Sunday, April 15, 2007

Conversations with Grandpa Jack, Part Two

Last Sunday, I closed a rambling piece by suggesting that Hawthorne would have problems with critics who excused his racial politics by reference to what Hug the Shoggoth scholar-blogger Daniel Gall criticized from a major Lovecraft scholar as "the temper of the times." Or, as I wish I would have told my grandfather--who raised similar concerns about my race and Hawthorne dissertation project--when I had the chance, "'Everybody was doing it' is no excuse, and, anyway, they weren't--and Hawthorne knew this better than anyone."

Well, as I read Gall's ongoing critiques of fan/scholarly attempts to canonize Lovecraft without adequately engaging his racism, I was reminded of the way I opened my manuscript's first chapter, "At Hawthorne's Tomb." For even though Hawthorne's canonization hasn't been in doubt for decades, the case for it was shakier for the first 50 years after his death than critics like Jane Tompkins and Richard Brodhead have argued. So first I'll give you all the first few paragraphs from that chapter and then come back around to other things I wish I could have told my grandfather on Hawthorne and race.

Not long after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s funeral on May 24, 1864, in Concord, Massachusetts, a trans-Atlantic discussion of the man, his works, and his legacy--a discussion, begun in the 1820s with the first review of Fanshawe, that has continued to this day--entered a new phase. In fact, there was an edge to this discussion that is not often recalled today. To be sure, eulogies and tributes from friends and colleagues that attested to Hawthorne’s genius poured out almost immediately. Arlin Turner reports in his biography of Hawthorne that, in addition to the printing of a letter by Hawthorne’s wife Sophia,

Holmes wrote for the July Atlantic a tribute, along with an account of his last interview with Hawthorne . . . saying in conclusion that in Hawthorne’s works he had “left enough to keep his name in remembrance as long as the language in which he shaped his deep imaginations is spoken by human lips.” Lowell declared afterward that Hawthorne’s was “the rarest creative imagination of the century, the rarest in some ideal respects since Shakespeare.” Longfellow sent Mrs. Hawthorne a poem, to be published in the Atlantic for August, with the title “Concord, May 23, 1864,” in which he echoes their forty years of mutually generous friendship. . . .

And in the nearly two decades before the 1883 Riverside Edition of Hawthorne’s collected works was to appear, a host of other tributes, reminiscences, retrospectives, and reviews appeared in the American and English intellectual press, many of which were occasioned by the posthumous publications of Hawthorne’s letters, notebooks, and unfinished romances. Perhaps it is the success of these early efforts to canonize and institutionalize Hawthorne that leads us to forget how contested his literary status was in the midst of the Civil War. Indeed, a mere day after his funeral, Hawthorne and his politics were attacked in obituaries in the Providence Journal and the Springfield Republican. Uppermost in many minds in the summer of 1864, that is, was the question of Hawthorne’s attitudes toward slavery and abolition. In fact, nothing threatened his literary reputation more at the time of his death than what Ralph Waldo Emerson in his notebooks referred to as Hawthorne’s “perverse politics and unfortunate friendship for that paltry Franklin Pierce.”

To understand the source of Emerson’s vehemence, we must turn to the publication of Hawthorne’s 1852 campaign biography Life of Franklin Pierce, which revealed to a national audience what his family, close friends, and careful readers of “Time’s Portraiture” (1837), “Jonathan Cilley” (1838), “The Sister Years” (1839), “The Hall of Fantasy” (1843), “Earth’s Holocaust” (1844), “The Snow-Image” (1850), and The Blithedale Romance (1852) already knew: not only was Hawthorne highly skeptical toward the myriad reform movements of his day, but he was also a staunch anti-abolitionist and supporter of the Compromise of 1850. Consider these passages from the Pierce campaign biography:

[I]t was impossible for [Pierce] not to take his stand as the unshaken advocate of Union, and of the mutual steps of compromise which that great object unquestionably demanded. The fiercest, the least scrupulous, and the most consistent of those who battle against slavery, recognize the same fact that he does. They see that merely human wisdom and human efforts cannot subvert it, except by tearing to pieces the Constitution, breaking the pledges which it sanctions, and severing into distracted fragments that common country, which Providence brought into one nation through a continued miracle of almost two hundred years, from the first settlement of the American wilderness until the Revolution. In the days when, a young member of Congress, he first raised his voice against agitation, Pierce saw these perils and their consequences. He considered, too, that the evil would be certain, while the good was, at best, a contingency, and (to the clear, practical foresight with which he looked into the future) scarcely so much as that;--attended as the movement was, and must be, during its progress, with the aggravated injury of those whose condition it aimed to ameliorate, and terminating, in its possible triumph—if such possibility there were--with the ruin of the two races which now dwelt together in greater peace and affection, than had ever elsewhere existed between the taskmaster and the serf.

Of course, there is another view of all these matters. The theorist may take that view in his closet; the philanthropist by profession may strive to act upon it, uncompromisingly, amid the tumult and warfare of his life. But the statesman of practical sagacity--who loves his country as it is, and evolves good from things as they exist, and who demands to feel his firm grasp upon a better reality before he quits the one already gained--will be likely here, with all the greatest statesmen of America, to stand in the attitude of a conservative. Such, at all events, will be the attitude of Franklin Pierce. . . .

Those Northern men, therefore, who deem the great cause of human welfare as represented and involved in this present hostility against southern institutions--and who conceive that the world stands still, except so far as that goes forward--these, it may be allowed, can scarcely give their sympathy or their confidence to the subject of this memoir. But there is still another view, and probably as wise a one. It looks upon Slavery as one of those evils, which Divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances, but which, in its own good time, by some means impossible to be anticipated, but of the simplest and easiest operation, when all its uses shall have been fulfilled, it causes to vanish like a dream. There is no instance, in all history, of the human will and intellect having perfected any great moral reform by methods which it adapted to that end; but the progress of the world, at every step, leaves some evil or wrong on the path behind it, which the wisest of mankind, of their own set purpose, could never have found a way to rectify.

Hawthorne himself was certainly aware of how controversial his views were in a New England that was becoming increasingly anti-slavery following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In October 1852, in a letter to Horatio Bridge, he acknowledged that “the biography has cost me hundreds of friends, here at the north, who had a purer regard for me than Frank Pierce or any other politician ever gained, and who drop off from me like autumn leaves, in consequence of what I say on the slavery question. But they were my real sentiments, and I do not now regret that they are on record.” And in the following decade Hawthorne would not publicly acknowledge any significant change of heart or mind on “the slavery question,” as the 1853 publication of “The Pygmies,” the 1860 publication of The Marble Faun (particularly its controversial preface), the 1862 publication of his travel narrative “Chiefly About War Matters” in The Atlantic Monthly, and the 1863 dedication of Our Old to Franklin Pierce indicated. His composition of acerbic, purportedly “editorial” commentary in footnotes to the most controversial passages in “Chiefly About War Matters” dramatizes the extent to which he expected his views would be condemned as treasonous.

By the summer of 1864, then, to assess Hawthorne’s life and works was to assess his racial politics. As we shall see, this issue has resurfaced several times since then. In order to make sense of its most recent reappearance on the critical horizon since the 1960s, it is crucial that we familiarize ourselves with the terms of debate in the midst of the Civil War, for it is surprising how influential they have remained long after most people have forgotten them. Thus, in this chapter, after examining one key moment in the Civil War-era debates over Hawthorne’s racial politics and their relation to his literary status, I survey the ways that contemporary critics have approached similar questions and problems, and consider what happens when different protocols for reading Hawthorne’s racial politics collide in interpretations of “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” My aim in doing this is twofold. First, I wish to provide a preliminary map of the terrain on which different positions for understanding Hawthorne’s politics and poetics have contended. Second, I wish to focus our attention on what is at stake in such contentions over Hawthorne’s racial politics and broach something of the complexities that emerge when a given tale is read in relation to antebellum racial formations and projects.

This chapter, then, is more about how decades of criticism and scholarship have tried to make sense of Hawthorne’s racial politics than it is about what his politics actually were. The latter is a task I take up in the next chapter. Here, I consider what it is that readers do when they set out to analyze Hawthorne’s racial politics. What results is a chapter that falls somewhere between a polemical review of the literature and a historicized study of the racial politics of Hawthorne’s literary reputation as it has changed since the 1830s. At a time when we are still trying to ascertain the extent of Paul de Man’s collaboration with Nazi occupation forces in World-War-II-era Belgium and figure out what, if anything, his actions then have to do with his subsequent literary theorizing, it is particularly important that we reconsider the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Doing so just might provide a means of acknowledging the particularly American scandals of supplantation, enslavement, and conquest.

I'll avoid going all the way to lazy blogging Chapter 1 as I've been doing Chapter 2, but I do want to build on what I'm doing in both chapters here. For my original idea for this post was to argue that Hawthorne would have argued that certain historical figures' beliefs and actions are noteworthy in the present for what they reveal about their times--and that Lovecraft scholars who wish to see him treated alongside rather than beneath the modernist canons of early twentieth-century American literature would do well to analyze him in this way rather than defend the indefensible or seek to quarantine it off from the main body of his work (as the critics Gall criticizes seem to be doing).

But then I had a second thought--is this move possible only for authors who, like Hawthorne, have already been canonized? To say, as I argue throughout my intro and first two chapters, that Hawthorne is most interesting to me precisely for what his writings reveal about his times and the critics who attempt to analyze both, is, after all, not the strongest case that can be made for why others should be interested in Hawthorne in the first place. To some extent, I am depending on others already having an interest in Hawthorne--and those interests being institutionalized for long enough that I can count on them to persist.

And yet, I do think this move has a good chance of working for my manuscript's primary audience--people who have dismissed Hawthorne as a Dead White Male Author No Longer Worth Engaging and who have taken part in dismantling the idea of canonicity, constructing new canons, or were educated in either tradition--that is, a good portion of the academic book-buying public. If I'm right, then my original advice for aspiring Lovecraft scholars still holds.

And it turns out this is, after all, particularly Hawthornian advice. For when faced with critical injunctions to help construct a new American literature based on American history, models, and matters, he attempted to avoid writing patriotic pap or antiquarian trivia--he selected figures who, he felt, would illuminate their times and his. By focusing my manuscript's first half on an antebellum figure who is in some ways marginal to the key concerns of those working in Black Studies, multiethnic studies, critical race studies, and postcolonial studies--and who doesn't present nearly as many possibilities for inspiring examples as the overlooked writers who have been recovered or the canonized writers who have been reexamined by Americanists of the past two generations, I'm trying to focus our attention on what we still don't understand well about antebellum racial politics, and our own.

This is actually territory I mapped out in my Kyushu American Literature Society talk from last December and it takes me back to the reasons why I started this blog in the first place around the same time. There was so much I had to leave out of that talk that I wanted to explore further, I decided to put it in the blog, instead. So it might be time to unveil my plans for the manuscript and discuss how they have changed from the early '90s, when I first conceived this race and Hawthorne project whose incubation and delivery have been so, uh, long in coming. But as the second week of classes starts tomorrow and I have to do some blogging this week for my Postcolonial Hawthorne students, I will have to do some two-a-days or otherwise fiddle with my programming schedule to fit my teaching and research needs in the same virtual space. Seems unavoidable, as the timing is right for both.


undine said...

By looking at Hawthorne in this way, wouldn't you be able to reach both audiences--the Hawthorne as DWMANLWE and the Hawthorne as Pillar of American Literature crowd?

The Constructivist said...

I hope so! And maybe even bridge the two a bit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing these paragraphs, & your insights - especially on how Hawthorne fared during the Civil War. I found that interesting. When you say, later on -

But then I had a second thought--is this move possible only for authors who, like Hawthorne, have already been canonized?

- I find that it must be possible even for authors outside the canon - it must be possible for Lovecraft, because his stance on race is a part of the aesthetic experience we have with his works in the present that cannot simply be shooed away. It must be possible, that is my gist of it, to problematize all and every aspect of his work, rather than just ignoring the embarassing parts out of a sense of sympathy and affiliation to the man. I'm pretty sure he can be part of the American canon, if you give him the right literary bedfellows to lie with.