Back when I was still writing my dissertation--actually, even earlier, as I was formulating the project and beginning my research--my grandfather and I began a series of conversations on it. "It's on race and Hawthorne," I would say, and eventually we would get around to the questions of presentism and relativism, of blame and responsibility, of my goals and my methods. No matter how many ways I would try to argue the point, he would never quite move away from his position that it was unfair for us today to judge Hawthorne for his racism. I was reminded of these conversations as I was reading Hug the Shoggoth's first full-length race and Lovecraft post, in which Daniel Gall takes on the rhetorical evasions of a representative moment in Lovecraft scholarship. The critic he responds to sounds remarkably like my grandfather, so I was quite interested in the manner of the take-down. You should be, too--in case you haven't noticed, I've been linking to HtS often enough lately to probably have caused google page rank to start discounting my links--so go back and click on that first link if you must choose only one.
OK, now that you're back, let me first recap some of my standard responses to my grandfather. I didn't use these exact words, but I don't remember my exact words from the time, and as I have now for several years been forced to carry on these conversations on my own, I'll never be able to get him to remind me of them.
1) How far are you willing to take your historical relativism? To the point where it becomes a moral relativism? Because a lot of philosophers would have a problem with your doing that--including your son. (Yes, my dad is a philosopher. And I responded to my mom's "Whatever you choose to do, don't become a philosopher" [probably not an exact quotation, come to think of it] by getting as close as I could in college with an English and Math double major, and then getting into literary and political theory in a big way in grad school, and then by debating philosophers on my political blog, but, yes, mom, thankfully I am not a philosopher. Which reminds me of my dad's joke about the reactions he gets when he tells people he is a philosopher: long pause, then, "So what are some of your sayings?" His version of the "Well, I guess I'd better watch my language, then," that I tend to get when I come out as an English professor off-campus.)
2) Even by the standards of his time, Hawthorne's racism was being judged. It takes a very reductive view of a past age to posit unanimity on any major social issue--and what was more tense than racial politics in the antebellum era?
3) And speaking of "his time," is it really so different than ours that we can't attempt to evaluate it? Isn't such an attempt also an attempt to evaluate our own time, as well? It's not like I'm trying to let us off the hook by positing racism as a past problem--quite the opposite, in fact.
Did I mention that these conversations were taking place in the wake and shadow of my first long-term relationship, with an Afro-Caribbean immigrant whom my grandmother was vehemently opposed to my dating? Not to mention the nativism and anti-semitism my grandparents surely weathered since their arrival in the States before the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act shut down immigration from southern and eastern Europe and Asia, or the fact that they lived through what Matthew Frye Jacobson writes about in Whiteness of a Different Color....
Well, Sunday is almost over, so let me just quickly mention a tack I never took: Hawthorne himself never bought into using the times to excuse the individual for his beliefs and actions. At least I don't think I took it. I wish my grandfather were still around so I could be sure.