Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Jee Yoon Lee on the Oriental Hester

Gotta love the synchronicity--just about the time I was blogging on Salem and "the Orient" here at CitizenSE, Jee Yoon Lee of the University of Michigan published "'The Rude Contact of Some Actual Circumstance': Hawthorne and Salem's East India Marine Museum" in ELH 73 (2006) 949-973. As they say in these here parts of blogoramaville, read that gosh darn thing in its entirety. But if you want my summary and reactions, read on.

Picking up where Charles Goodspeed left off in 1945 and Luther Luedtke did in 1989, Lee argues that "Hawthorne's literary imagination is powerfully grounded in the material objects from the Orient," that "the letter A becomes the icon, the index, and the symbol of the material culture displayed in Salem's East India Maritime Museum," that the narrator of the novel "accentuates the story of the Puritan Hester into a figure, a symbol Orientalized by contact with the material circumstances of Salem's East India trade," and concludes:

If Hester's letter A figures her as a woman, composed in part by words referring to her Oriental characteristics, then the things that grant her or the A she wears "a positive, a relative, and a composite meaning" are those things that can be found in the visual narratives of Salem's East India Marine Museum. In The Scarlet Letter, a distinct communal culture takes shape as Hawthorne transfigures the material culture of the Orient into a letter in the shape of a Salem Oriental Hester Prynne.

Along the way, Lee brings together scholarship on material culture, visual culture, and icons, images, and symbols; historicizes Salem's India trade, its museum commemorating the trade for 19th C visitors, and needlework in 19th as well as 17th C New England; provides good readings of three scenes from The Scarlet Letter--"Hester at her needle, at the Governor's Hall, and upon her death"--that "illustrate the commingling of the material culture of the East India Marine Museum and the writing materials of the Orient"; and cites the obligatory big names in Hawthorne scholarship (Bell, Bercovitch, Berlant, Colacurcio, Luedtke, Ryskamp, and Tompkins) along with a couple of surprises (Crain, Goodyear). I learned a lot from every section of the essay and several times kicked myself for not noticing things Lee points out on my own. The best moment in the essay for me is when "Hester catches a glimpse of herself in the Governor's armor, and sees herself as if she were a spoil from a foreign war"; here, Lee emphasizes the museum-like qualities of Bellingham's hall, juxtaposes them with the display of "the dried head of a Fijian displayed in the East India Marine Museum," and concludes that "Hester emerges as an object bejeweled by her embroidery, defined by her expression of an Oriental nature, a fictive equivalent of the exotic material things displayed at the East India Marine Museum."

Of course, any essay necessarily has roads not taken, but it was disappointing to me that even here, in the strongest and most original moment in the essay, Lee doesn't link violence against Fijians with the literal historical referent in the armor reflection scene--the Pequod War--or address the way in which the Governor's bond-servant--"a free-born Englishman, but now a seven years' slave"--who ushers Hester into the mansion, impressed by her letter and her airs, frames the entire scene with a slavery/indentured servitude reference. Lee's readings could have been enriched by pursuing these and other links between the multiple "others" of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter. But even within the parameters of her essay's chosen focus, some troubling problems emerge.

The biggest problem is the essay's repeatedly raising "and then...?" and "so what?" questions without adequately pursuing answers to them--or at least answers Hawthorne specialists would find particularly original. "The presence of the Orient in [Hawthorne's] daily life" matters because it "gives credence to the idea of an Oriental Hester"--which is important because...? Hawthorne "re-imagine[s] Hester within the context of the Oriental influences of his times"--to what ends? with what effects? As I noted here around the same time this essay came out, Hawthorne revealingly shifts from undeveloped reveries of the height of Salem's Oriental trade, "when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither," to the (invented) discovery of the scarlet letter, which sparks his imagination and inspires his novel (or so he claims)--yet Lee never mentions this moment. Nor did Lee or ELH's readers or editors catch an error, when she attributes a line from "The Custom-House" in which the narrator discusses his imagined characters' resistance--figured revealingly as "the tribe of unrealities"--as a description of the scarlet letter itself. In avoiding engagement with Berlant's actual arguments about Hester's needlework, or (ahem) my arguments about Mukherjee's revisions of The Scarlet Letter in The Holder of the World (which she could have built on as well as criticized on solid grounds), Lee reveals the thinness of her engagement with Hawthorne scholarship relevant to her main argument and misses an opportunity to develop its implications and stakes. What is Hawthorne's relation with his protagonist and his narrator? To what ends does he Orientalize Hester? How do Lee's findings impact debates over Hawthorne's depictions of racism, sexism, and colonialism in his fiction?

From a quick google search, this essay looks to be one of Lee's first published pieces from her dissertation. From the little that I've seen of her other work on race and Hawthorne, I think Lee is well on her way to a promising Hawthorne section of an impressive book manuscript. If she can find a way to make her work on The House of the Seven Gables reflect back on her revisions of this chapter-to-be on The Scarlet Letter, she'll be in a great position to follow through on the achievements of and the potential revealed in this essay.

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