Buchan and racism

In my paper at the IRHG conference I spoke admiringly about John Buchan. Afterwards, someone said in a friendly way, “I read Greenmantle recently. Buchan was quite a racist, wasn’t he?”

Well, Greenmantle doesn’t demonstrate a very high opinion of Muslims, easily duped into a jihad by any fanatic who offers to lead them, but I did my best to defend Buchan. I pointed out that he tried very hard; in The Three Hostages, for instance, he introduces a decent German and a sympathetic Jew at a time when the likes of Sapper were automatically casting these as stereotyped villains. He also, as I’ve pointed out before, had an intellectual generosity to those he disagreed with, featuring a sympathetic and dignified pacifist in Mr Standfast, for example.
But then one thinks of the decadent night club in The Three Hostages, with its “nigger band, looking like monkeys in uniform.” Oh dear.

One passage that is often used against Buchan is the spy Scudder’s description of the state of the world in The Thirty-Nine Steps:

He told me some queer things that explained a lot that had puzzled me–things that happened in the Balkan War, how one state suddenly came out on top, why alliances were made and broken, why certain men disappeared, and where the sinews of war came from. The aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance. Everything would be in the melting- pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’

A graphic piece of writing, and hardly complimentary to Jewry, but I think there is more than anti-Semitism going on here. For a start, one can notice the acknowledgement that powerlessness corrupts, and that the”little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake” desires power because he and his family have been on the receiving end of abusive power in the past (Was it this acknowledgement that made Buchan a supporter of the Zionist enterprise in the twenties and thirties? He was also a friend of Chaim Weizmann, and was honoured by the Zionist movement.)

Second, there is the fact that Scudder’s melodramatic diatribe is a fiction. Later in the novel Sir Walter Bullivant tells Hannay

But all this about war and the Black Stone–it reads like some wild melodrama. If only I had more confidence in Scudder’s judgement. The trouble about him was that he was too romantic. He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be. He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews and the high finance.

This is in line with Buchan’s main tactic in the novel, which starts as a conventional “shocker” but mutates into a recruitment narrative, as Hannay moves from detatchment to full commitment to the national effort.

So Buchan’s intention was possibly to lull the reader into unsuspecting anti-Semitism, and then turn the tables on him by showing it up as a fantasy. The reason this doesn’t work is because of the power of the anti-Semitic myth. That image of the “little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake” is a potent expression of his readers’ prejudices, and will have far more impact than an ironic mention of the “odd biases” of Scudder, with which he counters it.

The imagery of race is potent and dangerous stuff, and you play with it at great peril to your later reputation, as is clearly seen in the case of T.S.Eliot. Eliot was a poet who got many of his best effects by clashing ideas and stereotypes together, and seeing what they would produce. He stands above other writers of the time because he was not stuck in a rut of “poetic” language, but was able to to mix all sorts of linguistic registers, to often astonishing effect.

So the language of prejudice was one that he used, and recent critics have gone for him like wolves because of it. Other commentators have discussed more dispassionately how literally he meant a poem like Burbank with a Baedecker or whether we should read it ironically, or see it as the product of a persona. I’m not sure, but I think that like Buchan, he got swept away by the rhetoric of racial stereotyping. And maybe he was even directly influenced by Buchan. As a fan of detective stories and of vivid popular culture, Eliot would surely have read The Thirty-Nine Steps. Isn’t the dramatic phrase in Burbank “The Jew is underneath the lot” reminiscent of Buchan’s equally dramatically placed “Besides, the Jew was behind it”? But maybe Christopher Ricks has pointed this out already?

3 Comments

  1. David Corbett
    Posted January 9, 2007 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Dear Sir ,
    It is a fatal error to judge one age by the standards of another . The bias are correct for the period and one has only to read Hemmingway to see some of the same . Napoleon is still admired yet he called the English a ” nation of shopkeepers !”
    Tsk ,tsk, such language !
    Cordially ,
    David Corbett

  2. Posted January 9, 2007 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Buchan deliberately tried to avoid racial stereotyping – but sometimes lapses. So if this post is judging him, it’s by his own standards, not by those of a different age. For the record, I regard such lapses as insignificant in comparison with the intelligence and imaginative reach of his best work.

  3. Posted September 12, 2007 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    It’s true that Scudder’s tale is ridiculed by Bullivant as extravagant…but immediately following this scene, all of the extravagant details are proved true. I agree that Buchan may be trying to distance himself from Scudder’s opinions, but you can see why it didn’t work too well; Scudder is on the whole a reliable witness.

    As for the question of time and place, we can admire Buchan’s writing (or Hemingway’s) while still acknowledging his anti-semitism and racism as a genuine flaw. As it happens, many contemporaries of Buchan’s , like Joyce, were not anti-semitic; a bias may be typical for its period, but there is no such thing as a bias being “correct.”


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