Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On Twain, Hawthorne, and the Novel of Purpose

I owe Scott Eric Kaufman and Amanda Claybaugh a follow-up to my earlier Twain post, but I'm also teaching "Roger Malvin's Burial" and "Wakefield" a little later today, so I'm going to try to keep a few balls in the air here today while the girls are still were sleeping (and before [and after] I have to take took onechan to her first full-day yochien since March)--among them, the relevance of my reading of Twain to The Valve's book event on The Novel of Purpose, readings of Hawthorne's representations of colonial spaces, and the possibilities and pitfalls of pedagogy. We'll see how that goes.

So last Twain post I suggested that the coat of arms that Tom gives Jim in the midst of the "evasion" sequence in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is something of a practical joke at Hawthorne's expense. The point of the joke, though, is aimed directly at the end of Reconstruction: Jim's coat of arms signifies and dramatizes the limitations of liberal reformers, the triumph of racist reactionaries, and their collusion in imposing precisely the "badge of servitude" that the Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional. So I agree with Scott that Twain did have a moral purpose in representing Huck's failure to stand up to Tom, but, Colacurcio-like, my reading emphasizes that Twain is historicizing this failure and making it a figure for the larger society's moral and political failings. The sense of betrayal most readers feel at Huck's actions (and lack thereof) in the last third of the novel, then, is a pale shadow of the betrayal of African Americans by the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

I make this argument not to participate in what Jonathan Arac has called the hypercanonization and idolization of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, nor to excuse or condone liberal racism, but to suggest that Arac's dismissal of critics such as Fishkin, Doyno, and Jehlen (as well as David Lionel Smith, an Americanist and African Americanist at Williams College, who so far as I can tell is never directly engaged in Arac's study), who support the "novel as criticism of the end of Reconstruction" argument I have been advancing--although IMHO not quite as convincingly as I lay it out ;)--as continuing rather than contesting this Cold War tradition is a little hasty. I want to return to Louis Budd's 1962 argument that Clemens should be read as a contemporary of Page, Cable, and Tourgee (and also, I would add, John Edward Bruce, Charles Chesnutt, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Ida B. Wells) and in the context of Southern debates over the meaning of Reconstruction--and try to set it on firmer intra- and intertextual ground. Arac's objection that the novel failed to make its mark is on target--he correctly points out that no contemporary reviews remarked on its racial politics--but this doesn't vitiate the attempt.

The upshot for any understanding of Hawthorne's relevance to the Claybaugh book event at the Valve is to emphasize that critiques of realism and sentimentalism in reform movements and literature may have regressive as well as progressive components. Unlike most of his literary contemporaries, Hawthorne was an anti-abolitionist; this fact has been acknowledged by most Hawthornists and Americanists--what is debated is its context, meaning, and significance. As I have already covered these matters at some length here at CitizenSE in my discusions of Hawthorne's racial politics with respect to slavery, abolition, and racial science, I want to illustrate this point with examples taken from a debate that seems much more "live" among Hawthornists: how to read his infamous "I do abhor an Indian story" line and the larger question it raises of his take on the colonization of the Americas and of the Indian Removals of the 1830s.

On the one hand, a strong case for a deep continuity between Hawthorne's attitudes toward American Indians and African Americans can be made. Hawthorne was an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson (I read somewhere he thought him to be the best American president), the architect of the Indian Removal policy. Few American Indians appear in his fiction; those that do are often as stereotyped as the equally small number of African-American figures. Although he wrote about Indians romantically and sometimes favorably in his autobiographical writings, it seems he participated in the "Vanishing American" tradition. Perhaps his abhorrence for Indian stories stems from an aversion to actual Indians.

Yet just as many feminists argue that despite his "damned mob of scribbling women" gibe and unfavorable portrayal of Anne Hutchinson he could be considered a proto-feminist or even a feminist author, a surprisingly large number of Hawthornists argue that his abhorrence for Indian stories stems from their conventional and cliched nature. These critics see him critiquing the James Fenimore Cooper style of romanticizing American Indians and launching a critique of manifest destiny. For them, a late sketch like "Main-Street" and the early tale "Roger Malvin's Burial" provide the best evidence for their perspective on Hawthorne as a critic of historical colonialism and contemporary American expansionism.

Renee Bergland, in The National Uncanny, offers the best survey of these debates that I have seen; she ultimately argues that a reading of Hawthorne's ghosts suggests the former group has the argumentative advantage. I'll return to her readings in a later post and in the process pick up the thread on Hawthorne's use of haunting in his fiction that I dropped awhile back. But in the few minutes I have before class starts, I want to suggest that the way critics have read "Roger Malvin's Burial" reveals a lot about the terms and assumptions of this debate over Hawthorne's take on Indian Affairs. How they read his relation to the "short story of purpose" of the early 19th C--those stories responding to the calls for a nationalistic American literature to be produced (ironically, on the model of Sir Walter Scott's historical novels--how, that is, they read the politics of dissenting from the conventions of this early national literary tradition, says as much about our own critical assumptions as it does about Hawthorne's time. So soon I'll over some excerpts from my manuscript's first chapter, in which I compare and contrast David Levin's, Michael Colacurcio's, and Manfred Mackenzie's readings of "Roger Malvin's Burial," to flesh out what I'm getting at with these telegraphed comments. And I'll also look at the analysis of "colonial spaces" in "Wakefield" and other stories that deal with the wilderness/desert metaphors underlying so many of his narratives. This will help me circle back to my arguments about Hawthorne's engagement with the picturesque in particular and American landscapes in general from my second chapter and to my long-promised but not-yet-delivered readings of Lauren Berlant on Hawthorne, utopianism, and his "citizen of somewhere else" proclamation in "The Custom-House."

So it's going to get a little involved in the next few months here at CitizenSE. Hawthorne's engagements with narratives of plantation and colonization, his critiques of the emergent literary nationalism of his times, and his ruminations on landscapes, aesthetics, and manifest destiny will be my focus as my Postcolonial Hawthorne course gets into gear.

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