H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 2

The second half of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series carries on topically exploring issues as diverse as the application of the work ethic to artists to Prohibition. The articles continue Mencken’s assault on American conformity and democracy, but they are so wide-ranging that it starts to really seem that he is onto something. He even manages what can be seen as a critique of capitalism. However, he is not really opposed to it as exploitation of working people. The problem with capitalism and capitalists is that they are driven to banality by the pursuit of wealth (something Mencken does not really respect, although he understands it). That it also seems to drive workers toward the fad of socialism does not help matters. His criticism of capitalism (or at times state power) is derived from what he sees as the same ill of democracy. It forces most of us to lazy thoughts and conformity. The two most important essays in this volume after “The National Letters” are his explorations of Prohibition and marriage.

But let us start with “The Divine Afflatus,” which is mostly a criticism of the application of the work ethic to art. He questions the work of a journalist named Chesterton, for his argument that creative inspiration does not exist and that creativity is largely a function of how hard an artist works. Mencken relies that inspiration is variable and contextual and simply cannot be confined to a simple formula such as “write one thousand words a day.” At the end, he states his fear that the artist will become a manufacturer. As he probably well knew, many writers were already essentially manufacturers churning out stories for pulp magazines at dizzying rates.

“Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue” is a brief questioning of the value of altruism. It is not some proto-Ayn Rand. Just an investigation about why people are so willing to do favors for others that seem to provide no pleasure to the favor giver and are based on lies. (Think of the professor trying to write nice things about an atrocious student essay.)
“The Allied Arts” is about music, painting, and stage. If you read Mencken you know he often has music in his mind. He cannot help himself but bring Beethoven or Wagner into the discussion. In fact, these seem to be his model of the great artists. His general thesis in “The Allied Arts” is that the vast majority of human beings simply cannot appreciate music and should not try. He is glad that rich people fund music but doubt that they understand it at all. He questions the gaudiness of the visual components of opera. As with literature, “the allied arts” are challenged by the same tendency toward mediocrity, stage is perhaps the most susceptible.

“The Cult of Hope” and “The Dry Millennium” are about reform, in particular Prohibition. The first essay is a warning against allowing criticism to be taken in by reform efforts. We have seen this before when Mencken expressed discomfort at criticism or literature becoming essentially an adjunct to political efforts. He praises Havelock Ellis for having the honesty to point out that no prostitute was more dangerous to a community than a vice squad. This is something contemporary Americans know well as they are finally approaching sanity on the “war on drugs.”

“The Dry Millennium” is a brilliant and funny assault on Prohibition, which was just being enacted. He rightly argued that it would be futile to abolish the consumption and production of alcohol, but more troubling was Mencken’s conviction that the masses would more or less embrace Prohibition. None of the general strikes by working people emerged in response to Prohibition. While the masses will eat up the reform fad, any “civilized” people will stay in Europe. Women will embrace it because it means their husbands will stay at home, even if it means the lubricating effect of alcohol on relationships will be muted for a while. For Mencken, the problem with Prohibition is that it will simply exacerbate the worst characteristics of Americans.

“Appendix on a Tender Theme,” the final essay in Prejudices: Second Series, is about marriage and love. It starts with an anatomy of a relationship from romance, to the breaking of the spell, to habit. Yet, there is something promising in relationships and in love, something that promises to liberate people. Love and sex and relationships are dangerous and not at all boring or banal, despite the constant efforts of the social hygiene folks to reduce marriage to a science. The problem comes with the later phase of the relationship, when it descents into repetition and habit. There is no room for creativity and art in this relationship. He mentions the struggles Wagner had with creativity while married to Minna Planer. Thus there is something antithetical to the artist and marriage. Mencken speaks in gendered terms here (the artist is always a man; the mental block always a marriage to a woman), but we can universalize the concept, given any pairing of a creative person with a person who thinks marriage is best built with bricks and bars.

The day is saved, as every one knows, by the powerful effects of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust is overcome in daily life—the process whereby one may cease to be disgusted by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time one scarcely suffers at all. Thus a man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets use to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door, and vice versa. I think that woman, in this direction, have the harder row to hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sensitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. (290)

We have to (as usual) try to get beyond the sexist language to see the heart of the matter. Marriage endures because we are slavish and cowardly and easily seduced by routine. Our art sucks for the same reason.

H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 1

Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series is dominated by his masterpiece essay “The National Letters.” For readers of the first volume of Prejudices, there is nothing here unexpected. For much of the volume, Mencken sets aside the literary criticism and begins making broader social and political commentary. Mencken rests his analysis of these other subjects on the same general theory: America is a cultural wasteland of conformity and stupidity. However, by moving toward an analysis of democracy (as in his reading of Prohibition) and of institutions (as in his reading on marriage), we start to see a diagnosis that may lead to a cure. This post, however, will focus on the first three essays in the “second series,” considering respectively the history of American letters, Roosevelt’s political career, and the South.


“The National Letters” begins with the vision of Emerson and Whitman of creating a true American literature. Whether inspired by the North American environment and climate or its political distinctions, nineteenth century writers believed that it was possible to break off the burden of Europe. This is dangerous from the beginning. For Mencken, the lack of a national aristocracy was part of the problem facing American culture. This is not praise for wealth of elitism. Mencken tended to think that the American capitalist class led the pack in terms of banality and conformity. What the aristocracy had—for better or for worse—was access to wealth that could lead to an independent life. Unlike American politicians, the aristocrats did not need to care what the majority thought. Unlike the American capitalist class, they did not need to worry about fashion or trends. They could create (or at least support people who could create). Mencken often uses the term “aristocracy.” He does not really seem to mean a landed class of heredity nobility, but rather a class with the capacity of intellectual autonomy. The American artists who come through democracy with a genuine creativity do so with great difficulty and may emerge harder for it, but it is nevertheless a rare thing.

So let us come right out and say it. Mencken’s position, if correct, is the best aesthetic argument for something like a basic income. Oscar Wilde stated it directly in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. He argued that under socialism, people will be freed from the mundane emotional burdens from which charity arises. It seems that point is that creative people will not need to spend their time (1) at mundane jobs, (2) producing works that satisfy the demands of the market, (3) get bogged down in political arguments that turn art into polemics, and (4) worry about meeting the needs of spouses, children, parents, and fellow citizens. We could all become aristocrats, each potentially independent. Obviously Mencken does not argue this (at least not in the first two volumes of Prejudices), but I think his essays lead us to a similar position as Wilde’s.

The bulk of “The National Letters” zips through the different strata of American culture. The vision of the prophets is unfulfilled. Puritanism ensured that New England’s soil would be sour for generations. The proclaimed rebel writers of Greenwich Village are trendy and vapid. Little needs to be said of the voluminous nonsense coming out of popular magazines, films, and novels. Of the Saturday Evening Post, Mencken writes: “Appealing primarily to the great masses of right thinking and unintelligent Americans, it must necessarily print a great deal of preposterous tosh.” (169) Anything original (warming my heart he mentioned Frank Norris’ Vandover and the Brute), seems instantly foreign. The problem is that America lacks a class of people who are materially and intellectual capable of being independent (that lacking of an aristocracy stuff). This is not to say that aristocracy is necessarily good, but that democracy, by crushing aristocracy, replaced it with nothing that could sustain a creative class, a cultural creativity and honesty that could match its political vision. The solution is not a return to European social structures, but a raising of “the mob” to “intellectual autonomy.” (He sees some hope in “purging”
the American plutocracy as well, but they are in general as ridiculous as the masses, and perhaps more so because they do not have the excuse of poverty.) In the end, Mencken rejects any solution, but reminds his readers that creativity is born in rebellion against the nation, whatever those values may be. Democracy is not the problem so much as democracy being a national creed and club used to beat down dissent.

Looking at this diagnosis of American arts from the context of collections like The Library of America or even a university anthology, it is hard to sometimes take seriously. What about Twain? What about Norris? These are authors Mencken praises. What is important to remember is that Mencken was not looking at American letters of the period the way we do: as a serious of gems preserved and studied generation upon generation. He was surrounded by piles of garbage. The everyday nonsense published by the press. But when he compares American letters to other countries he is not comparing the gems. He is comparing the highlights of the European tradition with the piles of refuse that cluttered his mental landscape. So, I am not sure Mencken is entirely fair. He uses Beethoven and Wagner as example of the greatness of German art and Nietzsche as evidence of originality of thought without perhaps realizing that for every Beethoven there were dozens of court charlatans. Anyway, enough on “The National Letters.”

In Theodore Roosevelt, Mencken saw the promise of an innovative political thinker corrupted and mislead by democracy. In a sense, Roosevelt was a symptom of the problem facing America culture. He was a believer in good government and had more in common with a turn-of-the-century European statebulider than the other “progressive” of the era, Woodrow Wilson. But he had to embrace the language and style of mob politics.

Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentarium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts. He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of a Napoleonic of Ludendorffian pattern—a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights. (221–222)


Mencken goes on to describe Roosevelt less as an autocrat and more of a craftsman of governance. But as he had to work with what Mencken called the “third-rate” parts of the American people, there is not much he could do, except win the popular victories and fall just short of greatness. When the other option was the moralism and naivity of Wilson, maybe Mencken was onto something. Has the United States had a president since Johnson that really understood how to use power, not just how to acquire it?

“The Sahara of the Bozart,” Mencken’s condemnation of the cultural wasteland of the South, if an entertaining read, but ultimately mean-spirited and of not very much use. Of the off-putting characteristics of this essay, the most important is his apparent preference to the pre-Civil War South to the contemporary one. I do not think this is rooted in racism. Mencken was active against lynching and seemed to have nothing but contempt for the white racists who ran the South in his day. Instead he seems to assume that the Old South must have had more culture the “New South.” This is probably due to the same myopia that allows him to see the trash heap of American letters, but just barely make out bright stars across the Atlantic. The post-Civil War South created more talented writers, white and black, than the Old South. Mencken surveys the south and wonders why he cannot see symphony orchestras, operas, writers. I take him on his word that opera houses did not exist in the South (they did not in my hometown either, but we had phonographs). Of course, he does not even consider blues. He is apparently unaware—or disinterred in—black writers. To make matters worse, the entire article is plagued with discussions of tainted blood lines and the like. Maybe he just meant “blood” as a metaphor for creativity. That makes this more difficult to interpret: “It is highly probably that some of the worst blood of western Europe flows in the veins of the southern poor whites, nor poor no longer.”

Oh well, I think he got this one wrong.

Washington Irving, “Salmagundi” (1807–1808)

My friend then proceeded to inform me that for some time before, and during the continuance of an election, there was a most delectable courtship or intrigue, carried on between the great bashaws, and mother mob. That mother mob generally preferred the attentions of the rabble, or of fellows of her own stamp, but would sometimes condescend to be treated to a feasting, or any thing of that kind, at the bashaw’s expense. (208)


Salmagundi was a short-lived periodical written by Washington Irving with the help of his brother. Much like the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, the Salmagundi was a cooperative effort between the Irving brothers. The articles in each issue are extremely varied, including poetry, stories, commentary by the editor “Launcelot Langstaff” or the Captain of a Ketch, “Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan,” or other sketches and stories. Many of these characters are drawn from Irving’s life and social circle. In spirit they remind the reader of the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle in that they are a reflection of a culture coming to know democracy and eager to debate the profound, the serious, and the mundane within the commons. As much as the Federalist Papers, the Salmagundi is a product of the American Revolution, and the emerging unique American political and cultural identity. It should be more commonly studied, in part because reading them is so pleasurable.

The completed Salmagundi consists of twenty issues, published over a little over a year (January 24, 1807 to January 25, 1808). They are all divided into a few parts and each total around 15 pages each (I am not sure how much each issue would have been in the original type). They were meant to be read in short bits, probably in the company of others or in a public space. The “public use of reason” fills up every page. They are essentially political documents, posing as social satire.


Most issues open with commentary by Launcelot Langstaff, introducing the characters that have submitted articles and occasionally talking about his encounters with various denizens of the city, focusing on their conversations about politics and social life. We can notice a few things about these commentaries. First, Langstaff is interested in publicizing private conversations, although they are fictional, they seem to be rooted in real experiences and considerations of the day. In the age of universal surveillance, much has been said about the importance of privacy and the unjust interference into private lives. On the other side of the question is the necessity of a vibrant public life that seems to undermine privacy for the public good. We accept this for public figures. Their affairs and hypocrisy are considered socially relevant in a democratic society. Does this not privilege those leaders? Suggesting that they are more important to a democracy than the average person. I wonder if there is a larger argument to be had about the role of the privacy, the commons, and public discourse. Better to have your private life exposed than to lose the commons of public discourse.

As a piece of evidence that that authors of the Salmagundi hold no private thoughts sacred, consider the February 24, 1807 edition, which has at its core the exposure and publication (without consent it seems) of the private travelogue of one Jeremy Cockloft, the Younger. The only justification for this invasion of his privacy is that the notes “may not prove uninteresting to my readers.” (94) This journal is exposed with the same irreverence as the day-to-day oddities of the New York Assembly Hall. Despite saying later that “whether we write, or not write, to be none of the public’s business,” the authors are shameless in putting nearly everything they can into the public record. (189) Mustapha Rub-a-Dub makes a comment in one of his letters arguing that all people want their place in the sun, if only for a moment. As a text, the Salmagundi suggest that this was possible in a democratic society.

One of the most memorable figures in the Salmagundi is Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan, who befriended Langstaff while he visited America. He wrote letters back to Tripoli, but they were not sent off before being translated by Will Wizard (another contributor to the Salmagundi), who knows all languages. The early United States was no stranger to European travelers commenting on the new republic and its absurdities. Rub-a-Dub’s comments seem to build on these other Old World observations of the United States. He serves to ridicule American government systems, pomposity, and disorderly society. It is hard for an American not to feel proud at his comments about American women “boxing the ears” of their husbands or the order from below created by the militias. Here is his conclusion on the military: “Such, my friend, is the gigantic genius of this nation, and its faculty of swelling up nothings into importance. Our bashaw of Tripoli, will review his troops of some thousands, by an early hour in the morning. Here a review of six hundred men is made the might work of a day! With us a bashaw of two tails is never appointed to a command of less than ten thousand men; but here we behold every grade from the bashaw, down to the drum-major, in a force of less than one tenth of the number. By the beard of Mahomet, but every thing here is indeed on a great scale.” (120)

Yet for all the mockery and fun and satire of the Salmagundi it a celebration of a young republic and the democracy that was being lived out on the streets and public spaces. It also broached serious political and international questions such as women’s rights, suffrage, impressment at the seas, government corruption, and even social class.

Washington Irving, “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle Gent.” (1802–1803)

There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful in the connexion. The lady positively denies that any thing of the king is to happen; will laugh at her intended husband, and even lays bets against eh event, the very day before it is to take place. They sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their manoeuvers. (7)

To get my feet wet with Washington Irving, I will start small, with the nine satirical letters of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” published in The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803. As I understand it, they were edited by Irving’s brother who must have known that the content was satire, but they were more ambiguously presented to the audience. In this way, the political and social satire of these letters is more advanced than much of the satire we see today, which is satire on its face and presented in clearly satirical venues (Comedy Central, for instance). I think it would be nice if the many daily newspapers printed a bit more subtly exposed satire than much of the drivel on the lifestyle pages.

By this point in this project, I reckon I am incapable of not seeing anarchist tensions in the bulk of American prose. In these letters, it comes across as an a type of vernacular conflict between the old and the new, set primarily in the theatres but also in other arenas of the American commons. Accounts such as these certainly make me pine for the vibrant commons of the past. While I often find “Johnathan Oldstyle” hopelessly old-fashioned (or course that is Irving’s intention), I wonder if I am not part of this generation’s “Oldstyles” At least in Irving’s day they could struggle about the proper way to present oneself when engaged in the public sphere or the content of its discourse. Today we lack much of a public square at all, being reduced to the scraps of Internet memes and the faux public space of contemporary coffee shops. In both the macro and the content, the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle are of the public. Whether we take them seriously or not, we read them awakened to the richness of the vernacular and contested public sphere.

Listen to Oldstyle complain of the popular fashions and to his ears vulgar flirting among the youth.

But now, our youths no longer aim at the character of pretty gentlemen: their greatest ambition is to be called lazy dogs—careless fellows—etc. etc. Dressed up in the mammoth style, our buck saunters into the ball-room in a surtout hat under arm, cane in hand; strolls round with the most vacant air; stops abruptly before such lady as he may choose to honor with his attention; entertains her with the common slang of the day, collected from the conversation of hostlers, footmen, porters, etc. until his string of smart sayings is run out, and then lounges off, to entertain some other fair one with the same unintelligible jargon. (6)

The rich levels of vernacular conversation are striking to me. The origin of vernacular conversation among the “pretty gentlemen” is learned from the underclass and carried into the ballrooms with no small degree of pomp to be spread to the ears of young women. Quite wonderful actually.

Most of the letters deal directly with the theatre, one of the most important public institutions for white men of early America. It is important to note that the content of the performance was deemed relevant to readers and author alike. They were, in other words, part of the public conversation. More memorable, however, is Oldstyle description of the audiences, fully engaged in the public conversation and putting on display their own styles for public consumption. They are as much a part of the show as the people on the stage.

I am attracted not to any particular comment or observation of Oldstyle as much as I am fascinated by the document itself, which imagines (or documents…for us it can only be imagination) a more vibrant, creative, and engaged relationship with the commons.

NOTE: I am considering taking this blog in a new direction. I feel I am close to a general interpretation of American letters from an anarchist perspective. Plus, I am quickly running out of Library of America volumes to analyze. (I live in Taiwan and lack access to the libraries that may solve this problem.) I would like to continue to do what I can with the canon, but also look more broadly at questions of American character in other areas of life, especially history. Maybe take a closer look at American anarchists as well. I also need to finish my various Philip K. Dick projects. We will see what the future will bring.

James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933): Part Two

Very few, even among the most intelligent Negroes, could find a tenable position on which to base a stand for social among the other equalities demanded. When confronted by the question, they were forced by what they felt to be self-respect, to refrain from taking such a stand. As a matter of truth, self-respect demands that no mad admit, even tacitly, that he is unfit to associate with any of his fellow men (and that is aside from whether he wishes to associate with them or not). In the South, policy exacts that any pleas made by a Negro—or by a white man, for that matter—for fair treatment to the race, shall be predicated upon a disavowal of “social equality.” (475)

In the second half of James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way, we are first introduced to his work as United States consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He got these positions through the aid of Booker T. Washington, to whom he reported on the conditions of blacks in Latin America. He is not too happy with this position due to health problems and anxiety about the US involvement in Latin America. Johnson does document the revolution in Nicaragua, which the US government supported. These were actually good times. The port he was stationed at was small and uninteresting, except when the US naval ships arrived in port, which created a “social flurry” for Johnson and his wife. As a diligent consul, he worked hard to defend and expand US commercial interests as well. He had become an agent of empire.

At the end of this section of the autobiography, Johnson tries to come to terms with the US role in Latin America. He argues that empire was about more than simply defending investments, concessions, or securing debt obligations, but is rather part of a larger strategy (going back to the early nineteenth century) to protect and secure order and commerce through Central America and the Caribbean. To me these sounds to be true enough, except that the goal of smooth and peaceful trade through Central America seems to imply the access necessary to collect on those debts and obligations. I will generally agree that the major goal of empire in the modern world is the imposition of order on the fundamental “anarchy” of everyday life. This battle has been waged by governments, missionaries, capital and the other agents of empire. By 1915, he is clearly on the anti-imperialist side of things, arguing that: “For the seizure of an independence nation [Haiti], we offered the stock justifications: protection of American lives and American interests, and the establishment and maintenance of internal order. Had all these reasons been well founded, they would not have constituted justification for the seizure of a sovereign state at peace with us.” (515)

The final part of Along This Way picks up with Johnson’s return to full-time residency in the United States and his growing involvement in the civil rights movement of the day. He joined the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People and began writing editorials for the New York Age. He also took the time to continue his writing as a lyricist and develop his slowly emerging fame as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (a novel he wrote while Johnson was a US consul). His politics involved the dilemma addressed in the quote opening this post. How to move toward arguments for social equality, and indeed even defining what that might mean. Much of this work involved breaking away from the “Tuskegee Idea” of Booker T. Washington, which set social equality as an unachievable or nebulous goal. But he did take one important idea from Washington, namely that “hammering away at white America” was not enough. “I felt convinced that it would be necessary to awaken black America, awaken it to a sense of its rights and to a determination to hold fast to such as it possessed and to seek in every orderly way possible to secure all others to which it was entitled. I realized that, regardless of what might be done for black America, the ultimate and vital part of the work would have to be done by black America itself; and that to do that work black America needed an intelligent program.” (479) This seems to be an important principle predicated on direct action.

James Weldon Johnson, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1912)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was written in 1912, at a time when race relations could not have been worse in post-Civil War America. Jim Crow had been fully established throughout the South by then, lynching was commonplace, and the Chicago Race Riots would be only a few years away. As any history student knows there were two major responses to this. Booker T. Washington argued for the reduction of racial tensions through the ending of agitation for social equality, while building up the wealth and skills of the black working class. W. E. B. Du Bois wanted to fight at that moment for full social and legal equality, resting his arguments on a clear demonstration of intellectual equality. James Weldon Johnson was of the Du Bois camp. He wrote for The Crisis, edited his own newspapers in support of civil rights, and argued for social equality. At the same time, his first novel gives a third set of strategies, which were much more common and maybe—in the final analysis—more historically significant. These made up the uncountable day to day acts of resistance, interracial cooperation and community, and outright neglect of the often unwritten codes of Jim Crow. The narrator of the novel chooses one of these strategies in the end, that of “passing.” (See my posts on Charles Chesnutt for more on this.) This constituted a form of opting out. Not opting out of being black, but a refusal to accept the social laws imposed on him. That only a few could embrace this strategy does not really matter. As the novel shows there were plenty of other coping and evasion strategies.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as most of you probably know—follows the early life of a light-skinned African-American, who was raised without even a full awareness that he was black, until a teacher made this clear to him in a classroom exercise. From there, his story reads a bit like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. The narrator is talented and eager to go to college, saving up enough money for two years of college in Atlanta. Once his money is stolen by a Pullman sleeping car porter, he gives up his plans and his narrative diverges from Washington’s. He takes a job rolling cigarettes, eventually becoming the “reader” in the factory. His job was to read the news and novels to the workers. He later moves north to get involved in the ragtime culture of the city, befriending a white “millionaire” who becomes his benefactor. After witnessing the murder of a white woman by a jealous lover in the club he was working, he goes to Europe with his benefactor. After a while he feels a type of Jim Crow relationship between the two of them and he decides to return to the United States. There he witnesses a lynching, which convinces him to being passing as white. He meets a white woman and begins a relationship. It is revealed that he is passing (apparently with a subtle use of words), but she comes to terms with it and they proceed to have a happy life together.


As the final chapter shows, the narrator did not choose to pass because he felt ashamed of being black. He only felt that in the context of his lover discovering that he was passing, and then it was only temporary.

I felt her hand grow cold, and when I looked up she was gazing at me with a wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen. Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black and thick-featured and crimp-haired. She appeared to have comprehended what I said. [. . .] When I got into the street I felt very much as I did the night after meeting my father and sister at the opera in Paris, even a similar desperate inclination to get drunk; but my self-control was stronger. This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at being colored, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins, and wished that I were really white. (123)

The point being, it seems, is that the narrator was passing in order to simply evade the grotesque inequalities of American racism. My guess is that this was Johnson’s answer to arguments made by whites that passing was either impossible or the result of blacks feeling ashamed.


What was most memorable to me in this novel was the rich descriptions of everyday life among the working and non-working African-American poor. In the cigar factories we see a rich cultural life carried on informally by the “readers.” The ragtime clubs and bars of New York City created spaces for interracial cooperation in seeking out pleasure. I suppose we often make too little of this as an authentic survival strategy. But as part of the rich texture of everyday life, pleasure seeking must be seen as a crucial element of the challenge to racism. These clubs may have done more to break down the barriers of racism than all the propaganda newspapers. As we see below, there were not entirely all well-meaning. Some it seems sought to profit from mocking blacks, but even so shows the integration of everyday life was possible and I think should be looked at as part of the struggle.

Beside the people I have just been describing there was at the place every night one or two parties of white people, men and women, who were out sight-seeing, or slumming. They generally came in cabs; some of them would stay only for a few minutes, while others sometimes stayed until morning. There was also another set of white people who came frequently; it was made up of variety performers and others to delineated darky characters; they came to get their imitations first hand from the Negro entertainer they saw there. There was still another set of white patrons composed of women; these were not occasional visitors, but five or six of them were regular habitues. (66)

The Pullman sleeping car porter suggests yet another survival strategy composed of committing petty crimes, in this case victimizing black travelers as they moved in great numbers between the northern cities and the South on the railroads.

One more part of this book is important for anarchists to consider. It is easy to see in the porter’s actions reason to mistrust each other and see the difficulty of solidarity, but the gambling halls that the narrator visited early in the story paint another picture, that of a sort of baseline communism. When the narrator won, the social pressure to share his winnings was overwhelming. By the end of the night he had little of winnings left. Most had been given out in the forms of drinks or covering others bets. While it seems he was taken advantage of by a room full of his peers, another analysis of this could be that you see the customers at the gambling den forming a collective socializing both profits and losses. In that system no one (except maybe the gambling hall) will come out rich, everyone will get an enjoyable evening and no one will entirely lose their shirt.

In my final judgment, I will say that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still about the nature of the decision to being passing—a common theme in Harlem Renaissance literature—but it is also paints a rich picture of social life among the excluded.

Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)


Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)


Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.