Saturday, December 30, 2006

What Would Hawthorne Say About Blogging?

From the opening of "The Custom-House":

It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me. The first time was three or four years since, when I favored the reader--inexcusably, and for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine--with a description of my way of life in the deep quietude of the Old Manse. And now--because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former occasion--I again seize the public by the button, and talk of my three years' experience in a Custom-House. The example of the famous "P.P., Clerk of this Parish," was never more faithfully followed. The truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and lifemates. Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer's own nature, and complete his circle of existence by bringing him into communion with it. It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally. But--as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience--it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind the veil. To this extent, methinks, an author may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader's rights or his own.

So what do you think? How would Hawthorne have reacted to the predominance of personal blogs in blogoramaville circa 2006? What about the controversies over pseudonymous bloggers? And over outing them? Over sprezzatura-like sock puppetry?

You could make an argument Hawthorne was doing the equivalent of blogging in his time when he published the range of his tales and sketches in the relatively established and newer American magazines and gift books of the 1830s and 1840s, that his editing of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in the 1830s was the equivalent of our blog portaling or link-heavy blogging, that his overtly political writing and editing (such as his editing of his friend Horatio Bridge's Journals of an African Cruiser, his infamous "Custom-House" sketch, his presidential campaign biography for his friend Franklin Pierce, his essay "Chiefly About War Matters," as well as his political correspondence, both official from Boston, Salem, and Liverpool, and personal with Democratic Party friends and allies) was the political blogging of his day, and that his experiments with narratorial perspective in his short stories and with authorial personae in his prefaces to his books prefigure various pseudonymous bloggers' experiments with voice and style today. And you'd probably have a pretty good argument.

When I think of a sketch like "Old News," in which he praises old newspapers for their ability to convey a vivid sense of the past (I'll spare you the quotation for now, only b/c I left my Tales and Sketches Library of America edition in Fukuoka, not out of any abandonment of the value of heavy quotation on my part!), and when you consider newspapers were the new media of his time, I think we'd end up agreeing that despite Hawthorne's critiques of reformers, his skepticism toward Enlightenment notions of progress, and his portraits of new technologies doing more harm than good (in "Fire-Worship" and "The Celestial Rail-road" as much as in the better-known "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "The Birth-mark"), he wouldn't be against blogging simply b/c of its newness, its politicization, or its reliance on technology.

So those of you who blog, whom do you imagine as your audience? What do you hope to accomplish by blogging? What's at stake in blogging for you? What is your sense of your rights as an author, and of your readers' rights? How autobiographical do you get in your blogging, and why? How much do you experiment with voice and style? Are you more confessional or more veiled? What does the opening of "The Custom-House" make you think and ask?

[Update: Turns out John Updike would probably disagree with my take on Hawthorne (h/t: Amardeep Singh).]

How Pearl and Beloved Show Why Water Imagery Matters

Well, as predicted, I missed last Saturday. Today I hope to have time to get into some passages from The Scarlet Letter that I overlooked for a long time, but which I now believe hold one key to understanding the prose poem that is Beloved's monologue in Toni Morrison's Beloved. So for those (imaginary) readers looking forward to a post on heraldry in Hawthorne's works and its relation to race, I'll try to devote a Close Reading Tuesday to that topic. [Update: mission accomplished].And for those (hypothetical) readers interested in what a real Intertextual Thursday post would look like, I'll try to oblige with a post that goes beyond noting parallels between characters and plot elements in The Scarlet Letter and Beloved to actually consider what follows from them [Update: mission only somewhat and tangentially accomplished, but not on Hawthorne and Morrison].

Today, though, let's start, as I like to do with brainstorming-type writing, with a quotation--or rather, a set of quotations, the first two from The Scarlet Letter and the last from Beloved.

Hester bade little Pearl run down to the margin of the water, and play with the shells and tangled seaweed, until she should have talked awhile with yonder gatherer of herbs. So the child flew away like a bird, and, making bare her small white feet, went pattering along the moist margin of the sea. Here and there, she came to a full stop, and peeped curiously into a pool, left by the retiring tide as a mirror for Pearl to see her face in. Forth peeped at her, out of the pool, with dark, glistening curls around her head, and an elf-smile in her eyes, the image of a little maid, whom Pearl, having no other playmate, invited to take her hand and run a race with her. But the visionary little maid, on her part, beckoned likewise, as if to say,--"This is a better place! Come thou into the pool!" And Pearl, stepping in, mid-leg deep, beheld her own white feet at the bottom; while, out of a still lower depth, came the gleam of a kind of fragmentary smile, floating to and fro in the agitated water.

At first, as already told, she had flirted fancifully with her own image in a pool of water, beckoning the phantom forth, and--as it declined to venture--seeking a passage for herself into its sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable sky. Soon finding, however, that either she or the image was unreal, she turned elsewhere for better pastime.

Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear as though nobody ever walked there.

By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.


As this trio of quotations should hint to you, I'm going to try to draw some connections between Pearl and Beloved in this post--specifically between Pearl's reflection and the mystery of who Beloved is and where she came from. For I believe that Hawthorne's representation of Pearl influenced Morrison's characterization of Beloved as well as Denver.

Recall that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter repeatedly emphasizes Hester's dressing Pearl in an outfit that makes her seem to be "the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!" Like the scarlet letter, Pearl is represented as fiery and vengeful. When the Puritan children, taking time away from their usual pastimes of "playing at going to church, perchance; or at scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one another with freaks of imitative witchcraft," decide to torment Hester and Pearl (in one of the [unintentionally?] funniest lines in the novel, one says, "Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!"), Pearl's response, "after frowning, stamping her foot, and shaking her hand with a variety of threatening gestures," is to suddenly "rush at the knot of her enemies, and put them all to flight." The narrator notes then that "She resembled, in her fierce pursuit of them, an infant pestilence,--the scarlet fever, or some such half-fledged angel of judgment,--whose mission was to punish the sins of the rising generation."

For Ella in Beloved, Beloved too is a symbol of sin and retribution:

When Ella heard 124 was occupied by something-or-other beating up on Sethe, it infuriated her and gave her another opportunity to measure what could very well be the devil himself against "the lowest yet." There was also something very personal in her fury. Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn't like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present. Sethe's crime was staggering and her pride outstripped even that; but she could not countenance the possibility of sin moving on in the house, unleashed and sassy.

But Pearl and Beloved are much more than the symbols others make of them. Some (including Sethe and Denver) believe Beloved to be Sethe's daughter "in another form," the baby ghost that was haunting 124 before Paul D's arrival "endowed with life." (Although Denver tells Paul D, "At times, I think she was--more.") Paul D is tempted to believe Stamp Paid's supposition that Beloved may be a girl who was "locked up in a house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone.... Folks say he had her in there since she was a pup." But Paul D isn't satisfied with this theory. In conversation with Stamp Paid, he says, "She reminds me of something. Something, look like, I'm supposed to remember." And upon his return to 124 he realizes that "Something is missing.... Something larger than the people who lived there. Something more than Beloved or the red light. He can't put his finger on it, but it seems, for a moment, that just beyond his knowing is the glare of an outside thing that embraces while it accuses." So just who or what is Beloved? Where does she comes from? What does she want?

One way to begin answering these questions is to note that unlike Pearl in the previous SL passage, Beloved doesn't rush at her enemies, but instead feels herself to be abandoned when others do so. When the former abolitionist Edward Bodwin arrives at 124 as Ella is leading an attempted exorcism, Sethe mistakes him for Schoolteacher and tries to attack him and Denver runs after her to stop her, as we find out from the free indirect discourse that marks Beloved's last appearance (in the flesh) in the novel:

Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe had been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. Alone. Again. Then Denver, running too. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling. And above them all, rising from his place with a whip in his hand, the man without skin, looking. He is looking at her.

For Beloved, this is the last straw; her own confused (and confusing) account of her life (lives?) focuses obsessively on losing Sethe--or the women she confuses with Sethe:

Three times I lost her: once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke; once when she went into the sea instead of smiling at me; once under the bridge when I went in to join her and she came toward me but did not smile. She whispered to me, chewed me, and swam away. Now I have found her in this house. She smiles at me and it is my own face smiling. I will not lose her again. She is mine.

The imagery in the last scene where the young woman Beloved is present in the novel--the hill of black people, the man without skin--references Beloved's second loss. But the passages where this scene is narrated--incoherently by Beloved--make it clear that it couldn't possibly be Sethe she lost then. Let's start with the relatively coherent summary and follow it up with the stream of consciousness version to see why this is so:

Sethe went into the sea. She went there. They did not push her. She went there. She was getting ready to smile at me and when she saw the dead people pushed into the sea she went also and left me there with no face or hers.

I cannot lose her again my dead man was in the way like the noisy clouds when he dies on my face I can see hers she is going to smile at me she is going to her sharp earrings are gone the men without skin are making loud noises they push my own man through they do not push the woman with my face through she goes in they do not push her she goes in the little hill is gone she was going to smile at me she was going to a hot thing

They are not crouching now we are they are floating on the water they break up the little hill and push it through I cannot find my pretty teeth I see the dark face that is going to smile at me it is my dark face that is going to smile at me the iron circle is around her neck she does not have sharp earrings in her ears or a round basket she goes in the water with my face

If you've seen Amistad, you may recall the scene where the woman on the slave ship commits suicide; if you've read Uncle Tom's Cabin, you may recall a similar attempted suicide on the Mississippi River (I can't recall now if Tom saved the woman or not). If you read Beloved's monologue in its entirety, you'll see that most of it is a fragmented narration of a similar scene from the middle passage. Beloved asks herself at the beginning of the monologue, "how can I say things that are pictures," although without a question mark (as the entire monologue is without punctuation), this comes off as much as a rhetorical question admitting defeat from the start as an open question that the rest of the monologue attempts to answer. But as I read it, this middle passage scene is the second of the three losses Beloved suffers. In fact, I think you can break the three scenes of Beloved's monologue down into eight parts, despite the difficulty presented by a narrator for whom "All of it is now it is always now":

1-2. Somewhere in Africa, where an infant girl is separated from her mother by a slave raiding party.

I see her take flowers away from leaves she puts them in a round basket the leaves are not for her she fills the basket she opens the grass I would help her but the clouds are in the way ... I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too ... In the beginning I coud see her I could not help her because the clouds were in the way in the beginning I could see her the shining in her ears ... Sethe is the one that picked flowers, yellow flowers in the place before the crouching. Took them away from their green leaves.... wanted to help her when she was picking the flowers, but the cloud of gunsmoke blinded me and I lost her. Three times I lost her; once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke....

3-5. On a slave ship during the middle passage, where a young girl witnesses the bodies of those who died en route pushed overboard by the slave traders and a woman who commits suicide by following them into the sea.

In the beginning the women are away from the men and the men are away from the women storms rock us and mix the men into the women and the women into the men that is when I begin to be on the back of the man for a long time I see only his neck and his wide shoulders above me I am small I love him because he has a song when he turned around to die I see the teeth he sang through ... there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead ... we are all trying to leave our bodies behind the man on my face has done it it is hard to make yourself die forever you sleep short and then return ... those able to die are in a pile I cannot find my man the one whose teeth I ave loved a hot thing the little hill of dead people a hot thing the men without skin push them through with poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of bread she has nothing in her ears ... [see above middle passage quotes] ... All I want to know is why did she go in the water in the place where we crouched? Why did she do that when she was just about to smile at me? I wanted to join her in the sea but I could not move....

6-8. This is the most confusing one, but I believe that the teenage girl Stamp Paid talked about attempted suicide from a bridge and was possessed by the spirit of the baby ghost that had been haunting 124, who then returns to 124 in the flesh.

there is no one to want me to say me my name I wait on the bridge because she is under it there is night and there is day

again again night day night day I am waiting no iron circle is around my neck no boats go on this water no men without skin my dead man is not floating here his teeth are down there where the blue is and the grass so is the face I want the face that is going to smile at me it is going to in the day diamonds are in the water where she is and turtles in the night I hear chewing and swallowing and laughter it belongs to me she is the laugh I am the laugher I see her face which is mine it is the face that was going to smile at me in the place where we crouched now she is going to her face comes through the water a hot thing her face is mine she is not smiling she is chewing and swallowing I have to have my face I go in the grass opens she opens it I am in the water and she is coming there is no round basket no iron circle around her neck she goes up where the diamonds are I follow her we are in the diamonds which are her earrings now my face is coming I have to have it I am looking for the join I am loving my face so much my dark face is close to me I want to join she whispers to me she whispers I reach for her chewing and swallowing she touches me she knows I want to join she chews and swallows me I am gone now I am her face my own face has left me I see me swim away a hot thing I see the bottoms of my feet I am alone I want to be the two of us I want the join

I come out of blue water after the bottoms of my feet swim away from me I come up

....Three times I lost her: ...once under the bridge, when I went in to join her and she came toward me but did not smile. She whispered to me, chewed me, and swam away....

Here's where the Pearl quotations that I began this post with help out the most, because they allow us to see that the passage from Beloved that I quoted at the beginning and end of this post deal with reflections, mirror images, and phantoms--and help us understand that the "I" in this scene sometimes refers to the baby ghost and sometimes to the traumatized young woman. But it's dinner time, so I'll have to continue this next Saturday!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Oates on Lovecraft

Here's a long and interesting review essay by Joyce Carol Oates from the October 31, 1996 issue of The New York Review of Books. It's on Lovecraft, the gothic, Puritanism, and more, so of course Hawthorne plays a role. A small one, but enough for me to use it this windy and freezing Friday. Time to put the diva girl down for a nap!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

IT II: The Beloved Remix

My imaginary readers (hey, let's be optimistic on this sunny but not that warm late December Thursday in Chiba) will no doubt recall last week's not-quite-Intertextual Thursday post linking The Scarlet Letter and Beloved, in which I listed a bunch of SL quotes and hinted at how I think Morrison was making use of them in B. Well, given how little time I have to blog this morning, I'll just throw a few B quotes at you and offer a few sketchy comments. Maybe by next Thursday I'll be ready for a real intertextual post!

Last week, I suggested that Morrison was magically realizing Hawthorne's gothic and romantic tropes and figures, not to mention re-racializing some contexts Hawthorne had effectively de-racialized. Consider, as one example, the different views of the ghost that is haunting 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, for much of the Reconstruction years. Is this house, "palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut," haunted by a ghost that is "too little to understand," as Sethe puts it? Or is Denver right that "Maybe she don't want to understand"? Is Paul D's properly Puritan question upon entering Sethe's house for the first time in 1873 and walking "straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood"--"Good god.... What kind of evil you got in here?"--to the point, in its unknowing evocation of the legendarily "lurid gleam" said to be cast by the scarlet letter? Or is Sethe's response--"It's not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through," verified in part by Paul D's acknowledgment, "She was right. It was sad. Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry"--more on target? Or is Denver's countercharge, that the ghost is "Rebuked. Lonely and rebuked," more than adolescent projection of her own feelings onto the ghost? When Paul D exorcises the ghost, does she return in the body of a young woman known only as Beloved? The novel exists, in part, to raise questions like these, even if, Hawthorne-like, Morrison refuses to give definite answers in it.

But to return to Denver, as another example, it's worth noting that she has a Pearl-like awareness of the subtexts of her and her mother's isolation from the free black community of Cincinnati, even if, like Pearl, she lacks the knowledge of their causes. Not long after Paul D enters 124, Denver cries out:

"I can't no more. I can't no more."

"Can't what? What can't you?"

"I can't live here. I don't know where to go or what to do, but I can't live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don't like me. Girls don't either."

"Honey, honey."

"What's she talking 'bout nobody speaks to you?" asked Paul D.

"It's the house. People don't--"

"It's not! It's not the house. It's us! And it's you!"


Denver's outburst is reminiscent of Pearl's demand that Hester put the scarlet letter back on in the famous forest scene of SL, with Denver's longing for "a sign of spite from the baby ghost" the counterpart of Pearl's demand. Yet Paul D's response initiates an extended parallel between him and the Hester of the forest scene. He suggests, "Maybe you all ought to move"--unknowingly echoing Sethe's earlier suggestion to her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, whose reply, "What'd be the point?... Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief," is somewhat reminiscent of The Scarlet Letter's narrator's hints at the haunting nature of sin and guilt--but Sethe's response to Paul D is more like the Hester at the beginning and end of the novel:

No moving. No leaving. It's all right the way it is.... I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running--from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth. I took one journey and I paid for the ticket, but let me tell you something, Paul D Garner: it cost too much! Do you hear me? It cost too much Now sit down and eat with us or leave us be.

Yet despite her resolve not to be moved, Sethe is running in a certain Dimmesdale-like sense--from her haunting memories of slavery, her escape from it, and after.

As for the rest, she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe. Unfortunately her brain was devious. She might be hurrying across a field, running practically, to get to the pump quickly and rinse the chamomile sap from her legs. Nothing else would be in her mind.... The smething. The plash of the water, the sight of her shows and stocking awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet ome rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her--remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.

Sethe's literally "terrible memory," as the narrator puts it, is linked to her belief that "the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay," as the narrator also puts it: "The 'better life' she believed that she and Denver were living was simply not that other one." Thus, Paul D's staying with Sethe and Denver, in an odd way, puts Hester in the role of Dimmesdale, striving to avoid repeating a traumatic past, and Paul D in the role of Hester in the forest scene in SL:

Sethe, if I'm here with you, with Denver, you can go anywhere you want. Jump, if you want to, 'cause I'll catch you, girl. I'll catch you 'fore you fall. Go as far inside as you need to, I'll hold your ankles. Make sure you get back out.... We can make a life, girl. A life.

It's one of Beloved's dark ironies that Sethe ends the novel like Baby Suggs and Arthur Dimmesdale before her, in danger of failing to heed Hester's advice to Dimmesdale: "Preach! Write! Act! Do any thing, save to lie down and die!"

Without jumping that far ahead, let me simply close this post by noting that Sethe and Paul D's reunion, after 18 years apart, is not unlike Hester's and Dimmesdale's meeting after a separation of 7 years. I'll put the two conversations side-by-side, so to speak, and let you draw the conclusions:

He made a step nigher, and discovered the scarlet letter.

"Hester! Hester Prynne!" said he. "Is it thou? Art thou in life?"

"Even so!" she answered. "In such life as has been mine these seven years past!"

As if to punish her further for her terrible memory, sitting on the porch, not forty feet away, was Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men. And although she could never mistake his face for another's, she said, "Is that you?"

"What's left."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Little-Known Hawthorne Fact

It's a little-known fact about Hawthorne that he was unutterably opposed to blogging on a sunny day in the mid-60s in late December, especially when it comes the day after the worst winter typhoon to hit Japan in 34 years, and particularly when the imoto is turning 8 months old. I believe "unforgivable sin" was the phrase he used when advising against doing anything but taking the kids outside to enjoy a day like this! [Update: Actually, it was "unpardonable sin"--I blame the mistake on the unexpectedly good weather!]

CRT II: The Scarlet Letter Remix

Since I don't have time to do a good close reading this Tuesday, I'll settle for a second-worst one. Hopefully.

"Look your last on the scarlet letter and its wearer!"--the people's victim and life-long bond-slave, as they fancied her, might say to them. "Yet a little while, and she will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer, and the deep, mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to burn upon her bosom!"

This quotation comes at a key moment in The Scarlet Letter, before Dimmesdale has begun his Election Day sermon and before Hester discovers that Chillingworth has booked passage on the same "questionable vessel" on which she and Dimmesdale have resolved to flee Boston for Europe with Pearl. The narrator is trying to convey her emotions upon wearing the scarlet letter for what she believes will be the last time in Boston, and perhaps ever. In this passage, he invents an internal monologue for her ("might say") and embeds within it a curious interjection. What I am interested in is the reference to Hester as "the people's victim and life-long bond-slave"--and how qualified it is, for immediately the narrator concedes, "as they fancied her." This is both a reference to her intended escape and an acknowledgement of the game he's been playing throughout the romance in using the iconography of the female slave and, here, the fugitive slave to dramatize Hester's relationship with her community. As this is ground that Jean Fagan Yellin and Jennifer Fleischner, among others, have covered thoroughly, I'm going to focus on an aspect of Hester's "social death" that has not to my knowledge been discussed before, and, in so doing, pick up where my not-very-intertextual Intertextual Thursday left off last week.

For this passage is a culmination of sorts of a consistent motif in The Scarlet Letter: the idea that the scarlet letter imposes a kind of social death upon Hester. This is the reason for all the ghostly imagery the narrator uses when attempting to identify Hester's place in the Boston Puritan community. As I (barely) discussed last Thursday, Hester could have been sentenced to death for her adultery and hence the letter is a kind of suspended death sentence; Hester is consistently portrayed as banished from the community yet still haunting it; the figure of the ghost is an apt figure for her there-but-not-quite-there, not-there-but-not-quite-not-there presence/absence. In a certain sense, then, the "social death" Hester suffers in Boston is not so different from being a "life-long bond-slave," for her condition satisfies key parts of Orlando Patterson's classic definition of slavery in his Slavery and Social Death. She is enduring a kind of social death that involves both "dishonor" and "natal alienation" (she is completely separated from her ancestors and disavowed by her husband); her "enslavement" takes place at a time in 17th-century British America when slavery was becoming racialized (the first Africans in the English-speaking New World were, like poor whites, indentured servants--it took most of the century for temporary indentured servitude to be limited to non-Africans); her daughter Pearl is, in a certain sense, following the condition of her mother; both, like some 19th-century black colonizationists or fugitive slaves, are attempting to leave North America for "the old world" (in their case, Africa; in hers, Europe) in a kind of reverse middle passage.

But at the same time as he invokes these associations of slavery, the narrator stresses the differences. Hester is, after all, only wearing a symbol, one she hopes "the deep, mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever," rather than being branded as many African-American slaves were. She is allowed to keep her daughter, unlike most African-American slaves--her natal alienation has limits theirs didn't. In fact, in the scene in Governor Bellingham's mansion where she successfully argues her case, her status is contrasted with that of a recently-arrived indentured servant of the governor. More on that scene next Tuesday, for it can be linked to another key motif in The Scarlet Letter--heraldry. But my older daughter--who on this blog will go only by the names onechan, or Gohan Girl, or "Uh oh Diva Girl"--had the shortest nap ever, and it's back to daddy duty for CitizenSE.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future in "The Custom-House"

Phew, Blogger wasn't exactly in the Christmas spirit for awhile there, was it? I was shut out for the entire weekend. Just kidding, I only tried today. But I was shut out for hours.

Anyway, in honor of Dickens, I'm posting a short list of ghosts in "The Custom-House," in the order in which they appear, while the musume futari are sleeping.

1. The "figure of that first ancestor," who was "present to my boyish imagination" and "still haunts me."

2. The "ghosts of bygone meals," which appear to the Inspector of the Custom-House, "not in anger or retribution, but as if grateful for his former appreciation, and seeking to reduplicate an endless series of enjoyment, at once shadowy and sensual."

3. "The past," which "was not dead": that is, "the thoughts, that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly, revived again," which is to say the urge to write creative fiction.

4. Surveyor Pue's ghost:

It impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a hundred years gone by, and wearing his immortal wig,--which was buried with him, but did not perish in the grave,--had met me in the deserted chamber of the Custom-House.... With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol, and the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him,--who might reasonably regard himself as my official ancestor,--to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public. "Do this," said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that looked so imposing within its memorable wig, "do this, and the profit shall be all your own! You will shortly need it; for it is not in your days as it was in mine, when a man's office was a life-lease, and oftentimes an heirloom. But, I charge you, in this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give to your predecessor's memory the credit which will rightfully be its due!" And I said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue,--"I will!"

5. The "characters of the narrative," who "would not be warmed and rendered malleable, by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance."

6. A "form, beloved, but gone hence," that is "now sitting quietly in a streak of magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside."

7. A "suspicion that one's intellect is dwindling away," something which is "any thing but agreeable to be haunted" by.

8. Hawthorne's "figurative self," that of a "politically dead man," whose "own head was the first to fall" upon the Whig electoral victory, and who was kept "careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving's Headless Horseman, ghastly and grim, and longing to be buried."

9. The narrator of "The Custom-House," "a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave," and whose essay and romance "may be considered as the POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR."

Did I miss any?

[Update (12/28/06): D'oh! First sentence: "It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me." Let's call it number 0.]

Oh, and for your holiday gift, o ghostly reader(s), k-punk has been doing some serious ghost blogging the past few weeks, so go check out the holiday hauntology!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

McFawn on Exhuming Hawthorne

Given the themes of death and hauntings and the disproportionate number of appearances of ghosts and cemeteries on this blog, this post from a mysterious blogger known only as McFawn, called Exhuming Hawthorne, from the blog The Vacant Post of the God of Appreciation, is quite appropriate for my second post in my now-ongoing Weirdest Hawthorne Link CitizenSE Can Find in 15 Minutes series, and first to actually fall on a Friday.

Special first Friday WHLCSECFi15M bonus link (more troubling than weird): check out Digby's "Scarlet Barcode" piece from Hullabaloo.

Off to Chiba in a few hours. Time to get some rest! Enjoy!

Not Half Bad Intertextual Thursday Kick-Off Post

As promised, I'm moving into Hawthorne-Morrison blogging today and hopefully Saturday, as well, although we may not be settled into Chiba-de tsuma-no ryoushin-no uchi-wa (yup, just finished my final exam in Intro to Japanese today) well enough for me to blog that day, so don't hold your breath, O hypothetical reader (it would be too optimistic to make that plural).

Let me start off by observing that it's totally unoriginal to link Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Morrison's Beloved. (In my manuscript, which I'll discuss Saturday [with luck], I focus on "specter evidence" in "Young Goodman Brown" and Beloved, which may actually still be original almost ten years after I first came up with the idea [can I really be that lucky?], as part of a larger argument that puts The House of the Seven Gables and Song of Solomon alongside each other [presence of the past] and The Blithedale Romance and Paradise together [failed utopias] in order to read some pregnant silences in Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" and Playing in the Dark and make some points about race and American literature.) But since I'm not going for originality on this blog so much as stream of consciousness "free write"-style quick-hit readings--on the theory that nothing focuses the mind like knowing you have to finish what you're writing in no more than, say, 30 minutes from now--let me boldly restate the obvious on my way to hopefully less-than-obvious points.

Obvious Point I: How can anyone today read the following from "The Custom-House" and not think of Beloved?

Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,--making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,--is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall; all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child's shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;--whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness or remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.

While that last sentence especially is resonating in your head, let me drop a few quotes from The Scarlet Letter to link it to one key image cluster in Hawthorne's representations of Hester Prynne, Pearl, and Arthur Dimmesdale:

"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constructed judges. "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book...."

But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,--so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,--was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.

In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind. She stood apart from mortal interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; or, should it succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance.

Brooding over all these matters, the mother felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence.

Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness; the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her; the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children.

Once, this freakish, elfish cast came into the child's eyes, while Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of doing; and suddenly,--for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions,--she fancied that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with malice in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery.

Thus, Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

"Hester! Hester Prynne!" said he. "Is it thou? Art thou in life?"

"Even so!" she answered. "In such life as has been mine these seven years past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?"

It is no wonder that they thus questioned one another's actual and bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread; as not yet familiar with their state, nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. Each a ghost, and awe-stricken at the other ghost. They were awe-stricken likewise at themselves; because the crisis flung back to them their consciousness, and revealed to each heart its history and experience, as life never does, except at such breathless epochs. The soul beheld its features in the mirror of the passing moment.

Her face, so long familiar to the townspeople, showed the marble quietude which they were accustomed to behold there. It was like a mask; or rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman's features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.

"Look your last on the scarlet letter and its wearer!"--the people's victim and life-long bond-slave, as they fancied her, might say to them. "Yet a little while, and she will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer, and the deep, mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to burn upon her bosom!"

OK, so as you've been reading you've probably been thinking something like the following (besides "when is he going to stop with the quotations?! enough already!" that is): hmm, doesn't it seem as if Morrison takes many of Hawthorne's metaphors and, if not literalizes them, magically realizes them? I guess that romance/gothic/magical realism connection all the kewl kidz have been talking about makes a lot of sense! isn't the Hester/Pearl/Dimmesdale relationship (to each other and between them and their community) something of an interesting model for the Sethe/Denver/Beloved/Paul D relationship, especially when differences as well as similarities are taken into account?

Yes, dear imaginary reader, it's as if you are reading my mind. It's almost like Morrison was talking with Jean Fagan Yellin, who wrote one of the most comprehensive examinations of this social death/bond-slave theme in The Scarlet Letter back in 1989, the same year as Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" essay on race and American literature, while both were working on their projects. Or better, that Morrison and Yellin, working independently, came to similar conclusions (beating people like Jennifer Fleischner and Sacvan Bercovitch to the punch, so to speak).

My argument, which I'll pick up next Thursday, is that you don't need to go to Morrison's later critical work to find in its claims and ornate absences evidence that she was reading and thinking carefully about race and Hawthorne--all you need to do is look in Beloved for the evidence, as critics from Jan Stryz and Caroline Woidat to Charles Lewis and Emily Miller Budick have done, or as careful historical readers of Hawthorne like Teresa Goddu and Arthur Riss have all but done. This much is, by now, quite obvious. What I'll give you next week is a string of Hawthornesque Beloved quotations to match this string of Morrisonesque Scarlet Letter passages. Hopefully then we'll all be in a position to move a few steps beyond the obvious.

Gotta post this before I turn into a pumpkin, but a quick question for my hypothetical reader(s) before I go: when could you tell the title of this premiere Intertextual Thursday post (not to be confused with a premier post) was a joke? Of course this is the "worst evah"!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

CitizenSE's Top Ten Hawthorne Tales/Sketches

A Japanese literature scholar recently asked me to send him my personal top 10 list of favorite Hawthorne tales and sketches. For this post, I decided to divide it into separate top 10s for historical tales, non-historical tales, and sketches, because I'm just that decisive. I'm ranking them in order of interest to me, not necessarily from "best" down. I'd be happy to explain my choices in the comments area, should someone actually post a comment....

CitizenSE's Top 10 Historical Hawthorne Tales

1. Young Goodman Brown
2. Roger Malvin's Burial
3. My Kinsman, Major Molineux
4. The May-pole of Merry Mount
5. The Gentle Boy
6. The Minister's Black Veil
7. Endicott and the Red Cross
8. The Gray Champion
9. Alice Doane's Appeal
10. Drowne's Wooden Image

Honorable Mention: "The Great Carbuncle," "The Man of Adamant," "Legends of the Province-House," "The Wives of the Dead," "Wakefield," various tales from The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair

CitizenSE's Top 10 Non-Historical Hawthorne Tales

1. The Birth-mark
2. Rappaccini's Daughter
3. Egotism, or the Bosom-Serpent
4. Ethan Brand
5. The Celestial Rail-road
6. The Artist of the Beautiful
7. Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe
8. The New Adam and Eve
9. The Christmas Banquet
10. The Great Stone Face

Honorable Mention: "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," "Peter Goldthwaite's Treasure," "The Snow-Image," "The White Old Maid"

CitizenSE's Top 10 Hawthorne Sketches

1. Earth's Holocaust
2. The Procession of Life
3. Old News
4. Main-street
5. A Bell's Biography
6. The Hall of Fantasy
7. The Intelligence Office
8. Time's Portraiture
9. The Sister Years
10. A Virtuoso's Collection

Honorable Mention: "The Village Uncle," "A Rill from the Town Pump," "P's Correspondence," "Fire-Worship," "Fancy's Show Box," "The Haunted Mind," "Monsieur du Miroir," "Foot-prints on the Sea-shore," various biographical sketches of colonial figures

The upshot: buy the Library of America edition of Hawthorne's Tales and Sketches! If you only know him by his three novels from 1850-1852, you're missing out on his previous 20 years of literary output. And check out what Michael Colacurcio, Joel Pfister, Allison Easton, Neal Frank Doubleday, G.R. Thompson, Michael Dunne, Richard Millington, and other good readers of Hawthorne's shorter works (such as those in Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays and The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne) have to say about them. It's time well spent!

Worst Close Reading Tuesday Post Evah!

The first has to be the worst, so let's go set the bar low. From "The Custom-House":

While thus perplexed,--and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of the Indians,--I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me,--the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,--it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

Who's speaking? It's in the first person, and it's autobiographical, but it's not exactly Hawthorne himself (at least not the "inmost Me" who remains "behind the veil," as he puts it early in the essay). Instead, it's the speaker formerly known as the "Loco-foco Surveyor," the "I" who refers to "The Custom-House" and The Scarlet Letter as "POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR." It's a ghostly voice speaking "from the realm of quiet" as a "citizen of somewhere else."

What adds another level of complexity to the question is the fact that the highly dramatic "discovery" of the scarlet letter and Surveyor Pue's six-page document outlining the "life and conversation of one Hester Prynne" (which this passage transitions between), not to mention the remains of the letter and the document themselves, are inventions on Hawthorne's part. The reader, it seems, is bound to do more than smile or doubt the speaker's word, but also to smile at and doubt the speaker himself, in some sense. The speaker's later claim that "the main facts of the story [of The Scarlet Letter] are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue" is highly ironic (and funny), as Hawthorne was in fact founding his romance on an imaginary source "discovered" by a fictionalized version of himself.

What's He Talking About? While trying to solve the "riddle" of a "certain" "much worn and faded" "affair of fine red cloth" with "greatly frayed and faded" "traces of gold embroidery" upon it--"how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it"--or otherwise arrive at the "deep meaning, most worthy of interpretation," of "the mystic symbol" that was "subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind," the speaker tries it on. In a highly qualified passage--"it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron"--the speaker implies that he almost felt as if he were being branded by the letter. So he "involuntarily" drops the letter and turns his attention to the document--and never refers to the letter itself in the rest of "The Custom-House."

So What Is Going On Here? This is going to have to be very telegraphed, but I see this passage as encapsulating what makes Hawthorne so interesting (at least to me). The explicit reference to Indians and implicit reference to the branding of slaves in the midst of an entirely fictional explanation of "how a large part of the following pages came into my possession" that "offers proofs of the authenticity of the narrative therein contained" (lines that never fail to remind me of white abolitionists' editorial or authenticating prefaces to slave narratives), one preceded by an admitted failure to imagine a time "when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither," narrated by this fictionalized and ghostly autobiographical persona hits all my formalist, intertextualist, historicist, and comparativist buttons at the same time. And don't get me started on what other Hawthornists have done with this passage! Is Hawthorne identifying with Hester? Seared by her sin? Admitting he can't take the heat she withstands? Allegorizing his relationship with antebellum feminism? Appropriating the experience of (especially female) slaves? The possibilities, if not endless in themselves, are endlessly debate-able.

Work calls, so maybe I'd better pick up this stream of consciousness on Intertextual Thursday by linking the "scarlet letter as social death" argument I made in my dissertation with my yet-to-be-finished manuscript's treatment of Morrison's rearticulation of The Scarlet Letter in Beloved. That way if travel prevents me from doing CitizenSE's Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea on Saturday (going back to Chiba, Chiba, Chiba....), at least I'll have laid the groundwork for the following Saturday's entry.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Why CitizenSE" IV

OK, so far in my "Why CitizenSE" posts I've reviewed some of the contexts of Hawthorne's "citizen of somewhere else" line from the end of "The Custom-House," and read it as a kind of declaration of independence from Salem and a pledge of allegiance to the republic of letters. But declaring independence necessitates severing already-existing ties. And, in order for Hawthorne to have something to pledge allegiance to, he needs to distinguish a republic of letters from the realms of politics, economics, and religion. He accomplishes both these goals by linking his feelings toward Salem to his feelings for his ancestors.

So why did Hawthorne return to Salem? Let's skip to his most direct (and deceptive) answer:

On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly [a] strange, indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town, that brought me to fill a place in Uncle Sam's brick edifice, when I might as well, or better, have gone somewhere else. My doom was upon me. It was not the first time, nor the second, that I had gone away,--as it seemed, permanently,--but yet returned, like the bad half-penny; or as if Salem were for me the inevitable centre of the universe.

In fact, throughout "The Custom-House," Hawthorne resorts to multiple metaphors when trying to convey his feelings upon returning to Salem, after having lived in Concord from 1842 to 1846, to take up his new post, an appointment by President James Polk as "chief executive officer" of the Salem Custom-House. In part, these metaphors serve to minimize and obscure his connections with the Democratic Party. But only in part. As many Hawthorne critics have pointed out, they introduce themes and problematics that structure The Scarlet Letter and connect Hawthorne to his main characters. Putting that topic aside for the moment, let's examine Hawthorne's acknowledgement that Salem "possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here.... [T]hough invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be content to call affection." And while noting in passing his association of happiness and "elsewhere," and his highly qualified statement of affection for "old Salem," which together foreshadow his closing "citizen of somewhere else" declaration, let's focus instead on his discontent with "affection" to describe Salem's forceful hold on his feelings. Why does he keep returning to metaphors of "instinct," "curse," "spell," "destiny," and "doom" when discussing Salem? Because his feelings are complex, despite his efforts to look objectively at Salem or think rationally about it.

There are many such "objective" descriptions scattered throughout "The Custom-House," but as realistic as they are, they are saturated with Hawthorne's emotions. In his first sentence mentioning Salem, for instance, even though he is trying to get to a description of the Salem Custom-House itself, he sounds practically Faulknerian:

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf,--but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig half-way down in melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood,--at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of a row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass,--here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

Note in particular the extended contrast between past and present and the way the description seems to perpetuate itself, seemingly against the author's wishes, with its multiple dashes, dependent clauses, and editorializing adjectives. The next extended description of Salem continues these rhetorical practices and draws the logical conclusion:

Indeed, so far as its physical aspect is concerned, with its flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden houses, few or none of which pretend to architectural beauty,--its irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only tame,--its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the other,--such being the features of my native town, it would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard.

Yet the attachment persists, and its strength is such that Hawthorne's declaration of independence again returns to "objective" description of Salem, this time embedded in an exended metaphor, in order to achieve the separation he desires:

Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street. Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality in my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else.

I've already discussed this passage in the context of Hawthorne's ideas about romance and the imagination, but my point here is that Hawthorne's "objective" descriptions in "The Custom-House" read like an attempt to exorcise a haunting connection to Salem.

In trying to explain this connection, Hawthorne turns to a language of soil and roots, death and inheritance, but only to identify its limitations:

It is now nearly two centuries and a quarter since the original Briton, the earliest emigrant of my name, made his appearance in the wild and forest-bordered settlement, which has since become a city. And here his descendants have been born and died, and have mingled their earthy substance with the soil; until no small portion of it must be necessarily akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a little while, I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust. Few of my countrymen can know what it is; nor, as frequent transplantation is perhaps better for the stock, need they consider it desirable to know.

Even though he dismisses the "mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust" here, he returns to it a few paragraphs later, only to end on a more emphatic conclusion in favor of "transplantation":

This long connection of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love, but instinct. The new inhabitant--who came from a foreign land, or whose father or grandfather came--has little claim to be called a Salemite; he has no conception of the oyster-like tenacity with which an old settler, over whom his third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his successive generations have been imbedded. It is no matter that the place is joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the chillest of social atmospheres;--all these, and whatever faults besides he may see or imagine, are nothing to the purpose. The spell survives, and just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise. So it has been in my case. I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home; so that the mould of features and cast of character which had all along been familiar here--ever, as one representative of the race lay down in his grave, another assuming, as it were, his sentry-march along the Main-Street--might still in his day be seen and recognized in the old twn. Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence that the connection, which has become an unhealthy one, should at last be severed. Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed soil.

Hawthorne's invocation of racialized discourses--of soil, roots, planting, replanting, and transplanting; of family and inheritance; of the features and character of one's "natal spot" that create an instinctive "kindred between the human being and the locality"; of spell, destiny, and doom--helps provide a context for his dismissal of those who can trace their ancestry back a mere three generations at most as having "little claim to be called a Salemite," as well as his earlier overview of Salem geography "with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the other," for New Guinea was a neighborhood where immigrants and free blacks lived. But Gallows Hill and the alms-house suggest that Hawthorne saw inheritance in more than physical terms. Indeed, he links Gallows Hill with his ancestors and the alms-house with the Custom-House, with his distant and recent past.

Let's look first at the ways in which Hawthorne describes how the distant past--his family history--connects him to Salem through strong and complex feelings:

But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,--who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trod the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,--a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known.

Here, the haunting "figure of that first ancestor" provides Hawthorne with a "stronger claim to residence" in Salem than his own efforts and "induces a home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town." Yet the "moral quality" produced by his knowledge of ancestry and "family tradition" is ambivalent at best:

He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Chuch; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was a likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them--as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist--may be now and henceforth removed.

Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne as its topmost bough, an idler like myself. No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine--if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by success--would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. "What is he?" murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. "A writer of story-books! What kind of business in life,--what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,--may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!" Such are the compliments between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

Here, Hawthorne suggests simultaneously how tenuous his connection to Salem is--if his distant ancestors provide his strongest claim to citizenship and residence in Salem, he is in danger of beng disinherited by them as a worthless, disgraceful, degenerate idler--and how strongly he identifies with the republic of letters. To the extent that he has inherited their "spirit" and "traits," it is to condemn them for their "cruelties" and take shame upon himself for their "sins" against Quakers and the martyred victims of the Salem witch trials; despite their "scorn" for his most "cherished" aims, the entire purpose of "The Custom-House" is to explain his return to literary life, to vindicate the "writer of story-books" as fulfilling a serious and valued "business in life."

Of course, this return to literary life is a resurrection from political death and job-induced lethargy. But Hawthorne's repeated invocations of a kind of "culture of poverty" argument to describe the enervating effects of appointment to a political office--such as in his initial description of his Custom-House co-workers as being characterized by "that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or any thing else but their own independent exertions"--are framed by two key metaphors. Consider Uncle Sam:

An effect--which I believe to be observable, more or less, in every individual who has occupied the position--is, that, while he leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength departs from him. He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness of force of his original nature, the capability of self-support.... He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as he may.... His pervading and continual hope--a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death--is, that, finally, and in no long time, he shall be restored to office.... Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself up out of the mud, when, in a little while hence, the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him? Why should he work for his living here, or go to dig gold in California, when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly intervals, with a little pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle's pocket? It is sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam's gold--meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman--has, in this respect, a quality of enchantment like the devil's wages. Whoever touches it should look well to himself, or he may find the bargain to go hard against him, involving, if not his soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance, and all that gives the emphasis to manly character.

"Neither the front nor the back entrance of the Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise," indeed. Instead, Uncle Sam's gold is the carrier of a cholera-like disease that can bring irreparable damage to body, character, and perhaps soul. In part this rhetoric is a parody of "repentance of the evil and corrupt practices, into which, as a matter of course, every Custom-House officer must be supposed to fall"--and of which Hawthorne himself was accused by those seeking to unseat him--and part of the series of puns on the word "custom" that run throughout the essay. Indeed, Hawthorne references "the received code" that it was his duty upon appointment to bring all his Whig subordinates to the "axe of the guillotine" and the "established rule" even they recognized to be replaced by "younger men, more orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter than themselves to serve our common Uncle," so as to emphasize his kindness in not firing all of them, whatever "discredit" and "detriment to [his] official conscience" this decision was supposed to bring. However, even more important than distinguishing himself from the Whigs who guillotined him--thereby giving in to one of the "ugli[est] traits of human grow cruel, merely because they possessed the power of giving harm"--Hawthorne uses the figure of Uncle Sam to imply the value of the literary realm over the political, not just in the self-reliant way it enables him to regain his vigor and support his family, but in a moral sense, as well.

Consider the other federal metaphor Hawthorne uses in "The Custom-House," the "enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw," that hovers over the entrance to the Custom-House:

With the customary infirmity of temperament that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle, imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the softness and snugness of an eider-down pillow. But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later,--oftener sooner than late,--is apt to fling off her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound from her barbed arrows.

Lauren Berlant has done an excellent reading of this passage that I will discuss in a future post, for her book The Anatomy of National Fantasy has many important and provocative readings of Hawthorne's "citizen of somewhere else" line. But for now let me just emphasize that Hawthorne links Uncle Sam and the federal eagle with the worst traits of his ancestors in his distant past and political opponents in his recent past.

I'll close with one last quote to illustrate how the republic of letters emerges from the realms of politics, religion, and commerce in "The Custom-House"--this time a reflection on how the "Surveyor of the Revenue" is seen by Hawthorne's "fellow-officers, and the merchants and sea-captains with whom my official duties brought me into any manner of connection":

It is a good lesson--though it may often be a hard one--for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world's dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.

As both girls are crying and today is the day we're celebrating onechan's third birthday, I'll have to draw the conclusion of this post next week. But for now note how the language of claims and aims and fame echoes the language Hawthorne uses when discussing his ancestors and the ties that bind him to Salem--and which he breaks in "The Custom-House."

Saturday, December 16, 2006

What Would Hawthorne Say About Mold...and the CCST?

Why mold? Well, regular readers of this now "multicellular microorganism" of the meme chain that is blogoramaville will no doubt recall that in the few previous autobiographical moments here, I was complaining--stoically, mind you--about (the process of) having gotten sick. Why did I get sick? Because the humidifier we ordered to resolve our seemingly intractable dispute over freezing-but-moist or warm-but-parched (itself caused by a lack of central heating or insulation in a concrete-block style apartment in a city whose average low never dips below freezing and whose lowest average high is higher than something like half the average highs where our house is located) came late. Seems like the shipping company had trouble finding our place. In a vain attempt to make up for the lateness and head off the rare (for this family) quadfecta (imoto-->onechan-->mama-->dada before anyone in the transmission chain got better), we ran said humidifier almost non-stop, even on rainy days, for a week, only thinking to mop up the condensation on the three huge sliding-door-style-windows-to-balconies-we-don't-even-use a few days ago. Hence the mold around the bases of said windows and probably other places we don't yet know about.

Which means we have to pay some cleaning ladies our landlady knows a hundred bucks to remove the mold and leave the apartment on the day they do so--onechan's birthday--for the health of our still-not-better-musume. Then we have to seriously consider whether we should abjure the wall-mounted space heaters entirely and get a ground-based space heater or heated carpet; run the wall-mounted space heaters as usual (that is, along with the humidifier) and get a dehumidifier and an air purifier; or run the wall-mounted space heaters hardly at all, open all our picture windows for at least two hours per day (whether or not we all have to leave the house that day), and maybe still get an air purifier. Intrepid readers will no doubt be racing each other to become the first to leave a comment on this blog with suggestions for dealing with this situation.

Anyway, my point is that Hawthorne would no doubt have found in said situation materal for a notebook entry or letter at least. But how would it read? Hence our first-ever CitizenSE reader contest: for best parody of a Hawthorne notebook entry or letter on our mold situation. The contest closes at midnight on 11 December 2007 and the winner will get not only "publication" on this blog but also a "prize" to be named later.

As you can see, I'm planning ahead for blog sweeps week, because I'm going to need to compete with this year's (apparent) winner, Michael Berube and the show trials and intellectual death match steel cage bouts of his We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party--not to mention everyone else on my own nominations for "best educatacalistic (vaguely literary or cultural)" in my own ever-expanding "of interest" list in the right margin.

Which leads me to my second-evah CitizenSE reader contest: for cleverest Hawthorne allusion in the areas of a) accusations, b) verdicts, c) confessions, d) sentences, and e) overall commentary for, from, and on The Chris Clarke Show Trial. (I've used-up all the ham-handed/-fisted ones in far too many of Berube's comments areas.) The contest closes at midnight on 12 December 2007 and the winner will get not only "publication" on this blog but also a "prize" to be named later.

OK, time to stop. My tsuma is up and about and we can't wait to watch what looks to be a movie from the people who have been bringing the world the brilliant Ghost in the Shell-spinoff Stand Alone Complex. We have definitely had enough of only watching kids' anime in Japan--like onechan's latest obsession, PreCure Splash Star--which thankfully hasn't made it to the US yet to continue displacing Dora the Explorer and PowerPuff Girls in her affections, obsessions, and imagination. Next Sunday maybe I'll share with you the many different names she's come up with for herself and fellow family members in the past year. Pearl is the obvious Hawthorne link there.... We'll see.

Friday, December 15, 2006

CitizenSE's Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea I

For CitizenSE's inaugural Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea post, I want to pick up where I left off in an article of mine from almost seven years ago now, on the meaning, significance, and stakes of the re-visions of The Scarlet Letter in Maryse Conde's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Bharati Mukherjee's The Holder of the World. In that article, I was most interested in examining the concept of hybridity, popularized (though not originated) by postcolonial studies scholars such as Homi Bhabha, for the possibilities its careful use could bring to American Studies (and the dangers of careless uses). So I focused on the contrasting ways in which Conde and Mukherjee "hybridized" Hawthorne and New England, particularly by analyzing their reimaginings of Hester and Pearl. In the course of doing this, I tended to valorize Conde's over Mukherjee's version of hybridity, while of course being fair to Mukherjee (in fact, I showed how Holder quite cleverly responds to criticisms of her earlier novels and stories), but ultimately suggested that taken together, they open the way for a re-evaluation of Bhabha's often-criticized use of hybridity and of the implications of postcolonial studies for research, teaching, and curricula in American Studies. It was a long, complex argument, and I tried to cover too much ground in it, so I'm glad to get another crack at it as the last chapter of my book manuscript.

Thanks to thoughtful, perceptive, and constructive criticisms of the collection my essay appeared in, Postcolonial Theory and the United States, by such reviewers as Malini Johar Schueller and Rachel Adams, I now have a clearer sense of how to frame, articulate, and develop my original argument. And thanks to the opportunity my Fulbright has offered me to teach my Postcolonial Hawthorne course at three different universities in Fukuoka (yes, it's official, I get to repeat the course twice next semester), the manuscript is also going to benefit from the perspectives of undergraduate and graduate students from Japan as well as America (in my Hawthorne and Morrison and New World Slavery and the Transatlantic Imagination graduate seminars at SUNY Fredonia).

To give one example of the benefits of such experience (and of rereading works you're familiar with when teaching them, no matter how many times you've read them before), I want to mention some passages from "The Custom-House" I recently re-discovered, connect them to some passages from The Scarlet Letter, and thereby reshape one of my arguments about Mukherjee's particular version of "hybridizing Hawthorne." For as much as I prefer Conde's to Mukherjee's in general, one weakness is her tendency to locate hybridity in the Caribbean and portray New England as strictly monocultural, her tendency to hybridize New England by putting it in a larger hemispheric context. Where Mukherjee outdoes Conde, I believe now, is in recognizing various versions of New England and showing how the dominant group in the region was actively suppressing its actual hybridity. Her re-reading of Hawthorne suggests that he turned away from the most interesting story he could have told about colonial New England.

Well, it turns out that "The Custom-House" itself can support certain of Mukherjee's narrator's speculations about Hawthorne. From his opening contrast between his "native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf" and the sad state of commerce in 1840s Salem, to his recognition that records of "the former commerce of Salem...and memorials of her princely merchants--old King Derby--old Billy Gray--old Simon Forrester--and many another magnate in his day" could be used as "materials of local history," to the way in which he frames his (imaginary) "discovery of some little interest"--the (imaginary) remains of Hester's scarlet letter and the document by Surveyor Pue outlining her "life and conversation" (which he mock-seriously offers to exhibit to interested readers in order to authenticate his romance)--Hawthorne shows a keen awareness of the importance of the India trade to Salem's economic history in colonial and early national America. Let's look more closely at that last example, for it seems to me now to be one key inspiration of Mukherjee's novel, or at least the source of one of her narrator's key claims about the limitations of The Scarlet Letter:

Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner; unfolding one and another document, and reading the names of vessels that had long ago foundered at sea or rotted at the wharves, and those of merchants, never heard of now on 'Change, nor very readily decipherable on their mossy tombstones, glancing at such matters with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we bestow on the corpse of dead activity,--and exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town's brighter aspect, when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither,--I chanced to lay my hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment.

Hawthorne's implicit comparison between the ultimate value of commercial, historical, and literary endeavors, his admission of failure in his attempt to imagine a "brighter" (and transregional) Salem, and his immediate turn toward what for him is a more compelling story rooted in "local" history--all these aspects of this passage find their way into The Holder of the World.

Another "Custom-House" passage, taken in tandem with a late scene in The Scarlet Letter, also helps to put Salem in world history--and, not coincidentally, it's another moment when Hawthorne tries to imagine what the Salem Custom House used to be, in the years "before the last war with England" ruined Salem's commercial fleet:

On some such morning, when three or four vessels happen to have arrived at once,--usually from Africa or South America,--or to be on the verge of their departure thitherward, there is a sound of frequent feet, passing briskly up and down the granite steps.

As Conde no doubt would point out, what's elided by the reference to the War of 1812, as well as by the list of characters one might find in early national Salem--from the "sea-flushed ship-master" to "the smart young clerk," with the euphemistic mention of "other miscellaneous ones to diversify the group"--is the 1807 abolition of the slave trade. But as Mukherjee might add, the chapter entitled "The New England Holiday" weaves the slave trade and the India trade into the climax of The Scarlet Letter. Take its contrast between the "generation next to the early emigrants," who "wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up" and the "faces of strange people, and Indians among them, and sailors" that Pearl notices and asks Hester about--and its less euphemistic catalog of those who "enlivened" the "sad gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants" with "some diversity of hue," including not only a "party of Indians" but also "some mariners," a "part of the crew of the vessel from the Spanish Main," who would "go near to be arraigned as a pirate" in the 1840s for their "depradations on the Spanish commerce." Take its observation that "the sea, in those old times, heaved, swelled, and foamed very much at its own will, or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with hardly any attempts at regulation by human law." Take its remark that "the buccaneer on the wave might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety on land."

All this adds up to a series of recognitions: the very "questionable vessel" on which Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl plan to escape Puritan New England may well have been involved in the slave trade or the India Trade or piracy on the Spanish Main. Hawthorne's narrator's rhetoric, in its ambigious shifts between clothes and faces, mixes racial and moral discourses. Hawthorne's evocation of the transregionality of colonial New England may not be as fleshed out as Melville's in Moby-Dick and "Benito Cereno," nor as willing to critique injustice, but it does recognize the possibility and perhaps even the desirability of telling other stories of New England than The Scarlet Letter's "tale of human frailty and sorrow." Mukherjee may make much of Hawthorne's earlier exasperation at his fellow Custom-House officers who "spoke with far more interest and unction of ther morning's breakfast, or yesterday's, to-day's, or to-morrow's dinner, than of the shipwreck of forty or fifty years ago, and all the world's wonders which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes," while both she and Conde may run with his implicit suggestion (especially when read in tandem with certain sketches from the late 1830s and early 1840s that I'll get more into later) that there may be something illicit in the supposedly "long-established rank" of the "families which now compose the aristocracy of Salem" in particular and New England more generally, but in so doing they are activating potentials in Hawthorne's own writing, not importing something foreign into it.

All right, this is as far as I have time to go for now. There's a lot more to say on what Mukherjee in particular did with the theme of leaving New England, but since I inexplicably failed to bring The Holder of the World with me to Japan, this will have to wait for another time. Next Saturday, look for my case that Toni Morrison drew on both "Young Goodman Brown" and little-recognized passages from Chapters 14-16 of The Scarlet Letter, as well as more often commented-upon passages from his first novel and The House of the Seven Gables, in assembling some of the key characters and themes of Beloved. I'll be talking about how ribbons, brooks, and pools not only help connect specter evidence and trauma in Hawthorne and Morrison, but also show why it's as important to look at the relations between Pearl and Denver, Pearl and Beloved, and the Salem witch trials and Reconstruction as those between Hester and Sethe or colonial Puritans and antebellum Americans.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

CitizenSE Metablogs

Still not well enough to get back to serious Hawthorne blogging. But why should I refrain from all Hawthorne blogging when I don't have time or energy to continue my episodic reading of "The Custom-House" that itself is a stepping-stone toward explaining what this blog is and why it exists? There's no good reason!

So, without further ado, here's a programming schedule I'm going to try to stick to way more closely than my "Hawthorne a day" pledge. [Note: the following has been updated to reflect my latest thinking.]

Mondays: Why CitizenSE? (blog ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology--and maybe someday a turn to the personal)

Tuesdays: Close Reading Tuesday (something for or from the Kyushu University Postcolonial Hawthorne class that's wrapping up soon this semester, which, by the way, I will likely get to revise for both Seinan Gakuin University undergraduates and Fukuoka University graduate students next semester)

Wednesdays: Unexpected Hawthorne Wednesday (Hawthorne lists, quotes, trivia, and other things that may surprise you--cheap, yes, but this is my busiest teaching day, where I commute to three different campuses. I hope to replace it with Historicizing Hawthorne after the fall semester ends or when I run out of material)

Thursdays: Intertextual Thursday

Fridays: Weirdest Hawthorne Link CitizenSE Can Find in 15 Minutes [Update: name changed (see categories) due to shortage of weird Hawthorne posts findable in 15 minutes.]

Saturdays: CitizenSE's Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea (sneak previews of Ideas from the Manuscript)

Sundays: What Would Hawthorne Say? (jeremiads, allegories, current events, bloggy intertextuality, etc.) or Daddy Blogging (kawaii-itude) or Reader "Mailbag" (should anyone ever read this blog)

This schedule is subject to change without notice. The fall semester (and academic year) ends in late January 2007 in this part of Japan. So this schedule will change with notice in February 2007.

As today is Friday, but I posted a Weird Hawthorne Link on Wednesday, this schedule has already begun, prematurely (or even proleptically). Look for my Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea tomorrow. I promise it's a doozy.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why "Citizen SE," Take Three

Were anyone other than the humble proprietor of this "insignificant microbe" of an outpost at the outer limits of blogoramaville (verily, a new colony on the electronic frontier) to have been reading my earlier posts, no doubt one of them would ask something like "so, where have you been?" (having seen behind my veil to the inmost Me, this reader no doubt realized I would immediately take defense and bristle at the implied allusion to my one-Hawthorne-post-per-day rule). To which smart-aleck reader I would reply, "Ask my two coughing, feverish, snot-bubble-blowing, and clingy musume!" and say no more. Another reader, concerned at the length of the awkward silence that ensued, would helpfully chime in, " 'citizen of somewhere else,' you're arguing Hawthorne meant 'anywhere but Salem,' right? But what does this have to do with your choice of the blog title?" To which nice and smart but just a little condescending reader, I would reply in kind, "Not exactly," and, "be patient." Miffed at my sleep-deprived surliness, this reader would respond, "OK, big guy, answer me this, then. Where is the 'unrepentant snark' you referred to in your last post? Irony may not always be in the eye of the beholder, but in this case all I read and hear from Hawthorne is elaborate politeness. Also, your characterization of Hawthorne as raging bull in the china shop of mid-19th C Salem is not exactly kosher. What happened to the Hawthorne I know and love?" Which gives me the opening I need to drop this framing device and get into the meat of this post.

Yes, the elaborate politeness of Hawthorne's preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter is strikingly...elaborate. That's my point. Referring to oneself in the third person, as Hawthorne did at the key moments in his short essay, is often a move that distances the speaker from, and elevates him above, his audience. It's in keeping with Hawthorne's other efforts to position those who took offense at his characterization of Whig Custom-House officers in the earlier sketch as overreacting to an entirely innocent effort from an entirely apolitical literary man. Certainly there's some truth to his overreaction charge. But you don't have to have read a good Hawthorne biography or looked in the Centenary Edition at the relevant letters and journal entries or read scholarly essays that analyze the rhetoric and historical context of "The Custom-House" to get my point. Just keep in mind that the very first line of the preface reads:

Much to the author's surprise, and (if he may say so without additional offence) considerably to his amusement,....

If you felt aggrieved by "The Custom-House," I don't see how you can help but take "additional offense" to such an authorial confession of "considerabl[e]...amusement" at your hurt feelings. The fact that non-aggrieved readers would be less likely to understand or share your reaction--and might even be inclined to join Hawthorne in finding your confusion of writing with arson and murder amusing--would be even more infuriating, would it not, especially because the confusion was not yours but one Hawthorne attributed to you? The fact that the preface lends itself to two different and opposed readings--in one, Hawthorne is shocked, just shocked, that anyone could ever find anything offensive in his "sketch of official life" (yet finds the misreadings a little funny) and is eager to put things right, but can't even identify the source of the misreadings in anything he wrote or intended; in the other, Hawthorne's surprise stems from the fact that his sketch's strategies worked as well as they did at causing his political opponents such frustration and anger and amused to have a chance to rub it in yet further as the very controversy their reactions contribute to gives the offending sketch a wider audience even more likely to take his rhetoric at face value--is not, then, a product of ambivalence or ambiguity or Hawthorne's proleptic knowledge of reader-response and post-structuralist theory. It shows that the best unrepentant snark is the kind that infuriates its targets to no end but leaves those who were not its targets wondering why said targets were and are so infuriated. Michael Berube understands this, which is why his brand of unrepentant snark is just as much and sometimes more fun than that of those who round out CitizenSE's own "funniest snark in blogoramaville" list (in order from #2 to #6): The Poor Man Institute, Sadly, No!, Happy Furry Puppy Story Time, Jesus' General, and fafblog!. (Hey, it's end-of-year-blog-awards time. I'm just getting in the spirit of the season. Now back to Hawthorne.)

So why did I say "not exactly" to the helpful "citizen of somewhere else"="anywhere but Salem" idea? First, it doesn't go far enough. Hawthorne's "Henceforth...I am a citizen of somewhere else" is a kind of declaration of independence from Salem. Like Jefferson, Hawthorne is explaining and justifying why it has become "necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another" (and in the process positing a choice as a necessity), declaring the "causes which impel them to separation" by listing a "long train of abuses," appealing to "brethren" who nevertheless have been and remain "deaf to the voice of justice & consanguinity," and, therefore, "acquiesc[ing] in the necessity which denounces our separation" (Hawthorne's "Henceforth" even restores the "eternal" cut by the Continental Congress from this line of Jefferson's draft of the Declaration). I'll get into this more when I turn to Hawthorne's representations of, connections with, and feelings toward Salem in a later post. [Update: mission accomplished.]

The "anywhere but Salem" interpretation of "citizen of somewhere else" is also too vague. We should be cautious to avoid specifying it too narrowly, at the same time. For even as Hawthorne alludes to the American Revolution (positioning himself as an American citizen), he also repeatedly references the French Revolution in "The Custom-House." By identifying his "figurative self" as victim of the Whig political guillotine (who for a while was "careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving's Headless Horseman; ghastly and grim, and longing to be buried, as a politically dead man ought"), by joking that the title of his book ought to be POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR, and by setting up his "citizen of somewhere else" paragraph with the hope that

the sketch which I am now bringing to a close, if too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet!"

Hawthorne at once positions himself as a magnanimous martyr to Whig revolutionary terror, as a true aristocrat being sacrificed by the party of Salem's aristocracy that is operating in the very mode of democratic extremism they claim to oppose, and as the last of the series of ghosts that haunt "The Custom-House." (More on these ghosts later, too. And in The Scarlet Letter itself.) So it's not exactly right to put "The Custom-House" unproblematically in the tradition of Jeffersonian democracy (with its "tree of liberty nourished by blood of tyrants" strains), unless you see that tradition as itself problematized and strained. (After all, Jefferson blamed King George for blocking efforts by the colonists to end the slave trade yet also signalled his intent to defend American slavery by condemning the king's version of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; Jefferson affirmed the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence yet called in Notes on the State of Virginia for scientific investigations to confirm his suspicions of the racial inequality of African Americans; Jefferson condemned slavery in part for its corrupting tendencies on masters yet continued to hold slaves and do more than hold Sally Hemings; Jefferson denounced "merciless Indian savages" who fought with England in the Declaration of Independence, praised American Indians in Notes on the State of Virginia, and saw them as an obstacle to the expansion of the American "empire of liberty" that he helped engineer with the Louisiana Purchase. Hawthorne has his own contradictions on these issues, which we'll explore later.)

For alongside the echoes of American revolutionary rhetoric are suggestions that to be a "citizen of somewhere else" is to write from "beyond the grave," from "the realm of quiet," as a "politically dead man"--perhaps as a citizen of the "Hall of Fantasy" Hawthorne imagined in a story from the previous decade, one whose political death returns him to literary life. Consider the following passages as Hawthorne's exploration of this theme:

In view of my previous weariness of office, and vague thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and, altogether beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap of being murdered.

No longer seeking nor caring that my name should be blazoned abroad on title pages, I smiled to think that it now had another kind of vogue. The Custom-House marker imprinted it, with a stencil and black paint, on pepper-bags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kind of durable merchandise, in testimony that these commodities had paid the impost, and gone regularly through the office. Borne on such queer vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope will never go again.

But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts, that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly, revived again.

Thus Hawthorne introduces another theme--one that I'll connect later to the "anything dead coming back to life hurts" theme from Toni Morrison's Beloved--in the course of setting up his "discovery" of "a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded" which, "on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter," along with "several foolscap sheets, containing many particulars respecting the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne, who appeared to have been rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our ancestors." In emphasizing his struggles to turn these meager (indeed, invented!) materials into a historical romance and thereby resurrect his literary imagination, Hawthorne is not simply being self-deprecating, or trying to win the reader's sympathy, or strategically lowering reader expectations for the romance that follows "The Custom-House." Consider the following passages, which elaborate on earlier difficulties in "exerting [his] fancy, sluggish with little use," as well as from "that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or anything else but their own independent exertions" (E. Franklin Frazier and Daniel Moynihan, meet Nathaniel "Mr. Culture of Poverty OG Himself" Hawthorne):

My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable, by any heat that I could kindly at my intellecual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. "What have you to do with us?" that expression seemed to say. "The little power you might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!" In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless, it is any thing but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one's intellect is dwindling away; or exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a smaller and less volatile residuum. Of the fact, there could be no doubt; and, examining myself and others, I was led to conclusions in reference to the effect of public office on the character, not very favorable to the mode of life in question.

I'll note in passing the continuation of the ghosts/haunting motif that runs throughout "The Custom-House" in these passages--that will be the subject of a future post--but here call your attention to the way in which Hawthorne blames the imagination-deadening "mode of life" of a Custom House officer for causing him to lose "the little power [he] might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities." If "citizen of somewhere else" refers to Hawthorne's choice of the republic of letters over the town of Salem, then it is a realm where the natives are restless. The "tribe of unrealities" may well be "creatures of [his] own fancy," but until he is figuratively rendered a corpse who can offer Salem his own "ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance," Hawthorne remains incapable of "dream[ing] strange things, and mak[ing] them look like the truth."

So let's return to the immediate context of the "citizen of somewhere else" line that I ended the previous post by quoting at some length. As Hawthorne puts it, his dismissal from the Custom-House has made him look forward to the time when his memories of Salem will be as hazy as if the town "were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street." Never mind Hawthorne's uncharacteristic and jarring failure to maintain parallelism in this passage; what's crucial is that his proleptic and hypothetical reverie leads directly into the present-tense declaration, "Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality in my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else." The actual natives of Salem have become less significant to Hawthorne than the rebellious "tribe of unrealities." Hawthorne's fellow Custom House officers, who in the past were enough under his power to, as he puts it, dread "some discourtesy at my hands"--a situation which at the time "pained and amused" him to "behold the terrors that attended my advent" to office--have become "but shadows in my view; white-headed and wrinkled images, which my fancy used to sport with, and has now flung aside for ever" (perhaps a worse discourtesy to suffer than the "charge" he must "plead guilty to"--of "abbreviating the official breath of more than one of these venerable servants of the republic"). Similarly, Hawthorne can barely "recall the figures and appellations" of the merchants whose names had "such a classic familiarity for my ear six months ago," the "men of traffic, who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world." Whereas the romance becomes a "neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the other," Salem has become as abstract and inconsequential as a bad story idea. Whereas the "warmer light" of the "somewhat dim coal-fire" in Hawthorne's study at midnight "mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human nature to the forms which fancy summons up," converting them "from snow-images into men and women," the citizens of Salem suffer the opposite fate, becoming mere "imaginary inhabitants" of an "overgrown village in cloud-land." In short, Hawthorne suggests that as difficult as the process of turning the scarlet letter into The Scarlet Letter was, and as imperfect as the result is, it will still have more reality in his life, and potentially in the lives of his readers, than any more transient political or economic realities.

But there's more to the story of "The Custom-House." Stay tuned.