4.22. Kenneth Fearing, poem ‘Afternoon of a Pawnbroker’ (1943)

Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961) was an American writer, who established himself in the New York of the 1930s as a proletarian poet and novelist, and whose “mordant wit and boisterously sardonic renderings of the platitudes of the American way of life/business have not often been equaled.” *Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology 390. Instead of sardonic, his poem Afternoon of a Pawnbroker is mildly ironic and fantastic, and though written in the middle of World War II, not explicit about war or politics. The prosaic protagonist is a pawnbroker who does good business, but is bored by his customers, who bring diamonds, rings, clasps, ermine wraps, gold watches, silver plates and violins; objects he has seen many times before and will see many times again. He wonders why they do not pledge something else for a change. The impression of boredom is intensified by the fact that the 74 words of stanza 1 make up one long sentence. In stanza 2, the daily routine of the pawnbroker’s existence is broken by a strange customer:

[6] Still I remember the strange afternoon (it was a season of extraordinary days and nights) when the first of the strange customers appeared.
And he waited, politely, while Mrs. Nunzio redeemed her furs, then he stepped to the counter and he laid down a thing that looked like a trumpet,
In fact, it was a trumpet, not mounted with diamonds, not plated with gold or even silver, and I started to say: “We can’t use trumpets—”
But a light was in his eyes,
[10] And after he was gone, I had the trumpet. And I stored it away. And the name on my books was Gabriel.

“Gabriel” (v. 10) or “Mr. Gabriel” (v. 31), must be indentified as the angel Gabriel, a well-known figure in art, who is often depicted with a metal trumpet without windings, or with a ram’s horn. *Guiley, “Gabriel.” The Encyclopedia of Saints 127. In Jewish lore, there is another angel, Michael, who will blow a trumpet, announcing Elijah, who will appear and introduce the Messiah. Cf. Guiley, “Elijah.” The Encyclopedia of Angels 112. In the Bible book of Daniel, Gabriel is a “holy being,” who explains Daniel’s vision with the two-horned ram to him; Dan. 9:17: “He came near to where I was standing, and as he came I was terrified, and fell prostrate. He said to me, ‘Understand, O man, that the vision refers to the time of the end.’” In Luke 1:19 in the New Testament, he announces the birth of St. John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elisabeth: “I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.” Possibly, Mr. Gabriel’s visit and trumpet are meant as covered, ironic allusions to the war as “the time of the end” without any “good news.” This Mr. Gabriel awaits his turn politely and parts with his sublime attribute, which turns into a commodity as soon it lies on the pawnbroker’s counter. A pawnbroker who is asked to estimate the value of “violins two hundred years old” (v. 4) and a “Stradivarius” (v. 33) will be able to identify and estimate a standard musical instrument like the trumpet. Mr. Gabriel’s instrument is “not plated with gold or even silver;” as modern trumpets are either silver-plated or finished with gold lacquer, and Gabriel is usually pictured with either a shining gold or silver trumpet or with a shofar, the “thing that looked like a trumpet” could well be a shofar.

After his ill-considered decision to accept the trumpet in stanza 2, the pawnbroker hastens to say, in stanza 3, that he is a businessman of the “Sounder Business Principles League” and a respectable family man with two married daughters, and that this is his first mistake: “And nothing like this had ever happened before. How can I account for my lapse of mind? / All I can say is, it did not seem strange.” The pawnbroker’s monologue remains naive, though he should have been warned by the appearance of the second strange customer, a civilized version of Satan, who appears in stanza 4: “a man with a soft, persuasive voice, / And a kindly face, and the most honest eyes I have ever seen, and ears like arrows, and a pointed beard[.]”

In this stanza, many verses begin with “and;” of the 34 verses in the whole poem no fewer than 16 begin like that, which not only enhances the colloquial character, but is also reminiscent of the classical English translation of the biblical imperfectum consecutivum. Another biblical element is the parallelism, a synthetic one in this stanza, because the second verse enhances the favorable impression the customer has made in the first verse. This second strange customer pledges an apple. The pawnbroker’s objection: “It’s been bitten” is answered with a smile: “Yes, but only once.” In stanza 5, the pawnbroker leafs through his books and again encounters all “incongruous, and not very sound securities” with always the ominous number bracketed:

[25] (1) Aladdin’s lamp (I must have been mad), (1) Pandora’s box (1) Magic carpet,
(1) Fountain of youth (in good condition), (1) Holy Grail (1) Invisible man (the only article never redeemed, and I cannot locate him), and others, others, many others,

In stanza 6, his curiosity flares up:

And still I think, at intervals, why didn’t I, when the chance was mine, drink just once from that Fountain of youth?
[30] Why didn’t I open that box of Pandora?
And what if Mr. Gabriel, who redeemed his pledge and went away, should some day decide to blow on his trumpet?
Just one short blast, in the middle of some busy afternoon.

In the short final stanza 7, this line of thought is interrupted by the arrival of ordinary customers: “And here comes Mrs. Case, to redeem her diamond ring,” and in this last verb, which means both “to buy back” and “to deliver,” the ambiguity of the poem is inherent.

The pawnbroker’s usual customers pledge diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, ermine wraps, silks, satins, solid gold watches, silver plate watches and violins; the “strange customers,” however, a trumpet, an apple, Aladdin’s lamp, Pandora’s box, a Magic carpet, the Fountain of youth, the Holy Grail, and an Invisible man. The first list, aside from the violin, is a consistent whole with objects which are not only of use as jewels, but also have a certain market value; moreover, the objects are comparable. The second list is a collection of objects without any practical use: Gabriel’s trumpet cannot be blown without the resurrection of the dead, nor can the other objects be used without unforeseen and irreversible consequences. Their value is exclusively ideal, at least in their original traditions; isolated from their context and collected in the pawnshop, they are curiosities and they are worth whatever you can get for them. The two lists with their different value systems may remind us of the novels by Rabelais with their bizarre lists of parts or functions of the human body, commented on by Bakhtin:

The disunification of what had traditionally been linked, and the bringing-together of that which had traditionally been kept distant and disunified, is achieved in Rabelais via the construction of series of the most varied types, which are at times parallel to each other and at times intersect each other. . . . Each of these seven series possesses its own specific logic, and each series has its own dominants. *Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope” 170.

A shofar passage with similar “dominants” to Afternoon of a Pawnbroker can be found in Scene VI of Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (1929), an overwhelmingly successful American play, which was adapted into a film by William Keighley in 1936. This play is itself directed by the biblical Past, as the African Americans in the Deep South are implicitly compared to the Israelites in the Bible. The Green Pastures is written in an African-American idiom and gives a wilfully naive picture of God—“De Lawd”—and a number of biblical figures, among whom is the angel Gabriel. According to the literary historian Rupendra Guha-Majumdar, “Each time, his [God’s] outrage at sinful reality moves him to punish mankind, first with the deluge and second with his own renunciation from the responsibility of a deliverer. Ironically, in the end he undergoes a change of mind” and becomes convinced “that man can be better understood through suffering than through wrath.” *Guha-Majumdar, “The Green Pastures.” The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama 558. Therefore, God decides to walk the earth “in de shape of a natchel man,” that is, as the “natural man” Jesus. The trumpet is introduced, though not blown, in Scene VI, a dialogue between God and Gabriel, conducted in God’s private office in Heaven.

[GOD turns to his desk, takes another puff or two of the cigar, and with a pencil, begins checking off items on a sheet of paper before him. His back is turned toward GABRIEL. GABRIEL takes his trumpet *In the film, this trumpet is a valveless French horn as used in an old-fashioned corps-style marching band from the hat rack and burnishes it with his robe. He then wets his lips and puts the mouthpiece to his mouth.]
GOD [Without turning around] Now, watch yo’self, Gabriel.
GABRIEL I wasn’t goin’ to blow, Lawd. I jest do dat every now an’ den so I can keep de feel of it. [He leans trumpet against the wall. GOD picks up the papers and swings his chair around toward GABRIEL.] *Connelly, The Green Pastures 45.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
GOD Is dere anythin’ else you ought to remin’ me of?
GABRIEL De prayers, Lawd.
GOD [Puzzled, slowly swinging chair around again] De prayers?
GABRIEL From mankind. You know, down on de earth.
GOD Oh, yeh, de poor little earth. Bless my soul, I almos’ forgot about dat. Mus’ be three or four hund’ed years since I been down dere. I wasn’t any too pleased wid dat job. *Ibid. 47.

In Connelly’s play as well as in Fearing’s poem, the chronotope is a functional office, where the trumpet of the end of days is being safely stored; the Gabriel in the play “takes his trumpet from the hat rack” whereas in the poem the “storage vaults hummed and crackled” (v. 27) under the trumpet and the other pawned objects. In both cases the trumpet is not blown; in the play, God’s refusal of Gabriel’s trumpet practise makes clear that in the foreseeable future, He sees no reason to announce the end of days or redemption for mankind, and the angel Gabriel does not protest against God’s view, whereas the blowing in the poem is only imagined as a possible but not probable event. In the year of the first performance of the play, the newspaper The Afro-American of August 2, 1930 published an article about the actor Wesley Hill, who played the part of Gabriel in The Green Pastures and who considered the blowing of the trumpet. “He [Hill] has confided that he sort of wonders what would really happen if he did blow it; if, perhaps, he might bring down a judgment day.” The headline and main question of the article: “What’d Happen if Gabriel Blew His Horn in ‘Green Pastures’?” comes close to v. 31 from Afternoon of a Pawnbroker: “And what if Mr. Gabriel, who redeemed his pledge and went away, should some day decide to blow on his trumpet?” Though this cannot be proven, it is perfectly possible that the Present of Mr. Gabriel’s trumpet in Afternoon of a Pawnbroker is indirectly directed by the Past in the form of Gabriel’s trumpet in Marc Connelly’s very well-known play.

The pawnbroker is sometimes a little curious about the trumpet and its ascribed supernatural powers, but not curious enough to open Pandora’s box or to blow Mr. Gabriel’s trumpet. In contrast, the businessman in Bruno Schulz’s The Night of the Great Season, *Chapter 4.19 the owner of the fabric store, believes in the power of the magic shofar and blows it in order to avert chaos in his store.

Afternoon of a Pawnbroker is certainly not a criticism or a satire against religion or myths; it is rather a poem about the confrontation of the mythic world with the modern, secular world, where the shofar and other magical objects from the Past are seen with the eye of the businessman in the Present. Written in the middle of World War II, it is not a political poem, though the war between the nations with their respective symbols could well have been the background to Pandora’s box, the Holy Grail, and last but not least, Gabriel’s trumpet as the symbol of the end of time.


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