Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Racial Aesthetics and Narratorial/Authorial Intention, Part II

Picking up where we left off last week, I focus today on the narrator's use of the picturesque as an index of his stated intentions and unstated assumptions, particularly with respect to the racialized aesthetics it reveals. Next week, I'll get into some of the issues involved with trying to locate Hawthorne's intentions for creating such a narrator.


The picturesque is crucial to “Old News” in various ways. But chief among its effects is its “partial concealment of [the] possible implications” of the narrator’s endorsement of the old Tory’s racialism, the way it sets the narrator “free either to imagine a usable past or to make an unusable past disappear.” Dennis Berthold has written that the picturesque

provided Americans with a congenial, respectable, eminently civilized standpoint from which to study and enjoy the wilderness. To the strong national ego already evident in political Independence--the wilderness-subduing, westward-moving “I”--the picturesque added a controlling aesthetic vision--a wilderness-subduing “eye”--to help organize, shape, and even half-create a native landscape compatible with the civilization that was encroaching on the rugged forests and mountains of the western borders.

Together with canny observations by Jean Fagan Yellin and Lauren Berlant, Berthold’s linking of the picturesque and nationalism can help us pin down the combination of racialism and aestheticism that unites the three sections of “Old News.” Yellin puts her finger on the pictorial, panoramic quality of “Old News” and its nationalist connotations when she notes that “To [Hawthorne’s] readers, the[ slaves] perhaps served to identify the scene as American in much the same way that the inclusion within a single canvas of representatives of the three races--red, black, and white--identified as American the paintings of Hawthorne’s contemporaries.” Similarly, and even more provocatively, Berlant’s analysis of the rhetoric of “Chiefly About War Matters” leads her to conclude that, for Hawthorne, “slavery makes America intelligible. . . . Slaves, in short, are not persons, not potential citizens, but are part of the national landscape and of the deep memories that sanctify it as politically a ‘country.’” Together, Yellin and Berlant’s emphasis on the function of slaves in the picturesque mode of nationalist landscape painting helps us understand that Berthold’s contrast between “civilization” and “wilderness” is as implicitly racialized as McWilliams and Newberry’s narrative of “civilization” to “fratricide.” And, more important, they help us understand what Hawthorne’s sketch is really about and what his narrator is really after.


Now jump back, if you will, to the concluding quote from the manuscript in last week's post. For it sets up my next points:


[E]ven more significant than the narrator’s explicit defense of New England slavery and the appeal to racism that underlies it is the implicit racialism of his conception of American national identity. When we consider that the publication of Hawthorne’s sketch coincided with what historian Larry Tise has called “an ideological revolution whose influence was decisive for the shape of proslavery thought in the antebellum period,” however, we can begin to get a better sense of the stakes of the racial aesthetics of “Old News.” The link that the picturesque formed between a racist defense of slavery and a racialist conception of American nationality gains added significance in light of two of Tise’s key moves. First is his summary of early nineteenth-century debates over slavery: “Although much of the debate centered on the morality of holding Negroes in bondage, the future of slavery and the disposition of the Negro was linked irresistibly to the shape and destiny of America.” Second is his argument that by the end of the 1830s, American social thinkers “were far less concerned with the lessons of the American Revolution than with those of the French Revolution. They spoke more frequently of the warnings of Edmund Burke than of the ideals of Jefferson.” Taking these two points together, the fact that Hawthorne’s narrator in “Old News” implicitly endorses the old Tory's denunciation of the Revolution, when considered with the Burkean ring of his politics and aesthetics, suggests that “Old News” must be understood in relation to the discourses that Tise identifies as crucial to 1830s racial politics in America. For Hawthorne to choose to write about slavery and to feature denunciations of the Revolution was itself a significant act, no matter that his sketch focused on eighteenth-century New England and regardless of his precise relation to his narrator....

[W]hen Hawthorne decided to write on slavery in January 1835, he was quite aware that he was entering into dangerous and contested territory. The signals that he sent in “Old News” were interestingly mixed. At a time when “foreign interference” in American institutions was denounced with an intensity often approaching paranoia, Hawthorne features a narrator who ventriloquizes an old Tory’s diatribe against French influences and who regrets the Revolution’s separation of the Americans from the English. His narrator’s emphasis on shared racial ties among Anglo-Americans irrespective of national boundaries could well have been an implicit critique of the North’s tendency to denounce an “English plot” against slavery and the United States; many in the North saw the English abolitionist George Thompson as a “symbol of a well-planned British plot to destroy the American way of life” by sowing “seeds of war, rape, and carnage through the United States.” By emphasizing the racial otherness of the French, Indians, and Negroes, in other words, Hawthorne’s narrator could well have been seeking to create a mutual enemy that would consolidate English and American ties.

Indeed, the links between Burkean aesthetics, tolerance toward slavery, misgivings about the Revolutionary War, and a racialist conception of American nationality in “Old News” suggests that Hawthorne’s narrator, if not Hawthorne himself, was pursuing a particularly virulent racial project that historian Larry Tise has identified as “proslavery republicanism”....

Hawthorne’s narrator, then, was somewhere in the vanguard of a new racism in January 1835. Rather than being a Northern echo of what was a predominantly Southern ideology, the views expressed in “Old News” were part of a new anti-abolitionist ideology that provided the intellectual framework for later “positive good” defenses of slavery. The turn to Burke that Tise identifies is crucial to “Old News.” Although Burke has been celebrated in one recent intellectual history of the concept of race for his “attempt to reassert the political ideas of Aristotle” against the beginnings of a turn to ideas of blood, Kultur, and Volk that would eventuate after 1815 in a full-blown ideology of race, “Old News” suggests that Burke’s anti-racialism was easily jettisoned by those in America who would take up his critiques of the French Revolution. In fact, the narrator’s racial Anglo-Saxonism suggests instead that Hannah Arendt’s claim that “Burke contributed to an essentially English view of race by emphasizing entailed inheritance as the basis for English liberty” was more relevant to the American context; Hawthorne’s narrator echoes Burke’s emphasis that “ties of inheritance” are “as strong as links of iron” in “Old News.”Indeed, one could argue that the narrator’s project in “Old News” is precisely to engender an anti-abolitionist white nationalism in his readers, to use Burke’s own aesthetics to racialize his politics.


So I'm interested in people's thoughts on Burke and race, 1830s anti-abolitionism, Tise on proslavery argument. What do I need to be rethinking and further developing in this attempt to historicize the racial aesthetics and politics of Hawthorne's narrator in "Old News"?

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