- 1 All the references to the novel are to The Night Travellers, New York: Penguin, 1992.
How are myths born, but out of fear?
Confrontations led to decisions; decisions to action.
The Night Travellers, 237, 316.1
- 2 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam, A History: The First Complete Account of the Vietnam War, New York: The Vi (...)
- 3 Jane Marcus, “Corpus/Corps/Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War,” in Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, (...)
- 4 See Simon Serfaty, “A Bad War Gone Worse,” The Washington Quarterly 31.2 (Spring 2008), 165-179. At (...)
- 5 Owen W. Gilman Jr., Vietnam and the Southern Imagination, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, (...)
- 6 Ibid., 7.
1The Vietnam War appears as one of the darkest hours in American History, not only because it epitomizes the failure of American foreign policy (Stanley Karnow has called it “the war that nobody won”2) but also because the motives behind the conflict have never been completely elucidated. As a consequence, dealing with such a subject means attempting to explore what Jane Marcus calls “a terrible knowledge”3 and to come to terms with traumatic experiences. It is no coincidence that the Vietnam War has periodically resurfaced as a point of comparison in writings by political historians on American foreign policy – the most recent example being the war in Iraq.4 Looking at the past is a trait that is often associated with the South; Owen W. Gilman Jr. notes that “[s]outherners are programmed to gaze into the past. It is their destiny. The past upon which they gaze is murky, full of enigmatic figures and moments, the very enigma that makes powerful literature.”5 Therefore, he concludes, “[b]ecause southerners have been working under the spell of history for such a long time, they are ideally suited to the task of placing Vietnam within lasting time.”6
2For Southern women writers such as Jayne Anne Phillips (Machine Dreams, 1984), Bobbie Ann Mason (In Country, 1985) and Elizabeth Spencer (The Night Travellers, 1991), the Vietnam War offered itself as a stimulating topic for a novel and fitted a genuine effort to acknowledge the past. For instance, Mason explains:
- 7 Bobbie Ann Mason, “P.S.: Insights, Interviews & More…,” In Country, New York: Harper Perennial, [19 (...)
When I began writing In Country, around 1981, the Vietnam War was beginning to resurface in the national consciousness. For several years, America had tried to forget about the war and about the men and women who served there. But then that started to change. […] I knew that Vietnam was my story too, and it was every American’s story.7
Obviously the creative process is intimately linked to Mason’s desire to clarify her own and her country’s mixed feelings on the vexed issue of the Vietnam War.
- 8 See David Hammond, “Parts of a Novel That Will Probably Never Get Written: An Interview with Elizab (...)
- 9 D. Hammond, op. cit., 95.
- 10 Their situation calls to mind the famous Underground Railroad organization that helped slaves to es (...)
- 11 D. Hammond, op. cit., 96.
3In The Night Travellers, initially entitled “The Lost Children,”8 Elizabeth Spencer “bring[s] in an era that was rather mysterious to people in the States”9 and explores the effects of the Vietnam War on the lives of Mary Kerr and Jefferson Blaise, a young couple from the American South who move to Canada so as to live their love unimpeded.10 However, the peace they find in their retreat is short-lived: Jeff has to hide in order to fight for his ideas and thus leaves Mary Kerr alone for long periods of time. Running away was initially a means for the two young people to find their place in the chaotic world of wartime, but it turns out that the chaos has gradually invaded their daily lives. They end up fighting their own wars so as to find solace, which illustrates Spencer’s belief that “the Vietnam background […] [has been] the most separating force [in American life] since the Civil War.”11 Spencer meant her project to encompass as much of the Vietnam experience as possible. Accordingly, she did a lot of research on the subject, reading ‘official’ public material as well as more ‘private’ writings, for she was specifically interested in individual response to the conflict. She recently explained:
- 12 Elizabeth Spencer, e-mail to the author, October 25, 2010. Used courtesy of Ms. Elizabeth Spencer.
I read everything I could find in connection with the period of The Night Travellers, not so much the political scene which everyone recalls, but […] individual happenings and people whose lives were disturbed by public events. I found out a lot in Montreal because many came there as draft defectors or in opposition to the US politics. I also went to obscure movies which dramatized the student opposition. I was invited out west to read at Berkeley, giving me the chance to visit People’s Park, scene of a great confrontation between Gov. Ronald Reagan and student protestors. I read the whole account in the library there.12
- 13 J. Marcus, op. cit., 128.
- 14 Linda Whitney Hobson, “The Night Travellers,” The Southern Literary Journal24.1 (Fall 1991), 119-12 (...)
4Spencer thus used historical data and dealt with issues that are rarely put into fiction, such as the American government’s efforts to silence any voice raised against its foreign policy. The structure of The Night Travellers reflects her concern through the use of various fictional devices. Journal entries, typewritten scripts of tapes recorded by Mary Kerr, letters and dramatic episodes that read like isolated stories within the main frame give the novel its protean quality. The use of such a variety of genres calls to mind Jane Marcus’ comment on First World War narratives by women, which she defines as “pieces of texts, like parts of a body that will never be whole.”13 As Linda Whitney Hobson explains, “The Night Travellers redeems the garish, chaotic Vietnam era by a clarity of vision and a wealth of controlled imagery that universalizes the political events of that time. Spencer has the intelligence to see that this recent, troubled period in our nation’s history was not disdained by the powers of good and evil.”14 This manichean division between good and evil is apparent in the characters’ conflicting relations with order: Mary Kerr does not get along well with her mother, Kate, and Jefferson Blaise spends so much of his time protesting against the Vietnam War that he becomes a threat to the government’s attempts at enrolling young men in the army.
5From the beginning of the novel, Mary Kerr and her mother Kate are presented as antagonistic characters. Mary Kerr first appears on the roof of her parents’ house, looking for her kitten. From then on her status within the family is clear: she stands outside, mostly because of her mother’s attitude towards her, and suffers deeply from the fact that all their contacts turn into confrontations. (4) The only support she can get comes from her father; as the narrator explains, “They understood things together.”(6) Unfortunately for the teenager, her father’s health problems soon prove fatal and her mother will hold Mary Kerr responsible for his death forever after; towards the end of the novel, Mary Kerr’s aunt Jane even tells her that “Her [mother’s] one fixed idea is how she lost everything because of [Mary Kerr].” (333) Spencer uses this situation as a metaphor for the conflict that separates Americans on the issue of the Vietnam War: individuals are divided according to their ideals, and the sense of a general cohesion has disappeared. In such a tense atmosphere, Mary Kerr’s attraction to Jeff might well be understood as evidence of her desire to go against her mother’s orderly life: “His mystery was part of what was drawing her.” (37)
6Spencer carefully shows how Mary Kerr changes after her father’s death and grows out of her bereavement. Incidentally, not long after the funeral, “Mary Kerr had started her first period.” (14) And a year later, when her mother sends her away in order to sell the house without telling her, she meets Jeff. The juxtaposition of those two events indicates that Mary Kerr’s life is balanced between loss and gain: she loses something that was really important to her (her father’s house) while she finds a love that will prove everlasting. The already present breach between mother and daughter widens dramatically and the narrator remarks:
They were always getting into too much anger before either of them knew it, like wading off into water where the bottom sloped suddenly and then, helpless, floundering in it but keeping on, almost drowning. At these times Mary Kerr would think Poppy loved me, but wouldn’t say it. You’re always mad at me because he loved me. If you don’t love me, why can’t you let me go? It was a puzzle not made for solving. (29, original italics)
Kate’s jealousy is exposed even though it is not named, and it is obvious that the conflict is bound to increase. The tension is present at all times even though Kate often tries to pretend it away. When Jeff inquires about Kate’s lab research – which he suspects has to do with testing lethal substances on animals for later use in the war – telling her that he would “like to know what’s really going on in the country of [his] birth,” (47) she behaves as if she does not know what he is talking about and is so unpleasant that he becomes irritated and blunt with her. Kate’s plan is to separate the couple and, for a time, she succeeds.
- 15 L. W. Hobson, op. cit., 121.
- 16 Betina Entzminger, “An Interview with Elizabeth Spencer,” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Sou (...)
- 17 Mary Kerr echoes her mother when she later declares: “What I had, had to be hers. She understood ev (...)
7Spencer does not portray Kate as a kind-hearted person – Linda Whitney Hobson calls her “a Wicked Witch of the South.”15 She is manipulative both with the men she encounters and with her daughter who explains to Jeff that “She doesn’t talk, not to anybody. She just makes words do what she wants them to.” (76) Kate is a brilliant woman whose goal is to succeed socially, no matter what tricks she may have to use. For instance, she married Mary Kerr’s father because “Harbison was a grand name to have in Kingsbury […]” and consequently, “she was inclined to overlook his minor flaws.” (16) Likewise, she marries another man, Fred Davis, even though she finds him boring, because “[w]hat he had, of course, was obviously money. What a relief it would be, just no longer to have to worry.”(101) Apart from a desire for financial comfort, Kate also seeks things she cannot get; she repeatedly tries to charm Jeff, first by inviting him to a private meeting (75) and then by calling at his place: “[she] had found out where he lived by calling the university, had gone there unannounced to find him.” (99) The narrative voice relays Kate’s thoughts through internal focalization and comments, “[s]he desired him. He aroused all her feeling. […] An ordinary case of wanting a young man her daughter found attractive.” (100) Like another Southern woman, Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Kate needs to feel that she is desired by men even when she knows they are attracted to other women. She tries to seduce Jeff in order to destroy his relationship with Mary Kerr and thus keep her to herself. For Spencer, Kate is “a highly neurotic collection of personalities. And a lot of that [is] sexual frustration.”16 In a section entitled “Kate on Kate,” the narrator mentions Kate’s “terrible attraction” to Jeff and again resorts to internal focalization, though this time through free indirect speech, to let the reader know how she feels about the young couple: “However would Mary Kerr know what to do with him? What could the child understand about the nature I know he has?” (83, original italics)17 Kate’s perception of her daughter is faulty as she still pictures her as a child; conversely, she considers Jeff her equal, defining him as “an adversary, combatant.” (The narrator adds, “But lovers, too, fight each other.”) (83-84)
- 18 B. Entzminger, op. cit., 617-618.
8Such comments bring Vietnam back into the landscape of individual relationships. A group of young activists has broken into Kate’s lab and she strongly suspects that her daughter helped them do so. War actions and sexual attraction are intermingled and drive the plot which gravitates around Mary Kerr. Gerda, a woman whom Mary Kerr gets acquainted with in Canada, describes the situation in her journal by juxtaposing war and the family: “Upheavals in the outer world (war), in the inner world (family), and Mary the frail center of this merciless swirl.” (132) Spencer herself feels that there is “a lot of terror in the book – what people do to each other. And that […] feeds into the national situation.”18 Mary Kerr is first deprived of her beloved father and then of Jeff, who is often on the move in order to carry out what he believes to be his moral obligations. In fact, Jeff’s goal is finely summed up in one of the secondary characters’ words: “something else is out there, some other presence must be shadowing everyone, in a way, causing things to happen, setting new courses.” (324) Everything appears to be out of the characters’ control, they are caught in a vicious cycle that is endangering all the layers of their existences, either private or public. The aim of Jeff’s crusade, and to a certain extent that of Spencer herself, is to get closer to the heart of the problem caused by the Vietnam War.
- 19 Sally Greene, “Re-Placing the Hero: The Night Travellers as Novel of Female of Self-Discovery,” The (...)
- 20 Denise Chong, who has devoted a book to the girl in the picture, defines it as one of the “indelibl (...)
- 21 In The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, Daniel Halli (...)
- 22 « [L]e feu suggère le désir de changer, de brusquer le temps ». Gaston Bachelard, La Psychanalyse d (...)
9Sally Greene has noted that “[t]he intractable fact behind the fiction is the Vietnam war and the whole conundrum of power, privilege, and massive displacement surrounding it, bringing it unbidden into every American home.”19 Jeff is as much the disruptive element in Mary Kerr’s life as her mother is. At one point, he tells her, “You don’t see that I have to be what I believe in. […] Not part-time, not here and there, but all the time,’” (49) thereby making it clear that if their relationship is to last, she will have to accept his decision to “help, to restore some sense of the purpose and pride my own country ought to have …” (322) In Jeff’s opinion, the Vietnam War has severely endangered the American perception of its role in world issues. The whole country is in a chaotic state, as the following summary (fictionally) derived from the Sunday Times points out: “Draft cards burned in public, the card itself a symbol, fire as symbol, too – napalm, of course – Fulbright hearings, ‘dry tinder scattered through the country.’ New York marches, excrement by the bucketful dumped on records in draft board offices, barricades … attacks … marches.” (104-105). The source of this information and the references to napalm are, of course, far from gratuitous. Aware that one of the abiding images of the Vietnam War is the picture of burned, naked young girl fleeing in terror after a napalm attack,20 Spencer roots her narrative further in the events by having Mary Kerr refer specifically to the episode: “Later when I saw the picture of the napalmed girl running down the road out of a village, on fire and screaming but running (if you’re running, then you are running toward as well as away from), I would think of her running to me. I would have caught her, fire and all.” (176) The elements within brackets introduce Mary Kerr’s reflection on her own situation. Due to her suicide attempt, Kathy, the daughter she had with Jeff, has been entrusted to Kate’s care; Mary Kerr then wonders: “Would Kathy run away from Mother, and if she did would she run to me?” (176) Spencer thus uses “the girl in the picture” to emphasize the way individuals transpose public events into their own experience. In addition, Spencer’s use of the Sunday Times as a tool to lend her narrative verisimilitude is a reminder of the fact that at the time (foreign) journalists largely escaped censorship.21 The reference to fire as a symbolic element is equally revealing for, in Gaston Bachelard’s words, “[F]ire refers to a desire to change, to alter the passing of time.”22 In Spencer’s novel, fire suggests both danger and renewal and it is closely associated with Jeff: his parents’ house caught fire when he was ten, (52) and while in Canada he is accused of setting a house on fire, (319) which will lead to his decision to go back to the U.S., as he believes that “If it wasn’t lightning hit the house, then whatever hit it was for me.” (324).
- 23 The 1960s were fraught with such existential doubts. Nikhil Pal Singh has shown that very often a n (...)
10Jeff’s crusade for what he sees as his country’s lost values starts when he comes into contact with Ethan Marbell, “a noted lecturer at the university branch outside Kingsbury.”(30) Again, the reference to the historical context could hardly be more evident. Intellectuals were key figures in the opposition to the war and the allusions to be found in the novel as regards Richard Nixon’s desire to locate “red connection to the anti-war movement” are telling (245). Any dissenter became a suspect in the government’s fight against Communism which disregarded what was really at stake, the people’s feelings of estrangement from a war they did not understand, and intellectuals such as those portrayed by Spencer were instrumental in questioning their country’s involvement and the validity of its values.23 Jeff considers Ethan a surrogate father (35) and is very enthusiastic about his ideas on Vietnam. Very early in the narrative, Jeff informs Mary Kerr that Ethan “is considering setting up a paper, a flyer going out to people all over” and he backs up his mentor, saying, “There’s a need for it. All the shit that passes for gospel truth.” (37) The facts presented in the press do not provide the full story and, thanks to Ethan’s research in the papers of an “important government agency,” (30) Jeff has come to know about “what might be called ‘the final solution’ in Vietnam. Just start dropping the things. Why not? They’ve improved models since the first, and we might as well try them out. So we kill, maim, wipe out, erase several million Orientals …” (54) Telling such truths to a bewildered Mary Kerr, who cannot grasp what the war is about, leads to a temporary break-up: “She let him go, back into the dark with all his darkness. Staying with him meant that dark would creep in on everybody.” (55) The darkness associated with Jeff mirrors Mary Kerr’s uncertainty about him. Later on, in a kind of confession, Jeff tells her: “Because there’s nothing sure for me ahead. You’ll have to be my girl, just that. Only that. Nothing more, for now.” (65) The syncopated formulation highlights Jeff’s helplessness; understanding that her time with her beloved is but fleeting, Mary Kerr, unsurprisingly, decides to play along.
- 24 D. C. Hallin, op. cit., 105, 107.
11The darkness that the young woman perceives in Jeff disappears when they are together but, for people around them, it lingers on because the war is constantly on their minds; Mary Kerr’s Aunt Sally for instance seems to have mixed feelings about it: “I don’t know if I’m so much in favor of [the war] […]. If they think they’re being sent out to die for something they’re against …” (81) The incompleteness of the sentence makes the reader feel that information is withheld in spite of the apparent lack of censorship of events. There are elements that the government does not seem willing to explain and Americans are divided on the actions of protestors. Mary Kerr’s mother believes that “If we’re doing bad things to those people over there, they’d do the same to us. They’re into torture, all the brutality they can think of.” (82) The deluge of Vietnam war reports on television is one of the reasons for Kate’s skepticism about protest for, as Daniel C. Hallin remarked, although “Vietnam was America’s first true televised war,” the news “was ambiguous and contradictory.”24 Kate exemplifies those who believed that what was shown on television was an image of “American virtues” when in fact, as Hallin explains, it was “a result of the familiar ironies of objective journalism, somewhat modified by the nature of television presentation.” (118) Moreover, Kate’s aversion for the anti-war movement and her support for the troops are undoubtedly rooted in her personal failure to charm Jeff.
- 25 Jeff’s mistress, Madeleine Spivak, provides an example of the ambiguity of sexuality among combatan (...)
12Kate ensures that Jeff will be far from her daughter and will not get a position anywhere near by “[doing] her best to block him.”(94) Moreover, according to news she receives from Ethan, “Jeff would soon be travelling to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to work more closely with the Movement. He belonged with the student elite which Ethan envisioned as the hope of America.”(94) By pairing up Jeff with the Movement, Kate distances herself (and her daughter) from him. Even when Jeff secretly goes to see Mary Kerr, he remains underground, as if his public and private selves had merged. This is obvious when, one day, he decides to alter his fingerprints. (167) Mary Kerr feels that it is wrong and that he has turned into “‘a private self-torturer.’” (168) Jeff thinks that “‘it’s the mark of [his] mission’”(168); this reinforces the fact that he feels imbued with the power of a cause he is totally devoted to,25 even though he discovers later that the experiment was unsuccessful: “it didn’t go deep enough to work. Those fool lines will show up anyway. Like your soul showing through, every one different from the next.” (265)
13Initially, Jeff was supposed to cover the Movement’s actions for an underground paper called The Radar Screen. Ethan had told Mary Kerr: “He will be going out, my roving reporter, to all these trouble spots. He will write about them. Not what gets in the national press, but what actually happens. […] Jeff’s column will be ‘From the Front Lines.’ This is our crusade, not just talk anymore. Action.” (116) Ethan’s rhetoric is interesting in that his use of the modal “will” can be seen to refer to his own hopes in Jeff and also to Jeff’s willingness to tell the unvarnished truth. For Ethan, taking action only means writing: when Jeff went to San Francisco it was because the Movement “needed the word out, [they] needed the eyewitness touch; [they] needed, furthermore, Jeff’s skill at writing it, his special way of reporting with a guiltless, detached slanting of style […]” (242) The repetition of “need” suggests that Jeff’s involvement is essential, that he must be around so as to report the facts as accurately as possible. When watching what comes to be called “the big job,” (221) that is, the bombing of an ammunition plant, (242, 250) he notices that the protestors are doing it wrong and he ends up doing the job himself, not knowing that an infiltrator is among the dissenters, which forces him to become an outlaw.
14His decision to return to the U.S. even though he is a wanted man is another proof of his devotion to the Movement. Before he leaves, he tells Mary Kerr, “I can’t live in exile […] I won’t do it,” (325) thereby asserting his determination to cling to his ideal as well as his belief that what he did was right and that he refuses to be ashamed of himself. Unsurprisingly, he is caught upon landing in Chicago and forced to choose between prison and war. (331) As he decides to go to Vietnam, Jeff holds on to his memories of Ethan and hopes that upon his return he will be able to write about his experience. (331)
15Although it is never clear whether or not Jeff dies at the end of the novel, he and his fellow protestors did achieve something as the use of anaphora coupled with the present perfect underline: “We’ve helped, we’ve done what we could, We’ve helped, we’ve slowed them. We’ve helped, maybe even stopped them. We’ve helped.” (344) Jeff played with fire for something he believed in and even if Mary Kerr feels that “The savages had won. The fire was out,” (351) there still remains hope in mankind; Jeff has shown her the (right) way. The ambiguity of the ending comes as an echo to the novel’s title: till they meet again, Jeff will be a night traveller in Mary Kerr’s mind and she will remember that “‘travelling at night […] is the only way’” (207) — under or above of the threatening surface of the world, in the troubled context of war.