Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather

“Joseph and His Brothers”

In the Prologue of his great work Thomas Mann says of it: “Its theme is the first and last of all our questioning and speaking and all our necessity; the nature of man.” But it is not the nature of man as the Behaviourists or the biologists see it. This is a double nature, struggling with itself, and the struggle is not to keep the physical machine running smoothly. These ancient people know very little about their physical structure. Their attention is fixed upon something within themselves which they feel to be their real life, consciousness; where it came from and what becomes of it. In this book men ask themselves the questions they asked æons ago when they found themselves in an unconscious world. From the Old Testament, that greatest record of the orphan soul trying to find its kin somewhere in the universe, and from the cruder superstitions of the neighbouring Semitic peoples, Mann has made something like an orchestral arrangement of all the Semitic religions and philosophies.

There are two ways in which a story-teller can approach a theme set in the distant past. The way most familiar to us is that which Flaubert took in Salammbô. The writer stands in present time, his own time, and looks backward. He works and thinks in a long-vanished society. His mind is naturally fixed upon contrasting that world with our own; upon religions, institutions, manners, ways of thinking, all very unlike ours. The reader sees the horrors and splendours of Salammbô from a distance; partly because it was a point of ethics with Flaubert to encourage no familiarity at any time, but particularly because in this book he himself was engaged with the feeling of distance, strangeness, difference.

Mann approaches an even more distant past by another route; he gets behind the epoch of his story and looks forward. He begins with a Prologue which is informed by all the discoveries science has lately made about the beginnings of human existence on this globe; the beginnings long before the known beginning, the long ages when men “did battle with the flying newts” and life was little more than a misery which persisted. From the depths without a history he comes up through the ages of orally transmitted legend; every legend, he believes, having a fact behind it, an occurrence of critical importance to the breed of man.

After the tremendous preparation of the Prologue (a marvel of imaginative power), he rises out of the bottomless depths to the period of his story; not much more than three thousand years ago, he says, when men were very much like ourselves, “aside from a measure of dreamy indefiniteness in their habits of thought.”

This same dreamy indefiniteness, belonging to a people without any of the relentless mechanical gear which directs every moment of modern life toward accuracy, this indefiniteness is one of the most effective elements of verity in this great work. We are among a shepherd people; the story has almost the movement of grazing sheep. The characters live at that pace. Perhaps no one who has not lived among sheep can realize the rightness of the rhythm. A shepherd people is not driving toward anything. With them, truly, as Michelet said of quite another form of journeying, the end is nothing, the road is all. In fact, the road and the end are literally one.

There is nothing in Joseph and His Brothers more admirable than the tempo, the deliberate, sustained pace. (In this age of blinding speed and shattering sound!) Never was there a happier conjunction of writer and subject-matter. Thomas Mann’s natural tempo is deliberate; his sentences come out of reflection, not out of an impulse. It is possible for him to write the story of a shepherd people at the right pace and with the right kind of development, — continual circling and digression — which here is not digression since it is his purpose. He can listen to the herdsmen telling their stories over and over, go backward and forward with their “dreamily indefinite” habits of thought. He has all the time there is; Mediterranean time, 1700 B.C.

When I refer to a passage in the book to refresh my memory, I find myself reading on and on, largely from pleasure in this rich deliberateness which is never without intensity and deep vibration. It is not a kind of writing adapted to all subjects, certainly, but here it is in the very nature of the theme; it gives, along with this distinctive rhythm, a warm homeliness, communicates a brooding tenderness which is in the author’s mind. For in this book Herr Mann is enamoured of his theme, wholly given to it, and this favouritism, held in check by his native temperateness, is itself a source of pleasure; the strong feeling under the strong hand.

At the end of his Prologue the author declares that he is glad to come up from the bottomless pit of prehistoric struggle, and the undecipherable riddle of the old legends, to something relatively near, rather like a home-coming. We, too, are glad. With a sense of escape we approach something already known to us; not glacier ages or a submerged Atlantis, but the very human Mediterranean shore, on a moonlight night in the season of spring.

We have all been there before, even if we have never crossed salt water. (Perhaps this is not strictly accurate, but even the Agnostic and the Behaviourist would have to admit that his great-grandfather had been there.) The Bible countries along the Mediterranean shore were very familiar to most of us in our childhood. Whether we were born in New Hampshire or Virginia or California, Palestine lay behind us. We took it in unconsciously and unthinkingly perhaps, but we could not escape it. It was all about us, in the pictures on the walls, in the songs we sang in Sunday school, in the “opening exercises” at day school, in the talk of the old people, wherever we lived. And it was in our language — fixedly, indelibly. The effect of the King James translation of the Bible upon English prose has been repeated down through the generations, leaving its mark on the minds of all children who had any but the most sluggish emotional nature.

We emerge from Mann’s Prologue to find ourselves not only in a familiar land, but among people we have always known, Joseph and Jacob: and they are talking about their remote ancestors, whom we also know. The Book of Genesis lies like a faded tapestry deep in the consciousness of almost every individual who is more than forty years of age. Moreover, as it is the background of nearly all the art of Western Europe, even today’s college Senior must have come upon it, if only by the cheerless road of reference reading. We are familiar with Mann’s characters and their history, not only through Moses and the Prophets, but through Milton and Dante and Racine, Bach and Hayden and Handel, through painters and architects and stone-cutters innumerable. We begin the book with the great imaginings and the great imaginators already in our minds — we are dyed through and through with them. That is the take-off of the story.


The first volume of the work is the book of Jacob, — of Jacob and his forbears. In a family which held itself so much apart from other tribes and sects, the connection between each man and a long line of grandfathers was very close. There were external features common to all the Semitic religions; hence the shallow and light-minded of the descendants of Abraham were often backsliders, marrying with women of other tribes and troubling themselves very little about the one great idea that had brought Abraham out of Chaldea and isolated him from his own and all other peoples. Whenever that conception of God was very strong in one of Abraham’s descendants (was indeed the burning purpose of his inner life, as it was of Jacob’s), that man was virtually Abraham’s grandson, no matter how many physical generations had gone between, and he was the true and direct inheritor of the “blessing,” aside from any accident of primogeniture.

Throughout this first volume one gradually becomes aware that Abraham’s seed were not so much the “chosen people” as they were THE people WHO chose. They chose to renounce not only sacred images, “idols,” but all the spells and incantations and rites to which men resorted for comfort of mind, and to wander forth searching for a God of whom no image could be made by mortal hand. A God who was not a form, but a force, an essence; felt, but not imprisoned in matter. “The God of the ages,” Mann puts it, “for whom he [Abraham] sought a name and found none sufficient, wherefore he gave Him the plural, calling Him, provisionally, Elohim, the Godhead.”

Herr Mann accounts for Abraham’s quest in this wise:

“What had set him in motion was unrest of the spirit, a need of God, and if — as there can be no doubt — dispensations were vouchsafed him, they had reference to the irradiations of his personal experience of God, which was of a new kind altogether; and his whole concern from the beginning had been to win for it sympathy and adherence. He suffered; and when he compared the measure of his inward distress with that of the great majority, he drew the conclusion that it was pregnant with the future. Not in vain, so he heard from the newly beheld God, shall have been thy torment and thine unrest; for it shall fructify many souls and make proselytes in numbers like to the sands of the seas; and it shall give impulse to great expansions of life hidden in it as in a seed; and in one word, thou shalt be a blessing. A blessing? It is unlikely that the word gives the true meaning of that which happened to him in his very sight and which corresponded to his temperament and to his experience of himself. For the word ‘blessing’ carries with it an idea which but ill describes men of his sort: men, that is, of roving spirit and discomfortable mind, whose novel conception of the deity is destined to make its mark upon the future. The life of men with whom new histories begin can seldom or never be a sheer unclouded blessing; not this it is which their consciousness of self whispers in their ears. ‘And thou shalt be a destiny’: such is the purer and more precise meaning of the promise, in whatever language it may have been spoken.”

The idea was a leap centuries ahead into the dark. Yet it must have been born in the mind of one man: such revelations never come to committees or bureaus of research. Abraham’s descendants could not always live up to it, but tradition held them together, and the rite of circumcision set them apart. The rite and the form can be continued even in the sluggish generations when the significance is lost. But Mann’s work begins when the quest which drove Abraham out of a stupefied materialistic world is burning bright again in Jacob, who, by stratagems outwardly crooked but inwardly inevitable, “had saved his life, his precious, covenanted life, for God and the future.” Jacob, apparently, was the first of Abraham’s descendants who had the power of realizing and experiencing God more and more sharply through all the variations of a life incredibly eventful and long. He experienced Him in meditation, in the unforeseeable but strangely logical working-out of events in his own life — and in dreams. Dreams so full of meaning that they were to him promises. After Abraham’s people had cut themselves off from the comfortableness and commonplaceness of anthropomorphic gods, there still remained the ladder of dreams, by which the orphan soul could mount and the ministers of grace descend.

Jacob the constant lover, who served seven years for Rachel: the trickery of Laban: the rivalry between the sisters: these are great stories which have lived through the centuries. But the greatest, the most moving story is what the author terms “Jacob’s labouring upon the Godhead.” Jacob is a many-sided man, — but the painting of his contradictions must be left to Thomas Mann himself. He has done it as no one else could. The creation of Jacob, in the flesh and in the spirit, is the great achievement of his work. The man who knows that he bears the “blessing” and who sees further into destiny than any of his tribe or time, must, sometimes by purposed indirection, sometimes by stepping aside and shutting his eyes, “save his precious, covenanted life for God and the future.” For the aim of the law is worth more than any letter of it, and a trivial transaction or a question of family government must not be allowed to interfere with those fruitful seasons of thought which are well called “labour upon the Godhead.”

For every lapse in conduct and shirking of responsibility Jacob paid, of course. But the payment, however cruel, seems always to set him a long way forward in his incommunicable spiritual quest, — which certainly proves that his way was for him the right way. With every sorrow he brought upon himself for failing in a plain duty, the immortal jewel he carried within became brighter, and his faith in the way his fathers had chosen more sure. His shirking in the matter of restraining Leah’s sons from their revenge for Dinah cost him Rachel, who died because she was forced to travel by mule-back when she was close upon her confinement. (Another contributing cause comes in here, very characteristic of Jacob, and, one might say, of the author’s mind as well.) Rachel died by the roadside, giving birth to Benjamin. It was as Jacob sat beside her under the mulberry tree, aware that she was dying, that there came over him the greatest of his understandings, loftier than all his visions:

“And then it was that he directed upwards into the silvery light of those worlds above their heads, almost as a confession that he understood, his question: ‘Lord, what dost Thou?’

“To such questions there is no answer. Yet it is the glory of the human spirit that in this silence it does not depart from God, but rather learns to grasp the majesty of the ungraspable and to thrive thereon. Beside him the Chaldæan women and slaves chanted their litanies and invocations, thinking to bind to human wishes the unreasoning powers. But Jacob had never yet so clearly understood as in this hour, why all that was false, and why Abram had left Ur to escape it. The vision vouchsafed him into this immensity was full of horror but also of power; his labour upon the godhead, which always betrayed itself in his care-worn mien, made in this awful night a progress not unconnected with Rachel’s agonies.”


Volume two is the Book of Young Joseph, but it is also still the book of Jacob, though there is a lull in the vicissitudes of his life. The beauty and promise of Rachel’s son fill his days, — until there occurs the great shock which arouses him again to the old struggle to comprehend, in some measure, the dealings of God with man; to justify God, as it were, and find some benign purpose behind the brutality of accident and mischance.

The character of the relation between father and son we have known ever since the long conversation between them on that spring night beside the well. There all Jacob’s anxieties were at once revealed; his fear that the nature of the boy’s gifts may lead him astray to admire the softer graces of other peoples, — their arts and sciences, which were irrelevant to a life for the Godhead, and should not concern the boy to whom he would undoubtedly give the “blessing.” In short, the lad was already worldly, and with scant opportunity had managed to learn a great deal about other languages and other manners than those of his shepherd people. In this precocity Jacob sensed a danger. But he feared other dangers, — love can always see many. He is troubled to find the boy abroad at night, where a wild beast might fall upon him; a lion has been seen in the neighbourhood. And he is always ill at ease when the boy is near a well, a hole in the earth. Before Joseph’s birth his grandfather, Laban, had consulted a heathen seer who foretold of the child Rachel carried that he should go down into a pit.

As for Joseph’s attitude toward his father, it is what the good son’s always will be. He loves Jacob because it is easy for him to love, respects him for all he has been and is, and pities him because his mind is shut against whatever is new and delightfully strange; against interesting languages and religions, against the clamour of founded cities and the customs of foreign peoples. He himself already knows a great deal more than Jacob, although he admits he is not so wise and has not been through so much.

When the second volume opens, Joseph is seventeen. He has learned many things since that night when he talked with Jacob by the well, but he is scarcely more mature. To pick up a new language easily, to astonish his father by his knowledge of tradition and the spiritual meaning of natural phenomena, to be the ornament and, indeed, the intellect, of his family; all this is quite enough to fill the days pleasantly at seventeen.

Very seldom does the personal charm of a character mysteriously reach out to one from the printed page. All authors claim it for their favourite creations, but their failure to make good their claim is so usual that we seldom stop to say to the writer: “But this is mere writing, I get no feeling of this person.” For me, at least, Herr Mann wholly succeeds in communicating Joseph’s highly individual charm. Mann’s own consciousness of it is very strong, with something paternal in it, since he so often feels Joseph through Jacob’s senses. When, only a few hours after its birth, Jacob first sees this baby which had seemed so unwilling to be born at all, when he regards the unusual shape and firmness of the head and the “strangely complete little hand,” he knows that here is something different from all the other sturdy little animals which have been born to him. From that moment the reader also is able to believe in the special loveliness and equability and fine fibre of this child; here is no shepherd clod, but something that can take a high finish.

The misfortune of young Joseph is that he never meets with anything difficult enough to challenge his very unusual mind. What there is to be learned from his old teacher, and from the routine of a shepherds’ camp, is mere child’s play. Nothing very interesting ever happens now in Jacob’s great family; so Joseph decorates the trivial events: he exaggerates, gossips, talks too much, and is extravagantly given to dreams. These are not the dreams of lassitude, nor are they sensual. They are violent, dizzy, — nightmares of grandeur. The qualities which are to make his great future are in him, potential realities, just as they were in Napoleon at seventeen; and they have nothing to grapple with.

It was this “something,” this innate superiority in the boy himself, which the brothers hated even more than they hated the father’s favourite: a deeper and more galling kind of jealousy. The story of Joseph and his brothers is not only forever repeated in literature, it forever repeats itself in life. The natural antagonism between the sane and commonplace, and the exceptional and inventive, is never so bitter as when it occurs in a family: and Joseph certainly did nothing to conciliate his stolid brethren. He insisted upon believing (he had to insist, for he was not vain to the point of stupidity) that all his family rejoiced in his good looks and brilliancy and general superiority. Was he not an ornament to them? It did not occur to him that families which lead self-respecting, simple, industrious lives are not pleased with or benefited by ornaments of this kind — which put them in a false position, indeed. The richness of his own fancy and vitality was quite enough for the youth. Upon this limitation in Joseph the author comments as follows:

“Indifference to the inner life of other human beings, ignorance of their feelings, display an entirely warped attitude toward real life, they give rise to a certain blindness. Since the days of Adam and Eve, since the time when one became two, nobody has been able to live without wanting to put himself in his neighbour’s place and explore his situation, even while trying to see it objectively. Imagination, the art of divining the emotional life of others — in other words, sympathy — is not only commendable inasmuch as it breaks down the limitations of the ego; it is always an indispensable means of self-preservation. But of these rules Joseph knew nothing. His blissful self-confidence was like that of a spoilt child; it persuaded him, despite all evidence to the contrary, that everyone loved him, even more than themselves.”

Joseph heeded no preliminary warnings; he was awakened from his agreeable self-satisfaction only by a shock so terrible that he barely survived it at all, and this awakening was followed by a long and hazardous servitude among a hostile people. Life put him to the test, to many tests, and proved him; he was one of those whom mischances enlighten and refine. Behind the bright promise in him there was the sound seed which would grow to its full measure under any circumstances and could not be circumvented. The world is always full of brilliant youth which fades into grey and embittered middle age: the first flowering takes everything. The great men are those who have developed slowly, or who have been able to survive the glamour of their early florescence and to go on learning from life. If we could

                      look into the seeds of time,
 And say which grain will grow and which will not,

our hopes for young talent would be disappointed less often. Yet in that very mystery lies much of the fascination which gifted young people have for their elders. Kindly effort to shelter them from struggle with the hard facts of existence is often to take away the bread (or the lack of it) by which they grow, if the power of growth is in them. Perhaps if young Joseph had been sent into Egypt on a pension fund or a travelling scholarship the end might have been very different.

The manner in which he actually sets out for Egypt is a challenge to fate, certainly: disinherited, bruised in body, rocking on the camel of Ishmaelite merchants who have bought him as a slave. Thus he vanishes from the story. We do not know at what point in his adventures we are first to see him again in Mann’s third volume, but we know that his father is not to see him again until there has been such a reversal of fortune as seldom happens — even in old legends, with the direct intervention of the gods. Though he is brought so low when he leaves us, his state is not utterly hopeless. The brothers have beaten the conceit and joy out of him; all his sunny youth he has left behind him in the pit, and he has come out into the world naked as when he was born, without father or family or friends, owning not even his own body. But he is going toward a country where, if he really possesses the lively intelligence Jacob and old Eliezer imputed to him, it will find plenty to work upon.

The book ends with Jacob, for however much the story is Joseph’s, it is always Jacob’s. He is the compass, the north star, the seeking mind behind events; he divines their hidden causes. He knows that even external accidents often have their roots, their true beginnings, in personal feeling. He accepts the evidence of the bloody coat and believes that Joseph was devoured by a boar or a lion, yet his glance at the brothers is always accusing. But for their hatred, the wild beast might not have come down upon Joseph.

Jacob is the understanding witness of the whole play, and we know, when we close the second volume, that he will live to behold the unimaginable conclusion in Egypt. This is one of the advantages of making a new story out of an old one which is a very part of the readers’ consciousness. The course of destiny is already known and fixed for us, it is not some story-teller’s make-believe (though for strangeness no reckless improviser could surpass this one). What we most love is not bizarre invention, but to have the old story brought home to us closer than ever before, enriched by all that the right man could draw from it and, by sympathetic insight, put into it. Shakespeare knew this fact very well, and the Greek dramatists long before him.

Herr Mann stresses Joseph’s charm of person and address with good reason. They are stressed even in the highly condensed account in the Book of Genesis. They are, indeed, the subject of Joseph’s story. Had the Ishmaelites not recognized very exceptional values in him, they would have sold him in any slave market. Being sure of special qualities in this piece of merchandise, they held him for a high purchaser and disposed of him to the Captain of Pharaoh’s guard. He charmed Potiphar and, to his misfortune, Potiphar’s wife. When he was thrown into a dungeon, his jailor gave him the management of the prison. When he was brought before Pharaoh, he was given the management of the kingdom.

He had come into Egypt a slave, born of a half-savage people whom the cultivated Egyptians despised, and he had been trained to an occupation they despised. We are told in Genesis that “every shepherd was an abomination to the Egyptians.” (We are not told why: perhaps because the Egyptian cotton market was already an important thing in the world?) It is not easy to find a parallel situation: suppose that a Navajo Indian shepherd boy had been gathered up by the Spanish explorers and sold to one of the world-roving merchant ships from Saint–Malo. Suppose, further, that we find this red Indian boy at the age of thirty become the virtual ruler of France, a Richelieu or a Mazarin.

How much of his remarkable career Herr Mann will accredit to Joseph’s aptness in worldly affairs (that quality of which old Jacob was so distrustful), and how much to his direct inheritance from Jacob, that “blessing” (never formally given) which he carried with him into a land of subtleties and highly organized social life, I wait with impatience to learn. I suspect that I shall still find the father mightier than the son, and more remarkable as an imaginative creation.

Jacob is the rod of measure. He saw the beginning, the new-born creature, and believed even then that this was the child of destiny. He knew Joseph before Joseph knew himself. When the “true son” disappeared into darkness at the dawn of his promise, it was Jacob, not Joseph, who bore the full weight of the catastrophe and tasted the bitterness of death. And he lived to see the beautiful conclusion; not the worldly triumph only, but the greatness of heart which could forgive wrongs so shameful and cruel. Had not Jacob been there to recognize and to foresee, to be destroyed by grief and raised up again, the story of Joseph would lose its highest value. Joseph is the brilliant actor in the scene, but Jacob is the mind which created the piece itself. His brooding spirit wraps the legend in a loftiness and grandeur which actual events can never, in themselves, possess. Take Jacob out of the history of Joseph, and it becomes simply the story of young genius; its cruel discipline, its ultimate triumph and worldly success. A story ever new and always gratifying, but one which never wakens the deep vibrations of the soul.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52