How different was America in 1940?

TalkThe Black Orchid (A Nero Wolfe Group)

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How different was America in 1940?

Apr 19, 2008, 6:22pm

I have been re-reading the corpus in order and am now in the midst of "Too Many Cooks". I hadn't really noticed the first time I read these that the use of the "N" word is not only quite frequent, Stout actually seems to use it comforatably.

I find this kind of unsusual, given that Stout was often applauded for his handling of race and civil rights issues in later novels.

Am I being too sensitive? I realize that race and class issues were prevalent in the U.S. in the earlier part of that century. Was it so common for the use of the word to appear in print? In a few parts Archie and Wolfe use the term "colored" but there are many example of the other, more offensive, word.

Is it possible that Stout was, perhaps, guilty of harboring these same "natural" feelings of differences in whites and blacks? Did he change his tone later due to preasure from publishers or readers? Has anyone else even noticed this?

Thoughts please!

Apr 20, 2008, 1:28pm

I think it was still a moderately common word -- Agatha Christie's mystery, published in 1939 and now labeled "Ten Little Indians" was originally published under the title, "Ten Little *iggers". However, having read the corpus a few times now in order, I think that Stout reflects his times and growing sophistication of America during the series. Pre WW2, we were insulated and the stories are more pure classic detective novels. During WWII and post, as the country became more sophisticated and political so did the Stout books.

Obviously Stout wasn't a die hard conservative--his intense dislike of the FBI proves that if nothing else-and I think he realized that these books could, at times, carry a political message and you can see that in the books. Since he a) wasn't dependent on the books for income, having made his money in banking, and b) could get anything published after the Wolfe series was established, I think he merely became more comfortable using the books to reflect, even preach, his own convictions.

Apr 21, 2008, 12:22am

My sense is that most White writers felt comfortable with the word (perhaps even entitled to use it) through the 1950s. (Unfortunately, Wallace Stevens and Sherwood Anderson used it in the blatant, consciously racist sense in some of their letters). As ChefLindsay notes, Stout's politics were moderate, so it's telling that even an otherwise broad-minded, cosmopolitan person like him would think it was okay to use the word. Such were the times. A lot of Golden Age crime fiction is anti-Semitic, unfortunately--I just ran into such a reference in a John Thorndyke (detective's name) story, by R. Austin Freeman. Sometimes I can't make it any further in such a story or novel and just have to put it down, but that's not the case with Stout, who can seem dated at times but almost never offensive . . .It's interesting that when "the other" appears in a Wolfe book, he or she is usually a recent European immigrant--Greek or Italian. NYC African Americans and Harlem seem invisible in Wolfe's world. One Harlem-plot might have been fascinating in the series, but on the other hand, Stout may not have handled it well, and perhaps he knew that about himself. I do like Stout's seeming interest in working-class issues. Archie is often a go-between twixt Wolfe and the working class. Stout himself probably evolved quite a bit as an individual--wasn't his background rural Indiana?

Edited: Apr 21, 2008, 4:51am

Seeing as black American citizens were still fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, I'm not surprised by Stout's attitude in a book written in the late 30s. I think Too Many Cooks is actually a more honest representation of Stout's views that the later A Right to Die, which is a case of 'the author doth protest too much'; Archie in the earlier book is, I think, an 'everyman' of the era, who bears no ill will towards anyone because of their race, but doesn't think about the terms he uses to class other people. Cramer, too, in one of the 30s novels, uses a whole string of derogatory names for different cultures! Wolfe, in fact, annoys me most in Cooks, because he is rather patronising with the staff that he talks to, and Stout expects the reader to be impressed by his liberal attitude.

Ostrom, I agree - Stout, and therefore Archie, just didn't have enough experience of any other 'life' in America except his own, and it's probably better that he didn't attempt to base a story around the 'other'.

He wasn't alone, of course - British detective writers usually set their stories in the upper and gentry class of the Home Counties, and it's glaringly obvious when they try to emulate the working classes! In Stout's books, Archie is forever claiming to be a 'working man', and there is even a distinction between people who have earned the gross sums of money necessary to pay Wolfe's fees, and those who were born into it (Lily inherited her money, but her father made his fortune in the sewers!)

Apr 21, 2008, 7:48pm

I'd have to say that the short answer is that things were in fact very different, and that is perhaps a pity that today is not even more different from those times than it is.

Apr 21, 2008, 10:35pm

Thanks for the posts, AdonisGuilfoyle and quartzite. What a fascinating topic. Thanks to Moovyz for raising it. It's interesting how detective fiction, alleged to be too "light" for some, is actually a great window on society and societal attitudes. I think it's in Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely where, at the beginning, the police aren't interested in solving a murder because the victim is Black, so Chandler was very much aware of such issues, which James Ellroy later picks up re: L.A., as does Mosley. Anyway, what a great thread.This is why LT rocks!

Apr 22, 2008, 8:24am

#5 - Quartzite, that's very true. Whereas fiction in the past depicted the negative aspects of society honestly if uncomfortably, today the same failings are erased by the PC brigade, or turned into moral symbolism.

Apr 22, 2008, 4:05pm

I think reading these can be a window into the past, but sometimes people try to read them with today's ideas and ideology inflicted on them or interpreting them. So hard to see into another's mind here and now, let alone those who lived in another era or place. This is not to say those things are good which we read about, or that it isn't good we've changed or are able to see things differently now. It's just to say that we must be careful how much we try to read into things in reading stories from the past. Or the judgments we pass on those writing these tales.

Things were what they were, I thank God they've changed, but I don't feel it's necessary to dislike the stories or authors because of what they've written. I was shocked when I heard that Mark Twain had been banned in many schools because of his use of the N word. He doesn't need to be admired for it, but not banned either.

Apr 22, 2008, 4:19pm

Mrs. Lee, I agree. After all "The past is a foreign country." Understanding a different time is akin to understanding a different culture. That is not to say that to understand is the same as to condone. Further, if you don't have some clue about how we got here, you may not understand today much better.

Apr 22, 2008, 4:54pm

Well done MrsLee from one growing up during that period.

Jun 19, 2008, 5:36pm

I teach American history to 11th and 12th graders in Sarasota, Florida. One of the things I strive to help kids understand is how different the past was, not only in terms of the mechanical and technological gimmicks and gadgets that make our lives today so much easier than those of our forefathers (and mothers); but also in terms of the paradigms of the past.

That's the real challenge of reading history and particularly, of using or reading primary source documents. It is so hard to avoid looking at the past through the lens of 21st century sensibilities. If we do that, then we risk minimizing the enormous courage that pioneers for social justice showed and the changes they worked to make in the world.

Stout, speaking as Wolfe in Too Many Cooks, says some truly remarkable things to the black waiters and chefs gathered in his room. Anyone who knows anything of the 1930s and 1940s knows how unusual it was for a popular author to take such a controversial stand about black equality.

It is lines like those quoted below, that IMHO elevate Stout to the ranks of America's great writers. (And since I have a degree in English as well as one in history, I have read the canon of great American writers, and I stand by my statement -- Stout risked a great deal by having Wolfe say the following:)
". . .it is certainly true that in America -- not to mention other continents -- the whites have excluded the blacks from some of the benefits of those agreements. . . . It's deplorable and I don't blame black men for resenting it. . . . The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and religion and color are totally disregarded. . ."

Remember, that well into the 1950s, many institutions, including colleges, universities, and country clubs not only excluded blacks, but Jews, Asians, and Hispanics as well. Stout's statement was firm and unrelenting. I admire his courage.

FYI, my father introduced me to Nero Wolfe and Archie and the other inhabitants of the old brownstone when I was 10 -- and he himself was a civil rights activist since the 1940s.

And I don't think we should ban William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for its anti-Jewish sentiments -- the greatest Shylock I ever saw was played by a Jewish actor.

What we do need, however, are teachers who are able to help students see historical works in the context of both their times and ours.

Edited: Jun 20, 2008, 2:42am

>11 RachelfromSarasota: I totally agree, Rachel! I am annoyed when people expect historical figures, fictional and non, to behave as if they were alive now.

I'm currently listening to an interesting book on the Underground Railroad. (Please pardon me for bringing a non-Wolfe book into this forum!) What I like is that the author is very clear that most of the whites involved in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad were in fact quite racist and sexist. But he's also very clear about the fact that for many of them, they were risking their livelihood and even their lives. Their motives may not have been what we would wish and some of their actions offend modern sensibilities, but they were courageous and acted on their convictions. He strikes a good balance.

I second your view of Stout's firm statements in Too Many Cooks. I listened to A Right to Die earlier in the year. Then I decided I really wanted to listen to the earlier book, which I had only read once, as a teenager. The CD box and the narration itself had all sorts of warnings about the language. They were right. It startled me and bothered me. Archie's casual racism grated. Clearly, though, that was meant to provide a contrast and context for Wolfe's speech to the cooks and waiters. It's not Stout's best book by any means, though it has interesting points, but I think he wrote it around what he wanted to say about the racism of the period. It was well done and startlingly modern.

BTW, as an aside, people here will appreciate this. A few years ago I bought a PT Cruiser, as I've always loved how they look. It seemed to need a name, and after thinking about it, I named him Archie.

Jun 21, 2008, 2:03am

I like it! A PT Cruiser named Archie. Cool!

Jun 22, 2008, 10:29pm

Thanks! It was either that or Atticus, as I picked him up on the day Gregory Peck died.

Of course, almost no one I know IRL has a clue who Archie Goodwin is. I've decided it's my little secret.

Mar 25, 2009, 10:46pm

Like many my age, I came to Nero Wolfe through the A&E series and fell completely in love with the stories and pacing. I only recently began reading the books and was quite surprised at some of the language. I kept having to remind myself: it was written in the 30s... it was written in the 30's.
I was especially surprised at Archie's Xenophobic attitudes. I had until then (I'm not ashamed to admit falling for a fictional character) formed quite a little crush on Archie. The moment he started calling a man a spic "spiggoty" however... the love was gone.

Mar 26, 2009, 11:35am

#15 - I'm not sure whether Archie was Xenophobic or just typical of the speech patterns of the day. I've read a lot of personal accounts of WWII and the Depression and people just said those words with no specific hatred involved. Not just white people either. I'm not saying it is right, and it certainly isn't acceptable now, but it didn't necessarily imply hatred or fear (though of course with some people it did).

Mar 26, 2009, 2:37pm

I consider xenophobia to be born more of mistrust than of hate.
I would hardly daemonize a book of that time (or its character for that matter) for the use of a stray epithet. In Fer-de-lance however, Archie expressed that mistrust for a character solely on the fact that, in his own words, "he looked like a foreigner". It was that, in addition to the slur that provoked my reaction.

Mar 27, 2009, 5:08am

ennyl, a couple of the books knocked Archie off his pedestal for me, too - in Too Many Clients, he almost seems to be condoning domestic violence, and that is totally jarring. There are different interpretations for his behaviour in that book - some say he's being ironic, or whatever - but it really bothered me.

On the other hand, his faults add to his character, and he does change - mature, if you like - as the years pass.

Mar 27, 2009, 1:02pm

#18 - That is something I noticed as well, that Archie changed and matured over the years. After all, he was supposed to be from the small town midwest, fairly naive and cocky when he arrived in The Big Apple. Ah, youth. When he became associated with Wolfe, it seemed to broaden and mature him. Let's face it, we are all a bit jarring in various ways when we are young, it takes age and experience to bring about humility.

ennyl - I'm not trying to excuse his views, only to say that they would be natural for a man of his time, class and youth.

Mar 27, 2009, 3:06pm


Saying he did not trust someone because they looked like a foreigner could have been a sly dig at Wolfe, who was/is from Montenegro.

The other comments are just echoes of the times they were written.

Mar 28, 2009, 4:48pm

19 - I didn't think you were trying to excuse his views, I was trying to clarify my previous statement about WHY I thought it was xenophobia.

Jul 7, 2009, 9:58pm

I've read the Wolfe books (in series) about 25 times so far, and I have to confess that one of the things I LOVE about them, as a historian, is their authenticity. Archie is/was very much a man of his times. His xenophobic language reflected the views of most Americans at that time, but compared to most "man-on-the-street" primary sources, Archie's was much milder -- he had/has his prejudices, but never allowed them to stand in the way of his actions. His whole take on the "blackbirds" in TOO MANY COOKS is very enlightening.

SPOILER ALERT:As for Archie's "support" of domestic violence, I think in the case of Dinah Hough it is not that he so much approves of her husband's bashing her about but that he endorses Professor Hough's assertion of his manhood in this troubled marriage, at long last. Thus the celebratory bottle of Dom Perignon. It is reprehensible, and regrettable, but still understandable in context. Remember that this was published in 1960, when the idea that women had rights as individuals, especially in marriage, was just a blip on the social horizon. Betty Friedan's seminal work, THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, wasn't published until 1963. And it wasn't until the 1980s that the idea that a husband was not supposed to rape his wife began to filter into our judicial system.

I started reading the Wolfe books in 3rd or 4th grade, when I was too young to have a crush on any character. So I never fell into the trap of thinking that Archie was in any way perfect. For me, the most interesting people (fictional or "real") are those who are not only flawed but aware of their flaws. I confess to enjoying Archie's idiosyncracies (sp?), as much as I do Wolfe's. And Archie's very authentic voice serves me as a time machine, catapulting me back to the year the books were written.

Jul 8, 2009, 12:12pm

Rachel, I agree that the books have to be put into context. With 'historical' fiction, I usually pride myself on understanding the social mores of the era in which the story is set, but somehow, with Too Many Clients, Archie's celebration of the cuckolded husband's cowardly attack on his wife - yeah, you're a real man now, Professor! - went too far for me. Perhaps that's because I did fall for Archie, and didn't want to recognise the flaws that balance his otherwise attractive persona!

Edited: Jul 8, 2009, 12:50pm

Good god, what terrible misreadings! Please, please look beyond the mere presence of a word. I think the OP and those who think Stout himself is expressing racism common to the period in question (In Too Many Cooks) are utterly mistaken. It's quite the opposite! The characters are in acknowledged racist territory (Virginia), and we get a terrific description of the matter-of-fact racism of the times and place. Look again--it is the Southern hosts who routinely refer to "niggers", in their speech (the villains and the "good ones" alike.) Wolfe and Archie never do (nor is the term used anywhere else). There are several occasions on which Archie draws attention to the differences in attitudes of the "North" (the big city of New York specifically), and the Southerners. His tone is consistently sardonic when he touches on the whites' attitudes to blacks; flippant (that's his style), but without doubt he doesn't share the local prejudices. Then there's Wolfe's address to the black service, which explicitly lays out his (and presumably Stout's) opinion on racists.

Stout's style in dealing with the topic certainly appears much less "controlled" than what we see nowadays, but that's because opinions on what is hurtful and insulting have changed so much. Even the polite terms Wolfe and Archie use--"coloured" and "Negro"--are inadmissible today, and the relative lack of outrage at, for instance, other people using "nigger" confuses us--but such were the times. It's clear enough what Wolfe and Archie (and again, Stout himself) think of it.

As I read the book I was admiring it for its honesty and courage--not many writers would dare alienate the majority of the public on the behalf of a widely despised minority.

Christie, on the other hand, WAS racist and antisemitic, and because she's basically a hack, incapable of creating real characters and not cardboard stereotypes, her prejudices repeatedly shine through clearly enough that I won't bother with quotes. I wouldn't mention Stout and her in the same breath. (Oooops... :))

Jul 11, 2009, 9:50pm

Quite a number of my favorite authors were antisemitic, and when I was quite a bit younger it used to bother me. Now I realize they were merely expressing (and subscribing to) the prejudices of their times.

Talk about misreadings -- I get fumingly angry when great works like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are banned b/c of their use of the word "nigger." Anyone who's read Huckleberry Finn and has two brain cells that still operate cannot help but notice that the only truly good and humane and heroic figure in the book is Jim (the runaway slave).

People need to get past the offensive epithet and read what the words are really saying. That is the first lesson of close and critical reading, and I work hard to teach the skill to my students.

For Wolfe's true sentiments about the equality of the races, see my quote from Too Many Cooks in post #11, or better yet, read the book again. Stout was, in this as in so many other things, far ahead of his time.

Jul 12, 2009, 6:59pm

The fact that Jim is the only decent human being, is portrayed as a human being at all, conflicts with many people’s world view and could be the reason that it is so often challenged.

Jul 12, 2009, 9:02pm

Now I realize they were merely expressing (and subscribing to) the prejudices of their times.

Oh, I am not this forgiving, not for a million years. There is nothing "mere" about prejudice, and absolving people of them as if they were some automatic, unconscious broadcasters of the l'air du temps only creates the bigger puzzle of how it is that a decent minority, in every era, does NOT succumb to them. No--I think most people are miserable, hateful, egotistical cowards who jump at any opportunity to build themselves as superior to some wretched group, going so far as to enslave or stick them into the ovens.

And for writers, at least those of any talent, it is doubly terrible to be in the grip of racist prejudice, because it bespeaks a shameful failure of imagination, scope and humanity.

Edited: Dec 1, 2020, 8:59pm

Yes, America was a different place in 1940. In many ways, a better place. In some ways and for some people, a worse place, no doubt. Everyone knows the racial prejudices against black Americans of the past, but ascribing them to all non-black people would be just as bad a mistake and prejudicial in itself.

I've seen enough of past newspaper, periodical, and book writings of the past the use of the term "Negro", which I don't view as derogatory at all. It would be like referring to me as a Caucasian, which in fact I am. I think even for 1940, the use of the term "nigger" was meant as a pejorative meant to hurt black Americans, just as it is today. Unfortunately, it was tolerated in the past in too many situations.

That said, however, I don't think it was used in such a way by Mr. Stout. His writing was merely reflecting the usage by the characters, not Mr. Stout himself.

Dec 2, 2020, 4:11pm

I suspect Mr. Stout's views could be ascertained by the speech that Nero Wolfe gave to the domestic help group near the end of Too Many Cooks. A viewpoint to be admired, even today.