Saturday, May 15, 2010

Casual Shorts 1: Edward Thompson, “Moses and Mr. Aiken” (1952)

  • Edward Thompson, “Moses and Mr. Aiken,” Collier’s Magazine, 8 March 1952.
  • Reprinted in Modern Stories for Modern Schools, ed. E. F. Kingston, Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1953, pp. 111-230.
  • Filmed for the television series Fireside Theatre, 5 January 1954.
  • Rating: 7/10.
  • "Moses and Mr. Aiken" at the Internet Book List.

Background and Publication

“Moses and Mr. Aiken” is a short story by forgotten Memphis author Edward Thompson. Primarily a novelist, Thompson gained some recognition during his career, garnering a Pulitzer prize nomination for his 1948 novel A Seed in Spring. Other novels include Listen for the Laughter (1942) and Take Away the Darkness (1944). These works have all fallen into obscurity, long since out-of-print, and I have been unable to locate a copy of A Seed in Spring in any of my local libraries. I have also been unable to find reference to a collection of stories for Thompson (a frustrating search since the name has proven incredibly common), though I suspect one may have been published at some time. It appears that Thompson started up a production company in 1948 with producer Al Lewis, the aim of which was to film adaptations of Thompson’s own work, including A Seed in Spring. Information on IMDb is sparse, but Thompson’s Golden Girl was filmed in 1951.
“Moses and Mr. Aiken” was first published in Collier’s Magazine on 8 March 1952, and appears to have been well received as it was reprinted a year later in E. F. Kingston's high school English anthology Modern Stories for Modern Schools, then filmed for the long-running anthology series Fireside Theatre, airing less than two years after the stories initial publication.

General Overview (spoiler free)

There is nothing complex or even complicated about the story, though it is well conceived and plotted. Today it appears nostalgic and, in light of modern short story conventions, refreshing, and I can’t help but liken it to a Frank Capra film. Mr. Elwood Aiken, a crotchety Associate Cashier at a bank, is concerned that the recently vacated post of Cashier has not been offered to him, and is dismayed that a competition for the post has arisen between him and the younger, affable Warren Hastey. Aiken dislikes Hastey simply because the younger man is easy-going and openly friendly. Aiken himself is serious and reserved, and undoubtedly a little envious of the other man’s natural ability to make people like him.
Preparing breakfast one morning, Aiken is consumed with these problems, and his reverie is shattered when he and his wife Wilhelmina discover a newborn kitten abandoned in the ferns in front of their house. Aiken immediately contacts the local animal shelter to care for it, but as they would only destroy the animal the crotchety cashier begins to care for the kitten himself, and a remarkable transformation begins to take place.
A fairly light read, “Moses and Mr. Aiken” is genuinely heart-warming the way many of Capra’s films are. In broad terms the story is about placing faith on character rather than collateral, of being human/humane, and though the protagonist is not a lovable George Bailey, he is likable despite his gruff exterior and his dislike of his well-meaning colleague and the neighbourhood children. The story is genuinely humourous, with some great one-liners aimed mostly at Aiken, and the narration is somewhat ironic as we find ourselves grinning at Aiken’s own serious logic, unable to take him as seriously as he takes himself. Though initially delineated as a stock character, Aiken's dimensions expand and we (as expected) see a softer side of him creeping through. By the end of the story he is (as expected) a well-balanced individual.

I am not revealing anything striking by remarking on Aiken’s transformation as the story clearly heads in that direction. Despite this obvious course, there are some satisfying twists in the plot, and all story details are brought together very nicely, and competently. Well-plotted overall with a straightforward structure, the stock characters are enjoyable and the dialogue is strong. The story is a pleasure to read on all levels.

Since the development of the modern short story in the nineteenth century, the form has proven most successful when dealing with darker themes, less than hopeful situations and, in general, more serious or "realistic" aspects of life. Stories often tend to close with open-ended resolutions, the acceptance of a less-than-perfect situation, or in the middle of the complication where a clear resolution is cannot be achieved. The clear-cut resolutions that are requisite of mainstream film and most novels are not normally suited to the short story, but in "Moses and Mr. Aiken" Thompson has succeeded in constructing a properly arced storyline with clear resolution in the form of a short story. This is quite a unique accomplishment.

I must admit that when I came across the story for a second time, only two or three years after my first reading, I could barely remember a single detail from it. Though I expect this normally occurs when the story itself is less than memorable, at least in my experience, it actually proved beneficial as I was able to enjoy the story a second time as though it were the first.

Analysis (spoilers)

“Moses and Mr. Aiken” is an existentialist story. While it lacks the modernist notions of absurdity it deals specifically with the issue of man’s role within society and his responsibility toward himself and others. Early modern existentialists argued that man must confront existential obstacles, such as angst and despair, in order to live life to its fullest potential. Moreover, man also has a responsibility toward society, and must act in such a way that society will benefit. In “Moses and Mr. Aiken” identity is confronted head-on and perceptions of reality are altered as Elwood Aiken gains an objective view of his self. With greater self-awareness he is able to achieve happiness and become a great beneficiary to society.

Elwood Aiken is a man of routine, so integrated with his daily pattern that his perception of the world has become dangerously narrow. The moment he discovers the kitten the pattern of his life becomes altered, immediately affecting how others perceive him and consequently how he perceives those around him. With a renewed perception the world around him begins to change. He visits the local library and pet shop and is surprised that both the librarian and shopkeeper immediately recognize him. Moreover, he thinks to himself that people appear different when not at the bank. Since the people in their own environment appear naturally friendly and good-humoured, this remark is a criticism on Aiken’s own character; when we later see Aiken at work we learn that he customarily declines customers’ requests and outright censures their goals. What has occurred, however, is that Aiken is seeing the world outside his normal habitat, and this new world appears wholly different. Returning to his own neighbourhood, Aiken’s perception of the boy Bobby Condee is also altered. He discovers that Bobby knows “all about cats… baby ones too,” and Bobby suddenly transforms in Aiken’s eye: “The boy he looked at was suddenly no longer an annoying brat, a disturber of the peace. He was an authority.”

Later that morning everyone at the bank is concerned since it is the first time Aiken has ever taken the morning off, and people begin to view him differently. When his colleagues later read about his attempt at raising the kitten and of his political views, their perception of him receives a complete overhaul, and they treat him as though he were someone entirely different. The women admire him while the men respect him and treat him as an equal. In turn, Aiken begins to treat others differently as well, and these experiences result in a newly-formed philosophy: “character and decency were far more precious items to be considered in making loans than collateral.”

Aiken writes a note to the bank, favouring Hastey for the position of Cashier, as Hastey is a more affable and naturally friendly individual than himself. Aiken understands that personality should be considered in decision-making, and recognizes that Hastey is a better people person than himself. Aiken essentially recognizes his own self in a relatively objective light, and fully accepts himself for who he is. Furthermore, for the benefit of the world he makes an effort to take on the role best-suited for himself. Thompson makes it clear that before Aiken can be offered a better position in his society he must first overcome his existential angst. Writing the note and his willingness to sacrifice that position for the greater good of the bank proves that Aiken has defeated that angst and is unselfishly taken responsibility for society’s benefit.

Aiken's overall perception of the world changes. While the world was a cold and serious place, an opinion shaped by the premature death of his and Wilhelmina's son and their inability to conceive other children, by the end of these experiences (and of the story) the world has become "a wonderful place, full of wonderful people."

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