Eudora Welty, “Delta Wedding” 1946: Nostalgia, Family and Freedom

Eudora Welty’s novel Delta Wedding is a focused examination of the Fairchild family, members of an elite clan in Mississippi, brought together by the wedding of Dabney and Troy.  Through a variety of points of views, we actually get a fairly complete picture of this family despite the narrow setting and focused canvas that Welty works through.  The feeling of nostalgia runs strongly throughout the entire novel and like the characters the reader cannot help but come to the conclusion that family relations, family expectations, and family history is one of the most significant barriers to human freedom.  Only one character, George Fairchild, has proven capable of breaking out of these binds.  While most of the other characters are selfish, stuck in a rut, or obsessed with former memories, George is open and more projetural.  However, following all of the characters, their relationships, and their histories was difficult.  I am not sure if the idea of the novel is to make the reader feel as overwhelmed and claustrophobic as the characters seem to be.  We are existing in a feudal realm, where individual happiness takes a second seat to the family’s honor, social status, and pride.  It is actually amazing anyone is acceptable to bring into this insane group of self-centered and obsessive people (I almost wrote “individuals” but with few exceptions they barely qualify).  They even take on a similarity that works to separate them from everyone else.  “All the Fairchilds in the Delta looked alike — Little Battle, now, pushing his bobbed hair behind his ears before he took up a fresh drumstick, looking exactly like Dabney the way she would think at the window.  They all had a fleetness about them, though they were tall, solid people with “Scotch legs” — a neatness that was actually a readiness for gaieties and departures, a distraction that was endearing as a lack of burdens.” (102)


The centrality of the Fairchild family (indeed, it is bordering on solipsism)  is suggested in the way the narrator discusses the black servants who surround the Fairchilds.  They are referred only to as “the Negroes.”  Even when looked at in a bit more detail, they are still given to us without fully developed identities that they can call their own.  The Fairchilds exist in their own realm and any outsider exists only to serve them (and to be wary of as with Troy).  They are, of course, heavily dependent on others, but I doubt many of these characters would admit that dependence.  “The whole family but Papa and Mama, and ten or twenty Negroes with us, went fishing in Drowning Lake.” (107)  Troy, an overseers of sorts, working with the field hands has a closer awareness of the black workers on the plantation.  It might be for this reason that the Fairchild’s are a bit hostile to him.  With a few exceptions they are in the background.  “All the windows were full of black faces, but the family servants stood in a ring inside the parlor walls.” (300)

Dabney certainly would like to escape this velvet prison.  “Sometimes, Dabney was not so sure she was a Fairchild–sometimes she did not care, that was it. . . . It would kill her father — of course for her to be a Fairchlild was an inescapable thing, to him.” (120)  Only George provides a clear model as he has saw more of the world, married against his family’s wishes, and was able to avoid even looking like a Fairchild.  At one point Dabney even idealizes her Uncle George  just by observing how he sat.  “She saw Uncle George lying on his arm on a picnic, smiling to hear what someone was telling, with a butterfly going across his gaze, a way to make her imagine all at once that in a moment he erected an entire, complicated house for the butterfly inside his sleepy body.  It was very strange, but she had felt it.  She had then known something he knew all along, it seemed then–that when you felt, touched, heard, looking a things in the world, and found their fragrances, they themselves made a sort of house within you, which filled with life to hold them, filled with knowledge all by itself, and all else, the other ways to know, seemed calculation and tyranny.” (121-122)

We are thus in this clear dilemma between the family culture (“calculation and tyranny”) and individual liberty.  What is clear is that in the world of the Fairchild’s it is not really possible to have both without basically becoming like Uncle George, who all see as a bit of an outsider due to his decisions.  Is there a solution?  I simply do not see it at least not for this psychopathic culture of the ruling class, seen through the eyes of these Fairchilds.  It is unfortunate that we can only observe this world through their eyes.  It made the novel almost unreadable for me.  It seems, I cannot even visit the minds of people like the Fairchilds without the feeling of nausea.  Maybe the families of the non-elite, less obsessed with boundaries, family history, or status, can be more open.  Delta Wedding is a good gift to give someone desiring to marry into wealth.  It will remind them that it is simply not worth it to navigate such psychopathy.

Eudora Welty, “The Robber Bridegroom” (1942)




Another week, another Library of America volume.  I picked at random someone I never read before, Eudora Welty.

There is something worthy of respect in re-telling folklore for a new time.  Folklore tends to provide fated characters who are doomed to follow the same path with each re-telling.  As often as we invent new contexts for the story the main trajectory of the characters is bound.   It takes some real creativity to manage to stay true to the story while also retelling it in a fresh way.  The way Eudora Welty does this with The Robber Bridegroom is by combining the classic German tale with American folklore.  The story is of a young naive woman, kidnapped by robbers, who escapes only after witnessing the brutal murder (and literally consumption) of another woman.  When she is able to retell the story when the robber returns to collect his finance, she is able to retell what she saw, providing evidence in the form of a severed finger and golden ring, the robbers are put to death.  This story is unlikely to get a Disney version, but Welty does give it an American version by placing it in the U.S. South in the eighteenth century and filling it with mythical figures, most notably Mike Fink – the great riverboat pilot.   I could not help notice the inclusion of a “innocent planter,” which I am certain was also a mythical figure of American folklore although perhaps Welty was not conscious of it.

Mike Fink

Mike Fink

Another tall-tales of the United States.  The kind and benevolent planter.

Another tall-tales of the United States. The kind and benevolent planter.

Welty borrows much that is familiar from readers of the Grimm tale: bandits in the wood, cruel and jealous stepmothers, doting and loyal fathers, the repetition of tales, the intervention of animals with inside knowledge, and naive young women.  It is all placed in a identifiable American setting.  I do not know if this is a testament to Welty’s brilliance or a reflection on the structural similarities in folklore (a Jungian approach), or maybe a deeper influence of Germanic story-telling in American folklore.  In any case, it is a captivating and entertaining tale.  The effect is that we can be truly surprised at the outcome even if we are familiar with the source tale.  It also breaks free of the deterministic trap in the retelling of such stories.

Welty is able to cram a lot of story into this short novella.  In the opening chapter, the planter Clement Musgrove, stays in an inn, sharing a room with two men who turn out to be Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart (who turns out to be the famous “Bandit of the Woods” but sustains an alter-ego as a respectable man).  Lockhart saves Musgrove from Mike Fink’s attempt to murder and rob them.  In response Musgrove helps secure Lockhart’s passport and tells him his story.  After a brutal Indian attack, Musgrove’s son, wife, and friend die.  He remarrys to his friends surviving wife, aptly named Salome.  His true love is for his daughter Rosamond.  In the next chapter (harnessing Grimm) we find Salome brutally exploiting her stepdaughter on a daily basis.  While out collecting herbs, Rosemond is attacked by the Bandit of the Woods, who steals all her clothing.  Observing this is Goat, a local dimwitted man who Salome bribed to kill Rosemond.  Musgrove finds Lockhart and asks for his help in rounding up and killing the Bandit.  In the center of the novel are several conflicts that need to be resolved.  Rosemond fascination and love for Lockhart along side her observations of the horrible acts of his gang, Goat’s love for Rosemund and attempts to take Jamie’s place, and the rise of Little Harp – the most brutal member of Lockhart’s gang all complicate the central act of the novel.  The force that forces a resolution are the Indians.  It is a very American plot device that pulls us out of the Grimm-style tale and return us solidly to American folklore.  To make this even clearer we see Mike Fink return at the end, outcast for his earlier failures.  He returns Rosemund to reality by telling her that Jamie Lockhart has died.  This seems to be read as the famous bandit, for the respectable persons (“a gentleman of the world in New Orleans”) survives and fathers twins of his own.

Welty tests the limits of the moral absolutism of the classical fairytale.  While in the original tale, the robber bridegroom is completely odious and finds a well-deserved death at the end, Jamie Lockhart is redeemed.  Even Mike Fink finds a degree of salvation despite his boorish and thieving introduction.   Far from becoming a classical morality tale, Welty’s version of The Robber Bridegroom contains plenty of frontier-era moral ambiguity.  As Clement Musgrove says when coming to terms with his capture by Indians. “Wrath and love burn only like the campfires.  And even the appearance of a hero is no longer a single and majestic event like that of a star in the heavens, but a wandering fire soon lost.  A journey is forever lonely and parallel to death, but the two watch each other, the traveler and the bandit, through the trees. . . . Massacre is hard to tell from the performance of other rites, in the great silence where the wanderer is coming.  Murder is as soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep.” (69)  Whatever we are supposed to make of this, it is not a message of moral certainty.  When hesitating to kill the dualistic Jamie Lockhart Musgrove says: “But since in addition [to being a bandit] he loves my daughter, he must be not the one man, but two, and I should be afraid of killing the second.  For all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off.  All things are divided in half–night an day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age.” (61)

A final thing I would like to say about Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom is the importance of names.  Several of the names have symbolic significance.  Characters, especially Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart are easily offended when others fail to recall their names.  Mistaken identities play a role in at least one plot point.  I would need to revisit the Grimm tales, but I recall many nameless figures and archetypical stock characters (the villainous stepmother for instance).  Perhaps in translating these tales to the more individualist and democratic United States, she had to insist on the importance of individual identity.  I am not sure how this ties into the more flexible moral universe of the novel.  Perhaps given the democratic, frontier, morally-ambiguous world Welty is trying to present, our name is the only solid thing we have.  Even Mike Fink finds himself expelled from his group and temporarily losing his status as folk hero.

Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays, Part Three” (1852-1862)

We come to the final essays of Thoreau’s short life, which focus on his abolitionism, his resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, and his defense of John Brown.

We start with two essays written for Thoreau’s friend Harrison G. O. Blake in 1852, “Love” and “Chastity and Sensuality.”  My impression in these two short essays is that Thoreau sentimentalizes and idealizes love over what he would call more base sensuality.  With marriage, “all lusts or base pleasures must give place to loftier delights.  They who meets as superior beings cannot perform the deeds of inferior ones.”  (329)  Later, “Love and lust are far asunder.  The one is good and the other bad.” (330)  I suppose his belief in a perfect marriage or an ideal love (not corrupted by base lust) is akin to his quest for perfect goodness or bravery.  Perhaps Thoreau is defending his bachelorhood and (likely) virginity.  I found these essays tedious and judgmental.  Love, for him, exists in a transcendent realm and we who dwell in the the more vulgar acts of lust and unfortunately deluded.  He even slips in a near eugenicist argument. “The only excuse for reproduction is improvement.  Nature abhors repetition.  Beasts merely propagate their kind, but the offspring of noble men & women will be superior to themselves, as their aspirations are.  By their fruits ye shall know them.” (332)  He does not define superiority as genetic, of course, yet he comes off as a quite unconventional mid-19th century American intellectual in his idealization of romantic love and his condemnation of sexual pleasure (particularly among the working poor who so many reformers targeted for improvement).

“Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) makes the case that the state of Massachusetts was complicit in the spread of slavery through its acceptance and defense of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required that run-away slaves be returned to their “owners.”  More troubling was that it seemed to put a burden of proof on kidnapped free people to prove that they are not slaves.  In some cases, at least, free men and women were enslaved through the workings of the courts.  Thoreau points out that state agents, judges, proved to be unwilling to stand on the side of justice in interest of defending their position.  It makes Massachusetts a potential state of slaves.  Thoreau is desperately searching for a polity that can deserve his loyalty.  Certainly the Constitution and brazen majority rule will not do.  Neither will the worship of “Mammon” embraced by the institutions (religious, secular, and educational) in the state.  “Show me a free State, and a court of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be.” (344)  As for Massachusetts, Thoreau states that their is enough injustice to warrant revolutionary change.  “My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.” (346)  What this essay gives us is a practical application of “Civil Disobedience”

“Life Without Principle” explores the question of work.  How is it possible to be free, happy, fulfilled, or proud if one works for money or survival.  He fears the revolution has been incomplete.  “Even if we grant that the American had freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still a slave of an economical and moral tyrant.  . . . Do we call this the land of the free?  What is it to be free from King George and continue to be slaves of King Prejudice?  What is it to be born free and not to live free?  What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom?” (363)  We start with the problem that most of the ways that exist of making a living are unsatisfying for most.  Working for others invariably results in a form of theft.  “If the laborers gets no more than his wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself.” (350)  Thoreau, with his radical individualism, likely finds the man cheating himself worse than the employers theft.  In this situation, good work can only come from a type of bribing.   His solution may be utopian, but I think we need this Utopian approach again.  “The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends.  Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for the love of it.” (351)  Ah, but even this is a half-revolution.  Countless employment websites make the same types of claims today.  Finding work one loves to do, without a fundamental restructuring of the economic system of exploitation simply makes that exploitation more palatable to the workers.  I have no doubt that many workers have found work that they love.  Even work that reflects tasks they would engage in even if they were not paid.  Thoreau assumes that these tasks will still be “work.”  We can read “Life Without Principle” as a good diagnosis of the problem, but an incomplete treatment – we need a society that can encourage people to pursue their talents and interests and make it possible to pursue those talents and interests without exploitation.

Thoreau wrote three essays on John Brown in 1859 and 1860: “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” “Martyrdom of John Brown,” and “The Last Days of John Brown.”  It seems that Thoreau may have found his great hero in John Brown, a man capable of transcending social convention in pursuit of moral perfection.  He aptly dispenses with the nonsense about John Brown’s insanity or religious zealotry.  This nonsense still finds its way into writings on John Brown, unfortunately.  While, Thoreau says, the attack on Harper’s Ferry and the hope of starting a slave revolt may have been foolish, it cannot be called insane.  First, the government and slave aristocracy would not have feared him had he been insane.  Second, had it been successful it would not have been deemed the work of a madman.  Third, how could an insane man have attracted such a significant following for his action of “civil disobedience”?  Finally, and most importantly, he was merely pursuing the logical consequences of his perfectly rational moral positions.  More important than the life of John Brown (irredeemably lost anyway) to Thoreau was how he would be remembered.  And Thoreau was certain that Brown would be remembered as being on the right side of history.  On this point, Thoreau was prophetic.  “It seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died.  I never hear of a man named Brown now,–and I hear of them pretty often,–I never head of any particularly brave and earnest man, bu tmy first thought of of John Brown, and what relation he may be to him.  I meet him at every turn.  He is more alive than ever he was.  He has earned immortality.  He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas.  He is no longer working in secret.  He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on the land.” (428)



Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays” Part Two: Civil Disobedience

As hinted at in my last post, one of Thoreau’s great contributions was to suggest (it would be too much to say he moved much in his lifetime since his influence is mostly posthumous) that the proper response to injustice, specifically unjust laws or governments sustained injustice, should be disobedience not non-resistance, which was commonly held by many of his contemporaries, including prominent abolitionists.  “Civil Disobedience” is one of the selections that I read for today and will be inevitably the focus on my comments.  I did read the following works:


“Herald of Freedom” (1844): A celebration of the anti-slavery journalist Nathaniel P. Rogers, which repeats Roger’s important point about undo respect for religious traditions.  “that Jesus Christ did not preach the abolition of slavery, then I say, he didn’t do his duty.”  (161)

“Thomas Carlyle and His Works” (1846): Furthering Thoreau’s search for greatness in writers.  Here is his examination of Thomas Carlyle search for heroes and Thoreau’s search for heroism in Carlyle.

“Civil Disobedience” (1848): Thoreau’s declaration of independence from the unjust laws of the state of Massachusetts in protest of the Mexican War and its pro-slavery goals.

“Walking” (1851/1862 published): An attempt to find “absolute freedom” in nature, through a rediscovery of “wildness.”

“A Yankee in Canada” (1853): A travelogue of Thoreau’s 1850 trip to Canada.  He writes much on the differences between Canada and New England, suggesting stark differences between the two civilizations.

We see the continuation of many of the themes in Thoreau’s work from the early 1840s such as the Promethean spirit of man and how to revive it from a civilization of mediocrity and his fascination with wilderness as a locus for the search for human greatness.  We also see his movement into politics as Thoreau moved into the sectional conversation.  Most of his political writing is tied directly or indirectly to the sectional conflicts of the 1840s and 1850s, up to and including his great writings on John Brown, which I will explore in the next post.

If we put “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” next to each other we see mirror image arguments.  While “Walking” is suggesting that the locus of a true freedom is in nature and wildness, “Civil Disobedience” looks for how we can come to terms with civil government.   I would suggest that the libertarian cannot afford to examine just one or the other.  It is not enough to just come to terms with some limited government or struggle against imposed injustices, as essential as those struggles may be.  We also need imagination.  Conversely, imagination and a lifestyle of “true freedom” (perhaps variants of lifestyle anarchism) does not go far enough if it is not also in rebellion against the injustice of civil government.  We cannot ignore that governments exist and commit cruelties.  Remember, Thoreau was relatively immune from the injustices of slavery and the Mexican War (outside of the small tax he was to pay).  He was enjoying a relatively free bachelor life in Concord.  His debate with civil government was his attempt to maximize freedom for others.  This is the shortcoming of lifestyle anarchism, because it can only save the few, the lucky, the most imaginative, or the bravest.

“Walking” opens with: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” (225)  Walking through an untouched landscape is particularly special because it is separated (often by fences) from development, civilization, and private property.  Thoreau is careful to separate freedom from property.  “The landscape is not owned, and the walked enjoys comparative freedom.” (233) We also might see in this essay some of his profound anxiety about the Mexican War.  The Mexican War promised not only to spread slavery to the West, but also civilization.  Thoreau admired the west but hoped it could remain “the Wild.” (239) Thoreau is also, of course, interested in sustaining a world that is suitable for art and creativity.  I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s claim that socialism is essential for a world that can cultivate individualism and artistic expression when I read Thoreau calling for halting the spread of civilization and ensuring the Wild’s sustainability (he does not use this late 21st century term) for the aid of art.  “In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us.  Dulness is but another name for tameness.  It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in “Hamlet” and the “Iliad,” in all the Scripture and Mythologies, not learned in schools, that delights us.” (244)  All is not lost.  Even as domestic animals can “reassert their native rights,” civilization can find its way back to the Wild.  He is only resigned in that for the time being most of us will be “fit subjects for civilization” and only a few will not.

It is that reality that civilization has domesticated most people that makes “Civil Disobedience” such an important essays.  Its inspiration to the methods of countless social movements and radical thinkers in the past century and a half likely makes anything I have to say banal.  Yet, this blog is about the American tradition and anarchism and this is a central text of that intersection so I am obliged to express my thoughts, as banal as they may end up being.  We start with his hope that government govern as little as possible, maximizing the principle of leaving people alone.  This seems unlikely because government will tend to express the will of the majority, and who makes up this majority?  “The mass of men serve the that thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.  They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus.” (205)  Furthermore, that majority will and indeed has established and actively defends unjust laws.  We also have, from the American Revolution (actually from the Magna Carta but Thoreau does not mention that) the right of revolution against unjust governments.  What Thoreau masterfully does here is extend the principle of revolution against unjust governments to revolution against unjust laws.  Voting, which is just a “form of gaming” (208) does not go far enough because it still leaves the judgment to the majority.  The proper challenge to democracy’s unjust laws is a tendency toward greater individualism, and this requires the individual resistance against injustice through open opposition to those laws – not opting out or “non-resistance.”  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” (213)  Liberty is finally rooted in disobedience.  Perhaps it is through such disobedience that we can go from the reality of civil government to the absolute freedom Thoreau pines for in “Walking.”

Well, I reckon this is not a new observation, but I do find that by reading “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” side by side we find ourselves pondering the debate between the activist and the lifestylist.  Where they come together is in an assertion of individualism.  The strongest activism is that which comes out of individual and active resistance to civil government, while the true home of the individual is in “the Wild.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Collected Essays, Part One”: In Search of Greatness

Continuing my adventure through The Library of America, I picked up one of the two volumes covering the works of Henry David Thoreau.  This one collects his essays and poems.  For today I read the first ten essays:


“Aulus Persius Flaccus” (1840). A short essay of criticism on this classical satirist.

“The Service” (1840). An early essay of Thoreau’s on violence, pacifism, resistance, and non-resistance, suggesting we can learn from the military the virtue of bravery.

“Natural History of Massachusetts” (1842).  A sprawling look at the wildlife and flora of Thoreau’s beloved Massachusetts.

“A Walk to Wachusett” (1842).  A description of Thoreau and Henry Fuller’s walk to Princeton Massachusetts.

“Sir Walter Raleigh” (1843).  A look at the heroic life Sir Walter Raleigh and a consideration of the meaning of his life for contemporaries.

“Dark Ages” (1843).  A brief essay suggesting that it is our job to unearth history.  Dark Ages are a product of how much light we shine on them, not how much they give off.  A good description of the foreignness, darkness, and remoteness of the past.

“A Winter Walk” (1843).  On the beauty of the winter in Massachusetts, but more profoundly on the struggle of humanity to survive the winter.

“The Landlord” (1843).  The importance and self-sacrifice of the bartender and inn-keeper.

“Paradise (To Be) Regained” (1843).  A criticism of J. A. Etzler’s The Paradise within the Reach of Men, a technological utopian text.  Thoreau is skeptical about the ability to overcome human limitations through technology alone.

“Homer. Ossian. Chaucer” (1844). More literary criticism, this one looking at three narrative poets.

My first impression was that these works could be divided into two themes: Thoreau’s naturalism and a search for the limit of human potential.  Now I see that there is essentially only one theme for us and that is that search for greatness, for even his naturalist writings have a touch of the Promethean in them.  I believe this search for the projectural life is one of the most important contribution he makes (inadvertently I am sure) to the anarchist tradition.  The other contribution, of course, is his ideas on civil disobedience and non-violent resistance (rather than non-resistance).

I do not see that Thoreau achieves a definition of the projectural life.  In fact, I hope we would not find that.  He does point out some models and archetypes that suggest some of the character and values of the projectural individual.  In “The Service,” he suggests that we can learn from the recruit about how to be a truly creative artist.  The brave man does not strive for quantifiable achievements.  “His bravery deals not so much in resolute action, as healthy and assured rest. . . . He does not present a gleaming edge to ward off harm, for that will oftenest attract the lightening. . . . His greatness is not measurable.” (8)  In contrast, “the coward wants resolution.” (9)  He attacks those silly intellectuals writing their mangum opus, or those politicians seeking the “grand bargain.”  Thoreau prefers to see our struggle in this day.  The projectural person cannot live for the future.  He must act in our time.  “It concerns us rather to be somewhat here present than to leave something behind us; for, if that were to be considered, it is never the deed men praise, but some marble or canvass which  are only a staging to the real work.  the hugest and most effective deed may have no sensible result at all on earth, but may paint itself in the heavens with new stars and constellations.” (18)

His nature writings show Thoreau to be not an early primitivist, but rather someone who sees nature as inspiring great deeds.  “Nature has taken more care than the fondest parent for the education and refinement of her children.” (36)  “Nature is mythical and mystical always, and works with the license and extravagance of genius.” (37)  Even the simple act of hiking shows how he thinks interaction with nature can only improve civilization.  “The mountain chain determines many things for the statesman and philosopher.  The improvements of civilization rather creep along its sides than cross its summit.  How often is it a barrier to prejudice and fanaticism?  In passing over these heights of land, through their thin atmosphere, the follies of their plain are refined and purified. . .it is only the hardy mountain plant that creeps quite over the ridge, and descends into the valley below.” (53–54).

Sir Walter Raleigh may strike us as a strange model for greatness, give what we know about the history of European empire in the New World, but Thoreau was convinced that the American civilization was being suffocated by reformism and cowardice.  But, he points out, we do not dream as children of being reformers, New Dealers, tinkerers on a sinking ship.  “All fair action is the product of enthusiasm, and nature herself does nothing in the prose mood.  We would fain witness a heroism which is literally illustrious, whose daily life is of the stuff of which our dreams are made–so that the world shall regard less what it does than how it does it, and its actions unsettle the common standards, and have a right to be done, however wrong they may be to the moralist.” (88)

In “A Winter Walk” we start with a long description scenery, flora, and fauna of Massachusetts in winter, but he ends with a description of the Promethean struggle for survival of the wintering farmer.  To survive the winter requires almost, he suggests, a different religion.  “The good Hebrew revelation takes no cognizance of all this cheerful snow.  Is there no religion for the temperate and frigid zone?” (106)  He describes the snow drifts as “imprisoning” and how the farmer’s destiny is for three months “wrapped in furs.”  It is in the victory over this that the farmer’s greatest achievement is reached.

I should end here for today with his essay “Paradise (To Be) Regained.”  In the 19th century virtually all utopian thinkers and writers saw technology as the key to human liberation.   This guy J. A. Etzler certainly seems to be one of these writers, looking for a world without labor as the key to human happiness and universal freedom.  Like Kropotkin would later do, Etzler looks to contemporary trends in science and technology and predicts that the end of drudgery and post-scarcity is just around the corner.  Etzler believed the harnessing of water power would be the key.  Thoreau is actually not that critical of these goals and the schema Etzler lays out.  His major argument against the book is in Etzler’s failure to account for the need of “moral progress” first.  “Suppose we could compare the moral with the physical, and say how many horse-power the force of love, for instance, blowing on every square foot of a man’s soul, would equal.”  (137)  While I agree that it would  be wrong to see technology as a silver bullet to all social problems and assume everything can be quantified, I cannot help not notice that Thoreau’s critique is not dissimilar from many of the most pedestrian, common, and banal attack on utopian thought.   If we constantly wait to act until “humans are ready for utopia” we will certainly never achieve utopia.



Lafcadio Hearn, “Selected Journalism” (1875–1886)

I have been working rather leisurely through this volume of Lafcadio Hearn’s writings.  I appreciated his beautiful prose, his unconventional life, and his focus on subjects often neglected in travel writing.  While he lived to be 54, he spend only around twenty years in the United States.  His un-Americanism was driven home to him in 1903, the year before his death, when Tokyo Imperial University slashed his pay because he was no longer a “foreigner.”  [Why foreigners deserve more for the same work is a question that is still relevant in East Asia, by the way.  A Taiwanese college graduate, highly skilled, might make a starting wage around half of what a unskilled, illiterate (in the local language), American college graduate can make teaching ESL.  They work fewer hours and often do not need to even put in time in curriculum development.  This is not strictly speaking the Westerner-in-Taiwan’s fault, but it is odious enough to convince me that I should avoid teaching ESL, at least until starvation becomes a real threat.  But, if I took such a job, I would likely be over-paid and under-utilized.]  Hearn probably did not find a real home until Japan, although Martinique was attractive to him.

Hearn in Japan

Hearn in Japan

His American journalism reflected his mobile life.  He was always interested in criminals, the floating underclass, and those whose work required movement.  Like the people he wrote about, Hearn openly broke both the law and U.S. social standards with his marriage to a black woman, he often lived at the edge of poverty, and moved around so often he was often rootless.  I am reminded of Herman Melville’s hero in Omoo, who could never be satisfied with his job and “deserted” as a way to find a better life.  Without his Japanese writings (will The Library of America publish them?), I cannot say for sure what it was about Japan that made him finally settle there.  From the biographical notes in this volume, I see that he was upset with Japanese modernization, the destruction of Japan’s natural environment, and their borrowing of what he saw as disgusting Western institutions.  At the time that this journalism was produced, Hearn was in his mobile phase.

There are two periods documented in this volume.  The first is 1875-1877, while Hearn worked in Cincinnati.  He wrote about the occult, ghosts, the lives of stevedores and “roustabouts,” the girls that keep these “roustabouts” company, and famously the botched and horrifying execution of James Murphy in 1875.  What these stories have in common is that they tell the story of the city from the margins.  Now, I do not know how common this was in 1870s journalism.  I do know from Michael Denning’s work that such heroes frequented dime novels of that era.  I will assume Hearn is not unique in this interest.  His uniqueness and brilliance comes from how vibrant and real his descriptions of these people area, whether marginalized workers, condemned prisoners facing their death, or American ghost stories.

The remaining articles – some of them still written for Cincinnati newspapers – cover his time in New Orleans from 1877-1886, before he takes off for the Caribbean.  We see here, the beginning of his interest in the greater Caribbean.  He believed that New Orleans was at the “gates of the tropics.”  As with everywhere else he lived, he relished New Orleans working class life, its diversity, its often strange folklore and history, and its celebration of Carnival.  These stories cover much of the same ground as does “Martinique Sketches,” which only tells us that perhaps he is correct that New Orleans was the gate to the Caribbean, or at the very least part of the same historical and cultural realm.

We can only hope that The Library of America will publish his writings from Japan so I can revisit this fascinating writer.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Youma: The Story of a West-Indian Slave” (1890): The Color Line and Slave Resistance in the West Indies

In Youma, Lafcadio Hearn is exploring the affect of the color-line on the sustaining and collapse of West Indian slavery.  The legacy of slavery, particularly the complex racial history of the island and the struggle over what to do with whites who remained, was a focus of much of Hearn’s writings on the Caribbean.  He was concerned that the hostility over slavery would lead to an end to the vibrant mult-racial culture in the islands.  Through this short novel, Hearn shows us how deeply intimate the black and white world were intertwined under slavery.  Through this, he is able to pose a question that remains relevant to us today.  How is it possible to resist a system the system which is responsible for our entire identity and life, even if that system is objectively odious.  As we search for (and often fail to find) alternatives to the banality of late capitalism, it is useful to remember how hard the search for alternatives has been for people in the past.

Youma begins with a short essay on the figure of the da, in the colonial French West Indies.  “For the Creole child had two mothers: the aristocratic white mother who have him birth’ the dark bond-mother who gave him all care,– who nursed him, bathed him, taught him to speak the soft and musical speech of slaves, took him out of her arms to show him the beautiful tropic world, told him wonderful folk-stories of evenings, lulled him to sleep, attended to his every possible want by day or by night.” (545)  These nurses would often raise children for more than one generation, and while “childish,” the das were one of the most important members of the white, slave-owning family in the Caribbean colonies.

One historical note on Martinique.  While Saint-Domingue saw the end of slavery through a violent revolution, for a time, abolition was imposed on the entire French empire.  This did not affect Martinique because of the arrival of the British.  In addition, while Saint-Domingue got its independence and could enforce abolition, Martinique remained (after some back and forth with Britain) in the French empire, which turned back some of the most radical experiments of the Revolution, including the extension of the “rights of man” to slaves.  Like in Haiti, however, slavery would end as the result of a slave uprising, it just took half a century longer.  The context of Youma is this slave revolt.

Youma “was a pet slave” and was raised with the white children.  The death of her childhood playmate Aimee, proves to the reader that Youma was emotionally affiliated with the white ruling class.  Alongside Hearn’s description of Youman’s experience of slavery, you are introduced to the rest of the plantation.  Hearn describes a culture of work and play.  It is a nostalgic account but not without its own brutal realities.  For example, Hearn shows how at the end of everyday the slaves had to kneel before the overseers and recite a prayer.

The plot centers on Youma’s courtship marriage to Gabriel, a field slave from another plantation.  The tension between her loyalties is immediately put on display.  “The commandeur [Gabriel] was certainly one of the finest physical men of his race, — young, industrious, intelligent; but he would make a rough mate indeed for a girl brought up as Youma had been.  She was also a slave, without education; but she had received a domestic training that gave her a marked superiority above her class, and she had moral qualities more delicate by far then those of Gabriel . . . Above all, she has been the companion of Aimee’s childhood, and afterwards her friend rather than her servant.” (572)  Despite these reservations, Youma and Gabriel marry.


It is not long before Gabriel hatches a plan to escape the island with his wife.  Despite his solid plans and clear vision for the future (“He spoke of his love for her, — of the life they might live together, — of liberty and he imagined it, — of their children who would be free”), Youma is unable to abandon the “child of Madame Desrivieres.”  Youma turns her back on her husband’s plan.

What makes the third act of this novel interesting is that is forces a resolution to this dilemma.  Clearly Youma cannot instigate it (being trapped by her loyalty to her owners).  Instead, the leadership that forces the resolution comes from the people who had spend the entire novel in the background, the rank and file plantation slaves.  The final pages of the novel are a brilliant description of the disorder, the violence, the fires, and vengeance of the revolt.  What the mob forces, of course, is the acceptance of Enlightenment principles of equality and justice.  “Yet the Governor knew the city was at the mercy of a negro mob,–knew the white population in peril of massacre.  The order seemed incredible to those who read it with their eyes; — it remains one of the stupefying facts of French colonial history, — one of the many, not of the few, which appear to justify the white Creole’s undying hate of Republicanism.” (607)  At the very least, this is a possible response to those who think the revolt, or the mob action, is incapable of affecting change toward greater freedom.

Image is from Haiti, I believe, but it shows the vengeance Hearn tries to express in the final pages.

Image is from Haiti, I believe, but it shows the vengeance Hearn tries to express in the final pages.