Or could it be that these readings are projections of our own attitudes and desires onto the gaps between Hawthorne, his narrator, and the old Tory? It is certainly true that Hawthorne effects a double displacement of racialist attitudes--putting them in the mouth of a figure who is only a figment of his narrator’s imagination--and that the narrator’s aestheticization of the old Tory’s racialism through the picturesque may not be approved of by Hawthorne. But in order to defend the claim that he is critical toward both the old Tory and his narrative, we would have to examine the range of Hawthorne’s writings on slavery, African Americans, the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, Anglo-American relations, and American nationality in order to discern what his actual views were on these matters, to determine how his views on each matter are related to each other. Only then could we determine his relation to his narrator in “Old News” with any degree of confidence. Given the difficulties of pursuing such a potentially infinite thematic endeavor, a more fruitful project might be to examine Hawthorne’s later deployments of the picturesque. Since the narrator’s racialism and his use of the picturesque are so related, if Hawthorne were to reveal that he had no problems with the picturesque--if, that is, Hawthorne were to consistently put the picturesque to a similar use as his narrator--then we would perhaps be justified in seeing a significant overlap between the narrator’s racialist views of American nationality and Hawthorne’s own. My hunch is that there are enough thematic and aesthetic parallels to suggest that an unambiguously “subversive” reading of Hawthorne’s intentions in “Old News” is difficult to sustain.
Consider, first, the implications of the narrator’s defense of slavery and its similarity to Hawthorne’s later writings. “Slave labor being but a small part of the industry of the country,” the narrator concludes, “it did not change the character of the people; the latter, on the contrary, modified and softened the institution, making it a patriarchal, and almost a beautiful, peculiarity of the times” (257). Just as the ambiguously-worded claim that the slaves “endured, comparatively, few hardships, under the domestic sway of our fathers” masks an implicit comparison to slavery in the South or in the Caribbean, so too does the narrator’s conclusion imply the superiority of the character of the eighteenth-century New Englanders, which was not changed by the presence of slave labor, but which instead “modified and softened the institution,” to the perhaps more corruptible nineteenth-century Southerners. But corruptible by what? The simple answer is “slave labor”––which is somewhat ambiguous, as it could refer to slavery as an institution or to the slaves doing the labor. But Hawthorne’s syntax and rhetoric implicitly place the blame on the slaves themselves for the modifications wrought on the Southern character and the concomitant harshness of slavery outside of New England. Traces of the same assumption can be seen in the parallelism in the following line from “Chiefly About War Matters”: “There is an historical circumstance, known to few, that connects the children of the Puritans with these Africans of Virginia, in a very singular way.”By contrasting New England and the South in terms of a Puritan/African dichotomy, Hawthorne implies a similar influence on the Southern character by African Americans as his narrator does in “Old News.” Similarly, the claim that “slavery, as it existed in New-England, was precisely the state most favorable to the humble enjoyments of an alien race, generally incapable of self-direction, and whose claims to kindness will never be acknowledged by the whites, while they are asserted on the ground of equality”--later excised in the 1851 reprint of the sketch in The Snow-Image--seems to be what is underlying the “what was to be done with the slaves?” dilemma over which we saw Hawthorne agonizing in the previous chapter.
Consider, also, the racialist narrative of Our Old Home that links England and America. In Our Old Home, Hawthorne had written of an “unspeakable yearning towards England” that remains even “[a]fter all these bloody wars and vindictive animosities.”But he quickly shifts from a rhetoric of sympathies and yearnings to one of hereditary connection. He moves from emphasizing an ideological “amalgamation,” speaking of his “becoming sensible of the broader and more generous patriotism which might almost amalgamate with that of England, without losing an atom of its native force and flavor” (37), to acknowledging that he “was often conscious of a fervent hereditary attachment to the native soil of our forefathers, and felt it to be our own Old Home” (40). As Lawrence Sargent Hall has shown, “The history of [Hawthorne’s] social thought during the years he spent in England, as it is written in his journals, in Our Old Home, and especially in the unfinished English romance, is the story of his theoretical attempt to amalgamate on the basis of blood relationship the best elements to be found in these two widely separate societies.”
In light of these thematic continuities between the beginning and end of his career, the aesthetic evidence that Hawthorne shares the “Old News” narrator’s views on slavery and American nationality is even more compelling. When we consider the extent to which Hawthorne was committed to picturesque aesthetics throughout his career, the idea that he was pointing out the politics and ideological investments of this genre in “Old News” without also, at some fundamental level, endorsing them becomes difficult to believe. Consider the implicit colloquy on race and the picturesque between Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James that we can trace in Melville’s “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850) and “Benito Cereno” (1855), Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860) and “Chiefly About War Matters” (1862), and James’s Hawthorne (1879).
Twenty years after “Old News” was first published, and four years after it was republished in The Snow-Image, Herman Melville, in “Benito Cereno,” showed the limits of the conception of slavery, the enslaved, and the picturesque in Hawthorne’s sketch. Melville’s protagonist is the good-hearted Northerner, Captain Delano, a man of “a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man,” a man who, furthermore, “like most men of a good, blithe heart, . . . took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.” In “Benito Cereno,” Melville shows how Delano’s romantic racialism leads him to exclude Africans from the realm of humanity, which in turn leads to his failure to suspect the slave rebellion that has occurred on board the Spanish ship he encounters at sea, the San Dominick. Instead, whatever suspicions arise in the course of his stay on the slave ship center on the possibility that its captain, Don Benito Cereno, is a pirate.
Melville’s narrator takes great pleasure in showing the mental processes by which Delano talks himself out of his suspicions and makes himself comfortable in the midst of a slave revolt. As it turns out, the picturesque is crucial to Delano’s domestication and aestheticization of the Spanish slave ship. In the course of first meeting Cereno and hearing his far-fetched story that purports to explain the paucity of Spanish crew-members and the fact that the Africans are unchained, Delano is charmed by the sight of Babo supporting Cereno and “the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other” (176). But even though Delano also appreciates Cereno’s “provincial costume, picturesque as any in the world,” the narrator notes, perhaps in free indirect discourse, the association that Cereno’s picturesque appearance conjures in Delano’s mind: it gave Cereno the “incongruous” appearance of “an invalid courtier tottering about London streets in the time of the plague” (177). This is part of a pattern in which Delano attempts to domesticate that which is foreign and puzzling to him (as, for example, when he compares the Ashanti oakum-pickers to “so many gray-headed bag-pipers playing a funeral march” ), yet the very attempt to do so brings up images of death, which are just as immediately explained away, until the next strange and troubling event occurs.
As many critics have pointed out, the shaving scene is emblematic of this process. But few have taken note of the means by which Delano is charmed by the appearance of the ship’s cuddy:
The place called the cuddy was a light deck-cabin formed by the poop, a sort of attic to the large cabin below. Part of it had formerly been the quarters of the officers; but since their death all the partitionings had been thrown down, and the whole interior converted into one spacious and airy marine hall; for absence of fine furniture and picturesque display of odd appurtenances, somewhat answering to the wide, cluttered hall of some eccentic bachelor-squire in the country, who hangs his shooting-jacket and tobacco-pouch on deer antlers, and keeps his fishing-rod, tongs, and walking-stick in the same corner. (210-211)
Here, Delano calms himself by superimposing the grounds of a picturesque country estate upon a Spanish slave ship, telling himself over and over that Cereno isn’t piratical, just eccentric. Melville’s goal here is to demonstrate that the same world-view that needed the picturesque to gentrify and Anglicize an enigmatic Spaniard slaver also generated a pro-slavery romantic racialism with respect to non-Europeans. By showing the limits of this benevolent Northern view of slavery, Melville demonstrates Northern complicity with the slave system, for the moment Delano realizes how Babo has deceived him, he orders his men to put down the slave rebellion.
As we shall see in more detail next chapter, Melville’s “Hawthorne and His Mosses” is crucial to understanding Hawthorne’s racial politics. Here, let me simply point out that Melville’s Virginian narrator in the 1850 essay claims that Hawthorne himself has deep insight into precisely the “imputation of malign evil in man” that Delano lacks and that the narrator of “Benito Cereno” claims to have. Delano thus corresponds more closely to those Americans in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” who are unable to recognize Hawthorne’s genius, even as his racialist deployment of the picturesque is uncannily similar to Hawthorne’s narrator in the first section of “Old News.” Perhaps, then, “Benito Cereno” constitutes at most a critique of Hawthorne’s narrator in “Old News.” But if my hunch that the narrator of “Benito Cereno” is a pro-slavery Southerner is warranted, this will have been the second time that Melville has Southerners lay claim to the living legacy of Puritanic Calvinism. We shall see in the next chapter how praise from a Puritanic Cavalier can be double-edged; here, we begin to see why the narrator of “Benito Cereno” might want his readers to see a slave rebellion through the lens of Calvinist doctrine. Thus, even if Hawthorne is not reducible to his narrator in “Old News” or to Delano (whose commitment to “a national mission in which political regulation and racial hierarchy were raised to such a pitch that calculated manipulation cannot be divorced from naiveté”), it is not necessarily a compliment to his racial politics to link him with the narrator of “Benito Cereno,” as Melville has done.
Hawthorne, however, appears to have blithely ignored “Benito Cereno,” for in his preface to The Marble Faun, the picturesque again reappears in a particularly charged context--in the list of what makes writing romances in America so difficult--“no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong.”Indeed, Henry James would focus on precisely this moment in Hawthorne (1879). Even as he famously amplified on Hawthorne’s complaint about the paucity of American resources for the literary artist, James would criticize Nathaniel Hawthorne’s interest in the picturesque as the mark of a merely provincial writer:
Americans have as a general thing a hungry passion for the picturesque, and they are so fond of local color that they contrive to perceive it in localities in which the amateurs of other countries would detect only the most neutral tints . . . . Hungry for the picturesque as he always was, and not finding any very copious provision of it around him, he turned back into the two preceding centuries, with the earnest determination that the primitive annals of Massachusetts should at least appear picturesque.
In effect, James’s comment functions as a reading of “Old News.” The racial politics of such a search for the picturesque in American history and society can be read between the lines, as it were, of James’s own evocation of the mind-set of Hawthorne’s generation, with its “superstitious faith in the grandeur of the country, its duration, its immunity from the usual trouble of earthly empires” (133):
This faith was a simple and uncritical one, enlivened with an element of genial optimism, in the light of which it appeared that the great American state was not as other human institutions are, that a special Providence watched over it, that it would go on joyously for ever. . . . From this conception of the American future the sense of its having problems to solve was blissfully absent; there were no difficulties in the programme, no looming complications, no rocks ahead. . . . There was indeed a faint shadow in the picture—the shadow projected by the ‘peculiar institution’ of the Southern States; but it was far from sufficient to darken the rosy vision of most good Americans, and above all, of most good Democrats. (133)
James’s use of “picture” and “shadow” imagery to describe slavery implies his own judgment of the racial politics of the picturesque, which functions precisely to promote the “rosy vision” that James identified with Hawthorne’s sense of the American national character and its future.
Ignoring Melville’s warning and demonstrating the accuracy of James’s implicit characterization, Hawthorne, in an 1862 travel essay entitled “Chiefly About War Matters,” would replay Delano’s picturesquing of Cereno and Babo in “Benito Cereno.” Consider the way in which Hawthorne he reports an encounter with a band of escaped slaves in the course of his tour to Manassas in the midst of the Civil War:
One very pregnant token of a social system thoroughly disturbed was presented by a party of Contrabands, escaping out of the mysterious depths of Secessia; and its strangeness consisted in the leisurely delay with which they trudged forward, as dreading no pursuer, and encountering nobody to turn them back.
They were unlike the specimens of their race whom we are accustomed to see at the North, and, in my judgment, were far more agreeable. So rudely were they attired--as if their garb had grown upon them spontaneously,--so picturesquely natural in manners, and wearing such a crust of primeval simplicity, (which is quite polished away from the northern black man,) that they seemed a kind of creature by themselves, not altogether human, but perhaps quite as good, and akin to the fauns and rustic deities of olden times. I wonder whether I shall excite anybody’s wrath by saying this? It is no great matter. At all events, I felt most kindly towards these poor fugitives, but knew not precisely what to wish in their behalf, nor in the least how to help them. For the sake of the manhood which is latent in them, I would not have turned them back, but I should have felt almost as reluctant, on their own account, to hasten them forward to the stranger’s land; and, I think, my prevalent idea was, that, whoever may be benefitted by the results of this war, it will not be the present generation of negroes, the childhood of whose race is now gone forever, and who must henceforth fight a hard battle with the world, on very unequal terms. On behalf of my own race, I am glad, and can only hope that an inscrutable Providence means good to both parties.
The picturesque is what makes the encounter, despite the ethical dilemma in which it places Hawthorne, “agreeable,” what enables him to link the escaped slaves to his characterization of Donatello in The Marble Faun. In this, Hawthorne is not so far from Englishman Edward Dicey, who accompanied Hawthorne on his tour of Manassas and whom we met in the previous chapter issuing a racialized defense of Hawthorne’s politics. In his Six Months in the Federal States, Dicey has confessed that, in contrast to the “dull barren fields of Maryland,” he was travelling through, he
could not help watching the colored folk in the cars with more than usual interest. I had not been long enough in the country to lose the sense of novelty with which the black people impress a stranger. To me they are the one picturesque element in the dull monotony of outward life in America. With their dark swarthy skins varying from the deepest ebony to the rich yellow hue—with their strange love for bright colors in their dress, no matter how stained and faded, and yet, gaudy as they are, arranged with a sort of artistic instinct—with their bright laughing smiles and their deep wistful eyes, they form a race apart, a strange people in a strange land.
Although Dicey’s rhetoric here echoes the liberal strain of the romantic racialism that was so prevalent among abolitionists, we have seen in the previous chapter how his pro-abolition attitudes could coincide quite comfortably with a virulent anti-black racism. In short, the picturesque was not racially innocent; even when it seemed to carry romantic connotations. Dicey’s example and the implicit argument of Melville’s “Benito Cereno” showed it to be a crucial element in the sensibility of dominance.
What this means is that those who want to make a case for Hawthorne’s subversion of his narrator’s perspective in “Old News” must contend with the way at least minimally stylized public personae of Hawthorne’s appear to endorse this very vision and style throughout his career. In fact, one might make the argument, following Lawrence Sargent Hall, that Hawthorne saw politics through the picturesque:
Hawthorne believed in letting things go their own way until it was quite certain they were going badly. . . . Since he by no means sanctioned too strict an intervention, the efforts of government and community to improve social conditions had to be, in his allegorical way of thinking, like a gardener’s attempts to enhance landscape. Wherever the art of man has “conspired with Nature, as if he and the great mother had taken counsel together how to make a pleasant scene,” the outcome proves fortunate. It is not so where nature has been contraverted, or ignored, or too hard pressed. . . . (29-30)
Although Hall later concludes that “Of all social and political philosophies the equalitarian ideal seemed most in accord with natural distinctions” to Hawthorne (131), this apparent commitment to equalitarianism that accords with “natural distinctions” does not let Hawthorne off the hook, either. As Larry Tise has shown, Joseph Tracy’s 1833 book Natural Equality, based on his address in favor of colonization, was “one of the first attacks on abolition” in the United States. Tise gives Tracy’s work pride of place in focusing on three crucial themes that would reappear in proslavery writings over the next three decades--“denying the theory and practice of equalitarianism”; “scoring abolitionism as a revolutionary movement against American republicanism”; and “proposing the transformation of slavery into a school of moral training” (271-272). All three of these themes can be detected in “Old News.” The narrator’s racist defense of slavery and racialist invocation of the links between America and England implicitly suggest that abolitionist immediatism and rivalry with England are cases in which “nature has been contraverted, or ignored, or too hard pressed.” Hall’s contention that “the efforts of government and community to improve social conditions had to be, in his allegorical way of thinking, like a gardener’s attempts to enhance landscape” suggests that his anti-abolitionism--for which his contemporaries tried to account using rhetoric of “taste” and “fastidiousness”--might more properly be said to have an aesthetic basis. Hawthorne’s linking of politics with picturesque landscape gardening could well be the source of his anti-abolitionism.