of whom find blind people frightening, pitiable, freakish, or stupid. This controlled distance creates tension, depth, and, sometimes, irony.

Keywords: American literature, twentieth-century literature, fiction, John Gardner, New York, blind children, blind adults, blind women, schools for the blind.

Introduction

From the number of blind characters who people the novels of John Gardner, it is certain that blindness held some special interest for the author. Gardner (1933-1982), novelist, teacher, and notorious contrarian who died in a motorcycle accident at age 49, is best remembered today for the cult classic Grendel, the polemic On Moral Fiction (which destroyed his reputation) and two much-admired how-to books for apprentice writers. But the novels and stories set in upstate New York may well prove to be Gardner's enduring legacy to American fiction. In these novels — The Resurrection, Nickel Mountain, The Sunlight Dialogues, and Mickelsson's Ghosts — we find an unusual number of what are conventionally termed Gardner's grotesques, characters with various disabilities and disfigurements that are generally interpreted by scholars as evidence of Gardner's gothic tastes. These portraits, I argue, are, instead, realistic portraits of rural, mid-century Americans in all their diversity. Gardner grew up on a farm in western New York, near Batavia, which was (and still is) home of the New York State School for the Blind (NYSSB). When he came into town as a boy for church, music lessons, shopping, or, as a teenager, high school, he would have met pupils from the "Blind School" around town, as well as blind men and women who took up residence in Batavia to pursue job opportunities in a town that boasted a thriving blind community.

This article investigates the role of the NYSSB in Batavia during Gardner's childhood and identifies the functions of blind characters in his fiction to suggest that Gardner's novels were way ahead of their time in regarding disability as an element or expression of diversity rather than a mysterious essence to be deployed symbolically in a novel. Comparing the best known examples of blind characters in the work of other 20th-century authors shows us how multivalent Gardner's portrayals are. D. H. Lawrence's 1922 "The Blind Man" is a story about a sighted man, Bertie, who learns something about what it means to be human (and, perhaps, homosexual) when he and a blind man, Maurice, touch one another in a barn. In a similar fashion, Raymond Carver's 1983 story "Cathedral" is narrated by a sighted man who learns similar lessons when he touches a blind man named Robert while the two are up late one night watching TV. Both Maurice and Robert are depicted in the stories as isolated individuals who have been introduced to the main, sighted characters by women. Maurice and Robert come off as passive foils to the sighted men who learn from them via a mysterious epiphany that occurs when they make tactile contact. Lawrence and Carver use their blind men as symbols only: it does not matter what Maurice's or Robert's personalities or histories are, only that they are blind. In Kenneth Jernigan's list of literary motifs by which blind characters are depicted (1974), Maurice appears in the category of total tragedy. However he's something more than that, as he, like Robert, who is not tragic but rather pitiable and disconcerting, both enjoy a mysterious sort of compensatory power to transform the heroes of their stories (without, however, deriving any benefit from these powers for themselves).

We find nothing of this nature in Gardner's writing, nor do we find the association with the feminine that both Lawrence and Carver have made use of and that, according to Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997b), is a common cultural association. While Maurice and Robert each serve, in their stories, as a "bearer of meaning, not a maker of meaning" (Gitter, 1991, p. 77), this is not true of Gardner's blind characters. Nor is it true of Gardner's characters that they appear with "no historical referents" (Holmes, 2002, p. 228) as Maurice and Robert do. Despite these fundamental differences, Maurice and Robert seem to have more in common with Gardner's blind characters than does the average disabled literary character, to judge by the scholarship on the subject. Neither in Gardner's characters nor in Maurice and Robert so we find appropriation by the author for a metaphor of either the author's own outsider status (Norden, 1994; Thomson,1997a: Fries, 1997) or of a problem to be resolved by killing off or curing the blind person (Mitchell & Snyder, 2002). Carver was Gardner's student and although, in my opinion, he is not the great writer that Gardner was, he clearly picked up some pointers for depicting Robert from the two masters, Gardner and Lawrence.

Gardner, in contrast, creates a major character, Esther Clumly in The Sunlight Dialogues, who is not only the presiding spirit of the novel but also a fully developed major character with a realistic blind-school history and web of friends and community. Gardner's other blind characters, although minor in their novels, are brought into play not to teach sighted people lessons in life, but rather to serve, ironically, as normates against whom sighted characters are shown to be flawed in some way. What's remarkable is how Gardner controls the distance between his own views — that blind people are numerous, competent, interesting, and yet essentially ordinary — and those of his characters, some of whom find blind people frightening, pitiable, freakish, or stupid. This controlled distance creates tension, depth, and, sometimes, irony.

The New York State School for the Blind

It is clear that Gardner's views of blind people were acquired by growing up in a small town that had a large blind community. In the 1940s and '50s, before mainstreaming emptied residential blind schools and strangled the development of blind communities in the towns in which the schools were located, vibrant blind communities existed in places like Gardner's Batavia, where blind graduates married former classmates, went into business together, and generally kept in touch throughout their lifetimes. Gardner's fiction recalls, with loving nostalgia, a time when healthy, cane-using, Braille-reading, blind children and adults were part of the Batavia landscape and social life, a time that is now vanished forever. Nostalgia is an important feature in Gardner's oeuvre, and essential to those of his works set in the Middle Ages or 19th century. The use of nostalgia in his upstate New York novels accounts for much of their charm today, as readers vicariously visit family dairy farms, rural diners, police stations where the cops know all the residents, and, yes, a blind community.

The New York State School for the Blind was founded in 1866, like many American state-funded schools and "asylums" for handicapped people in the years immediately following the Civil War. Until the early twentieth century, the school, like others of its sort, was a town in itself, with a large campus including a farm worked by the pupils, a chapel, kitchens, work shops, and so on. By Gardner's day, the fruit and vegetable farm had been abandoned but the classrooms and workshops were full and busy. During the school year 1936-1937, when Gardner was four years old, the school had 159 pupils, and the high school included the following programs: Literary (which led to a New York State Regents Diploma), Piano Tuning, Industrial (including wicker work, caning, broom making, mattress making, and carpentry), Home Economics (sewing, knitting, basketry, carpet weaving, cooking, washing, house cleaning), Typewriting (which was done from a dictaphone), Elocution, and Poultry Raising (NYSSB, 1937). A great deal of attention was given to deportment, training the pupils to act as though they were sighted by correcting such "physical defects as improper posture, defects in walking and in carriage, and marring blindisms" (NYSSB, 1955, p.18). Sports were important: an athletic field with a softball diamond went from drawing board to completion between 1948 and 1954. Music performance was emphasized, with the school giving many concerts at local schools, churches, and clubs (NYSSB, 1943) and, in 1946, earning top ratings for its chorus and one solo pianist in the New York State Music Festival (NYSSB 1946). The Piano Tuning Department continued to turn out graduates nearly every year because tuning was "a prime vocation for the blind" (NYSSB, 1968), even as the need for tuning by ear was becoming obsolete. The Alumni Association was active, with annual reunions.

An NYSSB vocational guidance program placed pupils in internships and summer jobs in Batavia, such as in gas stations, a shirt factory, radio stations, and greenhouses (NYSSB, 1941), where local residents became accustomed to working with them. The Alumni Bulletins report news of such matters: an alumnus returns to Batavia for a job "managing a small concession"; an alumni couple sell their Washington Street home and their Bank Street electronics business to Urban Renewal and relocate elsewhere in Batavia; an alumna works at Genesee County BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services, i.e., a special education program) as a substitute teacher in the pre-school program (NYSSB, 1975). An entrepreneur turns over his television stock to sell CB (citizens' band) radios, of which he has the biggest stock in the Batavia area (NYSSB, 1977). Braille menus are available at local restaurants, including the Miss Batavia diner (NYSSB, 1978), featured in Gardner's The Sunlight Dialogues. In 1958, a blind counselor at the school who is also a drummer forms a rock group that performs around Western New York (NYSSB, n.d.). Reading the Alumnni Bulletins, clippings file, and Annual Reports makes Batavia seem a relative paradise for blind people.

The jingling ball: A blind softball game

Gardner's first published novel, The Resurrection (1966), features important scenes involving blind characters. James Chandler, a philosophy professor, has come home from San Francisco to die (of leukemia), but once in Batavia, ignores his family in favor of the one last book he wants to write. His three small daughters, however, succeed in getting him out of the house to come look at something they have discovered: a Blind School softball game, played with an audio ball and waist-high guide-ropes for running the bases. Chandler, who had seen this game so many times that at first he does not realize what the girls are showing him, now sees it as newly strange: "It was all, for some reason, incredibly moving — the absolute silence of the players" (p. 46). The batter, an albino, is running the bases "sliding his hand on the guide string" when the ball comes to halt and stops jingling. "Slowly, like children in a trance or like people moving underwater" (p. 46), the players search for the ball, "soundlessly, mechanically, as if without hope" (p. 47). When the oldest Chandler girl offers to tell the players where the ball is, Chandler whisks his girls away in annoyance. This episode, often read symbolically, is nevertheless authentic. There were four albino pupils at the school in the late 1950s (NYSSB, 1958). The jingling — or later, beeping — balls must have been invented by the late 1940s when the school was planning to build the softball diamond. A 1973 newspaper report in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle states that "[m]ore than 1,200 of the beeping balls have been donated to individuals and schools" and that one was placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame (NYSSB, n.d.).

Gardner's working title for The Resurrection was "When the Jingling Stops" (Howell, 1993, p. 30), external evidence that he meant the scene to represent or to echo the position of Chandler, for whom life, in all its jingling vibrancy, is soon to end. But Gardner is not deploying these blind children and their ball merely as angels of death. Instead, he shows Chandler facing death by rediscovering the strangeness of life. The jingling ball is thus both portentous and unresolved (McWilliams, 1990, p. 16). Chandler's children, who have many years yet to live, are amazed at how the blind children have adapted the game. And the girls pity the blind children and assume that they can help them, a common view of those new to disability. But Chandler, who, like virtually all of Gardner's middle-age, male characters is semi-autobiographical, is so entirely accustomed to blind people that he's never really stopped to think about them until now, the summer of his death. Gardner thus reverses the typical learning curve; whereas his girls have to learn not to stare at blind children, Chandler has to learn to see life not as a blur of quotidian events but, now while he still has the chance, as a kaleidoscope of the strange and mysterious, all newly precious to him. Gardner has played a trick on his readers, using an everyday event in 1950s Batavia to arrest us with life's mysteries.

Fear of "the blind": The piano tuners

This sense of mystery, an epiphany that there is something to life that is just out of reach and therefore uncanny yet also immediate and alarming, is also found in The Resurrection's episode of the piano tuners. This time, it is Chandler's elderly mother, Rose, who feels the eerie draught of strangeness in the presence of two blind men. While Chandler took the blind pupils for granted as part of life in Batavia and saw their game as "moving" only when its strangeness was pointed out by his young daughters, Rose Chandler has always been frightened by the blind. When the two men appear at her door, Rose at first does not know who they are or why they are there, despite the fact that, in Batavia, one would expect a piano tuner to be blind. Rose is accustomed to seeing blind people as Others, "hurrying up Bank Street in pairs . . . selling the brooms they'd made at the Blind School, walking faster than other people, talking more loudly than other people did, laughing huskily, like Negroes" (p. 184). She fixates on their physical differences, seeing them as "strange, pale-skinned creatures who had come from the bottom of some wooded lake or appeared like mushrooms one morning in a grove" (p. 184) and their odd "lifeless" facial expression (p. 187), and recalls a time when she was newly married,

when a blind friend of her father-in-law's was there at the home place for a visit, there had been a thunderstorm and the lights had gone out. They could hardly find their way from one room to another; but the blind man had gone at once to the pantry, where the candles were, and set them up in their pewter holders and had lighted them with a look of unspeakable indifference, like an alien god intervening to resolve some idiotic dilemma of his creatures; and she had been alarmed. (p. 185)

Brought back to the present when the tuner Mr. Williams asks to see the piano and talks nonchalantly — and knowledgeably — about its condition, she becomes caught up in how "his glass eyes focused on the center of her forehead" (p. 188) — an effort to avoid a "marring blindism" by directing his gaze like a sighted person? If so, this effort further spooks Rose. The sightless gaze of Mr. Williams, like the facial expression of the blind friend of her in-laws, propels her into metaphor-making, symbolizing, and thoughts of gods and death.

Fear of "the blind", part 2: The antique collector

Rose Chandler's alarm when confronted with a blind person is shared by George Loomis in Nickel Mountain (1973), which was actually written earlier than The Resurrection, in the mid-1950s. George, a middle-aged, disabled Korean War veteran who subsequently lost an arm in a corn-binder accident, lives alone in his parents' old house, farming the land, watching television, collecting antiques that gather dust, and becoming increasingly bitter, cynical, antisocial, and paranoid as he slides toward nihilism (Howell, 1993, p. 21). The story is set in the Catskills.

One warm May night on his way up the mountain to his farm, the headlights going on and off in his beat-up old pick-up, George remembers the blind man he met at Bittner's antique store in town two weeks earlier. "He couldn't say at first why the trifling memory made him uneasy, or why he should happen to remember it at all" (p. 134): George doesn't make the connection between the malfunctioning headlights, which leave him driving sightless, and the memory that they prompt of the blind man. Bittner had introduced him to a blind collector named Glore, who is interested in antique paperweights, which George collects. Denying that he's really a collector, George observes Glore's cautious movements, dark glasses, and vague smile (p. 135). Glore's cane moved "back and forth across the aisle like a witching rod" (p. 135), and his skin, echoing Rose's description, "was pale and flaccid, as if he'd spent years in the darkest corners of junk stores" (p. 136). Glore asks for directions to George's house and whether he will be home that afternoon. And that was the last George saw of him. Now, in the truck with guttering headlights, George begins to wonder if Glore was really blind. By the time George gets out of his truck at his dark house, effectively blinded now himself in the dark night, he is sure that someone is inside — thieves, kids, arsonists. He has a flashback to his near death in Korea, then gets his rifle from the woodshed and dashes through the weeds around the house and charges the back door — only to find the house empty of anything save "himself and his things" (p. 141). George has effectively worked himself up into a paranoid terror by the chance recall of his meeting with Glore.

Does the "uncanniness of a 'blind man' ... hide some dark intent," as the critic Bo Ekelund cautions against supposing (p. 255)? No: Bittner was not at all alarmed by Glore and in fact encouraged George to deal with him. The uncanniness and alarm are entirely in the mind of George Loomis, and precisely of a piece with his deteriorating personality. Like the elderly Rose Chandler, herself not only nearly blind but also quite lame and disfigured by a goiter, George Loomis, an odd collection of disabilities and disfigurements, is afraid of blind people. Each has projected personal fears — in George's case, what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical paranoia; in Rose's, something more like frightened old-age after a remarkably insular social life — onto a fellow hobbyist or neighborhood tradesman who is somehow different. In so doing, they symbolize the blind person by casting him in otherworldly terms: "in a trance," "like an alien god," "like a witching rod." At the same time, they call up images of death, which they both fear: "from the bottom of some wooded lake,' "like mushrooms,' "lifeless," "pale and flaccid." Gardner never allows a character who is healthy and sound to make observations such as these.

The troublemaker: a blind college student

At the time of his death in 1982, Gardner was working on a novel whose fragments were posthumously edited and published as Shadows. The protagonist of Shadows is Craine, a Carbondale, Illinois, private detective who has been an all-day drinker for years (with the expected effects on his health and behavior — and on the narrative which wavers along with Craine's perceptions). His client is a much younger woman, Elaine Glass, who is a student at the state university. In one fragment, Craine is driving Elaine to class and telling her about Darwin's atheism: "Darwin, you know, took a hard line on the God business. Crossed him right off" (p. 404). Elaine's response — "That's sick!" — comes just as Craine, finding no parking space, pulls up on a sidewalk next to Elaine's classroom building to drop her off.

At once, as if materialized from nowhere, as a reprimand, a blind boy appeared and came tapping toward them, walking faster than a person with sight would walk, overcompensating, making trouble. Craine clamped his jaw and got out, let come what might.

Elaine slammed the door on her side, then saw the blind boy and cried, "Look out for the truck! There's a truck on the sidewalk!"

The boy jumped a foot, swinging his head around, first right, then left, convinced he was about to be run over. (p. 404)

Elaine runs to help the boy, who appears to be very angry, and who stands with Elaine quite some time, gesticulating with his cane. (Craine, like many of Gardner's middle-aged men, is hard of hearing and thus does not catch a lot of the conversation in this novel. In the present case, Craine's hearing loss is a technique for moving the narrative in and out of focus, as is Craine's inebriation.) Craine takes responsibility for being in the wrong with Elaine, but it was clearly Elaine who caused the ruckus by shouting out to the blind student about the truck, frightening him with the idea that the truck was moving. Like the Blind School pupils in Batavia that Rose Chandler remembers walking extra fast, this student is clearly an expert with his cane who undoubtedly would have gotten around the parked truck just fine on his own. Craine, who is obviously based largely on Gardner himself, right down to the all-day drinking, is so fully familiar with blind people that he figures it's the boy's fault if he runs into the truck, in contrast to Elaine's hypercorrect helping attitude, reminiscent of that of Chandler's daughter when she wanted to help the softball players find their ball.

Again, as in the jingling ball episode, Gardner is playing off two views of blind people: the ableist view that blind people need help and a view he associates with his semi-autobiographical characters, that blind people get along fine on their own. In both episodes, Gardner is belittling the ableist urge to help, while at the same time, bringing a third view, the writer's urge to symbolize, into play. In the piano-tuner and antique-collector episodes, Gardner introduces the symbolization tendency in order to show it as the product of a sick mind. But in the jingling-ball and blind-student episodes, it is Gardner's fictive persona who flirts with the urge to symbolize (but then retreats in confusion). Here, the blind student appears "as a rebuke" to Craine for trying to shock Elaine with talk of atheism. We should note, also, that the blind student seems to be a literary allusion to the "blind stripling" who taps his cane through the narrative course of Joyce's Ulysses. Since Shadows was not finished, we cannot say more.

The blind Beatrice: Esther Clumly

Gardner's masterpiece of a blind character is Esther Clumly in The Sunlight Dialogues, published in 1972. In a 1973 interview comparing Esther with Dante's guide in The Divine Comedy, Gardner said,

Mrs. Clumly is the Beatrice of The Sunlight Dialogues. She guides everybody because she loves. This is the kind of imagination which holds the world together.

The ability to be patient, to be tolerant, to try to understand and empathize, is the highest kind of imagination. The ability to make up grand images and to thrill the reader is a nice talent, but if it doesn't include love, it's nothing — mere sounding brass. (Chavkin, 1990, p. 23)

With this biblical allusion to what is left when one has no caritas (1 Corinthians 13:1), the interviewers (predictably) change the subject. Most discussion of The Sunlight Dialogues underplays Esther Clumly's role in the novel, and either ignores her blindness or treats it as a disfigurement or as a hardship for Clumly (e.g., Howell, 1993, p. 44). For this reader, however, Esther emerges as the most memorable and likable character in the book. As we discuss Esther and observe how often she is placed in narrative contexts with other characters exhibiting various disabilities, it is important to keep in mind Gardner's theory of "moral fiction," a perhaps poorly chosen term for what he, in the 1973 interview cited above, calls "love." On Moral Fiction (1978) was both widely misunderstood by readers and horribly misconceived by Gardner, who allowed himself to slip into invective, and it destroyed Gardner's reputation among academics and book reviewers. Yet On Moral Fiction remains a landmark book in that it articulates the notion that good writers "affirm life, not sneer at it" (Ferguson et al., 1997, p. 32). When Gardner plays Esther and her interlocutors for humor, he is inviting readers to smile at human nature, not laugh at his characters.

Esther is introduced only a few pages into the novel, following narrative comment on Clumly's disfigurement: "Clumly's whole body was creased and white and completely hairless. He'd had a disease when he was in the Navy, years ago" (p. 8). Esther is initially described in terms of her "bright glass eyes," unnaturally white skin, sagging shoulders and swaying head ("like a hairy sunflower," p. 8). She irritates her husband by putting her finger in her teacup while pouring in order to check the level, cooking gray stews for his supper, tippling wine when she's home alone, and using words related to sight, for example, "You look tired, Fred" (13). Her webbed feet and chicken-like appearance when she removes her eyes at night disgust him. She cannot seem to remember his admonition to turn the lights on in the house at dusk, and once she became hysterical and threatened to slash her own throat when he told her there was a hair in his food. In all these matters, she appears in Clumly's mind in unfavorable comparisons with the topless waitresses he sees in magazines and the Caribbean whores he visited in the Navy! The reader's first impression, therefore, is of a rather pathetically ludicrous couple. The Clumlys are neither glamorous nor clever, but they are certainly fully human and Gardner is solidly on both their sides. Clumly is the hero of the Dialogues: Esther is the book's heart.

Because Esther is such a kind woman, decorous and reticent in her dealings with others, Gardner lets his readers see her as the narrator of a stream-of-consciousness dream monologue, in which we learn, firstly, about the failed operation in which she lost her eyes, her assumption that her total blindness amounted to a "dungeon" for her husband (276), memories of the night she planned to drown herself shortly after the surgery and of the doctor's warning that any children they might have would likely "be afflicted" (p. 279; italics in original, indicating remembered speech). Her mind wanders back to her childhood in the Catskills, her first train ride to the Blind School, her resistance to learning Braille, and back to her decision to bear no children. Clumly, we learn, badly wanted children: "Now Esther, that's foolish," he said. "We all have our handicaps. Nobody's life is perfect. [. . .] A lot of them make great musicians," he said. I laughed." (p. 283). Esther awakens from this memory sequence and spends the day at home as usual, making Clumly's stew and drinking glass after glass of wine. At 6:30, he calls and tells her he will be very late, and, breaking routine, she decides to go out. The episode of Esther's evening outing is one of the best pieces of humor writing in Gardner's oeuvre, but, — this point cannot be over-emphasized — never at the expense of any of the characters. Gardner himself was a native of Esther's Batavia and the people she meets are based on his own beloved family and family friends.

Not far into her walk, she is startled by the sound of screeching brakes and thinks, for a moment (like the blind boy in Shadows) that she is about to be run over. But it is only her former Sunday School pupil who has braked to offer her a ride. He stutters, and he's now working as a cub reporter for the local newspaper. Here is a sample of the dialogue, narrated through Esther. Notice how the humor takes as its object not the stuttering but rather Esther's all-too-human bafflement as she waits for Ed to get a word out.

"I didn't get to do the mmmmMURDERS, b-b-b-but I ddddd, uh, ddddd, uh, — I dddd, uh, b-b-but I ddddd —"

She was fleetingly conscious of a difficulty about how to arrange her face as she waited for him to slam through the d into his word. Should she help? (pp. 287-88)

While this reaction of Esther's — worrying about her face and wondering if she could help — looks ableist at first glace, her general character and her role in the novel tell us we would be wrong to read it that way. Once again, the joke is on the reader.

What Ed finally got out was that he "DID" get to write about a recent robbery of the Woodworth family. Esther had not known about the robbery: the victims are friends of hers, an elderly pair of spinster sisters called Editha and Octave Woodworth. A previous episode in the novel showed Clumly visiting them to investigate the crime. The Woodworth sisters, who were modeled on the Brumstead sisters, neighbors and very close friends of the Gardners, are a comic masterpiece in both episodes. When Ed tells Esther about the robbery at the Woodworths', Esther makes up her mind to visit them that evening. As she is let into the house by Miss Octave, the comically exaggerated disability and political motifs associated with these elderly spinsters, whose real-life avatars were so dear to John Gardner that he made time to visit them on his trips home to Batavia, come fast and furious.

Octave's name is immediately explained in the narration: she was named after the "famous lady novelist" Octave Thanet, who visited the Woodworth home late in her life when she "weighed more than two hundred pounds and had a wooden leg and carried a pistol" (p. 289). Editha, the middle sister, is 108 years old and "more than nine-tenths dead," in Octave's words. The oldest sister, Agnes, had died at age 104 after spending her final years taking off her clothes for visitors. Once Esther is seated in the Woodworth's parlor, Editha says not one word and Esther begins to wonder whether she is really present — or really alive!

It had previously been narrated that the sisters (and various neighbors) "could describe the burglar in detail" (p. 40). When Clumly later arrived with a suspect whom he wanted them to identify, Miss Editha had spoken up from her dark corner, where she sat wrapped in black blankets and wearing an old black wig "slightly askew," to say that the suspect was not the right man (p. 45). Now, talking to Esther about "Jews and Communists and Catholics and Nigroes," Miss Octave tells her that FDR was a communist, and so is the present mayor of Batavia, and that the burglar "happened to be a Nigro" (p. 291): "You could tell by his voice" (292). When Esther expresses astonishment, Miss Octave continues, "We gave the police the best description we could, don't you know, but there was no point in mentioning that the man was a Nigro. The Woodworths have always tried not to be too prejudiced" (p. 292). Here we have one of Gardner's hilarious send-ups of the "upstate Republican," a label he often and pointedly applied to himself, depicting them as seeing communists coming out of the woodwork but so open-minded about race that they refuse to the tell the police the race of the burglar. Gardner's technique here, mining for humor a group with which he himself identifies, provides a model for understanding his humor in scenes with disabled characters.

Esther reappears in the narrative toward the end of the novel when she decides to take Clumly's tape recordings of his conversations with the fugitive Sunlight Man to Officer Miller. Esther knows that Clumly has done wrong to have met surreptitiously with the Sunlight Man while his officers were spending days searching for this suspect, but she decides to bring the tapes to Miller in hopes that he will be able to protect her husband. Throughout the novel and over years and years previous, Esther, in Gardner's transparent allusion to Homer's Penelope, had been hand-sewing a dress without making any visible progress on it. She now uses her sewing bag to carry the tapes to the police station, symbolically associating her marital devotion with her unwitting betrayal of her husband. In this episode, Esther's mistake will be paralleled by the unraveling of her blind persona into that of a bumbling old woman who just cannot see.

As soon as she arrives at the police station, she realizes that she's "slipping" (p. 538): first, she fails to detect the presence of a second officer in the room with Miller and "jump[s] a foot" when Miller addresses him; then she repeatedly fails to judge the distance between herself and Miller. By the time she leaves the police station, "she knew that, whatever it was she'd done, she had ruined her husband and had made it impossible for even Miller to help him now" (p. 542). She returns home, lies down on her bed, and has a sudden realization that she looks like a chicken (p. 544), the very image that Clumly had had of her at the beginning of the novel, thus showing that she now sees herself as she knows sighted people see her. In this sole episode in which Esther makes a wrong move, the misstep is associated with a loss of the perception she has developed as a blind woman and thus a loss of personal integrity.

If Esther is Gardner's Beatrice, who guides us all through the novel and "holds [its narrative] world together," we might be surprised to find her fail in the end. But The Sunlight Dialogues closes in a dark tone with the Sunlight man dead and Clumly not only fired from his job but morally defeated. In a sense, Esther's guidance has failed as well. This ending, especially as regards Esther, is heavily ironized: the blind guide in an imperfect world finally makes a wrong turn herself and hurts the man she loves. Her guidance through the novel had been sure and steady. Now when she stumbles, she is transformed from the able blind woman into a person whom we truly pity.

We know from the Prologue that Clumly outlives Esther but, because we do not read of her death, Esther is as unresolved as the antique collector, Glore. Gardner's virtuoso performance with the character of Esther Clumly, his ability to enter into a blind psyche, is perhaps unique. One struggles to come up with the name of another writer who has comparably developed a blind major character like Esther or even a blind minor character like the college student on the sidewalk, the competent piano tuner, or the antiques connoisseur. Jernigan (1974) is able to provide only five "honest" portraits of blind people, all from the nineteenth century (p. 10). But while Gardner creates realistic blind characters, he also sets them in narrative tension with the literary tendency to symbolize them, thus allowing them to resonate in their novels and take on larger meaning than, for example, the two blind characters in the novels of Walter Scott, named by Jernigan, who are, in comparison, just one-dimensionally realistic. Was this fundamental double treatment conscious on Gardner's part? Or was it simply the result of growing up in the midst of a blind community and then moving into the literary world where one simply never says no to an opportunity to create symbols?

Many thanks to Jennifer Stas Ervin, Superintendent of NYSSB, for allowing generous access to the school's archives and for recalling enough American Sign Language to communicate with me, and to Mrs. Jacqueline Splain Wilson for her assistance in interpreting for other Batavians of whom I made inquiries.

References

  • Butts, L. (1988). The Novels of John Gardner: Making Life Art as a Moral Process. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
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Copyright (c) 2007 Edna Edith Sayers



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