Sunday, February 04, 2007

More on McCall and CitizenSE

From Dan McCall's Citizens of Somewhere Else, which I began writing on last week:

I don't really care about what Hawthorne said in his campaign biography of Franklin Pierce; his political convictions are not what I read him for. To me, the essential Hawthorne, the valuable Hawthorne, is his anguished cry to Longfellow, "For the last ten years I have not lived, but only dreamed of living." What interests me is his painful complaint to Horatio Bridge, "I detest this town so much that I hate to go into the streets or to have people see me." What a thing to say! And it is a shock to read his growl, during those "lonely chamber" years, "We do not even live at our house!" If Hawthorne's is a "national voice," it is the voice of introspection, claustrophobia, unbearable loneliness.

You might expect the author of The Race for Hawthorne to come out with a fiery condemnation of McCall's declaration of interests--"this minimizes the significance of Hawthorne's racism"; "this is an unabashed attempt to change the subject"; "this is a perfect example of the 'race-aversive' school of Hawthorne criticism I wrote the dissertation to refute." But wait. Consider where McCall's take takes us:

In "The Custom-House" and the dark tale that follows it, Hawthorne's manner and subject proceed from his sense of how the American community fails and frustrates the impulses of creative people by forcing them back too much upon themselves. We can, then, immediately feel the isolation of Hester Prynne: we have lived through the progressive stages of it in her author's life. In "The Custom-House" Hawthorne authenticates the physical, historical reality of Hester's story just as he authenticates the physical, historical reality when he discovers the scarlet A....

The personal record and the historical romance together show that Hawthorne is too stern to accept the values of his fellow citizens, too stern, even, to dismiss them easily. Although he had grave reservations about making passage to "the realm of quiet," he was impelled to stand, in 1850, absolutely there.

This may seem at first like the usual "individual vs. society"/"alienation of the artist" stuff. But wait.

He felt that art should "spiritualize reality."

....Hawthorne's aim as an artist is based, first of all, on an ideal of refinement, refinement that seeks a purity in which physical and material things literally fade out of the picture. Yet Hawthorne is oddly reluctant to stand by that ideal and continually goes back on it in irony, saying (to quote the most famous example) that if you open a book of his in strong sunlight it will appear to be only blank pages....

For Hawthorne, art was associated with insidious force....

Hawthorne was working in this realm [Frye's definition of romance from The Anatomy of Criticism] of "subjective intensity" imperfectly contained and defined by the "suggestion of allegory" on its fringes, a world that sparked with something untamable. It was a world that violated his theory of art as prim refinement.

This may seem like another tired variation on the perennial "Hawthorne problem." But wait.

He wrote to Sophia that we are shadows until the heart is touched: "that touch creates us--then we begin to be." But he could not tolerate much more than that one touch. There is an intimate connection between his aesthetic ideal of how art should "spiritualize" life and his responses to women.

Getting closer! In fact, McCall gives many examples of Hawthorne's female characters, from Ellen of Fanshawe and Priscilla of The Blithedale Romance, contrasting them with the reactions of a "reserved and literary man responding to a richly luxuriant woman, as in Coverdale to Zenobia, Dimmesdale to Hester, Giovanni to Rappaccini's Daughter." This is not just the standard light lady/dark lady thing. Nor is it simply the psychoanalyzing the author thing, as a claim like this might make you think: "He was divided between profound responses to full-bodied sexuality and an intense need to repress those responses, a writer who felt compelled to work, as Frye's definition of The Romance suggests, in a medium where strange and unnatural forces were his subject, but was equally compelled in his prefatory remarks to deny his legitimate province." No, consider McCall's key example of Hawthorne's ambivalent relation to his art:

He writes in his notebooks that his "eyes were most drawn to a young lady who sat nearly opposite me, across the table." He then devotes a full page to her beauty: "Her hair...was a wonderful deep, raven black, black as night, black as death; not raven black, for that has a shiny gloss, and hers had not; but it was hair never to be painted, nor described--wonderful hair...all her features were so fine that sculpture seemed a despicable art beside her." And while she makes him fly for comparisons to Rachel and Judith and Bathsheba and Eve, he concludes, "I never should have thought of touching her, nor desired to touch her; for, whether owing to distinctness of race, my sense that she was a Jewess, or whatever else, I felt a sort of repugnance, simultaneously with my perception that she was an admirable creature."

The retreat to "cloud land" becomes clearer.

Now we can see why I don't have to condemn McCall. His own argument leads directly back to the relevance of race to Hawthorne's emotions, aesthetics, intellect, imagination, and craft. The young woman Hawthorne reacts to is not simply "richly luxuriant" or representative of "full-bodied sexuality" or symbolic of the kind of art Hawthorne was attracted to yet repelled by; McCall's own euphemisms and abstractions get the better of him when reading this notebook entry. Was it the woman's "distinctness of race" itself that caused Hawthorne's deeply ambivalent reaction? Was it instead his "sense that she was a Jewess"? Is race real or socially constructed? Why do his feelings and his perceptions clash? Why do aesthetics and affect not correspond? Race itself becomes one of the "strange and unnatural forces" at work in this passage, for it is not the woman herself but Hawthorne's reaction to her that is "strange and unnatural."

And that's why a passage like this is so disappointing:

when he attempts to speak to a general public about matters of social concern, his voice seems drastically unsure. He hated the institution of slavery, and early in his life went on record against it. But in his Life of Franklin Pierce, he saw slavery as "one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances, but which, in its own good time, by some means impossible to be causes to vanish like a dream."

For a critic as capable of providing new insights into such often-interpreted writers as Hawthorne, James, Dickinson, Emerson, and Lowell--and particularly on the relations between their texts and projects--as McCall is in Citizens of Somewhere Else, his hesitancy over whether to characterize Hawthorne as "drastically unsure" (in this early passage) or possessed of regrettable but jettisonable "political convictions" (in the later passage that I opened this post with) when it comes to matters of race is revealing. How could he not have tried to put Hawthorne's deployment of Providence here alongside both abolitionists' (from David Walker to Frances E.W. Harper) and Emerson's (in "Fate," for instance, which both Eduardo Cadava and Kris Fresonke have brilliantly read in the years since McCall's book came out)? How could he not have linked the image of slavery "vanish[ing] like a dream" to the repeated readings in his book of dream imagery and aesthetics and the urge to refinement in Hawthorne's received conception of art? How could he not have been aware of--or refused to acknowledge--the rich body of criticism from the 1990s that explored the relation between Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and "Chiefly About War Matters," which both racialize "faun" imagery? How could he not have linked Hawthorne's loss of his "great gift" as a writer at "making representative selections" in the last years of his life with the history that he was living through at the time, which includes the Civil War?

The point I'm leading up to here is that racial politics entail more than an individual author's "political convictions" or uncertainties. And that reading them should be done with as much care as we read other aspects of an author's fiction. Granting McCall's insights into Hawthorne's relations with his art and his audience leads us straight back to Hawthorne's feelings about citizenship and slavery. To declare oneself a "citizen of somewhere else" in 1850 means something different in the midst of the Civil War--and Hawthorne's letters from that period deserve to be read in relation to his failed and unfinished romances, in relation to The Marble Faun and its preface, and in relation to "Chiefly About War Matters." McCall's own book demonstrates that to stop at claiming that what makes Hawthorne interesting is his own internal civil war is to miss a major opportunity to gain insight into the actual Civil War.

What's most valuable about McCall's Citizens of Somewhere Else is its sensitive exploration of Hawthorne's insights into and unconscious revelations of how it feels to be a citizen of somewhere else. In previous "Why CitizenSE?" posts, I have argued that Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" amounts to a Declaration of Independence from Salem and a pledge of allegiance to what I have called "the republic of letters"; McCall's book rightly reveals this "somewhere else" to be a divided and highly charged realm. McCall's smart study of Hawthorne and James points the way toward tracking the relations between it and antebellum American racial politics, without actually doing so. As he makes clear throughout the book, this is not what he is interested in or cares about. That is certainly his right. But what I object to is his pose when promoting his book that those who are interested in and do care about such a project can't possibly be as good readers as he is because their motives are impure. McCall's specific critiques of particular readings of Hawthorne and James are often perceptive and sometimes devastating. But his overall polemic is unconvincing. To show why in more depth, next week I'll start comparing McCall's take on "citizen of somewhere else" with Lauren Berlant's in The Anatomy of National Fantasy.

[Update: And by "next week," I mean, "sometime in March."]

[Update: Perhaps in April, then?]

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