Monday, March 12, 2007

On Racial Aesthetics and Narratorial/Authorial Intention, Part I

From "Old News":

There is a good deal of amusement, and some profit, in the perusal of those little items, which characterize the manners and circumstances of the country. New-England was then in a state incomparably more picturesque than at present, or than it has been within the memory of man; there being, as yet, only a narrow strip of civilization along the edge of a vast forest, peopled with enough of its original race to contrast the savage life with the old customs of another world. The white population, also, was diversified by the influx of all sorts of expatriated vagabonds, and by the continuous importation of bond-servants from Ireland and elsewhere; so that there was a wild and unsettled multitude, forming a strong minority to the sober descendants of the Puritans. Then there were the slaves, contributing their dark shade to the picture of society. The consequence of all this was, a great variety and singularity of action and incident.

This is a passage I devote more than a few paragraphs to in the second chapter of my manuscript (although now that I think of it, the middle section of the first chapter may work better as a stand-alone intro, so this may well become the manuscript's third chapter). I'll give you my initial reading of it here:

To the narrator, contrast brings out the "manners and circumstances" "of “New-England"--"a narrow strip of civilization” somewhere between "the savage life" of "the original race" and "the old customs of another world." New England civilization, that is, is composed of "the sober descendants of the Puritans," and it is opposed to the "wild and unsettled multitude" of Indians, "expatriated vagabonds," Irish and other European "bond-servants," and, of course, "the slaves, contributing their dark shade to the picture of society." Here, the narrator distinguishes between Anglo-Puritan "civilization" and the greater "society" of the colony, which forms a "strong minority" to the Puritan majority. The picturesqueness of the scene, it seems, is a result of the "great variety and singularity of action and incident" brought about by the presence of a diversified white population surrounded by the savage life of Indians and the dark shade of the slaves. Indeed, even the arrangement of Native Americans, whites, and slaves into a foreground, middleground, and background--with the emphasis placed on the middleground--corresponds to Gilpin's rules for picturesque aesthetics. The picturesque intervenes to domesticate the double dangers of excessive difference and roughness and of excessive sameness and dullness. It not only allows the historical tourist to enjoy the aesthetics of the scene before him, it also gives him a structure through which he can unobtrusively emphasize the presence of the Puritans.

This is a small part of my set-up for one of my core claims in the chapter that "the narrator in 'Old News' presents a story not of 'civilization to fratricide'--this formulation misses the implicit racialization of both 'civilization' and 'fratricide' in the sketch--but instead one that moves from a period of increasing Anglo-American solidarity to a period of contention and separation." I elaborate on this claim as follows:

When the "Old News" narrator says that he loves to see a man "keep the characteristics of his country," he precisely does not mean to include that "alien race, generally incapable of self-direction," whose enslavement he tacitly defends, as even a potential member of that citizenry. On the contrary, no matter how "familiarly" "intermixed" with the Puritans "under the domestic sway of our fathers," the slaves' only function in his narrative is to contribute "their dark shade to the picture of society," to offset the virtues of the Anglo-Puritan civilization of colonial New England. Slavery can be viewed as "a patriarchal, and almost a beautiful, peculiarity of the times" because of the narrator's commitment to picturesque aesthetics. Ultimately, then, what "Old News" is about, what holds the three sections of the sketch together, is what makes the United States "America." And what apparently makes its citizens "Americans" is a combination of shared ("English") blood and commitment to picturesque aesthetics. Hawthorne's narrator implicitly defines America as a country composed of the descendants of the Puritans. The picturesque effect that he attempts to achieve is not simply antiquarian, then, not simply an attempt to leave an impression of the pastness of the past. Rather, it is the simultaneous racialization and aestheticization of the Anglo-Puritan origins of the American self.

Got a lot to do today, so I'll stop there before getting into the issue of the relation between Hawthorne's narratorial persona's intentions and his own intentions in the sketch, but as I'm revising this chapter over the next few weeks, I'll be posting from it when it fits the programming schedule. There's been a lot of new work on the picturesque, race, and colonialism that I have to examine to see where and how I need to revise the chapter still further.

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