Black Spring

Black Spring Summary and Analysis of “The Tailor Shop” and “Jabberwhorl Cronstadt”


The Tailor Shop

In this section Miller provides stories from his time in New York.

He begins by describing how he’d walk quickly to the tailor shop where his father worked but how old man Bendix seemed to always get there before him. Bendix was a difficult man—mean, rude, and capricious. Miller felt bad for his father who had to deal with all these rich people, though his mother had no idea what that was like at home where she simply languished and complained.

There were three Bendix brothers—H.W. the grumpy one, A.F., and R.N., who never came to the shop because his legs were cut off. All three brothers hated each other and could not be together at all. Miller liked Albert the best, and recounts how he was a very exacting client but over time Albert and Miller’s father (whom he calls “the old man”) got accustomed to each other.

Around ten o’clock each day was when the old man would go out for a drink. Miller would watch the charismatic George Sandusky across the street opening doors for clients at the hotel. He was a true gentleman, and later found Jesus. He proclaimed that he never needed life insurance because God would take care of him and everyone else. The old man had affection for George and tried to get him to drink, but George did not.

The old man often had moods and sometimes he’d wander to further places. He liked to see his idol, a movie star named Julian Legree with his fantastic voice. He also saw another idol named Corse Payton, and Miller never knew what his father talked about with these people.

At one of the bars there were three coarse Irishmen and the customers used to love it when they criticized them or insulted them. The owner of the bar was the old man’s enemy though, because he thought this man, Tom Moffatt, looked down on him. When he used to come to the tailor shop to order clothes he would order a lot of them and then get his accountant to complain about some discrepancy in the statements. In response, the old man began ordering lavish meals and simply charging them to the bar. This went on for years, tacitly endorsed by both parties.

Around noon each day the old man would have an appetizer; lunch could last five hours. He had marvelous companions. One such was Ferd Pattee, a huge man who had a somnambulistic air but was passionate about cheese. He used to wander slowly about the city and smile at you if you said hello. There was the “dirty kike” (90) Rubin and the other midget Jews Rapp and Chaimowitz.

There was the dreamer Paul Dexter who always thought he would have a real job but never got one. Miller wanted to win the man’s affection but it was hard to please Paul. He was cheerful on the surface but morose below. He would go on drunken benders and go missing, then come back and beg forgiveness and spend time afterward talking eloquently. Paul and the old man were bosom friends and would not even hide their tears from each other. Paul died of heart failure in a foot of water at the seashore.

The old man urged Miller to go pay his condolences to Paul’s wife, a stunningly beautiful woman. When he went, he seduced her and they had sex.

Every season there were a few deaths, which often brought a little business to the shop. The old ones were replaced by young blood: gamblers, stockbrokers, actors, fighters, people without loyalty or gumption. One of these was Baron Carola von Eschenbach, who made money because he could look and act like the Crown Prince. He was doing well when he caught syphilis and died. But before that he came into the shop and the old man was pleased to have him. The Baron befriended the old men who hung out in front of the shop and enjoyed amusing them all. One day though, he admitted privately to Miller that he needed to borrow money and was miserable because all he did was play the clown, and he liked coming to their place because it was warm and friendly. Miller invited him over for dinner and his wife, who was annoyingly puritanical, enjoyed his risqué stories. Once she found out he had syphilis, though, she became insensate with fear and rage and ordered him out. The Baron protested and Miller was frustrated with his wife.

Miller was generally annoyed with his wife, who sobbed forever to get his attention. It was pathetic and he was only amused when she would get so upset that she would hit him and yell like a drunken whore. Thankfully, the sex was tremendous after these rows.

Miller then begins to discuss his family get-togethers, whether for holidays or any old time and how they had a great amount of food and drink.

Two significant members were Uncle George and Tante Melia, whom he refers to as, respectively, the morgue and the insane asylum. George had one arm bitten off by a horse and his wife probably slept with her own brother but never George so he became crazy.

Melia also went crazy because her husband Paul left her and she gradually worsened. Paul hanged himself and she fully lost her intelligence. Miller was tasked with taking her to the asylum, which he did one day. He believed that she was too good and pure for the world and that was why she had to go away; sometimes she seemed like a half-wit, other times a saint.

He takes her there and is uncomfortable that Melia seems terror-stricken at being left. Miller kisses her goodbye. He sobbed and sobbed after he left her.

He returns to his morning walk and every day he wrote a new book in his mind of what he observed. He chronicles his hellos and the line at 14th street that divides the Gentile and the Jewish world. He had to cross the line every day and bought a gardenia for his buttonhole. The mornings passed one by one and became indistinguishable. Each day was a new world.

His father's friends were lovable but went out like lights.

Crazy George went to the undertaker’s shop and got a new set of clothes from a corpse. Tante Melia sent a Valentine’s Day card at the same time.

Miller looks at the ocean at the same dusky hour during the day. It is the hour when the city is getting ready to go out—to get raped, drugged, violated, listen to music, etc. It is a beautiful hour and everyone is going their own private way. New worlds arise while the old ones die out.

The old man gets so drunk that he takes his friend Tom Jordan to bed with him. Miller’s mother becomes enraged and Tom begs for forgiveness. At the same time Miller was preparing to come home to ask for permission to marry a woman old enough to be his mother.

It is matinee time. Miller wanders around the city, going to a penny arcade and watching people in the hotel lobby. His woman is waiting for him but she has a son and it is tough to make love with him in the home.

It is rush hour and the subways are busy. Miller is so close to a woman that his penis pushes up against her but nothing happens of it. He walks outside as the sun is going down.

He heads to the Brooklyn Bridge and wonders why everyone looks so serious. They cannot be suffering as much as him, can they? In particular his father drives him crazy and he is envious of him, and his mother cries all night and annoys him. He is twenty-one, white, smart, full of good habits, and “committed no crime, except to be born here” (126). He realizes he is “the first idle son of a bitch with a glib tongue and a bad heart” (126) who feels like one digit swimming in a crowd. He’s as desperate as the rest of them but no one notices each other.

Once he thought there were magical things in store for him, but no more. He is lost. He is yowling and screaming. He wants attention.

Jabberwhorl Cronstadt

Miller and his friend Dschilly Zilah Bey visit Jabberwhorl Cronstadt, who lives at the back of a sunken garden. Over the door it says “poet, musician, herbologist, linguist, oceanographer old clothes, colloids” (131).

Katya opens the door and Pinochinni tells them they must see her father’s new poem, which is on the mantelpiece. It is not there.

There is a piano and often Cronstadt would play something but it has to be in the key of C.

Jocatha, the famished but large cat, comes in. He thrashes about in wrath and claws the floor and bites through to the poem.

Then there is Elsa, who brings in a tray with glasses, and then Anna, who is accompanied by three other cats who are all males, even the mother.

Jab and his wife Jill enter. Jill invites them to sit down and explains that Jab has his period. Jab plays a tune and starts volubly talking nonsense. The phone rings and Jill tells him to answer it. He does, and they can hear him say he has three apartments to buy or sell but he must have cash because the French don’t believe in checks. When he hangs up, he comments that this is how things work here and they make fast work of real estate.

Jab also says that he does not know where Katya, Anna, and Elsa came from and how they got here. It takes all three of them to make a meal. Katya is the best because she can iron, but Anna recently said she wants to write poems. Jab scoffs that the world doesn’t need any more poems. It needs real estate and bread and butter for the sake of the future; there is no such thing as the present and there’s no such thing as Time because people use it but can’t describe it. It is a dream-state.

Jab’s thoughts wander and he asks Jill what word he was thinking of yesterday. She offers “omophagia” and in delight Jab asks the visitors if they like the word. He asks why his guests aren’t drinking and then talks about literature not actually being vitally necessary like they think it is.

Jill says she will go se how the girls are doing with the meal but Jab says she cannot—they need to figure it out for themselves.

The phone rings and Cronstadt speaks to the woman on the line in French. Jill asks wryly why he was so smooth with her, and confides in Miller and his friend that her husband got a woman drunk the other day. Jab protests that he was just showing her an apartment.

Jill wants to check on the goose but Jab, who has just taken more cognac and pepper, tells her to forebear. Maybe the goose will never come and they will just sit here as it gets dark and they’ll have to eat everything else and even each other.

Pinochinni enters to say goodnight, but says she wants to ask something. She blurts out questions as to why they are here, what everything means, why they must have a world at all. Jab is nonplussed and says he will answer if she gives him her terms.

Voices filter up from outside. Jill grumbles about the goose and Jab laughs that it would be funny if they all jut sat here and he gets smaller and smaller. She says he is drunk, and comments that he will be getting cold soon.

Jab explains that the next Ice Age is coming and while they wait for the goose the cold will roll in and ice will cover everything and the baby in Jill will freeze. He includes anecdotes of Pliny and the firewalkers in Bulgaria, and speaks of Jill’s little soul-worms in her womb all whirring about and dying and being born again every day.

Jill sighs that he is losing his mind and Jab replies that he just found it, but it is a different mind than she expected.

Jab relates the content of his best poem, which was about two faucets named Froid and Chaud that adorned a kitchen sink. It was perfect; there were no beginnings or ends and Chaud was the alpha and Froid the omega. He depicts everything that happens at a sink—food and things that fall down, drippings, waste, etc.

Jab sings and sings and they all lay him out on his bed.


The Tailor Shop

This section is probably the most famous of the work due to its vibrant images and anecdotes of early 20th-century New York City. Placed right in the middle of Black Spring, with four sections on either side, it is the fulcrum upon which the novel rests. It is the most straightforward and the most autobiographical, but Miller still demonstrates fantastical wordplay, memorable and comedic characterizations, and profound insights into his identity formation.

Much of the first part of the section is devoted to Miller’s father, a man with whom Miller had a rather complicated relationship. “The old man,” as he is called, loves to drink and carouse with his friends, a lovable hodgepodge of local workers, matinee idols, sad dreamers, and Hollywood impersonators. They almost all have tragic ends, befitting their at-times dramatic and sometimes squandered lives. Nevertheless, there is support and joy and love in the community the old man and the others in the neighborhood have forged, and even though Miller grudgingly admits he has no idea what they all talk about, it seems to provide meaning to everyone’s lives.

Though Miller does not comment outright on political, social, and economic issues of his day, they are there in the penumbras of “The Tailor Shop.” First, Miller demonstrates anti-Semitism and misogyny. Then in terms of social class, he says he feels sorry for his father “and for all merchant tailors who have to kiss rich people’s asses” (80). During sessions at the tailor shop the rich men “felt compelled to unload the garbage which had accumulated in the plugged-up sinks they had made of their minds. All the beautiful diseases of boredom and riches” (95). Tom Moffatt, the wealthy bar owner, is depicted as a villain who essentially robs people. Critic William Solomon notes that the time the events take place is one “in which the opportunity to indulge in leisurely excesses is fading.”

World War I also lingers in the minds and bodies of the men who fought and came home, not to mention the general pressures of a destabilizing, disillusioning modernity. Paul Dexter and the Baron are both deeply depressed people who cannot make their lives what they want them to be, as are Miller’s Uncle George and Tante Melia—the latter experiencing a complete break from reality and having to be institutionalized.

Towards the latter part of “The Tailor Shop” Miller begins to engage more with his own psyche. He walks the streets of New York and while he acknowledges the people he encounters, he spends more time cataloguing his mounting shame, despair, and confusion. It seems as if he is “losing the power to distinguish morning from morning” and that “each morning the trench yawns more menacingly” (114). Every day he has to write a new “book” from scratch but it seems as if those books are not creating anything unified, but rather a collection of disparate, disappearing fragments of a life. He is complains that he sees people with deadly serious expressions, but they annoy him because he is “suffering worse than any of them” (125). He has a look of desperation on his face at all times and he though he once thought “there were marvelous things in store for me,” now he is “lost, lost, do you hear? You don’t hear? I’m yowling and screaming—don’t you hear me?” (127). Miller movingly depicts the way a person in the city, especially this modern city, can feel totally and completely alone even if one is crammed into crowds on the subways, bridges, and streets.

Additionally, what adds to Miller’s despair is that there is so much violence, so much destruction at this time. He writes that “I hear the new machine guns and the millions of bones splintered at once; I see dogs running mad and pigeons dropping with letters to their ankles” (119). Miller is in the company of the modernist writers Yeats and Eliot in his conjuring of a world where nature revolts at the way man doles out death capriciously.

Jabberwhorl Cronstadt

Immediately from the title of this piece one can glean the allusion to “The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s famed nonsense poem included in Through the Looking Glass (1871), and within the first sentences, allusions to the Surrealists. The style of these artists and writers was perfect for “Jabberwhorl,” and one gets the sense that perhaps Miller was trying to outdo them.

Though he never says outright in the section, “Jabberwhorl Cronstadt” is a loving caricature of Miller’s friend, the poet and Communist Walter Lowenfels. “Jab,” as he is called, is charming, ebullient, wise, volatile, and nonconformist. The unconventional household is one of delight and community: Jab treats Pinochinni’s deep questions with respect, the servants and their ineptitude are cheerfully tolerated, the cats are beloved and crazy members of the family, guests are clearly welcome, and the relationship between Jill and Jab, however odd, is the most loving and sincere one in the entire novel. Miller’s narrative self is barely even present here, as he is content to listen to Jab wax poetic about numerous subjects and eventually talk himself into frenzied exhaustion.

Jab is a creative, and one who cannot be quenched or curtailed. Critic James Decker points to the tiny, absurd detail of Jab having his period as a symbol of the “pain that precedes creation” and suggests that the conclusion of the story is Miller parodying “the impulse that drives Cronstadt…to delve so deeply into his art that he loses contact with the world, with the anecdotal style that grounds the supraself [the deepest, most extraordinary part of one’s self] and provides needed contrast for his ecstatic flights. Nevertheless, beyond the caricature clearly lies admiration, for the supraself, too, seeks to sing as modernity shatters.”