Chapters 22-23 Summary
When he is fifteen years old, Eliza complains that Eugene is lazy, so his brother Ben gives him a paper route. Eugene is not really lazy, but he despises everything to do with the boarding house and so resists doing chores. Eugene is given the “Niggertown” route, which is known for being difficult to navigate and even more difficult to collect the fees. He awakens each morning at 3:30 and begins his deliveries. He feels afraid of failure, so he perseveres in delivering the papers on time and in collecting the money for the subscriptions. He is intrigued when another newspaper boy, Jennings Ware, tells him of having sex with black women.
Eugene’s persistence makes him an example to the other newsboys. He brings in a higher percentage of money than the others do, even though he has the most difficult route. One notoriously recalcitrant customer is Ella Corpening, who is seldom at home when he comes to collect. He finally catches her one Saturday evening. She is dressed up and waiting for a “white gentleman,” she says. When he comes, he will give Ella a dollar, which she will then give to Eugene. Eugene asks her what the white man is giving her the money for, and Ella replies, “Jelly roll,” which is a euphemism for sex. Fascinated by the mental images this creates, Eugene asks her to see it. She takes off her clothes and dances for him. Eugene takes off running, overcome by what he has seen.
Eugene does not tell the Leonards he is working for fear that they would disapprove and lower his grades. He knows he would get a lecture on the negative effect of a lack of sleep on his health. After two years, Eugene loves the education he is receiving at the private school. He is fascinated by the classical literature he is reading. He has memorized much poetry, especially every song in Shakespeare’s plays, his favorite of which is King Lear. Mrs. Leonard and Mrs. Sheba encourage him, impressed by his intelligence and taste. They guide his reading and suggest many authors and poets that appeal to him. He reads most of the great literature of the nineteenth century, his favorite being Quentin Durward by Sir Walter Scott because of the detailed descriptions of food. Eliza goes once again to Florida for her health. Helen begins to drift around the country, singing in small cabarets. Her father writes her faithfully twice a week and occasionally sends her some money.