Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Beloved-"Young Goodman Brown" Connections, Courtesy of George William Curtis

Hey, my office computer has been reconnected to the intertubes (helps to have a physics professor as your faculty mentor) and a .pdf version of my Hawaii paper and handouts is available here. But this is Unexpected Hawthorne Wednesday, and I'm rarin' to go on the Beloved-"Young Goodman Brown" connection, so here are some excerpts from George William Curtis's "The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne," North American Review 99 (1864), which Carmen Joseph Dello Buono has kindly reprinted in Rare Early Essays on Nathaniel Hawthorne. Read the whole thing, as they say! Why? Not only is it a great essay in itself--showing that it's not presentist at all to look into Hawthorne's views on race, slavery, and abolition (a friendly but intense argument I kept having with my grandfather while he was still around to discuss the progress of my dissertation with me)--but I have strong textual evidence that Toni Morrison knew of it when she was composing Beloved. So let's go, italicizing Curtis's prose for emphasis along the way:


[T]he pictures of our poet have more than the shadows of Rembrandt. If you listen to his story, the lonely pastures and dull towns of our dear old homely New England shall become suddenly as radiant with grace and terrible with tragedy as any country and any time. The waning afternoon in Concord, in which the blue-frocked farmers are reaping and hoeing, shall set in pensive glory. The woods will forever after be haunted with strange forms. You will hear whispers and music "i' the air." In the softest morning you will suspect sadness; in the most fervent noon a nameless terror. It is because the imagination of our author treads the almost imperceptible line between the natural and the supernatural. We are all conscious of striking it sometimes. But we avoid it. We recoil and hurry away, nor dare to glance over our shoulders lest we should see phantoms.... [Hawthorne's tales] converse with that dreadful realm as with our real world. The light of our sun is poured by genius upon the phantoms we did not dare to contemplate, and lo! they are ourselves, unmasked, and playing many parts. An unutterable sadness seizes the reader as the inevitable black thread appears. For here genius assures us what we trembled to suspect, but could not avoid suspecting, that the black thread is interwoven with all forms of life, with all development of character.

Salem village was a famous place in the Puritan annals. The tragedy of the witchcraft tortures and murders has cast upon it a ghostly spell, from which it seems never to have escaped; and even the sojourner of today, as he loiters along the shore, in the sunniest morning of June, will sometimes feel an icy breath in the air, chilling the very marrow of his bones. Nor is he consoled by being told that it is only the east wind; for he cannot help believing that an invisible host of Puritan spectres have breathed upon him, revengeful, as he poached upon their ancient haunts.


They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized that they couldn't remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn't said anything at all. So, in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise.

So they forgot her. Like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep. Occasionally, however, the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake, and the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep seem to belong to the sleeper. Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative--looked at too long--shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like, but they don't, because they know things will never be the same if they do.

Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.

By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.


To make some obvious observations: it certainly seems as if Morrison has transformed Curtis's revengeful Puritan spectres into the beloved but revengeful figure of "the disremembered and unaccounted for" that is Beloved; as if Morrison yoked Curtis's romantic/gothic evocations of natural/supernatural boundaries and crossings in Hawthorne's fictions to the history of racialized violence in the middle passage, slavery, and Reconstruction; as if Morrison were trying to put her surviving characters and living readers in the same position as Curtis suggested Hawthorne's tales put his readers; as if Morrison created a narrator who attempts to voice the necessity and costs of turning away from a haunting past that refuses to remove itself from the present; as if Morrison's theorizing of an Africanist presence in American literature and culture takes Curtis's metaphors of the "black thread" and the haunting of New England woods, fields, and shores and runs with them....

There's much more to be said, but this Curtis passage is the clincher for laying out the terms of a "race and Hawthorne problem" admirers of his works have been wrestling with since his death not long before this essay was published:

When he went to Europe as a consul, Uncle Tom's Cabin was already published, and the country shook with the fierce debate which involved its life. Yet eight years later Hawthorne wrote with calm ennui, "No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land." Is crime never romantic, then, until distance ennobles it? Or were the tragedies of Puritan life so terrible that the imagination could not help kindling, while the pangs of the plantation are superficial and commonplace? Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, and Thackeray were able to find a shadow even in "merrie England." But our great romancer looked at the American life of his time with these marvellous eyes, and could see only monotonous sunshine. That the devil, in the form of an elderly man clad in grave and decent attire, should lead astray the saints of Salem village, two centuries ago, and confuse right and wrong in the mind of Goodman Brown, was something that excited his imagination, and produced one of his weirdest stories. But that the same devil, clad in a sombre sophism, was confusing the sentiment of right and wrong in the mind of his own countrymen he did not even guess.

In the first chapter of my manuscript, I call our attention to late 19th C debates over Hawthorne's racial politics in which Curtis was a major participant--and trace the history of attempts by 20th C scholars and critics to do more than repeat them--in an effort to turn the traditional review of the literature into something more like a genealogy of race and American literature through the lens of Hawthorne studies. Curtis makes other powerful moves like this one, using Hawthorne's own fiction to criticize his politics, which I'll discuss later.

But for now consider in closing what Morrison does with Curtis's "In the softest morning you will suspect sadness; in the most fervent noon a nameless terror": Paul D's first appearance in Beloved comes during Curtis's "softest morning" and the arrival of "the four horsemen" and "Sethe's rough response to the Fugitive Bill" both come very close to his "most fervent noon." Morrison truly makes the border between the American south and midwest "as radiant with grace and terrible with tragedy as any country and any time."

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