Saturday, March 24, 2007

From Narratorial Racial Aesthetics to Authorial Racial Politics (Part III)

For earlier posts in this series, click the "Old News" label. We're jumping right in today at the end of Chapter 2!


So where has this exploration of the narrator’s explicit racism and implicit racialism gotten us? Has it helped us answer the question of Hawthorne’s racism, or only raised its stakes? Assuming for the moment that Hawthorne shares his narrator’s views, is our only response that in matters of race as opposed to aesthetics, Hawthorne consistently “reinforc[ed] wrong by a blindness which seems the very counterpart of his clear vision in his own realm”? Or has the strict separation between politics and aesthetics implicit in this answer been rendered untenable, given the intimate interrelation between the picturesque and racialism we have just witnessed in “Old News”? But is the assumption that Hawthorne shares all his narrator’s views warranted? Might he only share some of them--or perhaps even none? If Hawthorne is neither as racist nor as obtuse as his narrator, could he actually be seeking to undercut his views? If so, which ones?

We may begin to answer these questions by emphasizing the author/narrator distinction and assuming that Hawthorne was not simply expressing his own views in “Old News.” Indeed, recent trends in Hawthorne scholarship encourage us to believe that this may not be an arbitrary assumption. As Allison Easton has characterized the tales and sketches comprising Hawthorne's early unpublished collection, The Story Teller,

The artist figures of the early 1830s are . . . critically presented[;] their views are tested and their poses not necessarily validated. These narrative figures are personae adopted as deliberate exercises in point of view, much as the narrator in ‘Old News’ opts to tell the last part of the sketch through the eyes and voice of an old Tory. This strategy is further developed in the sketches in particular, which set out to explore how the scenes would look through different people’s eyes.

Easton’s survey of Hawthorne’s earliest fiction suggests that at the very least he was exploring different narrative personae for purposes of artistic exploration and that at most he was creating different narrative persona for particular historiographical or political ends.

A rapid survey of early historical sketches not connected with the Story Teller project that nevertheless engage colonial American history in a manner similar to “Old News” illustrates the degree to which the attitudes of Hawthorne’s narrators determine the way the same events are reported. The Puritanic narrator of “Dr. Bullivant” (1831), like the anti-Puritan narrator of “Old News,” focuses on transformations in the American colonies, but this time in the 1670s, which he describes in terms of the traditional narrative of declension, blaming the escalating “degeneracy” of the times on the “increasing commercial importance of the colonies, whither a new set of emigrants followed unworthily in the track of the pure-hearted Puritans” (36-37). By contrast, the anti-aristocratic narrator of “Sir William Pepperell” (1833) attributes the corruption of the Puritan errand not to the 1670s but to the period of the French and Indian Wars, describing the effects of the war in precisely the same terms that the pro-aristocratic narrator of “Old News” would describe the Revolutionary War (170-171). Similarly, Hawthorne would return to the period of the French and Indian Wars in “Old Ticonderoga” (1836) and “A Bell’s Biography” (1837), treating the landscape in much the same way as he treated the colonial newspapers in “Old News” in the former travel narrative (385-389) and utilizing a vigorously pro-democracy narrator in the latter who emphasizes the equality of man (480-486). And all the events in “Old News” are reported in Grandfather’s Chair (1841)--including a similar description of New England slavery--except that here it is the 1730s rather than the 1750s that are characterized as Anglophilic and luxurious, and in no complimentary terms: “the simplicity of the good old Puritan times was fast disappearing” in the face of “a pompous and artificial mode of life, among those who could afford it.”

If this brief survey warrants the claim that Hawthorne’s views do not completely coincide with the narrator’s in “Old News,” then a range of possibilities emerges. Perhaps, like the narrator in the third section, Hawthorne is trying in the first section to “exemplify, without softening a single prejudice proper to the character which we assumed,” that those who held to the racial attitudes of eighteenth-century New England “were men greatly to be pitied, and often worthy of our sympathy” (274). Perhaps Hawthorne is attempting to unsettle his anti-slavery readers with the same kind of temporal leaps that the narrator describes at the opening of the third section, when he moved from immersing himself in the “monarchical and aristocratic sentiments” of the 1750s to examining newspapers from the 1770s, in which “such sentiments had long been deemed a sin and shame” (269). Perhaps, that is, Hawthorne is trying to immerse his readers in the racist and pro-slavery sentiments of the 1730s, so that they, too, feel “as if the leap were more than figurative” and come away temporarily “tinctured . . . with antique prejudices”––in other words, so that they better understand the force and appeal of such sentiments (269). Perhaps, then, just as the narrator is trying to exonerate loyalists in the late 1770s, Hawthorne is also trying to make his readers experience how “pardonable” it was for Puritans to have been slave-holders in the late 1730s (274). In this view, Hawthorne would see his role as akin to the narrator’s--to defend unpopular past views from uncharitable presentist readings.

Or perhaps what he is trying to do is more subtle and less supportive of the narrator’s views. Perhaps, that is, Hawthorne is dramatizing the way in which the narrator moves from trying to gain an understanding of a position that was scoffed at in nineteenth-century New England, to sympathizing with it, and finally to advocating it. Perhaps, then, what happens in the first section of “Old News” is a similar, but implicit, version of the process the narrator explicitly glosses at the opening of the third section: “Our late course of reading has tinctured us, for the moment, with antique prejudices” (269). According to this view, Hawthorne sees his role as demonstrating the power of reading to contaminate temporarily the narrator’s--and by extension, any reader’s--thinking. Rather than sharing his narrator’s sympathies for and clumsy advocacy of eighteenth-century New England slavery, he is simply attempting to show how the narrator came to hold such views.

Or perhaps Hawthorne is more subversive than analytical toward his narrator’s perspective. Perhaps he is suggesting that the racism of the first section is precisely one of those “antique prejudices” to which the narrator’s problematic historicist proclivities make him particularly susceptible. Perhaps, that is, “Old News” is a critique of the narrator’s style of and attitude toward historicization. In his effort to find instances of merriment and beauty to brighten his view of what he imagines as a Puritan-dominated 1730s, he is willing to excuse, and indeed aestheticize, the slavery in which “the merriest part of the population” is held, seeing it as “a patriarchal, and almost a beautiful, peculiarity of the times” (256, 257). According to this view, Hawthorne would be emphasizing the contrast between the narrator’s sarcastic invocation of beauty in the third section (“It is the beauty of war, for men to commit mutual havoc with undisturbed good humor” [274]) with his earlier willingness to see New England slavery as beautiful--in order to imply that the narrator himself is committing “havoc with undisturbed good humor.” Perhaps, then, the joke is really on the narrator, for, like the “specimens of New-England humor” he dismisses as “wearisome” (252), his own attempts at ethnic humor are also “laboriously light and lamentably mirthful; as if some very sober person, in his zeal to be merry, were dancing a jig to the tune of a funeral-psalm” (252). Perhaps, that is, Hawthorne is framing the narrator’s own “zeal to be merry” in the first section of “Old News” as something akin to dancing a jig to the tune of the funeral-psalm of racist enslavement and supplantation.



To be continued....

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