Patricia Highsmith Essay

By Dan Piepenbring

On the Shelf

A 1909 postcard of the main gates to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

  • Susan Howe on Wallace Stevens and just plain old liking the guy’s poems: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure … I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones, but they all run together, the way Emerson’s essays do, into one long meditation, moving like waves, and suddenly there is one perfect portal. The quick perfection.”
  • In 1987, Patricia Highsmith, then at her most misanthropic and having found a malignant tumor on her lung, paid a visit to Brooklyn, where she wrote an abortive essay for the New York Times about Green-Wood Cemetery. It never ran, perhaps because its pivotal moment finds her sticking her hand in an industrial furnace, still warm, at the crematorium. “The warmth of that retort, even though it may have come from a pilot flame, brought home death to me as none of the stone monuments above ground had,” she writes. She also likens the cemetery to a passing garbage truck: “Its apparently inexhaustible drip of squashed vegetable matter or leftover orange juice reminds me of human mortality, with its attendant ugliness, stench and inevitability.”
  • Susan Cheever has looked into America’s long lust for booze, and she’s discovered a few things. First, that a drunk Nixon once claimed he’d made a great pope. And second, that the link between writers and alcohol is a fairly new one: “In the nineteenth century, writers didn’t drink. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow. Nope. No drinkers. It’s not about the writers. It’s about the drinking culture. Some writers drink a lot, so much so that the five people who won the Nobel Prize for literature were all alcoholics [Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck]. I hadn’t really done the math, and then it occurred to me that, of course, it came out of Prohibition, that Prohibition made drinking that much more attractive to writers.”
  • Today in vintage hate-reads: a newly discovered transcript of Ayn Rand’s remarks to the 1974 graduating class at West Point finds her up to her usual tricks, i.e., disguising out-and-out bigotry behind a tissue-thin veil of “philosophy.” “Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Rand said to the group of dewy-eyed officers-to-be. “It is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights … Racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up.” Important words to remember the next time you spot a malleable young person reading The Fountainhead and claiming it’s just “a really good story.”
  • Notes toward a theory of Playmobil, with its bizarre, intensely Euro-zone aesthetic, its fascination with the civil service, its tendency to exalt the bourgeois: “As I examined the Playmobil version of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, I realized how Vermeer’s popularity as a painter rests on the same sort of generic, domestic scenarios as Playmobil, with all those charming, joyful, bourgeois little details, the depiction of the everyday things of our lives … Next to Lego … Playmobil can seem downright dowdy and boring … One of the best-selling sets is a Christmas manger scene. The fastest-selling Playmobil figure of all time was launched this past winter: Martin Luther, complete with quill and German Bible!”

Highsmith considered herself a suspense writer. Throughout her career, she wrote about the complex workings of the mind and how fear, desire, and power shape people. In her “how-to” book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith carefully distinguishes suspense from conventional murder mysteries:mysteries begin with a murder, but suspense relies upon the threat of violence to move the plot; mysteries leave the reader in the dark, but suspense reveals all and invites the reader into the mind of the killer; mysteries ask readers to produce the killer, but suspense asks readers to understand what psychological and social factors create a killer.

As such, Highsmith’s suspense creates an amoral world where murderers do not kill because they enjoy it but because they have no choice. Good and evil are uncertain in an amoral world, and because the story is told from the murderer’s point of view, the reader is forced to identify and grapple with the social uncertainties driving Highsmith’s protagonists. Highsmith’s work avoids immoral protagonists who murder out of enjoyment because such killers alienate readers and stall discussions about social and psychological politics. Amoral fiction allows Highsmith to examine what makes America and Americans tick.

Highsmith’s amoral world is better understood in its postwar context. After World War II, American politics were marked by great uncertainty. The United States’ new enemy, Communism, differed from its Axis enemies because Communists were not easily identified by geography, race, or language. The “enemy” could be anyone—friends, neighbors, or family. Postwar uncertainty also affected social and cultural spheres. Changing gender roles, racial codes, class boundaries, and assumptions about sexuality challenged what had been accepted as “normal” for Americans. In response, new social codes demanded conformity in efforts to stabilize the home front.

A key theme in Highsmith’s work is performativity, or acting in response to behavioral codes constructed to stabilize race, gender, class, or sexuality. Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is the ultimate performer, whose ability to imitate and adapt is the means to his survival. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom is excluded from “good” American society. After befriending socialite Dickie Greenleaf, however, Ripley learns how one must perform to be accepted by the cultural elite. Tom murders Dickie and assumes his name, persona, and possessions. In fact, Tom begins to see himself as “Dickie” and is chagrined when he must play “Tom” again to avoid arrest. Tom continues to play various roles as the series continues, demonstrating the dangerous implications of America’s “self-made man” who strives to be like everyone else.

Duality also plays a significant role in Highsmith’s fiction. Doubles can be found in many of Highsmith’s texts, most notably Strangers on a Train. The two protagonists are seeming opposites: Bruno is loud, vulgar, and psychologically troubled, whereas Guy is pensive, intellectual, and emotionally sound. Bruno proposes a double murder—Guy would kill Bruno’s father, and Bruno would kill Guy’s unfaithful wife. Guy laughs off the proposition, but Bruno performs the murder and terrorizes Guy until he has no choice but to “keep up” his end of the imagined bargain. Over the course of the novel, it becomes increasingly clear that Guy sees himself in Bruno and vice versa. Similar doubles are seen in The Two Faces of January (1964) and The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980). Highsmith’s use of doubles suggests two things: All persons contain the potential for good and bad, and one can never know for certain who may be friend or foe.

Known for her fascination with “deviants,” Highsmith examines how society both produces and punishes psychosis in novels like Strangers on a Train, Deep Water, The Cry of the Owl (1962), and the Ripley series. Highsmith’s deviants are average, middle-class men struggling with society’s demands for economic success, social acceptance, and the perfect family. In Deep Water, for example, Vic is a faithful husband whose wife’s affairs drive him to murder, not out of jealousy but because he must publicly perform the role of the “good husband” while dealing with her lovers. Vic is neither a hardened criminal nor a lower-class thug but a suburban man trapped in postwar codes of domestic conformity. Similarly, deviants in The Cry of the Owl and Strangers on a Train are middle-class men forced to navigate social land mines. In Highsmith’s fiction, deviance is determined not by one’s social status but by one’s response to the social codes defining one’s status. These middle-class protagonists warn that demands to maintain the status quo can catalyze danger.

Noticeably, Highsmith’s protagonists are primarily men. Some critics have charged Highsmith with misogyny—a charge she took in stride and used for her short-story collection Little Tales of Misogyny (1977). There is some merit to this criticism, however, for Highsmith’s women characters often represent the worst of postwar society: cheaters (Melinda in Deep Water), manipulators (Miriam in Strangers on a Train), and emotional weaklings (Marge in The Talented Mr. Ripley). One reason for Highsmith’s problematic characterizations could be her own struggle with gender and sexuality. Both her critiques and sympathetic portrayals of women (in The Price of Salt and the 1995 novel Small g: A Summer Idyll) can be read as public stagings of Highsmith’s private struggles.

Highsmith’s fiction investigates the forces driving postwar Americans: money, power, lust, fear, and alienation. Significantly, her work suggests that criminality is not necessarily the breaking of social codes but, rather, the codes themselves. Her work criticizes consumer culture, fear of difference, and conformity, arguing...

(The entire section is 2474 words.)


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