Friday, January 19, 2007

How Did Faith's Ribbon End Up in Stamp Paid's Hands?

So finally I have a chance to share one of the Morrison-Hawthorne ideas I'm most excited about, and which, more than 10 years since it first came to me, is still original, I believe. The only other time I tried to share some of this was at a job talk almost exactly 9 years ago and people there seemed to think it was new, even if they didn't choose to make me an offer. Since then, although I've taught it in 1999 and 2003 twice, I've been too nervous someone would beat me to it in print to even check if anyone had (makes a lot of sense, right?). In any case, I think the following idea is "new": correct me if I'm wrong!

As you can tell from my previous Hawthorne-Morrison posts, I'm particularly interested in Book 2 of Beloved, which frames and then delivers the "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" of the women of 124 (and, as I'll show, not only of those women). As I've devoted a few posts to the idea that Beloved is possessed not only by the spirit of Sethe's "crawling-already baby" but also by the spirits of those who died in the middle passage, I want to turn our attention from the monologue to the frame, and particularly to the figure of Stamp Paid, who hasn't gotten nearly the critical attention his place in the novel suggests he deserves. Let's start with a simple question: where did he get the ribbon he holds as he attempts to check in on Sethe, Denver, and Beloved after Paul D has left 124? As this post's title suggests, the answer is going to take us to "Young Goodman Brown." But first it takes us to the Licking River:

Tying his flatbed up on the bank of the Licking River, securing it the best he could, he caught sight of something red on its bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging stil to its bit of scalp. He untied the ribbon and put it in his pocket, dropped the curl in the weeds. On his way home, he stopped, short of breath and dizzy. He waited until the spell passed before continuing on his way. A moment later, his breath left him again. This time he sat down by a fence. Rested, he got to his feet, but before he took a step he turned to look back down the road he was travelling and said, to its frozen mud and the river beyond, "What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?"

Before proceeding further with this key passage, let me turn to a similarly important passage from "Young Goodman Brown," one that, it turns out, also involves a ribbon:

But something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.

'My Faith is gone!' cried he, after one stupefied moment. 'There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.'

This is the moment that Goodman Brown, "maddened with despair," sets himself practically flying down the forest-road he has been travelling, into "the heart of the dark wilderness," heading through the "haunted forest" toward the witches' sabbath presided over by a "dark figure" or "sable form" that he had originally set out on his "errand" into the "unconverted wilderness" precisely to reject and turn back from. Morrison has many figures for what triggers a similar despair that grips her characters; for Stamp Paid, as for Goodman Brown, it is a ribbon. Let's go back to Beloved to see what I'm talking about:

Eighteen seventy-four and whitefolks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes, eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken; necks broken. He smelled skin, skin and hot blood. The skin was one thing, but human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing. The stench stank. Stank up off the pages of the North Star, out of the mouths of witnesses, etched in crooked handwriting in letters delivered by hand. Detailed in documents and petitions full of whereas and presented to any legal body who'd read it, it stank. But none of that had worn out his marrow. None of that. It was the ribbon.

Faith's pink ribbon has turned red, stained by the blood of the black victims of white terrorism during the Reconstruction period. Rather than being ambiguous specter evidence, as the "something" that Young Goodman Brown seizes, beholds, and takes to be damning testimony to his wife's "infidelity" and indeed to the "innate depravity" of all humanity, Stamp Paid's ribbon is all too real, its testimony as speechless and unheard as any of the more formal attempts to stop the deviltry of the KKK and similar terrorist organizations in the postbellum South. Hawthorne scholars tend to read "Young Goodman Brown" as a coded commentary on the Salem Witch Trials and the dangers it taught of taking specter evidence to be real; I believe Morrison is trying to suggest through her "Young Goodman Brown" allusions in Beloved that the violence of the middle passage, slavery, and Reconstruction should be seen as a much great national tragedy. To see the full scale and scope of Morrison's coded suggestion, however, we have to follow this ribbon further, connecting it both to Stamp Paid's and Baby Suggs's despair and to the voices surrounding 124 in Book 2. But the girls are up from their nap, and duties domestic and professional call. Next week, then.

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