Monday, December 04, 2006

Why "CitizenSE," The Sequel

Let's start rhetorical. After I teach "The Custom-House" later today, I'll get more historical and trace out some of the allusions Hawthorne makes in his sketch to the slave trade and the India trade on which Salem's wealthiest merchant families made their fortunes (which Maryse Conde's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Bharati Mukherjee's The Holder of the World pick up and run with, as I failed to incorporate into my argument in my essay in Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature). [Update: mission accomplished.] After that, I'll explore Hawthorne's focus on ghosts and death, which Toni Morrison makes so much use of in her reading of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and of course in Beloved (which, you could argue, takes its title from a passage in "The Custom-House"). [Update: mission in progress.] And maybe by then I'll be ready to get a little personal.

It may be a little simplistic to call "The Custom-House" Hawthorne's "farewell and fuck you" to Salem, but at least the phrase gets at the anger at his home town in general and specifically at those who were responsible for removing the "Loco-foco Surveyor" (as he sarcastically called himself in an allusion to accusations that he was a partisan Democrat) from public office at the Salem Custom House. When he remarks in his preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter that the reactions to what he calls his "sketch of official life" could "hardly have been more violent, indeed, had he burned down the Custom-House, and quenched its last smoking ember in the blood of a certain venerable personage, against whom he is supposed to cherish a particular malevolence," Hawthorne cleverly places the violence in the overreaction of his readers to his writing. But his answer to the "public disapprobation," which he acknowledges would "weigh very heavily on him, were he conscious of deserving it"--basically to point out "the frank and genuine good humor" of the sketch and "the general accuracy with which he has conveyed his sincere impression of the characters therein described," to "utterly disclaim" any motives of "enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political," and to conclude that "it could not have been done in a better or kindlier spirit, nor, so far as his abilities availed, with a livelier effect of truth"--only adds fuel to the proverbial fire.

In short, I see the preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter as the "and the horse you rode in on" p.s. to "The Custom-House." Just look at the only three sentences that use the phrase "the author" in the preface, from its beginning, middle, and end, and I think you'll see my point:

Much to the author's surprise, and (if he may say so without additional offence) considerably to his amusement, he finds that his sketch of official life, introductory to THE SCARLET LETTER, has created an unprecedented excitement in the respectable community immediately around him.

...the author begs leave to say, that he has carefully read over the introductory pages, with a purpose to alter or expunge whatever might be found amiss, and to make the best reparation in his power for the atrocities of which he has been adjudged guilty.

The author is constrained, therefore, to republish his introductory sketch without the change of a word.

No atrocities, no reparations, no revisions. This is unrepentant snark of the highest order.

I'll have to continue the rhetorical analysis later, for the question of atrocities and reparations looms large in "The Custom-House" proper. For now, let me leave you with the immediate context of the "citizen of somewhere else" line and let you mull it over on your own for awhile:

The life of the Custom-House lies like a dream behind me.... The merchants--Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton, Kimball, Bertram, Hunt,--these, and many other names, which had such a classic familiarity for my ear six months ago,--these men of traffic, who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world,--how little time has it required to so disconnect me from them all, not merely in act, but recollection! It is with an effort that I recall the figures and appellations of these few. Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it 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. Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality in my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else.

The allusions here to earlier language on the romance and on Salem in the sketch are what I'll start with next post.

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