Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why "Citizen SE," Take Three

Were anyone other than the humble proprietor of this "insignificant microbe" of an outpost at the outer limits of blogoramaville (verily, a new colony on the electronic frontier) to have been reading my earlier posts, no doubt one of them would ask something like "so, where have you been?" (having seen behind my veil to the inmost Me, this reader no doubt realized I would immediately take defense and bristle at the implied allusion to my one-Hawthorne-post-per-day rule). To which smart-aleck reader I would reply, "Ask my two coughing, feverish, snot-bubble-blowing, and clingy musume!" and say no more. Another reader, concerned at the length of the awkward silence that ensued, would helpfully chime in, " 'citizen of somewhere else,' you're arguing Hawthorne meant 'anywhere but Salem,' right? But what does this have to do with your choice of the blog title?" To which nice and smart but just a little condescending reader, I would reply in kind, "Not exactly," and, "be patient." Miffed at my sleep-deprived surliness, this reader would respond, "OK, big guy, answer me this, then. Where is the 'unrepentant snark' you referred to in your last post? Irony may not always be in the eye of the beholder, but in this case all I read and hear from Hawthorne is elaborate politeness. Also, your characterization of Hawthorne as raging bull in the china shop of mid-19th C Salem is not exactly kosher. What happened to the Hawthorne I know and love?" Which gives me the opening I need to drop this framing device and get into the meat of this post.

Yes, the elaborate politeness of Hawthorne's preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter is strikingly...elaborate. That's my point. Referring to oneself in the third person, as Hawthorne did at the key moments in his short essay, is often a move that distances the speaker from, and elevates him above, his audience. It's in keeping with Hawthorne's other efforts to position those who took offense at his characterization of Whig Custom-House officers in the earlier sketch as overreacting to an entirely innocent effort from an entirely apolitical literary man. Certainly there's some truth to his overreaction charge. But you don't have to have read a good Hawthorne biography or looked in the Centenary Edition at the relevant letters and journal entries or read scholarly essays that analyze the rhetoric and historical context of "The Custom-House" to get my point. Just keep in mind that the very first line of the preface reads:

Much to the author's surprise, and (if he may say so without additional offence) considerably to his amusement,....

If you felt aggrieved by "The Custom-House," I don't see how you can help but take "additional offense" to such an authorial confession of "considerabl[e]...amusement" at your hurt feelings. The fact that non-aggrieved readers would be less likely to understand or share your reaction--and might even be inclined to join Hawthorne in finding your confusion of writing with arson and murder amusing--would be even more infuriating, would it not, especially because the confusion was not yours but one Hawthorne attributed to you? The fact that the preface lends itself to two different and opposed readings--in one, Hawthorne is shocked, just shocked, that anyone could ever find anything offensive in his "sketch of official life" (yet finds the misreadings a little funny) and is eager to put things right, but can't even identify the source of the misreadings in anything he wrote or intended; in the other, Hawthorne's surprise stems from the fact that his sketch's strategies worked as well as they did at causing his political opponents such frustration and anger and amused to have a chance to rub it in yet further as the very controversy their reactions contribute to gives the offending sketch a wider audience even more likely to take his rhetoric at face value--is not, then, a product of ambivalence or ambiguity or Hawthorne's proleptic knowledge of reader-response and post-structuralist theory. It shows that the best unrepentant snark is the kind that infuriates its targets to no end but leaves those who were not its targets wondering why said targets were and are so infuriated. Michael Berube understands this, which is why his brand of unrepentant snark is just as much and sometimes more fun than that of those who round out CitizenSE's own "funniest snark in blogoramaville" list (in order from #2 to #6): The Poor Man Institute, Sadly, No!, Happy Furry Puppy Story Time, Jesus' General, and fafblog!. (Hey, it's end-of-year-blog-awards time. I'm just getting in the spirit of the season. Now back to Hawthorne.)

So why did I say "not exactly" to the helpful "citizen of somewhere else"="anywhere but Salem" idea? First, it doesn't go far enough. Hawthorne's "Henceforth...I am a citizen of somewhere else" is a kind of declaration of independence from Salem. Like Jefferson, Hawthorne is explaining and justifying why it has become "necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another" (and in the process positing a choice as a necessity), declaring the "causes which impel them to separation" by listing a "long train of abuses," appealing to "brethren" who nevertheless have been and remain "deaf to the voice of justice & consanguinity," and, therefore, "acquiesc[ing] in the necessity which denounces our separation" (Hawthorne's "Henceforth" even restores the "eternal" cut by the Continental Congress from this line of Jefferson's draft of the Declaration). I'll get into this more when I turn to Hawthorne's representations of, connections with, and feelings toward Salem in a later post. [Update: mission accomplished.]

The "anywhere but Salem" interpretation of "citizen of somewhere else" is also too vague. We should be cautious to avoid specifying it too narrowly, at the same time. For even as Hawthorne alludes to the American Revolution (positioning himself as an American citizen), he also repeatedly references the French Revolution in "The Custom-House." By identifying his "figurative self" as victim of the Whig political guillotine (who for a while was "careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving's Headless Horseman; ghastly and grim, and longing to be buried, as a politically dead man ought"), by joking that the title of his book ought to be POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR, and by setting up his "citizen of somewhere else" paragraph with the hope that

the sketch which I am now bringing to a close, if too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet!"

Hawthorne at once positions himself as a magnanimous martyr to Whig revolutionary terror, as a true aristocrat being sacrificed by the party of Salem's aristocracy that is operating in the very mode of democratic extremism they claim to oppose, and as the last of the series of ghosts that haunt "The Custom-House." (More on these ghosts later, too. And in The Scarlet Letter itself.) So it's not exactly right to put "The Custom-House" unproblematically in the tradition of Jeffersonian democracy (with its "tree of liberty nourished by blood of tyrants" strains), unless you see that tradition as itself problematized and strained. (After all, Jefferson blamed King George for blocking efforts by the colonists to end the slave trade yet also signalled his intent to defend American slavery by condemning the king's version of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; Jefferson affirmed the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence yet called in Notes on the State of Virginia for scientific investigations to confirm his suspicions of the racial inequality of African Americans; Jefferson condemned slavery in part for its corrupting tendencies on masters yet continued to hold slaves and do more than hold Sally Hemings; Jefferson denounced "merciless Indian savages" who fought with England in the Declaration of Independence, praised American Indians in Notes on the State of Virginia, and saw them as an obstacle to the expansion of the American "empire of liberty" that he helped engineer with the Louisiana Purchase. Hawthorne has his own contradictions on these issues, which we'll explore later.)

For alongside the echoes of American revolutionary rhetoric are suggestions that to be a "citizen of somewhere else" is to write from "beyond the grave," from "the realm of quiet," as a "politically dead man"--perhaps as a citizen of the "Hall of Fantasy" Hawthorne imagined in a story from the previous decade, one whose political death returns him to literary life. Consider the following passages as Hawthorne's exploration of this theme:

In view of my previous weariness of office, and vague thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and, altogether beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap of being murdered.

No longer seeking nor caring that my name should be blazoned abroad on title pages, I smiled to think that it now had another kind of vogue. The Custom-House marker imprinted it, with a stencil and black paint, on pepper-bags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kind of durable merchandise, in testimony that these commodities had paid the impost, and gone regularly through the office. Borne on such queer vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope will never go again.

But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts, that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly, revived again.

Thus Hawthorne introduces another theme--one that I'll connect later to the "anything dead coming back to life hurts" theme from Toni Morrison's Beloved--in the course of setting up his "discovery" of "a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded" which, "on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter," along with "several foolscap sheets, containing many particulars respecting the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne, who appeared to have been rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our ancestors." In emphasizing his struggles to turn these meager (indeed, invented!) materials into a historical romance and thereby resurrect his literary imagination, Hawthorne is not simply being self-deprecating, or trying to win the reader's sympathy, or strategically lowering reader expectations for the romance that follows "The Custom-House." Consider the following passages, which elaborate on earlier difficulties in "exerting [his] fancy, sluggish with little use," as well as from "that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or anything else but their own independent exertions" (E. Franklin Frazier and Daniel Moynihan, meet Nathaniel "Mr. Culture of Poverty OG Himself" Hawthorne):

My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable, by any heat that I could kindly at my intellecual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. "What have you to do with us?" that expression seemed to say. "The little power you might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!" In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless, it is any thing but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one's intellect is dwindling away; or exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a smaller and less volatile residuum. Of the fact, there could be no doubt; and, examining myself and others, I was led to conclusions in reference to the effect of public office on the character, not very favorable to the mode of life in question.

I'll note in passing the continuation of the ghosts/haunting motif that runs throughout "The Custom-House" in these passages--that will be the subject of a future post--but here call your attention to the way in which Hawthorne blames the imagination-deadening "mode of life" of a Custom House officer for causing him to lose "the little power [he] might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities." If "citizen of somewhere else" refers to Hawthorne's choice of the republic of letters over the town of Salem, then it is a realm where the natives are restless. The "tribe of unrealities" may well be "creatures of [his] own fancy," but until he is figuratively rendered a corpse who can offer Salem his own "ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance," Hawthorne remains incapable of "dream[ing] strange things, and mak[ing] them look like the truth."

So let's return to the immediate context of the "citizen of somewhere else" line that I ended the previous post by quoting at some length. As Hawthorne puts it, his dismissal from the Custom-House has made him look forward to the time when his memories of Salem will be as hazy as if the town "were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street." Never mind Hawthorne's uncharacteristic and jarring failure to maintain parallelism in this passage; what's crucial is that his proleptic and hypothetical reverie leads directly into the present-tense declaration, "Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality in my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else." The actual natives of Salem have become less significant to Hawthorne than the rebellious "tribe of unrealities." Hawthorne's fellow Custom House officers, who in the past were enough under his power to, as he puts it, dread "some discourtesy at my hands"--a situation which at the time "pained and amused" him to "behold the terrors that attended my advent" to office--have become "but shadows in my view; white-headed and wrinkled images, which my fancy used to sport with, and has now flung aside for ever" (perhaps a worse discourtesy to suffer than the "charge" he must "plead guilty to"--of "abbreviating the official breath of more than one of these venerable servants of the republic"). Similarly, Hawthorne can barely "recall the figures and appellations" of the merchants whose names had "such a classic familiarity for my ear six months ago," the "men of traffic, who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world." Whereas the romance becomes a "neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the other," Salem has become as abstract and inconsequential as a bad story idea. Whereas the "warmer light" of the "somewhat dim coal-fire" in Hawthorne's study at midnight "mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human nature to the forms which fancy summons up," converting them "from snow-images into men and women," the citizens of Salem suffer the opposite fate, becoming mere "imaginary inhabitants" of an "overgrown village in cloud-land." In short, Hawthorne suggests that as difficult as the process of turning the scarlet letter into The Scarlet Letter was, and as imperfect as the result is, it will still have more reality in his life, and potentially in the lives of his readers, than any more transient political or economic realities.

But there's more to the story of "The Custom-House." Stay tuned.

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