Cabbages & Kings – A Review

Cabbages and Kings is a work on fiction by O. Henry. Published in 1904, it’s not the type of book I would normally write a full review for, but I’ve found a have a lot to say.

I downloaded a free digital copy for my Kindle app (also available in print), because I recognized the title phrase from the story of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Alice in Wonderland. That was the one and only reason I had for downloading this book. I didn’t even read the synopsis, which actually reads as follows:

Synopsis

cabbages-kingsA series of stories which each explore some individual aspect of life in a paralytically sleepy Central American town while each advancing some aspect of the larger plot and relating back one to another in a complex structure which slowly explicates its own background even as it painstakingly erects a town which is one of the most detailed literary creations of the period. In this book, O. Henry coined the term “banana republic”.

What I Thought

I wish I had gone at this book from the beginning as a collection of loosely interconnected short stories. (Why didn’t I bother to read the synopsis?)  It would have made the book more enjoyable from the beginning.

Cabbages and Kings was well written, if difficult to follow. Being an older book, the writing contains quite a lot of formal and archaic language. That meant that I, as a native English speaker, spent more time than I would care to admit using the dictionary function in my Kindle app.

The book also contained many words and phrases written in Spanish, which was the native tongue of the fictional country of Anchuria, in which a majority of the tale takes place. So, I ended up needing to use the translation functions in my Kindle app to make sense of some of the finer points of the stories.

But for me, the most problematic issue was overt racism. The book is written about American ex-patriots living in South America, so I expected the book to focus on their lives. I did not expect the disparaging remarks he made of the peoples of the area. There were several passages throughout the novel which were downright offense to the characters of color.

[In describing a man of Native American descent participating in a fight against the native people of the fictional Republic of Anchuria in South America] The matter of his proclamation seemed to be a co-operation of the Carslise war-whoop with the Cherokee college yell. He went at the chocolate team like a bean out of a little boy’s nigger shooter.

[In describing an American of Irish descent who plans to help with a revolution in South America] ‘Here,’ says I to myself, ‘ is the romantic haunt of the revolutionists. Here will Clancy, by the virtue this is in a superior race and the inculcation of Fenian tactics, strike a tremendous blow for liberty.’

As you can see, some statements were more offensive than others, if such a thing is possible when making generalizations about a race, or a country and it’s peoples. I’m sure that these were general sentiment at the time, but it still bothers me. And it made the book more frustrating to read.

How do you deal with problematic issues, such as racism, in books that you might otherwise enjoy?

3 thoughts on “Cabbages & Kings – A Review

  1. Readers have to take things in context. Of course we’ve changed! We wouldn’t expect modern characters to talk or like Mr Rochester, and we can’t expect a 19th century author to spout modern speech. The same thing can be said of values, moral postures, etc. Each book is a time capsule, and nothing dates faster than “contemporary” fiction. It makes me laugh when people read a book from say the 1960s and then chirp, “It’s so dated.” You want dated, try any “cosy” mystery from the 80s or 90s…and in a year or two, from the turn of the millenium. It’s not so long ago, and yet our world has speeded up to the place that people talk about it like it was the 1890s instead of the 1990s. Maybe in thirty years’ time our grandchildren will roll their eyes at the percieved need for “political correctness” at the cost of clarity.

    That said, it drives me mad that current authors (paper-published as well as direct download) seem not to have any proofreading or editorial advice. I’ve seen printed books with elementary-school grammar errors such as subject/verb agreement, and spelling mistakes just as bad! Don’t they have proofreaders anymore? Classic authors like O. Henry and others handle the language well, use grammatically correct English and know how to spell, even the “big words.”

    (Gets down off her soapbox and crawls back under her rock. LOL)

    1. I appreciate the sentiment. I’m just trying to figure out how I can recommend a book like this to someone. It really was lovely, but do I need to provide a trigger warning about the racism? What if I want to recommend it to a person of color? Does that change the need to provide a warning?

  2. Not if the person you recommend it to can think for themselves and remember it was written in 1917. You can just say: This book is a hundred years old. Interesting how things have changed. But don’t apologise for Henry; a great writer speaks for himself. And if the person you recommend it to can focus on what Henry’s actually trying to communicate, instead of the semantics, they’ll get it.

    It would be like having someone read, oh say Jonathan Swift, and then agonising about how horrid he was about the Irish. Yes, that was the point–Swift was Irish himself!

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