In the novel, a fanatical Baptist preacher punishes his daughters by making them copy a hundred verses from the Bible until they get to the one containing a lesson he wants to teach them.
This is a metaphor for The Poisonwood Bible. Five hundred pages of characters and scenes that already appeared in a million other books culminate in the towering idea to which all these evil colonialists, stupid Southern belles, abused Georgian housewives, precocious cripples, saintly Communists, and wise natives were leading us.
That idea is…
Please prepare yourselves…
… “whiteness needs to be erased” so that people can “walk on a compassionate earth unmarked by whiteness” and live in perfect innocence.
Don’t say I forgot to warn you.
The Baptist preacher character is supposed to be the bad guy in the novel. He’s not as bad as President Eisenhower who’s devil incarnate but still really horrid. All he does is try to indoctrinate people into a meaningless, confusing dogma that he doesn’t even practice himself. He only preaches it to feel superior. The author seems to be unaware of how similar her attitude to her readers is to the way the dastardly preacher treats his flock.
In the first half of the novel, at least there is a plot. In the second half, the plot disappears, and there are 250 pages of straight-on preaching. Bad whites, good Communists, bad whites, good Communists – with absolutely no acknowledgement, of course, that Marx, Lenin and the sainted Khrushchev were very, very white. All this unavoidably reaches the point of suggesting that white people deserve to be murdered solely for being white. I said this about fifteen times already but I have to say it again, Demon Copperhead is the exact opposite. Really, I promise. No murders of white people are advocated in that novel.
OK, just one more thing and then I’ll leave everybody in peace with this book. Do you know who causes wars in Africa? Well, white people, obviously, that’s easy. But do you know how? By bringing vaccines and medications that improve life expectancy. More African babies survive, which is a bad thing. Because each additional black baby disrupts the delicate ecological balance of the continent. And that forces Africans to slaughter each other to restore the balance. I heard Kingsolver wrote a whole novel on the impending climate catastrophe, and you can just imagine how delightful that is.
13 thoughts on “Book Notes: The Poisonwood Bible”
Having had to read it when it first came out, I am enjoying your posts on it. Thank you.
The colonial medicine is an old argument. It is often given as the reason for increasing numbers of African migrants.
“Demon Copperhead is the exact opposite”
Now I’m not so sure, I just looked her up in wikipedia and a couple of things stand out….
-her family lived, briefly, in Congo in Leopoldville (as it was called then)
-she’s from rural Kentucky
What you perceive as radically different approaches makes sense to me now with a single variable: telescopic philanthropy (aka “leapfrogging loyalties” by Sailer though as someone pointed out it’s not about loyalty).
The idea is that more conservative people tend to think of loyalty in terms of proximity – you’re supposed to be most loyal to immediate family, then extended family, then neighborhood, community etc
More leftist/progressive people tend to think of loyalty as a gift bestowed upon the deserving and so make a big deal of rejecting those close to them and supporting those who are very distant.
Poisonwood Bible – she’s rejecting the white southerners (ie herself) and idealizes the Africans ignoring the brutality of conflict in Africa.
Demon Copperhead – she’s distancing herself from her origins, she’s now so far removed from these pitiable, ignorant, dirt-eating hillbillies that she can now be merciful toward them and sympathize with their plight. Her sympathy is a statement of distance.
I know ‘death of the author’ and ‘authorial intent doesn’t matter’, but…. sometimes it’s just too blatant to ignore.
This might be true but still, one is art and another is… whatever the exact opposite is.
At least, I now understand why she had to model DC on Dickens. She doesn’t know how to move the plot along. In PB she got stuck repeating the same thing for 250 pages. But in DC she followed David Copperfield’s general outline and it helped move things along.
“one is art and another is… whatever the exact opposite is”
Dreck? I would ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ but I know you don’t like applying the A word to poor quality…
I just yesterday or so realized I’d been confusing Kingsolver with Barbara Ehrenreich the whole time so I’d been a bit confused a time or two….
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I swear I wrote my most recent post before seeing this comment.
I only belatedly understood that the author of the novel you panned and that of the novel you praised is one and the same: silly me!
So I went to dig up some info on ditto, and this came up: In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize to support “literature of social change”.
For me that’s enough to disqualify her as a serious literary author. There is NO SUCH THING as “literature of social change”. There is literature, and then there is writing. They are not the same thing.
Art is stronger than an individual. An individual can be stupid, confused, woke, even despicable. Or an individual can be wonderful, profound, and intelligent. But those qualities aren’t connected to whether they can create art. It’s sad and probably unfair but it’s true.
Demon Copperhead is great art with a capital G. God decided to bestow this gift on Kingsolver at this late stage. Nobody can say why. It’s one of the mysteries of creation.
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“sad and probably unfair”
The whole idea of Amadeus…. Mozart is an immature jerk but a greater artist than Salieri (though the Salieri of the play and movie didn’t have much in common with the real figure).
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Does “Demon Copperhead” read the same when you take each of the chapters in reverse and try to resolve how the maps to the territories come about?
“The Poisonwood Bible” doesn’t work when you do that, and I’ll take the most obvious author-inspired wonky quirk that’s inserted into it to show why.
That phrase the pastor keeps repeating that means something other than what he meant it to mean?
There was every opportunity for one of the native speakers to educate him on how to say it properly, making sure that he did so, and reminding him when he didn’t.
In 1859 this blind acceptance and ignorance might have been believable, but in 1959, that there would have been no Belgians introducing the people to books including the Bible?
But as I remember, Kingsolver couldn’t be arsed to bother with imagining her cardboard cutout characters doing such a very human thing as “correcting error among those who may be innocent” … which of course would happen to be a Christian value.
And that’s why Kingsolver gets ranked with Cormac McCarthy, a cheap visceral trickster who sets up unlikely scenarios so he can push crap stories within crap stories upon the readers.
Hate it, all of it, with a passion because even what may seem at first pass to be just a bit clever turns out to be painfully stupid.
Give it time, you’ll see “Demon Copperhead” yet as what it really is.
You’re just not there yet.
Also: “Southern Baptist Mission League” … funny, doesn’t it have a different name in reality?
Oh, yeah, “North American Mission Board”, that’s the one, and yes, they are in Georgia, who’d have thought it.
Not only does Kingsolver hate white people, she hates their religions, and she went out of her way to pick a fight the Southern Baptists through selective revisionism, character assassination, gaslighting, and whatever else she could come up with.
Regardless of what you think about “Demon Copperfield”, it’s not a novel of the crisis.
It is the crisis in the form of a novel.
They are not the same.
Have you read Demon Copperhead?
🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
I was waiting for this.
I wasn’t expecting much out of “Demon Copperhead”, and I’ve read most of it, analysing a lot of the rest.
Again, this book is the crisis, an embodiment of it, and not a thing produced of the crisis as some artefact of it that’s separate from it.
Perhaps it’s because I read “The Poisonwood Bible” first, hoping that I’d find some contemporary American fiction I’d like and not have to keep going back to such writers as John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, and so on to find what I’m looking for.
I suppose this is also how I got into John Brunner, especially since “Stand on Zanzibar” gets its narrative structure from John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy.
I came to American literature in part as an outsider because I’ve spent most of my time away from the US, despite being a “native son” of the US, and so my attractions to it have come in the form of all of the “lost generations” of writers.
You meet Americans who regard Kerouac as some kind of hippie writer, seriously religious Americans who have somehow read “On The Road” without realising that Kerouac has embodied the Stations of the Cross within it as a road journey with his friends and people he meets along the way.
At least he didn’t make it vile and evil like Aleister Crowley.
I’ll take some time then to show you what’s truly hateful about all of this, where the real crisis happens to be.
It folds in nicely with ChatGPT, an arrival that couldn’t be more timely.
You aren’t going to like where it ends up … at first.
Then you’ll eventually accept that it’s how this has to be right now.
The only philosopher I run into now who is even close to keeping up is Nick Land, which is a bit of a surprise since my views usually don’t tend to overlap his with any kind of consistency.
But once Nick Land got off his Moldbug kick and on to the emergent phenomena of AIs and near-AIs (such as ChatGPT), he suddenly became a lot more relevant.
His emergence lately on Twitter hasn’t been an accident.
We’ll do this somewhere else, because we’ve talked “The Poisonwood Bible” into the death it truly deserves.
Still, there’s room on the tombstone for one more inscription.
We can talk about religion a bit along the way, especially about the Southern Baptists, not to attack their faith but instead to show how they are not in the slightest bit separate from the crisis.
Food for thought: no matter how much you like something, especially for its aesthetics, there may be cause to regard it as vile and evil because of what its aesthetics are meant to shield with a cloud of good feelings.
That’s how I see “Demon Copperhead” differently.