How Literature Can Contribute to Progressive Resolve

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All academics “read the literature” in their various fields of study, and scholars contribute to the literature, too. It’s what academics do. But relatively few academics—save those in the Humanities—read ‘literature’ as part of their scholarship. By literature, I mean the printed word presented as an art form, such as in fiction and poetry.

Recently, a colleague of mine thought “I had been missing something” by not drawing on Literature in my work. Literature, he argued, offers robust perspectives on times/circumstances of interest to me.

I took him up on his claim, and I’m glad I did. Recently, I drew on the work of 19th Century British novelist Anthony Trollope, and applied his writing to circumstances associated with contemporary American politics. In this essay, I’ll draw on the work of 20th Century dramaturgist J.B. Priestly in his mid-century play, An Inspector Calls. Published in 1945 and set in 1912 Britain, it’s one of Priestley’s best- known works.

As a social commentator, Priestley puts a mirror before us and asks, “What do you see?” And what we see is a society committed to the Neoliberal ethic of individual advancement, a competitive, business-comes-first approach, and an aversion to most everything else. Although written during a very different era, Priestley’s portrait applies today. It’s one reason why the BBC adapted it in the 2015 eponymously titled screenplay written by Helen Edmonson.

An Inspector Calls begins with a dinner party, which takes place in the home of Arthur and Sybil Birling. He is a prominent business person and local politician. She plays a leadership role in civic affairs. This night they gather to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Eric Croft, the son of another prominent businessperson.

As a social commentator, Priestley puts a mirror before us and asks, “What do you see?” And what we see is a society committed to the Neoliberal ethic of individual advancement, a competitive, business-comes-first approach, and an aversion to most everything else.

At dinner, Arthur welcomes Eric to the family (the text that follows here and immediately below is from the BBC screenplay). “You’re just the kind of son-in-law I’ve always wanted. You’re father and I have been rivals in business for as long as I can remember,” Arthur gushes. “You are bringing us together,” he continues. “Perhaps we can look forward to a time when Birling and Company and Croft Limited are no longer competing, but working as one. Lower costs, higher prices….

(Sheila speaks) “You’re making it sound like a political alliance!” (Birling continues without acknowledging Sheila) “And you’re picking the best time to get married,” he tells Eric. “The economy is up. The workers are knuckling under.” 

Later, alone with Croft, Mr. Birling imparts a bit of philosophy: “The way these cranks talk now, you’d think everybody has to look out for everybody else. And they’re all mixed up like bees in a hive. Community! If I hear that word one more time(Birling shakes his head in dismay). You take it from me: a man (sic) must look after his (sic) own affairs, look after himself (sic) and his (sic) family, and everything else, well….

Those words are from the opening scenes. Is Priestley’s writing fiction? Yes, as a genre, but his frame of reference is quite real. As I read the play and viewed the screenplay, I couldn’t help but note an eerie similarity to what fellow countryperson and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher uttered 60 years after Priestley’s work was published: “There is no such thing as society! There are individual men and women, and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first.”

There are implications, of course. There is a thing called society, and absolving one’s obligations doesn’t make society go away, no matter how hard one tries.

(A maid then interrupts, informing Mr. Birling that a police inspector is at the door.)

On this night, the inspector—‘Inspector Goole’ by name—informs the family that a young woman has died, and he is there to ask questions of the family about her death (the text through the end of the essay is from the original play). “Yes, Yes. Horrid business.” Birling responds to the news. “But I don’t understand why you should come here.”

As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons why Goole’s there, and the reasons are sitting around the table—Mr. Birling, wife Sybil, daughter Sheila, son Gerald, and Eric Croft. With adroitness, Goole slowly uncovers the truth. Each of them knew the recently deceased woman (known as Daisy Renton and, later, as Eva Smith), and each of them played a role in the downward spiral that led to her death.

Individually, it’s not news, but collectively, it’s a shocking revelation.

Arthur fired Renton for having played a leadership role in a workers’ strike. Sheila got Renton fired from a rebound job as a saleswoman in a women’s apparel store. Eric befriended her and became Renton’s (now Smith’s) lover while simultaneously courting Sheila. Gerald followed Eric as Smith’s lover in a relationship that culminated in a pregnancy. Sybil, as chairwoman of a local relief organization, rejected Smith’s plea for financial help. And, now, Goole informs them that she is dead. Despondent at how her life had turned out, she committed suicide by consuming a bottle of disinfectant.

But, surprisingly, Goole doesn’t follow-up with what you’d expect from a police inspector. He doesn’t press charges. He doesn’t ask family members to come down to the station for further questioning. Instead, after implicating all of them, his business is done … almost. But before departing, Goole utters his valedictory:

“One Eva Smith has gone, but there are millions and millions, and millions of Eva Smith’s and John Smith’s left with us—with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and with what we think, say, and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men (sic) will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night!”

His words have little impact. The Birling’s and Croft start playing ‘the blame game,’ wondering which one of them is most responsible for Renton-Smith’s demise. Arthur blames Eric: “You’re the one to blame for this!” Then, after a bit, the conversation pivots to Goole and how they dislike him. “He was prejudiced from the start!” Arthur asserts, (he was) probably a Socialist or some sort of crank.”

And, then, they ask: Was Goole really who he said he was? To inquire, Arthur picks up the phone and rings the local constabulary. He learns there is no ‘Goole’ on the police force. “By Jingo,” he declares. “A fake!” Sybil chimes in: “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say that I couldn’t imagine a real police inspector talking like that to us?!”

“We’ve been had!” The family is off-the-hook, in the clear, not responsible, and out of danger. Whew!

Only the young Birling’s, Sheila and Gerald, feel differently. “Whoever this chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her,” Gerald proclaims. “It’s still the same rotten story whether it has been told to a police inspector or to somebody else.”

No matter, Arthur concludes. “No police inquiry. No scandal! The whole story is just a lot of moonshine, nothing but an elaborate sell!”

Then the phone rings. It’s the police calling. “A girl has just died on her way to the infirmary after swallowing some disinfectant,” Arthur relays to the others. “A police inspector is on his way here – to ask questions.”

(As they stare guiltily and dumfounded, the curtain falls.)

Priestly wrote a morality play, of course, and the supposition is that he chose the name ‘Goole’ to connect the investigator to an angelic-like force. That said, there is nothing supernatural about An Investigator Calls. It’s real—both then and now—and not just by a little, but by a lot.

How so? Goole expresses it well: “We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” Then, as now, we struggle with putting that sentiment into action, and it’s why America doesn’t offer its citizens maternity/paternity support, child care for those who need it, pre-school education programs for resource-limited children, tuition-free public higher education, Medicare-for-all, and eldercare for all. All of those things are available to citizens if they have fringe benefits from jobs and/or can pay. Others are left out.  

Just writing those words is a good reminder of three things to keep in mind. First, it reminds me why Progressives think and act for the public good. Second, it reminds me why Progressives must persist in that important work. And, third, it’s tells me how pointless it is to demean and ridicule those with alternative beliefs. Why? None that ‘calling out’ behavior feeds one mouth, clothes a single body, helps a child in need, or keeps another person from being abused. What really matters is changing the course of society.

An Inspector Calls (and other similar presentations) reminds me of the travesty that ‘goes on out there’ and why the work we do is so important. And in-between the doing is taking a pause that refreshes: reading literature that speaks to commitment and renews a sense of urgency.

Inspector Goole (addressing the Birling’s and Croft): “Eva Smith’s gone. You can’t do her any more harm. And you can’t do her any good now, either. You can’t even say, “I’m sorry, Eva Smith.”

Sheila Birling (crying quietly): “That’s the worst of it.” 

Frank Fear

You can listen to this article at Under the Radar with host Frank Fear

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