Friday, January 26, 2007

From Hawthorne's Wilderness Field to Morrison's Jungle Clearing

On Thursday, I ran out of time before I could explain how Morrison's changing Hawthorne's Puritans' encroaching and racialized wilderness into the "new whitefolks' jungle," the "secret spread" of which was "hidden, secret, except once in a while when you could hear its mumbling in places like 124," connects to the voices Young Goodman Brown and Stamp Paid hear. Well, it seems to me Morrison is linking Hawthorne's concern with the problem of evil during the 17th C to her own explorations of the problem in the 19th C. The Black Man preaches in "Young Goodman Brown," 'Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped, that virtue were not all a dream. Now ye are undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again, my children, to the communion of your race!' Morrison takes lines like these and uses them to address the temptation to believe that whites are devils or inherently evil that spans black intellectual history from Olaudah Equiano to Malcolm X and beyond. If you think I'm exaggerating, check out the figure of Baby Suggs, who does her own preaching in a forest clearing but who ends her life a Goodman Brown-esque figure of gloom and despair.

Among the voices Stamp Paid hears when he approaches 124 is Baby Suggs's; his discovery of the young girl's ribbon in the Licking River exhausted his marrow in a way that lead him to believe he understood her better than he did while he was trying to argue her out of the deep depression that lead her to take to her bed and contemplate colors, searching for something harmless in the world.

Fingering a ribbon and smelling skin, Stamp Paid approaches 124 again.

"My marrow is tired," he thought. "I been tired all my days, bone-tired, but now it's in the marrow. Must be what Baby Suggs felt when she lay down and thought abut color for the rest of her life." When she told him what her aim was, he thought she was ashamed and too shamed to say so. Her authority in the pulpit, her dance in the Clearing, her powerful Call (she didn't deliver sermons or preach--insisting she was too ignorant for that--she called and the hearing heard)--all that had been mocked and rebuked by the bloodspill in her backyard. God puzzled her and she was too ashamed of Him to say so.

Consider their argument, which echoes in Stamp Paid's ears long after Baby Suggs's death:

"You blaming God," he said. "That's what you are doing."

"No, Stamp, I ain't."

"You saying the whitefolks won? That what you saying?"

"I'm saying they came in my yard."

"You saying nothing counts."

"I'm saying they came in my yard."

"Sethe's the one did it."

"And if she hadn't?"

"You saying God give up? Nothing left for us but to pour out our own blood?"

"I'm saying they came in my yard."

"You punishing Him, ain't you."

"Not like He punish me."

"You can't do that, Baby. It ain't right."

"Was a time I knew what that was."

"You still know."

"What I know is what I see a nigger woman hauling shoes."

But Morrison, like Hawthorne, links the theological and the psychological, the political and the personal:

Now, eight years after her contentious funeral and eighteen years after the Misery, he changed his mind. Her marrow was tired and it was a testimony to the heart that fed it that it took eight years to meet finally the color she was hankering after. The onslaught of her fatigue, like his, was sudden, but lasted for years. After sixty years of losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit it out like a fish bone; after five years of freedom given to her by her last child, who bought her future with his, exchanged it, so to speak, so she could have one whether he did or not--to lose him too; to acquire a daughter and grandchildren and see that daughter slay the children (or try to); to belong to a community of other free Negroes--to love and be loved by them, to counsel and be counseled, protect and be protected, feed and fed--and then to have that community step back and hold itself at a distance--well, it could wear out even a Baby Suggs, holy....

Trying to get to 124 for the second time now, he regretted that conversation: the high tone he took; his refusal to see the effect of marrow weariness in a woman he believed was a mountain. Now, too late, he understood her. The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn't count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe's rough choice. One or the other might have saved her, but beaten up by the claims of both, she went to bed. The whitefolks had tired her out at last.

Well, once again I've run out of time, so this will have to suffice as a quotation dump if not actually an idea. More Thursday!

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