B-Sides: Joyce Carol Oates’s “them”

“‘Them’ remakes the naturalist tradition of novels for a society that seems … incapable of ending an addiction to racist violence.”

Joyce Carol Oates appears on college syllabi far less than such mid 20th-century male peers as Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966) is included in short-story courses, but none of Oates’s 60-plus novels—neither her early masterwork A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) nor her Marilyn Monroe novel Blonde (1999)—show up with any regularity. Indeed, for most academics, Oates seems oddly peripheral to 21st-century literary culture.

There are myriad reasons for this neglect. In The Program Era, Mark McGurl made the case that Oates’s maximalist aesthetics and her prodigious output irked Alfred Kazin and James Wolcott alike. Elizabeth Dalton (“Joyce Carol Oates: Violence in the Head”) and Leo Robson (“The Unruly Genius”) maintain that Oates’s frequent depictions of violence unsettle readers who assume, as Oates herself put it, that “the territory of the female artist should be the subjective, the domestic.” At base, though, Oates’s quiet disappearance from the academy stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of her interest in white working and lower-middle-class life.

Most major postwar American novelists expressed little interest in disenfranchised whites who “failed” at embourgeoisement. Writers such as E. L. Doctorow and Roth focused on the upwardly mobile, John Updike and Richard Yates on the well-established middle and upper classes, while James Baldwin and Toni Morrison trained their gaze principally on poor communities of color. Oates, though, has returned insistently to the problem of nonmobile whiteness in Blonde; Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990); them (1969); and other important works. And she has done so in an inimitable neonaturalist style, tracing violent narratives that (more like film noir than genteel literary fare) drive to a fated conclusion. For Oates, the desperate American need to claim and maintain whiteness, frequently by way of violence, emerges most palpably in working-class experience.

Them, which won the National Book Award, is a case in point. It chronicles the fortunes of Loretta Wendall and her two oldest children, Maureen and Jules, growing up white and poor in postwar Detroit. Implicitly writing for a presumptively bourgeois readership but drawing on her own Detroit experience teaching working-class students, Oates depicts the Wendalls as alien denizens of the demimonde, existing at the mercy of the bloodthirsty fates. “Nothing in this novel has been exaggerated,” she writes in the author’s note, “the various sordid and shocking events of slum life, detailed in other naturalistic works, have been understated here.” Oates doesn’t make claims of authenticity to justify an exoticist portrayal of inner-city existence. The othering explicit in the novel’s title doesn’t reflect her sentiments but instead cautions those readers who would demonize people like the Wendalls.

If the Wendalls were simply trapped in a doomed narrative because of environmental and hereditary burdens, they would merely reprise characters in naturalist novels from the fin de siècle: Frank Norris’s McTeague or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Crucially, though, Oates’s characters repeatedly attempt to assuage their sense of economic precarity by falling back on putative racial superiority. Ironically, the very fact that Loretta “was so conscious of being white,” guarantees that the Wendalls will never escape ambient bleakness. On the contrary, like many of their Black working-class counterparts, the Wendalls contend with crime-infested streets, police oppression, dead-end jobs, and inept social services. Drawing repeated comparisons between these characters and the Black Americans they disparage, Oates urges the reader to understand the Wendalls’ situation in terms of a compelling narrative in which working-class whites pursue and fail to achieve what W. E. B. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction in America (1935), called a “public and psychological wage … of whiteness.” And she emphasizes that this fruitless quest can lead to white violence against Black Americans; in a late scene, a group of poor Kentucky whites drive around Detroit shooting into buildings.

In this novel about a fated white working-class family, Oates provides a new perspective on the terrible “price” of whiteness.

Given Oates’s unusual sensitivity to whiteness as a fraught racial and economic formation, it’s tempting to read them as a precursor to such 21st-century works as Robin DiAngelo’s sociological study White Fragility (2018). Them is moving and perspicacious, however, in ways foreclosed to sociology, because Maureen and Jules come to incarnate the failed promise of mid-20th-century American pathways into bourgeois so-called security. Unconvinced of her own value, Maureen as a teenager feels distanced from both the white magazine models, “their faces more beautiful than hers and remote”—she will never prompt the attention depicted in Blonde—and from Jane Austen characters who can move readers to tears. As Maureen tells herself, “Nobody would ever cry over her as they would over the unhappiness of a woman in a novel.” Money seems the only means of gaining a sense of self-worth, and Maureen attempts to gain cash through a particularly desperate strategy: sex work. Oates represents her dissociative sexual encounters with random men brilliantly. While driving with one client, for example, Maureen cannot remember if she’d slept with him: “Everything was so empty in her that she felt nothing; her body forgot faster than she herself did,” the narrator informs us. Yet even as this traumatizing commodification testifies to her distance from hegemonic whiteness and its gender norms, Maureen doesn’t relinquish her “ache for” a white suburban identity: “a ranch house or a colonial house … a woman working in the kitchen, wearing slacks maybe, a baby in his crib in the baby’s room, thin white gauzy curtains, a bedroom for my husband and me.”

For all her suffering, Maureen will not abandon this desire for an affluence indelibly coded as white. Perhaps the novel’s crucial debt to naturalism is the uncomfortable fact that readers cannot help but share her sense of entrapment as she pushes relentlessly to achieve this goal.

Jules’s relationship to this racial fantasy of attainment and uplift is even more vexed. From his first days in Detroit, Jules is fascinated by “the mystery” of African Americans, drawn to questions of color and identity. Oates shows remarkable awareness of how her young character’s offensive investment in whiteness—“in Detroit, being white struck him as a special gift, a blessing”—can coexist with his curiosity about other racial formations. Jules’s desire to become a sort of secular saint emerges from reading an article about an Indian mystic who insists that “we are all members of a single human family”—a way of seeing that might “expand Jules out to the limits of his skin.”

Readers are given tantalizing hints of the political potential in this impulse. Jules sometimes takes on a Black identity, whether impersonating a Black man to discourage an inquisitive caller or responding affirmatively when being called a racial epithet by a threatening white cop in the riot that concludes the novel. Ultimately, though these impersonations hardly undercut Jules’s attempt to maintain a distance from “a hopeless brown nothing could get off, not even a razor.” Oates grasps the racial masquerade that enables Jules’s quixotic pursuit of whiteness, and her nuanced characterization of this antihero brings that tragic irony to the fore.

Them remakes the naturalist tradition of novels like Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893) for a society that seems as incapable of ending an addiction to racist violence in 2023 as it was when Oates wrote a half century ago. In this novel about a fated white working-class family, Oates provides a new perspective on the terrible “price” of whiteness James Baldwin spelled out in “On Being White … And Other Lies” (1984). There, Baldwin argued that “there are no white people”; white identity was a “lie” perpetrated at the expense of people of color. “In this debasement and definition of Black people,” Baldwin wrote, whites “debased and defined themselves.” Gripping, visceral, and relentless, them unmasks that lie of whiteness and, in the process, transforms the pessimistic determinism of a venerable literary mode into a lesson about the horrific persistence of American racism. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz. Featured-image photograph of destroyed buildings in Detroit, July 24, 1967, by Phil Cherner (CC BY-SA 2.5). Steve Johnson / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)