Friday, December 15, 2006

CitizenSE's Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea I

For CitizenSE's inaugural Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea post, I want to pick up where I left off in an article of mine from almost seven years ago now, on the meaning, significance, and stakes of the re-visions of The Scarlet Letter in Maryse Conde's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Bharati Mukherjee's The Holder of the World. In that article, I was most interested in examining the concept of hybridity, popularized (though not originated) by postcolonial studies scholars such as Homi Bhabha, for the possibilities its careful use could bring to American Studies (and the dangers of careless uses). So I focused on the contrasting ways in which Conde and Mukherjee "hybridized" Hawthorne and New England, particularly by analyzing their reimaginings of Hester and Pearl. In the course of doing this, I tended to valorize Conde's over Mukherjee's version of hybridity, while of course being fair to Mukherjee (in fact, I showed how Holder quite cleverly responds to criticisms of her earlier novels and stories), but ultimately suggested that taken together, they open the way for a re-evaluation of Bhabha's often-criticized use of hybridity and of the implications of postcolonial studies for research, teaching, and curricula in American Studies. It was a long, complex argument, and I tried to cover too much ground in it, so I'm glad to get another crack at it as the last chapter of my book manuscript.

Thanks to thoughtful, perceptive, and constructive criticisms of the collection my essay appeared in, Postcolonial Theory and the United States, by such reviewers as Malini Johar Schueller and Rachel Adams, I now have a clearer sense of how to frame, articulate, and develop my original argument. And thanks to the opportunity my Fulbright has offered me to teach my Postcolonial Hawthorne course at three different universities in Fukuoka (yes, it's official, I get to repeat the course twice next semester), the manuscript is also going to benefit from the perspectives of undergraduate and graduate students from Japan as well as America (in my Hawthorne and Morrison and New World Slavery and the Transatlantic Imagination graduate seminars at SUNY Fredonia).

To give one example of the benefits of such experience (and of rereading works you're familiar with when teaching them, no matter how many times you've read them before), I want to mention some passages from "The Custom-House" I recently re-discovered, connect them to some passages from The Scarlet Letter, and thereby reshape one of my arguments about Mukherjee's particular version of "hybridizing Hawthorne." For as much as I prefer Conde's to Mukherjee's in general, one weakness is her tendency to locate hybridity in the Caribbean and portray New England as strictly monocultural, her tendency to hybridize New England by putting it in a larger hemispheric context. Where Mukherjee outdoes Conde, I believe now, is in recognizing various versions of New England and showing how the dominant group in the region was actively suppressing its actual hybridity. Her re-reading of Hawthorne suggests that he turned away from the most interesting story he could have told about colonial New England.

Well, it turns out that "The Custom-House" itself can support certain of Mukherjee's narrator's speculations about Hawthorne. From his opening contrast between his "native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf" and the sad state of commerce in 1840s Salem, to his recognition that records of "the former commerce of Salem...and memorials of her princely merchants--old King Derby--old Billy Gray--old Simon Forrester--and many another magnate in his day" could be used as "materials of local history," to the way in which he frames his (imaginary) "discovery of some little interest"--the (imaginary) remains of Hester's scarlet letter and the document by Surveyor Pue outlining her "life and conversation" (which he mock-seriously offers to exhibit to interested readers in order to authenticate his romance)--Hawthorne shows a keen awareness of the importance of the India trade to Salem's economic history in colonial and early national America. Let's look more closely at that last example, for it seems to me now to be one key inspiration of Mukherjee's novel, or at least the source of one of her narrator's key claims about the limitations of The Scarlet Letter:

Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner; unfolding one and another document, and reading the names of vessels that had long ago foundered at sea or rotted at the wharves, and those of merchants, never heard of now on 'Change, nor very readily decipherable on their mossy tombstones, glancing at such matters with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we bestow on the corpse of dead activity,--and exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town's brighter aspect, when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither,--I chanced to lay my hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment.

Hawthorne's implicit comparison between the ultimate value of commercial, historical, and literary endeavors, his admission of failure in his attempt to imagine a "brighter" (and transregional) Salem, and his immediate turn toward what for him is a more compelling story rooted in "local" history--all these aspects of this passage find their way into The Holder of the World.

Another "Custom-House" passage, taken in tandem with a late scene in The Scarlet Letter, also helps to put Salem in world history--and, not coincidentally, it's another moment when Hawthorne tries to imagine what the Salem Custom House used to be, in the years "before the last war with England" ruined Salem's commercial fleet:

On some such morning, when three or four vessels happen to have arrived at once,--usually from Africa or South America,--or to be on the verge of their departure thitherward, there is a sound of frequent feet, passing briskly up and down the granite steps.

As Conde no doubt would point out, what's elided by the reference to the War of 1812, as well as by the list of characters one might find in early national Salem--from the "sea-flushed ship-master" to "the smart young clerk," with the euphemistic mention of "other miscellaneous ones to diversify the group"--is the 1807 abolition of the slave trade. But as Mukherjee might add, the chapter entitled "The New England Holiday" weaves the slave trade and the India trade into the climax of The Scarlet Letter. Take its contrast between the "generation next to the early emigrants," who "wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up" and the "faces of strange people, and Indians among them, and sailors" that Pearl notices and asks Hester about--and its less euphemistic catalog of those who "enlivened" the "sad gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants" with "some diversity of hue," including not only a "party of Indians" but also "some mariners," a "part of the crew of the vessel from the Spanish Main," who would "go near to be arraigned as a pirate" in the 1840s for their "depradations on the Spanish commerce." Take its observation that "the sea, in those old times, heaved, swelled, and foamed very much at its own will, or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with hardly any attempts at regulation by human law." Take its remark that "the buccaneer on the wave might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety on land."

All this adds up to a series of recognitions: the very "questionable vessel" on which Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl plan to escape Puritan New England may well have been involved in the slave trade or the India Trade or piracy on the Spanish Main. Hawthorne's narrator's rhetoric, in its ambigious shifts between clothes and faces, mixes racial and moral discourses. Hawthorne's evocation of the transregionality of colonial New England may not be as fleshed out as Melville's in Moby-Dick and "Benito Cereno," nor as willing to critique injustice, but it does recognize the possibility and perhaps even the desirability of telling other stories of New England than The Scarlet Letter's "tale of human frailty and sorrow." Mukherjee may make much of Hawthorne's earlier exasperation at his fellow Custom-House officers who "spoke with far more interest and unction of ther morning's breakfast, or yesterday's, to-day's, or to-morrow's dinner, than of the shipwreck of forty or fifty years ago, and all the world's wonders which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes," while both she and Conde may run with his implicit suggestion (especially when read in tandem with certain sketches from the late 1830s and early 1840s that I'll get more into later) that there may be something illicit in the supposedly "long-established rank" of the "families which now compose the aristocracy of Salem" in particular and New England more generally, but in so doing they are activating potentials in Hawthorne's own writing, not importing something foreign into it.

All right, this is as far as I have time to go for now. There's a lot more to say on what Mukherjee in particular did with the theme of leaving New England, but since I inexplicably failed to bring The Holder of the World with me to Japan, this will have to wait for another time. Next Saturday, look for my case that Toni Morrison drew on both "Young Goodman Brown" and little-recognized passages from Chapters 14-16 of The Scarlet Letter, as well as more often commented-upon passages from his first novel and The House of the Seven Gables, in assembling some of the key characters and themes of Beloved. I'll be talking about how ribbons, brooks, and pools not only help connect specter evidence and trauma in Hawthorne and Morrison, but also show why it's as important to look at the relations between Pearl and Denver, Pearl and Beloved, and the Salem witch trials and Reconstruction as those between Hester and Sethe or colonial Puritans and antebellum Americans.

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