Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Back to the Passages That Kicked Off the Lazy Blogging

Here they are, again, from "Old News" (which I neglected to mention earlier is narrated by a nameless figure who addresses his antebellum readers as he peruses volumes of colonial newspapers, focusing in separate sections on the late 1730s, the late 1750s, and the late 1770s, and attempting to identify “the characteristic traits” of eighteenth-century New England):

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.

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.

What I didn't cite earlier was the rest of the second passage:

When the slaves of a family were inconveniently prolific, it being not quite orthodox to drown the superfluous offspring, like a litter of kittens, notice was promulgated of ‘a negro child to be given away.’ Sometimes the slaves assumed the property of their own persons, and made their escape: among many such instances, the Governor raises a hue-and-cry after his negro Juba. But, without venturing a word in extenuation of the general system, we confess our opinion, that Caesar, Pompey, Scipio, and all such great Roman namesakes, would have been better advised had they staid at home, foddering the cattle, cleaning dishes—in fine, performing their moderate share of the labors of life without being harassed by its cares. The sable inmates of the mansion were not excluded from the domestic affections: in families of middling rank, they had their places at the board; and when the circle closed round the evening hearth, its blaze glowed on their dark shining faces, intermixed familiarly with their master’s children. It must have contributed to reconcile them to their lot, that they saw white men and women imported from Europe, as they had been from Africa, and sold, though only for a term of years, yet as actual slaves to the highest bidder. Setting fine sentiment aside, 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. Slave labor being but a small part of the industry of the country, 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. (my italics)

Now back to part of the manuscript I skipped:

The italicized sentence was deleted when “Old News” was collected in The Snow-Image (1851) in the midst of the continuing controversy over the Fugitive Slave Act, as was a footnote that originally appeared at the end of the longer passage: “Nevertheless, some time after this period, there is an advertisement of a run-away slave from Connecticut, who carried with him an iron collar riveted round his neck, with a chain attached. This must have been rather galling. Undoubtedly, there had been a previous attempt at escape.”

How are we to read these passages and the differences between the 1851 version and the 1835 version of “Old News”? How are we to reconcile the joke about genocide a few pages before this passage on slavery--"The first pages, of most of these old papers, are as soporific as a bed of poppies. . . . Here are President Wigglesworth and the Rev. Dr. Colman, endeavoring to raise a fund for the support of missionaries among the Indians of Massachusetts Bay. Easy would be the duties of such a mission, now!"--with the pious praise of John Eliot six years later in Grandfather’s Chair? How are we to reconcile the overt anti-black racism of the longer passage with Melville’s praise of Hawthorne’s “depth of tenderness” “boundless sympathy with all forms of life,” and “omnipresent love” fifteen years later in “Hawthorne and His Mosses”? Discerning Hawthorne’s intentions in “Old News”--particularly his relation to the narrator--is clearly of paramount importance for deciding the question of his racism.

I will return to the issue of ethnic humor shortly, but the central problem raised by “Old News” is clearly the issue of slavery and anti-black racism. We could read the longer passage above, with H. Bruce Franklin, as evidence that Hawthorne shared William Gilmore Simms’s racist views, or, with Jean Fagan Yellin, as Hawthorne’s New England version of “the classic plantation novel Swallow Barn (1832), in which the slavery apologist John Pendleton Kennedy had recently pictured the blacks as happy and their bondage as light.” Or we could attempt to build upon Yellin’s observation of the “peculiarly contradictory views” expressed in the passage by arguing that Hawthorne accentuates the narrator’s inability to interpret correctly the pages right under his nose (78). The narrator does not appear to notice that both the callous separation of families that he jokes about and the repeated escape attempts he reports on refute his assertions that the slaves endured “few hardships” or were “reconcile[d] . . . to their lot”; indeed, the passage might well be calculated to prompt readers to ask why the narrator is unable to carry his questioning of a slave’s “natural fitness for a taylor” over to a more general questioning of African Americans’ natural fitness for slavery.

These options come down to a simple question: is Hawthorne as racist and obtuse as his narrator? When Yellin points out that “he adopts a manner that fails both as satire and as whimsy,” is she too quick to attribute these views and this manner to Hawthorne himself? How we answer these questions is crucial to our understanding of Hawthorne’s later revisions the year before he would write the Life of Franklin Pierce. When Hawthorne deleted the particularly racist passage from the 1851 version of “Old News,” so as to emphasize that he was not “venturing a word in extenuation of the general system” of slavery (257), was he simply hiding his deepest convictions? Or was he worried that his subtle undercutting of the narrator’s views would be missed by his post-Compromise readers, and so sought to minimize the aid and comfort misreadings of his sketch would give the South by explicitly limiting his narrator’s comments to early eighteenth-century New England?


Those who have been following my "Old News" blogging know that I've offered some answers to these questions over the past few weeks. What I'm curious about are your own answers to these questions, your own questions prompted by my answers, and your own readings of these passages. Given that I'm suffering some slight gastrointestinal distress (translation: my fucking stomach is fucking killing me!), I don't have the energy or inclination to do more than that tonight (translation: typing while doubled over your keyboard sucks!).

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