Sunday, January 07, 2007

Racial Science, Evolution, and "Fitness" Bleg

One reason to blog is to make the world--or that portion of it which chooses to read your blog and respond to your request--your research assistant. It's an inefficient and unreliable method, but you get what you pay for. So here's my first official bleg (I'm counting as unofficial its predecessors).

I'm looking for input from people who know something about the evolution of evolutionary discourse. Obviously Darwin published The Origin of Species too late to have an influence on any but Hawthorne's last works. Yet Hawthorne used the term "fitted" or "fitness" throughout his career. So, beyond what the OED may tell us, I'm interested in sources and perspectives on the genealogy of this concept and its relation to the racial science that emerged in the early 19th C, almost as if Jefferson's Notes of the State of Virginia summoned it into existence.

What prompted this bleg is the recognition (I'm sure an old and forgotten one recalled as if it were new, but it sure feels new to me right now), that "The Custom-House" is saturated with antebellum discourses of race, in its invocations of nativity, traits of nature, descent, inheritance, family trees, roots, transplantation, heraldry, and destiny. And that Hawthorne seems to be transposing his own time period's conceptions with 17th-C American Puritans', as he spends some time in The Scarlet Letter on characters' and the narrator's speculations on Pearl's nature, the possibility of prenatal influences on her character, the influences of heredity and environment, and the question of her being a "monstrous birth," a demonic offspring, or an elf-human hybrid. If you've read Evan Carton on The House of the Seven Gables The Marble Faun, you'll have noted that these concerns continue into Hawthorne's next novel, published the next year in 1851 last published novel.

But the specific passages that prompted my attention this time are of a much more trivial nature. Three times in "The Custom-House," Hawthorne uses the discourse of "fitness" or "adaptation," and each time it sums up his character sketch of the three individuals he focuses on in the essay:

...of all men I have ever known, ths individual was fittest to be a Custom-House officer.

If, in our country, valor were rewarded by heraldic honor, this phrase-which it seems so easy to speak,--but which only he, with such a task of danger and glory before him, has ever spoken,--would be the best and fittest of all mottoes for the General's shield of arms.

Here, in a word,--and it is a rare instance in my life,--I had met with a person thoroughly adapted to the situation which he held.

My interest in these passages stems from my interest in two rather obscure sketches, "Old News" from the 1830s and "The Intelligence Office" from the 1840s. "Old News" makes the link to race and slavery most explicit, so I'll end with a passage from the first part of it, where the narrator is perusing and reflecting upon newspapers from the 1720s:

But the slaves, we suspect, were the merriest part of the population--since it was their gift to be merry in the worst of circumstances; and they endured, comparatively, few hardships, under the domestic sway of our fathers. There seems to have been a great trade in these human commodities. No advertisements are more frequent than those of 'a negro fellow, fit for almost any household work;' 'a negro woman, honest, healthy, and capable;' 'a young negro wench, of many desirable qualities;' 'a negro man, very fit for a taylor.' We know not in what this natural fitness for a taylor consisted, unless it were some peculiarity of conformation that enabled him to sit cross-legged.

I've devoted an entire chapter in my dissertation to "Old News" (which Hawthorne collected for the first time in The Snow-Image in 1851 with small but highly significant revisions) and (once I finish the conference paper that is sadly behind schedule) am looking forward to returning to revising it for my manuscript, so I obviously believe there's a lot to say about this sketch. Suffice to say for now that this sketch made its way into print first within a year of the founding of the first Salem abolitionist society (and second in the nation) and later within a year of the controversy over the Fugitive Slave Act.

But what I'm interested in right now is the relation between the moral, social, and biological aspects of "fit(ted)ness" you can spot in all the quoted passages in this post. And what you make of the joke that closes this opening part of a much longer passage on slavery in early 18th-C New England (and implicitly elsewhere). It's part of a larger issue of what you (and I) make of the narrator's intentions in this sketch--and Hawthorne's perspective on them. But for that, more later!

1 comment:

The Constructivist said...

OK, I'll get the ball rolling: while this is very informative, it's not quite what I'm looking for. Just in case anyone planned to cite it in a comment someday.