Well, our Carl is displaying TRUE GRIT by driving to New Orleans for the APSA meeting in the face of HURRICANE ISAAC. What was the APSA thinking in going to the BIG EASY in one of its uneasy months? As of now, I’m still planning to get there for part of the meeting. But there’s no way of telling what the storm will do, and so there’s no way of telling whether I (and Carl and our Ralph) will get there. So I will be releasing in parts my paper on the triple hanging scene in the novel for your reading pleasure. I’m not beginning at the beginning.
We find out that two white men and an Indian were to be hanged. We also find out that the hangman is a Yankee who wouldn’t hang his own—members of the GAR. Mattie’s view, in general, is, as a Southern Democrat, that Yankees are all about killing her people. They’re her enemies, and the country they rule is not her own. They are ruthless aliens, and she is much more psychologically distant from them than she is from the Indians. The war, for her, wasn’t about some abstract principle of justice, but about invaders threatening her people and place, and she thinks not in terms of the nation but states and states’ rights. Mattie’s understanding of justice is shaped by love of her own, as was her father’s. It’s also, following, it seems, his lead, strikingly free from racism and sexism, even by today’s standards. When it comes to judging southerners, including Indians, she’s a meritocrat of character and competence.
The marshall reads the sentences, but Mattie can’t hear him. So whatever we find out about the crimes that are to be punished we find out from the criminals themselves. A man with a Bible leads the condemned “in singing ‘Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound’.” Some—but not all—of the people in the crowd join in. Some believe, and some don’t, in what grace can do for the men soon to be hanged The song, of course, is about a wretch who was once lost, but now is found. Only one of three condemned had that experience of once being blind, but now being able to see. He is full of joyful confidence about being saved from his sins and the biological death that would otherwise be his fate. The other two condemned men remain, from this view, blind without knowing it. And so they see themselves as neither sinners nor saved, as neither lost nor found. They certainly aren’t full of joy.
There is only one other mention of grace in the book. Mattie comments “There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn it or deserve it.” That means you have to pay for everything else, everything from goods and services to murders. You have to pay if you want justice done to your father’s murderer, Mattie learns, maybe pay with both cash and your arm. We certainly have reason to believe this— this voice of the southern Presbyterian narrator woman and not the Cumberland Presbyterian girl. Even the woman remembering the girl certainly didn’t regard her relationship with her father and his and her friends as merely transactional or reciprocal or free from acting generously or out of love. Friends, she clearly says, don’t “use” each other. Friends only owe friends gratitude, and that is, in fact, what she gave Yarnell and nothing more. Maybe she paid Lawyer Doggett some, but not nearly what he was worth to her. And surely she didn’t regard the gritty chivalry of Rooster that saved her life as being properly compensated for by Lawyer Doggett’s $200 reward. It was not, she said, worthy of praise, and it’s the lawyer who interpreted that to mean worthy of money. Mattie acted—by reburying him in her family plot– as if his was an act of love by a foster-father. (And not a husband—there’s no evidence of any erotic attraction in either direction in that relationship. Rooster was done with women, and the question of Mattie’s sexuality is not addressed. Mattie’s lack of eroticism—she can’t imagine anyone in her bed for the right reasons—is evidence that in one respect she remained a child her whole life.)
The experience that everything has to be paid for does conform better to the life of the adult Mattie. She assumes, for example, that any man who wants to marry her would be after her money. And she assumed that any woman without an arm and stuck with a disabled mom and a “frank tongue” is too disadvantaged to be lovable. The experience that everything has to be paid is that of a self-sufficient, lonely woman of means. (Mattie says nothing about her relationship with her disabled mom that would suggested that it’s anything but an unfulfilling burden. And she doesn’t say anything good or affectionate about her brother and sister. She’s told them she doesn’t mind bearing the whole burden of, but that’s the only evidence we have that she doesn’t mind being saddled by her mother.)
Certainly Mattie’s view of grace is that of a woman who loves her bank and loves her uncompromisingly Presbyterian church. That grace is free means, of course, you don’t have to pay for it, and maybe that’s good news. But that you can’t earn it or deserve it might be bad news. It doesn’t necessarily come to those who have worked hard to get it, the way money usually does. God’s free or sovereign granting of grace to whomever he pleases for reasons hidden to us is the only exception to a cause-and-effect world. The granting of grace, as far as we can tell, doesn’t remedy what seem to be the deficiencies of this world from the point of view of justice. Grace isn’t meant to correct what seems to us to be pointless randomness: that, to begin with, bad things seem to happen to good people. From one view, grace is the invincible source of randomness in a world otherwise governed by impersonal necessity. Actually, we know grace isn’t random, but we don’t know why in particular cases.
Mattie latter pointedly says about her view of grace—the uncompromising affirmation of the doctrine of election: “I confess that it is hard doctrine.” She confesses that it’s tough for someone her like to accept. She can’t help but see it as “running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play.” A world governed by contract and personal responsibility—a meritocracy of competence and character—is the world Mattie describes, understands. and in which she can reasonably struggle to find a place. It’s both amazing and hard—and so far, for Mattie, far from being a source of comfort and joy—that God, from our view, doesn’t play fair. She accepts that conclusion only because “I can see no way around it,” after reading the Bible with care and reflecting on her own experiences. Far from seeing grace as explaining why she once was lost, but now is found, she seems to see it as another reason why she’s anxious and troubled in this world. The phrase “amazing grace” doesn’t have a sweet sound to her, and so neither does the beautiful hymn. She reports that the hymn “Beulah Land” is one of her favorites, a hymn about the longing of those homeless in this world. Mattie is a somewhat displaced person who doesn’t seem to have much real faith that she’ll find her true home somewhere else. There’s some connection between overemphasizing or obsessing on the doctrine of election, after all, and the anxiety of existentialism.