Writing negatives seems to always sell, as the first tenet of journalism proves: “Bad news is good news, and good news is no news.” The Help resurrects now tread worn aspects of the aftermath of slavery and does so anachronistically and in ludicrous parodies of what was then reality. Ninety-nine percent of us abhor slavery in all of its forms (of women, children, races, the stupid, etc.), but none of those living had any hand in America’s epoch of black slavery, any more than we did in the Egyptians 200-plus year enslavement of the Jews, or in the Roman’s enslavement of much of Europe, or in Hitler’s 1940’s Holocaust, or in Stalin’s enslavement and annihilation of 20 million Russians, or, indeed, in the enslavement of virtually every conquered peoples in recorded history. Slavery was not unique to blacks; it was just among history’s latest regrettable chapters of same. It should be noted that, unlike most of the countless millions enslaved during the past 4,000 or so years, Africans were the only nations to sell their own people in mass for profit. Africans began selling their own in the 1600’s, and slavery flourished in the U.S. southern states (to provide cheap labor for the cotton industry) during the 1700’s until the Civil War (1861-1864); the Civil Rights Act (1964) eliminated its remaining vestiges. Countless books have been written on American Slavery. Now comes The Help.
The Help, a 2009 bestseller, is extolled by many critics and is advertised as “the other side of Gone with the Wind — and just as unputdownable”. The first irony of that statement is that Gone with the Wind did not have “a side”. Its author, Margaret Mitchell, had no axe to grind; she didn’t try to “paint” either side as right or wrong. She simply told that history in gripping prose; she was a veritable camera projecting back in time, capturing scene after scene of the South’s great fall, developing unforgettable characters and plots and doing so in classic prose on an epic landscape that haunts its readers for life.
Conversely, Help gives us a close look at maids’ lives in the 1960’s South – 100 years after the Civil War. While it is putatively set in the 1960’s U.S., it describes conditions that did not generally exist in the 1960’s (as one who was there to witness it); those attitudes and issues existed at some level in the 1940’s, but The Help is even a ludicrous parody of the real conditions in the 1940’s and has little to do with the 1960’s. The author was trying to be more current, hence more relevant. The book’s problems don’t end there: the characters are paper thin caricatures, and the blacks are all exemplary humans and all the whites their opposites; neither and none is real, and the prose is sophomoric. It pandered to, and exploited, racial hatreds and stereotypes, in a Punch and Judy level farce.
It focuses on three characters, two maids and one young white girl, and, since the Civil Rights’ Movement and all of the press and books concerning same, the plot and themes now seem hackneyed. Its only relevance to Gone with the Wind is that both took place in the South. As novels go, The Help is a flea, Gone with the Wind, an elephant.
Most of The Help’s almost 500 pages is comprised of the dialect of 1960’s maids, i.e., illiteracy, slang, a massive butchering of the English language. It is a brutal assault, designed to reignite racial enmity. If this is “the great prose of our times”, I shall have to abandon contemporary fiction.