Thursday, March 22, 2007

Liverpool, the Slave Trade, and Hawthorne

More lazy blogging and blegging today! This time it's inspired by a short article in the 21 March 2007 Japan Times that gives a brief history of Liverpool and the slave trade; an online version isn't available, but you can check the history out for yourself here, here, here, and here (for starters). What does this have to do with Hawthorne? Let me quote from the end of the first chapter of my manuscript:

Hawthorne’s comments in a letter of June 14, 1854, to George Sanders, an opponent of abolition, neatly encapsulate many of the issues we have been tracking in this chapter. In one sense, Hawthorne’s remarks seem uncannily applicable to his own career. Sanders, who had rebuked the exiled Italian revolutionary leader Giuseppi Mazzini for implicitly criticizing U.S. slavery in a public letter to an English abolitionist society, asked Louis Kossuth (who had taken a neutral position on slavery in his celebrated tour of the United States) for his response to Mazzini’s remarks, and then sent all the relevant materials to Hawthorne, requesting his opinion of them. After praising Sanders’s own response in his letter to Mazzini, Hawthorne continued:

Now, as to Kossuth’s reply, I do not know but that I ought likewise to be satisfied with that. . . . I do not like it well enough to be glad that he has written it. Is it quite worthy of him? Does he not trim and truckle a little? Will not both parties in America see that he does so?--or suspect it and accuse him of it, whether justly or not? Doubtless, he says nothing but what is perfectly true; but yet it has not the effect of frank and outspoken truth. I wish he had commenced his reply with a sturdier condemnation of slavery; it would have operated as a stronger sanction to what follows.

Of what sort of consequence is my opinion? But there it is.

Perhaps Hawthorne’s own position on slavery could be seen as analogous to Kossuth’s; as a Northerner, practically a foreigner to Southern society, Hawthorne simply kept his abhorrence of slavery to himself, maintaining neutrality for the sake of maintaining the Union. Perhaps he even was offering a subtle critique of his own writings on slavery in his response to Kossuth’s letter, wishing that he himself had offered “a sturdier condemnation of slavery” so that his position for neutrality would not be mistaken as anti-black or pro-slavery. Certainly, this is a sentiment many of Hawthorne’s readers would endorse; like Hawthorne on Kossuth, they, too, often seem to be wishing that Hawthorne had “trim[med] and truckle[d]” less, so that his own positions would have the “effect of frank and outspoken truth.”

In addition to reading Hawthorne’s letter as a subtle admission of regret or an allegory for our own dilemmas as critics who want to see in Hawthorne a ratification of our own values and beliefs, we might also treat the letter as a clue to the social circles in which Hawthorne traveled as consul to Liverpool during the Pierce administration. We know, for instance, that London consul Robert Campbell was suspected of Confederate sympathies, and that Hawthorne’s successor at Liverpool, Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, was a Confederate agent. Hawthorne’s question to Sanders, “Of what sort of consequence is my opinion?” not only may be another version of his characteristic self-deprecating humor, but may also have been implying a set of genuine and pointed questions: Who wants to know? Why did you ask my opinion? How will you make use of this letter? To my knowledge, no study of Hawthorne carefully considers the full range of his activities in Liverpool, the former slavery capital of the world, and one of the last bastions of pro-slave-trade politics in early nineteenth-century England. By the time Hawthorne arrived, of course, times had changed. But it would be an interesting project to consider which Liverpool Hawthorne saw. What I am trying to suggest is that treating the question of Hawthorne’s racial politics in the most pedestrian, practically empiricist manner--in terms of the people and projects with which he aligned himself at different times and in different places--may be the best way of investigating them.

One of the things I have to do is find out if anyone has addressed this issue since I last researched it. Besides the resources I have at the three universities in Fukuoka I'll be teaching at in a few weeks, there's also Google Scholar. So I have some fun detective work ahead of me the next few weeks! Anyone want to help me out by pointing me to the best sources? Do I need to schedule a research trip to Liverpool?

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