Southgate's 'Fall of Rome': if Horatio Alger knew irony

ON BOOKS

February 17, 2002|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

I don't trust white people, myself included, to make sensitive judgments about the consciousness of being black. Nor do I trust myself to judge books by people I've known and been fond of - or, at least, I don't expect others to trust my judgment in such cases. Thus, there are two reasons I should not write here about The Fall of Rome, a novel by Martha Southgate (Scribner, 223 pages, $23). But having read Southgate's book, I am so impressed that I shall fly in the face of those cautions.

This is Southgate's second novel - the first, Another Way to Dance, got substantial critical attention. I knew her as a close colleague in 1990, when she was a reporter for the New York Daily News, where I was editorial page editor. Back then, as an African-American woman in her mid-20s working for a predominantly white and male newspaper, she was smart and hard-edged and strangely mature for her years. She had a sense of irony and knew how to laugh well, but it seemed to me there was a sadness beneath that.

Her book is an intricate drama of awareness of and blindness to the realities and implications of race and class and education in the United States. It is set in Chelsea School, a century-old boys' boarding school in Connecticut, in the late 1990s. The main characters are Jerome Washington, teacher of Greco-Roman culture and Latin; Rashid Bryson, a new boy and one of 20 African-Americans among several hundred whites; and Jana Hansen, who is in her first year teaching at Chelsea after many years in tough public schools in Cleveland.

Washington is a Negro ("I am fully aware" Southgate has him declare, "that Negro is no longer the fashionable term. It is, however, the term I prefer to use.") Born to a child-bride mother and a sharecropper who turned violent, he was taken to Chicago by his mother, who drove him to succeed. He graduated from Harvard.

He has been at Chelsea for more than 20 years. Classics and Latin are of waning interest to the students. Adamantly unmilitant, his stated moral purpose is to serve as an example of excellence, not as a racial role model - a position that was not popular with two other black Chelsea teachers who did not stay beyond their first year. He has devoted his life to "order, decorum, rectitude."

Rashid's sole sibling, Kofi, had been shot dead in the previous year, a bystander at a holdup while getting a soda at a convenience store near their Brooklyn, N.Y., home. Kofi had just finished a year in another privileged boarding school. Rashid's parents are proud municipal workers who have encouraged ambition in their boys. Rashid manages to get a scholarship to Chelsea, where he feels entirely on his own. Washington, like this boy, had been driven to succeed and had lost a treasured brother to violence.

Hansen, a divorcee who, like Rashid, arrived at Chelsea as the book begins, is white, but feels very much an outsider as well.

The story unfolds in clearly stated simplicity. Rashid expects Washington to be his nourishing mentor, and is painfully disappointed. Hansen takes on Rashid as a favorite, and tries mightily to bring Washington and the boy together.

Southgate herself went to a traditional prep school, in Cleveland, and then to Smith. She knows well this world about which she writes - with an almost astonishing freedom from simplisms, stereotypes or polemics. There are neither mysteries nor enigmas - unless you take all life to be enigmatic. The narrative - told alternatingly from each of the three's vantages - is brisk and at first seems naive, but becomes increasingly, startlingly revealing of deep human sensitivities.

The loneliness of Rashid - the isolation of early adolescence - is vastly amplified by his being a cultural and racial exception in a very traditional school. Southgate also presents a moving, almost magical sense of the isolation of Washington - and, to a certain extent, all of Chelsea's teachers. The conflict is between devotion to move young lives along and respect for the students' individuality and independence. There is terrible difficulty in balancing the giving of help with the granting of distance.

Jerome Washington is intelligent, intensely disciplined, formal and devoted to his academic disciplines. He is nonetheless a perversely self-defeating human being. Southgate is far too sophisticated a novelist to write sociological diagnostics; Washington stands on his intricate own, not as a caricature.

Rashid gives his obligatory 10-minute freshman chapel speech - in which he makes a defiant statement of failure on the part of the school and white America to open themselves to minorities. Washington, more sadly than angrily, rejects everything that is said by this boy whom he is trying to shape. "He didn't know," Washington says of Rashid, "that the only way to win them over was to concede. To let them know that what they wanted was what you wanted. Simply to live quietly." The book's title is, of course, a play on the irrelevance of Washington's indomitable classicism.

There is throughout the book a haunting echo of the Horatio Alger poor-boy-makes-good books of the 1870s through 1890s. Whether that is intentional or serendipitous is impossible to tell, but it is powerfully evocative of the traditional values of self-determination through discipline and ambition - and their limitations.

The Fall of Rome moves swiftly, often enchantingly, toward its realistic, dramatic climax. It concludes painfully, but with something that is affirmative, close to redeeming. Free of preaching, it is a powerfully moral and human work. I believe it helped me understand better than I ever have before tensions and truths about black experience that have been elusive despite my efforts over a great deal of my working life. It is a tour de force of what might be called post-Movement race realities in the United States.

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