I’m a rotten novelist. I’m not even literary. I just like to tell stories, and all my books tell stories.
– Paul Gallico
Paul Gallico was a hugely popular writer. He authored fifty-one books, including The Snow Goose, in print since 1941, and yet he barely exists in today’s collective memory. A google search brings up just one detailed fan site, and there is very little scholarship on his work or influence. Yet when I consulted local literary experts for this article, many spoke of a personal connection to Gallico’s writing. Melbourne University’s Stephanie Trigg remembers Jennie (1950) being a household favourite when she was a child: ‘My family still says, “When in doubt – wash!” when we look at our cats’, reflecting the advice offered by one of the book’s feline characters. Beth Driscoll, also at Melbourne University, recalls reading Gallico’s books as a child, because her parents had bought them when they were in fashion.
Unapologetically sentimental, romantic and popular, Gallico wrote commercial fiction with humanist messages. In Flowers for Mrs Harris, a domestic cleaner on low wages decides she wants a Dior dress. She saves her money and travels to Paris to buy one, but the compassion and generosity she is met with come to matter far more.
Gallico was not literary, nor was he cynical. He was a storyteller for the masses – and he was hopeful. The suffering of his characters is always ameliorated, at least in part, by acts of kindness from others. Often, in order to commit these kindnesses, his characters must break social conventions or hierarchies.
Gallico’s writing has meant a lot to me over the years. When I have doubted my right to exist, his books have convinced me that I do have worth and a right to be here. Now I want to know why he has all but disappeared from our collective memory.
Gallico’s posthumous unpopularity suggests something in our culture has changed. Sofia Ahlberg, senior lecturer at Uppsala University, agrees. She suggests Gallico is no longer popular because of ‘post-humanist concerns’.
One strand of post-humanism is concerned with the impacts of technological advancement on human development, and with how we should understand ourselves and our relationships as the world becomes increasingly dependent on technology. For many people, the social benefits of technology outweigh the risks; others, like myself, hold concerns that our culture may become increasingly disembodied and dematerialised. As more and more relationships are mediated through technology, and as we become more atomised, it may become easier to ignore the societal factors that cause human distress and hardship.
Online technologies have already changed the way we debate social issues. For example, social media encourages us to offer quick, often disinterested perspectives, rather than building a deep understanding of the material conditions and social structures that lead to poverty or homelessness. Users may share a link, post a moving anecdote, or complain about a lack of government action, but they will rarely engage directly with those experiencing homelessness.
Take the increasing lack of face-to-face service in the provision of welfare. The automated system commonly known as ‘robo-debt’ calculates debts based on opaque algorithms and sends invoices to people already facing financial hardship; people who may already be on the brink of homelessness. This is automated, government-enacted, structural violence: the citizen who loses their home through this process rarely has a human face that they may appeal to, who will hear their concern and restore them to safety. This lack of contact with human workers is now deliberately designed into the welfare system.
Within our current context, authors with humanist concerns – a regard for the rights and material wellbeing of humanity, for the utopian ideals agreed to in, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as the right to a decent life, including housing – are bound to wane in popularity.
For some, post-humanism is the logical next step from postmodernism, and many of the criticisms it draws echo those of postmodernism: a rejection of universal human narratives, a renunciation of the importance of ethics and morals, a dismissal of ideologies such as socialism and the devaluing of the ‘edifying’ book.
Postmodernism is often linked to more diversity in authors (although white, able-bodied men and the privately educated still dominate cultural production) but it also coincides with neoliberalism. Male dominance, white supremacy and class divisions can all be reinforced by postmodern and post-human ideas, which deny the weight of material forces and the universality of human rights and interests.
Oppressive social systems can be undermined by writing that prioritises human beings and their worth. But a writer can only claim that ending poverty, for example, is an ethical matter of universal importance if we agree that the concepts of ethics and universality are meaningful.
Jennie is a book Gallico wrote from the perspective of a child who becomes a stray cat. It is a story of monstrous cars, of cold, hunger and fur matted by street bitumen. It is a story about how we, as humans, betray the vulnerable, and the pain they feel when left out in the cold. Cats’ lives are tenuous without human protection; so, too, are the lives of human children.
Gallico was a materialist – throughout his books his characters suffer because of poverty and war. Hope in his books comes both from the individuality of each person and from the connections forged between them. The boy who turns into a cat in Jennie gains compassion for those left out in the cold, after his time as a stray. Gallico describes a life of pitiless cruelty on the streets, contrasted with a life lived in a home, where there is warmth, affection, food and care.
In many ways, Jennie described my experience of being a homeless child, and did so in a way I could absorb. When I read it, I pretended I was a cat, and I felt compassion for myself instead of anger. It’s not a cat’s fault for being homeless; we do not judge a cat for having nowhere safe to go. It is not the same for people.
Somehow, at thirteen, I was seen as responsible for my plight, when in fact I had no more power in the world than a small cat, and I had fewer rights; it is, for example, illegal to hit a cat, though it is still legal to hit a child in Victoria. I found no understanding in books aimed at teenagers, where girls babysat and went to the mall, and boys fought orcs. Girls in the novels of my childhood did not fight off real-life orcs in government-run children’s homes, or give birth to their own babies. They had non-material problems to do with popularity, boyfriends and annoying parents; cold, poverty and hunger were not among their concerns. Gallico’s books helped me to make sense of the suffering I was experiencing.
Looking back at Gallico’s novels, I realise they contain everything that was good about the first half of the twentieth century. They include the bad, too – subtle misogyny, class and race stereotypes, unquestioning support for the British Empire. But this article is about the good things that are largely lost from contemporary literature: the promotion of love and compassion, the belief that every common person is heroic, that animals have feelings, that our worth is contained in our vulnerability as much as in our success.
We need a resurgence of humanism in literature. In the nineteenth century, Dickens’ popular fiction, Engels’ true accounts of British poverty and Ida B Wells’ work on racial violence exposed injustice and oppression, eventually contributing to social change. Post-humanism has not found a technological solution to material suffering: humans still have soft bodies that can be crushed, starved, exiled.
Of Gallico, New Zealand author Mandy Hager writes:
At [Thomasina’s] heart is a message about tolerance and the power of love to heal. Even Gallico’s most commercially successful film adaptation, The Poseidon Adventure, combined classic adventure with a commentary on the nature of heroism and compassion, with Shelley Winters’ character symbolising everything that is courageous and beautiful in everyday human beings. It is little wonder Gallico has been dismissed as lightweight and overly sentimental in our cynical gimlet-eyed world.
Driscoll notes that very few authors – even those who are popular – live on past their deaths. An author is only canonised if institutions such as universities and schools study their works, or, of late, if fans demand film and television shows based on their books. Some authors though, Driscoll admits, are more likely to be forgotten:
It is usually women writers who are completely forgotten. A feminist perspective might suggest that some of the qualities Gallico had, such as softness and sentiment, are seen as female qualities, and this may have contributed to his decline in popularity.
Ethics and morality are not, arguably, the central concern of contemporary fiction. But they were vital aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English literature. Gallico was an astoundingly good storyteller, but he had little interest in the concerns of novelists: complexities of form, literary allusions or clever narrative conceits. A storyteller wants to tell the story, and the story matters beyond the author’s choice of words. Stories hold important meanings for humans; this meaning is what is being sought when we tell or read stories. In the past, most stories tended to hold ethical or moral lessons. This is no longer a popular feature of modern literary fiction; I think this is perhaps because people no longer read novels in order to improve their character.
Materialism (the belief that our material conditions define our lives and generate our social structures) has a strong connection with sentimentalism. Sentimentalism is often characterised as a display of excessive emotion, but authors accused of sentimentalism are invariably writing about topics where overt, strong emotions are warranted. Charles Dickens, Zofia Nalkowska and, more recently, Ramona Lofton and Lisa Bellear wrote about authoritarianism, injustice and poverty. Gallico’s stories were usually less overtly political, but they affirmed the value of a person, regardless of how powerless and poor they were.
I have a shelf full of Gallico books, with hard covers and yellowing pages. Mostly they offer comfort, but they also offer a perspective on human brutality. Trial by Terror, written in 1952, describes state torture and the psychological harm that intentional violence causes. Although a sentimental writer, Gallico was not a lightweight. His torture victim is completely broken by the end of the book, believing he is worthless and deserving of death.
By the time I was fifteen, I was also a broken person. Some of my experiences in state care and foster homes were no different to those experienced by Gallico’s character at the hands of his Hungarian torturers. I had been told by state social workers that I was worthless, that I should kill myself. Over and over again they told me to kill myself. Decades later, I remain deeply affected by these experiences.
But there is always hope, Gallico says. In Trial by Terror, the hero of the story, Jimmy Race, is rescued by Janet Goodpenny, who will love him back to life. ‘Do you know what you will be taking on?’ Jimmy’s doctor asks her. ‘The despair, the hatred of himself and everyone who reminds him of his ordeal, the black moods?’ He asks if she understands that after years of devotion Jimmy may recover and leave her. ‘Yes,’ Janet replies.
Humans continue to suffer in very real ways. People sleep on the footpaths of Melbourne, cold and alone. People across the country go hungry. Gallico tells us that we do not become worthless because we are vulnerable, broken or barely surviving. A person’s worth is not determined by how strong or clever or capable they are.
A literature without materialism and sentimentalism is a literature that has simply given up on humanity. Things are terribly wrong in the world, and we need stories that expose these wrongs. Poet Lana Woolf talks about storytelling being a way to connect, as well as a way to protest injustice: ‘The more personal the story, the more universal the connection with the audience will be.’ Gallico knew this: he told personal stories to connect us, always promoting love as the solution, and always providing hope even in the most tragic story.
It is time to revive the humanists, to bring Gallico back from the dead, and to make social and material conditions a central concern of contemporary literature.
Attention! – People are evil.
At ease – people are good.
At attention wastelands are created.
At ease houses are constructed […]
– ‘Here’, Wislawa Szymborska (2012)
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