Henry Bibb: “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb” (1849)

A slave marrying to law, is a thing unknown in the history of American Slavery. And be it known to the disgrace of our country that every slaveholder, who is the keeper of a number of slaves of both sexes, is also the keeper of a house of houses of ill-fame. Licentious white men, can and do, enter at night or day the lodging places of slaves; break up the bonds of affection in families; destroy all their domestic and social union for life; and the laws of the country afford them no protection. (455)

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Henry Bibb lived a tragically short life, filled with personal frustrations and failures. He escaped slavery twice. After the first escape he was recaptured and sold back into slavery. When he returned South yet again, it was to find his wife, who had become the mistress of her master. He renounced her and remarried someone else before beginning abolitionist work in Canada after the Fugitive Slave Law made his stay in the United States problematic. Unlike many of the authors of the antebellum slave narratives, Bibb never saw the end of slavery in North America. Let me just stop here and mention that in the first three of the antebellum slave narratives published in this book (Douglass, Brown, and Bibbs) sexual violence plays a key role. This strongly suggests that it was universal or near universal. Slavery in the United States simply provided too many opportunities for sexual violence without any contravening power. American slavery was—among other things—systematic and institutionalized rape.

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I have never read Bibb’s narrative before coming across it in this collection, but I was immediately struck at how rich a description he gives of what it is like to be a slave. What other former slaves hinted at, Bibb describes with brutal clarity. What others simply neglect or did not experience, Bibb articulates. A good example of this is his clarity about what it was like to be an enslaved man with a wife, how that affected his decisions, and the bittersweet result of his getting sold to his wife’s planation. While he got to see his wife, Malinda, more often, he also had to experience her degradation and the violence of the system inflicted on her while he was powerless to stop it. Another example of this is his quite vivid and interesting descriptions of superstitions among slaves, including one charm Bibb purchased to protect himself from punishment (and no, it did not work).

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Bibb was apparently under great pressure to defend the truth of his claims because the book’s preface includes a dozen testimonials from various people who knew Bibb, clarifying the truth of his claims (one of these is from the master he ran away from). The fact that he had to do this, reeks of racism suggesting that only that which can be confirmed by white people can be considered true.

Freedom was never far from Bibb’s mind. Even his decision to marry was burdened by his realization that by marrying he would more likely bind himself to his status as a slave. Running away as a married man troubled him deeply. “I was to put into operation my former resolution, which was to bolt for Liberty or consent to die a Slave. I acted upon the former, although I confess it to be one of the most self-denying acts of my whole life, to take leave of an affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure, with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes as she bid me a long farewell. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to suppress my feelings while taking leave of my little family.” (460) While he escaped that time, he returned to fetch his family and fell back into slavery.

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Chapter seven and eight is particularly notable for Bibb’s description of institutions of power used to maintain slavery in the South. These varies from the informal mob to the formal legal institutions of the courts and a “slave prison.” Bibb stayed at one of these slave prisons in Louisville with his family. It was a combination of a prison, a workhouse, and location for sexual violence. “Soon after she arrived at this place, Garrison gave her to understand what he brought here there for, and made a most disgraceful assault on her virtue, which she promptly repeled;  for which Garrison punished her with the lash, threatning her that if she did not submit that he would sell her child. The next day he made the same attempt, which she resisted, declaring that she would not submit to it; and again he tied her up and flogged her until her garments were stained with blood. He then sent our child off to another part of the city, and said he meant to sell it.” (493–494)

In their various attempts to escape, Bibb and his family faced many hardships. One of his children died. But through all of this, his determination to escape remained. We learn how difficult and unlikely it was to escape as a family. In the end, Bibb escaped from an Indian man who purchased him after his family was broken. He made his way through the Indian Territory, through the prairie and finally to Michigan.

The narrative ends with Bibb’s final attempt to secure the freedom of his wife. We may see his decision to break off his marriage as harsh (“practically dead to me as a white, for she was living in a state of adultery”), since it is not likely that Malinda had much choice in becoming a concubine of her master. Bibb confesses as much, but adds “it is quite probably that they have other children according to the law of nature, which would have a tendency to unite them stronger together.” (553) Bibb does use this as part of his moral polemic against slavery, calling all slave marriages farces without legal standing. I, of course, understand this argument on grounds of equality and justice, but I am still ambivalent about the state sanctioning specific relationships. Why would an informal slave marriage be less morally binding than one approved of by the government (especially a government that condoned slavery)?

In any case, this is the best slave narrative for approaching the question of sexuality and it is also one of the most dramatically exciting because Bibb is always attempting to escape. He did not need to go through the process like Douglass of achieving moral independence first (if he did he does not really mention it). Bibb simply wakes up one day deciding to be free and never retreats from his goal.

Frederick Douglass: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845)

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revised within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afford by the triumph was the full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody army of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. (331)

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the great slave narrative of the antebellum period and it is certainly the most well-known, thanks to its clarity in exposing the myths of the Old South. It is often taught in high schools and undergraduate courses for this reason. Douglass’ main concern—besides telling some of his life story—was to show the hypocrisy of the slave-owning South. Using his own life and his experiences, he managed to dismantle pretty much every one of the major myths. We can sum this up as follows. While the defenders of slavery were saying slavery was good both masters, slaves, and Southern society, Douglass showed how it debased and made savage both slaves and masters, corrupted the legal institutions, and created irreconcilable divisions to society. The story also works as a coming of age story, beginning with Douglass’ birth in slavery, his self-education, and finally the climax consisting of his debasement in the face of Mr. Covery’s violent labor regimen, his resistance to that, and his eventual escape to freedom.

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The narrative is preceded by two introductions, the first by William Lloyd Garrison and the second by Wendell Phillips. Together they point to the historical significance of Douglass’ narrative within the growing body of anti-slavery literature. Narratives by former slaves were few at that point. They also stress that Douglass lived in a part of the country known for milder forms of slavery, so the situation described by Douglass can only be worse throughout the deep South. Finally, the suggest that his experiences are integral to the slave system. Take Phillips comments. “We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are essential ingredients, not occasional results, of the system.” (278)

In the opening chapter, Douglass has a fascinating look at something that may seem trivial but turned out to be central the experience of slaves: not knowing his birthday. As he shows, not knowing his birthday was merely a part of the veil of ignorance put over enslaved men and women. Much more crushing is the inability of Douglass to know his mother as mother, but this derived from the same logic that made his birthday insignificant to the working of the slave system. This chapter also looks at the phenomenon of white fathers of slaves (like Douglass’ own father) and the cruelty of overseers. He also includes the description of the torture of his Aunt Hester. Whites fathering slaves and the sadistic torture of Hester together expose one of the major myths of the old South, that it was a land of chivalrous sexual virtue.

The next few chapters follow Douglass’ childhood and the workings of farm life. He has comments on the power regiment, the use of songs by enslaved men and women to express their sorrow. Douglass points out the high turnover among overseers and even masters. Douglass himself was passed around a few times before he escaped slavery. Another myth of paternalism—that slavery exchanged loyalty for loyalty—shattered. In the first half we also learn how Douglass learned to read by interacting with local white kids, many of whom saw slavery as inevitable but learned to question it (a bit) by interacting with Douglass.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

The climax of the story is Douglass encounter as a young man with Mr. Covey who hired the slave Douglass from his master. Covey was a poor white who managed to save enough to purchase one slave (for breeding). He lacked the intellectual training in the ideology of slaveholding, which however hypocritical at least forced some more conscientious masters to mitigate their brutality. All he had was the application of power, which he used excessively on Douglass. He used lies and force to sustain his authority. When Douglass finally defeats Covey in a brutal fight, he achieves some degree of independence and forces Covey to refrain from whipping Douglass. I like to point out this example to those enamored with non-violence. While violent resistance does not always work, it certainly has its moments and when power is so devastating to body and soul, violence is often the only way to achieve freedom.

The final chapter discusses a bit about how he got his freedom, but he does not share details to protect the people who helped him and to ensure that other slaves can use that method. He condemns the openness (the lack of a security culture) among some abolitionists who openly talk about the “underground railroad.”

In an appendix, Douglass attacks the application of Christianity in the South. He confesses some admiration for Christianity on principle (but it is spit out through a clenched jaw). Largely, his experience of religion is one of hypocrisy.

“We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church member’s. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time” (363, 364) Unlike the first three slave narratives in this collection, religion is not a part of the arc of the slave. It exists only as some of the links in the chain.

Douglass points out on almost every page the workings of power. Power transforms those in authority into monsters. Those under the whip are also turned into brutes. Part of the significance of the battle between Douglass and Covey is that Douglass was transformed into a monster before he could arise as a man. The reason terror was necessary was that the power regimen was actually quite weak, as we see in Covey’s faltering in the face of Douglass’ resistance. Power that is this weak and this unjustifiable can only survive by turning those involved into monsters. It simply cannot survive with self-conscious human beings.

Well that is Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. He has two more, but I will reserve that for the volume of Douglass’ writings, somewhere else in the Library of America.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Passions” (1975)

I have gone out of the habit of writing. One day a Hitler comes and burns books. The next day it’s a Stalin who demands that all poets exalt his murders. New tyrants will emerge and they will destroy the literature of the world. Since sex is only for two—and sometimes even for one—why must poetry be for many? I am my own bard. Sometimes when I used to lie with Getzele in bed, we held a poetic duet. Well, but two can also be too many. L’chayim. (737)

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I am taking another stab at Isaac Bashevis Singer. I do not quite know why he has provided such difficulty for me, more than any other author in the Library of America series. It is not because of the themes, which actually are much in line with this blog. Singer’s characters are often on the move, challenging or controlled by their tradition and institutions in their life. As in his other story collections, Passions, published in 1975, is set either in pre-World War II Poland or in the United States (mostly New York City) in the middle of the century. These twenty stories reflect the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora in the twentieth century, often resulting in extremely lonely, isolated, alienated characters carrying heavy burdens of history (sometimes personal sometimes of the Holocaust). Many of these characters are college professors, writers, or teachers at some level of conflict with the Jewish tradition. Transgression, as a means of escaping these burdens is often an option, but Singer’s characters rarely pursue this path without hesitation or tragic consequences. Nevertheless, Singer is never willing to reject entirely the transgressive option. We can also assume that these writings are heavily autobiographical, either deriving from Singer’s childhood and youth in Poland or his professional success in New York.

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Many of his characters exist in a sort of spiritual or social death, often despite success. A general state of paralysis and indifference exists over the lives of several characters people. In “Old Love,” Harry Bendiner lives a lonely life between Miami and New York. He even confesses, when looking at the development in Miami that: “once you pass eighty, you’re as good as a corpse.” (584) He meets a widowed woman who shuffles through life in much the same way. She speaks of her daughter and this almost inspires Harry to seek her out in British Columbia, but the story ends with the same oppressive burden of paralysis that it began with.

Throughout Passions and Other Stories mobility does little to prevent this feeling. People can move around all they want (or sometimes as a result of outside pressure) but they either return home, fall back into new banal patterns, or simply find themselves more isolated and alone than they felt back in their home towns.  Clearly family is one of the burdens that traps people into a place, but it is often no more powerful that ideology. Modernism is a common issue in Singer’s stories, creating young modern Jews who seek out a modern world in the city, often finding only loneliness and isolation.

The story “Errors” points out how oppressive the traditional family can be, showing that there is not a clear preference in his writings for tradition or for modernity. Both can be ultimately alienating. In this story, the patriarchal Zablocki stands out as a symbol for traditional filial oppression, violently abusing both the farm hands and his wife, who he “tormented to death.” (599) Zablocki was finding his domain slowly evaporated by modernity, symbolized in his tendency to lose lawsuits. “The New Year Party” gives a brief glimpse into how migration forced shifting family relations, often disempowering patriarchs. Although a positive development, Singer wants to point out how distributing and alienating the change could be. In that story, Pearl’s father lost his moral authority over his family in part due to being forced to work on the Sabbath and seeing his daughter become attracted to leftism and atheism. The man she eventually married kept patriarchal privilege (suggested through his domination of the family and his serial adultery), while being nominally politically progressive.

The signs of modernity are everywhere, besieging the traditional moral communities that Singer grew up in. The following passage is from “A Tutor in the Village.”

The peasants were becoming enlightened. The young generation wanted leather boots, not makeshift shoes of rags and bark. They wanted shingled roofs, not thatch. They girls wanted to dress in the city style. Witos, the leader of the peasant party in the Sejm, sent speakers to Kocica, who lectured to the peasants on their needs. The Communists, too, had their agitators. (693)

This is repeatedly the cause of the dislocation and alienation that the characters often feel. This is not something we should necessarily worry too much about. For many of the men, what is being lost are patriarchal privileges rooted in the family and in tradition. Others did not have much of this power to begin with, but they were losing their voice. Many of the characters are writers and thinkers and speakers working in esoteric traditions that simply lose much of their power when facing the modern world. An idiosyncratic theologian may still have a place in a village, but in New York City or Israel or Miami he is forced into conformity or risk total alienation. “Modern civilization wipes out all individuality.” (750)

My three favorite stories in this collection are “The Witch,” “The Admirer,” and “The Fatalist.” “The Witch” is about a widower and math teacher who becomes strangely infatuated with an ugly, stupid former student of his. He begins a relationship with her, a relationship that he is ashamed to confess publically, but only after learning that she may be a witch and cursed his wife to die of cancer. This can be read literarily, that he was bewitched. But a more promising reading is that the man was declaring his independence from social expectations. The young woman’s ugliness is an objective, not a subjective fact. She is ugly and stupid in her eyes based on social expectation. The death of his wife helped liberate him from these expectations. “The Admirer” is an odd tale about a writer who gets a visit from a fan, who is exposed through a series of phone calls from her estranged husband and her mother to be crazy. It is another case where a lonely intellectual is prevented from possible companionship through external expectations about what is normal and proper (enforced in this case through telephone calls). “The Fatalist” is just a fun story about a believer in fate who wins a girl by taking his belief in fate to its logical conclusions.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1901-1905: Displays of Power

To worship rank and distinction is the dear and valued privilege of all the human race, and it is freely and joyfully exercised in democracies as well as in monarchies–and even, to some extent, among those creatures whom we impertinently called the Lower Animals. For even they have some poor little vanities and foibles, though in this matter they are paupers as compared to us. “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord? (514)

The final decade of Twain’s writing reveals the depth of his cynicism and frustration with humanity. The Chinese writer Lu Xun believed these later writers exposed Twain as a misanthrope. At least is reveals his disgust with the world as it is, in all its pettiness and corruption. Lacking in Twain’s view of the world, at least in these later works, is a belief in the potential for human solidarity. Even with Adam and Eve is was difficult to achieve.  In this post, I will look at Twain’s writings from 1901-1905. His major accomplishments from this period include his greatest anti-imperialist writings and the completion of his series of fictional writings of Adam and Eve.

 

The essay, “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?” brings forth one of the most important questions anarchists need to answer: Why is it so common on human history for one man to oppress thousands or even millions. Twain is not always the most promiscuous with answers to the conditions he critiques, but he does venture one here. He suggests we are very easily seduced by the symbols of power and distinction. Hierarchy creates a situation where any one of us can partake in the “little distinctions.” We accept a big lord because it makes us possibly a little lord.

All the human race loves a lord–that is, it loves to look upon or be noticed by the possessor of Power or Conspicuousness; and sometimes animals, born to better things and higher ideals, descend to man’s level in this matter. In the Jardin des Planets I have seen a cat that was so vain of being the personal friend of an elephant that I was ashamed of her. (523)

The same point is more of less made in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” in which the Czar confesses that the only thing standing between him and destitution and powerlessness is his clothing. The story consists of a divine right ruler asking the same question so many anti-authoritarians have asked throughout the ages:

A horse with the strength of a hundred men will let one man beat him, starve him, drive him; the Russian millions allow a mere handful of soldiers to hold them in slavery — and these very soldiers are their own sons and brothers! (643-644)

Twain presents a quite convincing argument that it is again the accoutrements of power that matter. We have seen this in The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee, and even Joan of Arc, where Joan does little more than convince the French King that he is rightful (basically giving him a new hat).

Display of power

Display of power

In Twain’s later life, the most grotesque abuse of power was the expansion of the European and American empires across the globe. This inspired his two great anti-imperial essays, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” Both are satires addressed to the victims and enemies of empire. The later exposes the vapid and brutal reality of Belgian rule in the Congo, and by presented the defense, he exposes the argument’s weakness. In both articles, the argument presented in favor of empire is also a matter of accoutrements, in this case civilization, business, and Christianity. These are all elements of American presumption that Twain has been at war with for much of his career. What the West was exporting to the rest of the world were precisely its most ridiculous, hypocritical, and anti-social characteristics. As Russia was forced to muse: “It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other. Is there no salvation for us but to adopt Civilization and lift ourselves down to its level?” (465) “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” is a more brutal document, inspired by the exploitation of the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. King Leopold is presented as a self-conscious man, needed to defend his actions from the public, the press, missionaries, and the English critics. Of course Leopold has a point that his critics often had shameful records of their own and shares with Leopold the view that “Civilization” is so valuable that any degree of violence is acceptance in achieving it. In this way, the argument is not that far from the one in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” but instead of thee display of power being used to gain popular support for hierarchy, they are being used as a more direct justification. Civilization is the ultimate accoutrement of power in the age of imperialism.

This is their style! I furnish “nothing!” I send the gospel to the survivors; these censure-mongers know it, but they would rather have their tongues cut out than mention it. I have several times required my raiders to give the dying an opportunity to kiss the sacred emblem; and if they obeyed me I have without doubt been the humble means of saving many souls.

By closing the article with King Leopold’s confession, “I know the human race,” we get the sense that Twain connected empire with his earlier questioning of why it was possible for the few to rule the many.

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Twain’s answer to this harsh reality of human nature seems to be Adam and Eve, those original rebels who refused to submit to the lawmakers. The most moving aspect of Twain’s series of tales about the life of Adam and Eve is how they started as strangers with great differences and end up with a profound and convincing solidarity. Adam’s gasp at Eve’s grave sums this up”

Whosesoever she was, there was Eden (709)

Eve’s explanation for their bind was based on difference. She loves him not because of his many good qualities and labors, but because he is masculine and “mine.” We also observe that their relationship is based on incredible struggle and personal trauma: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This had to be recreated in their relationship and I would like to think exists still in those examples of shared solidarity.

 

Mark Twain: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” Part Two

“Joan crowned the King at Rheims. For reward he allowed her to be hunted to her death without making one effort to save her. During the next twenty-three years he remained indifferent to her memory; indifferent to the fact that her good name was under a damning blot put there by the priests because of the deeds which she had done in saving him and his scepter; indifferent to the fact that France was ashamed, and longed to have the Deliverer’s fair fame restored. Indifferent all the time.” (968)

Continued from the last post, in which I tried to show that we can, along with Mark Twain, be inspired by Joan of Arc as an example of a young person being given massive challenges and creating the new values required for the age. In Twain’s account, Joan of Arc transformed cynicism into optimism, shallow symbolic religion for religious passion, while also destroying the existing political and social status quo. In a sense, Joan of Arc is a larger and historically significant example of Huck Finn, who also successfully faced the most profound challenges of the day. I also argued that perhaps the best thing that elders can do is understand that their values are decrepit (which does not mean they did not have their value at one time) and step aside, in the process liberating the creative power of young people. Most importantly we should stop educating them in our fashion, in our institutions.

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, covers her military campaign after the victory at Orleans and her martyrdom at the hands of the conservatives in her own ranks and the English. Mark Twain argues that her victories emerged from her vernacular knowledge, her peasant background. The nobility could not save France because they simply did not understand France. “How did she know it? It is simple: she was a peasant. That tells the whole story. She was of the people and knew the people; those others moved into a loftier sphere and knew nothing much about them. We make little account of that vague formless, inert mass, that mighty underlying force which we call ‘the people’—an epithet which carried contempt with it. It is a strange attitude; for at bottom we know that the throne which the people support, stands, and that when that support is removed, nothing in this world can save it.” (790) This is perhaps not a justification for monarchy in the end, but to the degree that one of Joan’s successes was the coronation of the King and the solidification of the political force that would win the war against the English, she at least moved that monarchy into a democratic direction. Unfortunately there are too few rectifications of the people with the rulers (revolutions, they are typically called).

Whatever brief united Joan created between the state and the people fell away immediately. Joan—and in Twain’s mind the people of France—wanted to march on Paris and finish the campaign with another great victory. The King ended Joan’s plans. A truce was arrived at that did not result in the total victory Joan promise and predicted. “Joan had Paris and France in her grip, and the Hundred Years’ War under her heel, and the King made her open her fist and take away her foot.” (834) This betrayal was followed by her capture by the English, which led not to the expected ransom demands, but rather her trial as a heretic. What shocks the narrator is that the King takes no effort to mobilize the people for the rescue of Joan. With her youthful, revolutionary power gone the army fell back into the hands of the decadent, defeatist leaders who had brought France to ruin. The entire spirit of Joan’s moment passes with her imprisonment. “We could not realize the change which had come upon the country. We seemed able to choose our own route and go wherever we pleased, unchallenged and unmolested. When Joan of Arc was in the field, there was a sort of panic of fear everywhere, but now that she was out of the way, fear had vanished. Nobody was troubled abut you or afraid of you . . . everybody was indifferent.” (847–848)

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Mark Twain presents the trial of Joan of Arc as yet another of her triumphs due to her ability to out-maneuver her accusers. The claims of heretical transgression centered on a handful of issues: her apparent direct contact with God (he took messages from “The Voice”) and her cross-dressing and her preference of wearing men’s clothing and armor. Under the surface are claims that she was misusing the French people for her own aims, lying to them to achieve victory or using some form of witchcraft to achieve unnatural victories. According to the narrator, the real reason for the trial was purely political and strategic. The English simply wanted to remove an obstacle to their war effort. By the narrator’s account the trials ended with Jean victorious, especially when she demanded a trial under the direct supervision of the Pope, rejecting the arbitrary local law for a more universal concept of justice. There is much in this trial that reminds us of Anne Hutchinson’s trial in this regard.

It is likely for this reason that Joan of Arc’s religious delusions do not seem to bother the normally skeptical Twain. Twain himself was a heterodox who preferred to go directly to the source and took liberties of interpretation when it moved him, not binding himself to any institutional religious claim. In the claim that damned her as a heretic Joan said: “I believe [the Church] cannot err; but for those deeds and words of mine which were done and uttered by command of God, I will answer to him alone.” (921)

After Joan of Arc is executed, she becomes a commodity to be used by others for political advantage. Until France was finally liberated from the English, the King ignored her. With victory he worked to “rehabilitate” her image so as not to be accused of earning his crown through the efforts of a women in league with the devil.

So, the second part of this tale is not without its victories for Jean, but these victories are in the broader context of betrayal. Perhaps this was inevitable. For all of Jean’s amazing achievements, she chose to work within and respect the political and religious systems of her time. Her revolution was a half-measure. She temporarily reconnected the French people with the crown. She oversaw the rise of a more vernacular and popular peasant Christianity. But since she never challenged those institutions, she was left vulnerable to betrayal. Institutions privilege self-preservation over justice, honor, and progress.

Around the time this book was published, Samuel Clemens’ daughter Susy died. I cannot help but wonder if he saw some of Joan of Arc in his daughter.

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Mark Twain: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” Part One

“Joan of Arc, a mere child in years, ignorant, unlettered, a poor village girl unknown and without influence, found a great nation lying in chains, helpless and hopeless under an alien domination, its treasury bankrupt, its soldiers disheartened and dispersed, all spirit torpid, all courage dead in the hearts of the people through long years of foreign and domestic outrage and oppression, their King cowed, resigned to its fate, and preparing to fly the country; and she laid her hand upon this nation, this corpse, and it rose and followed her.” (546)

What moved me while reading Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was how much Joan’s dilemma and challenge parallels the challenges of today’s young. Joan grew up in a France that was defeated and in decline, but more seriously lacking a vision for itself. And then, after saving France she is made to suffer for her deeds. We have yet to see the second half of this story play out in our world (we hope it will not), but the first part seems quite true to life. Whether it is crushing debt, an increasingly vapid democracy, an unprecedented ecological catastrophe, growing inequality, a perverted image of socialism, or a dying culture, our children are being left quiet a mess to clean up. The argument we should get from Twain’s quite brilliant history Joan of Arc is that those of us old in body or mind, should step aside.

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I have touched on the theme of generations before. Philip K. Dick had an intense fear of the gerontocracy (something I am exploring in the book I am working on). The almost always pessimistic Hawthorne, seemed to think that creative energy and transgressive potential existed in children. Mark Twain clearly believed the same or else he would not have created so many examples of creative and courageous children alongside odious and cowardly adults. Perhaps this tension must exist in the literature of a young revolutionary nation.

I do not want to let my feelings on the old be misunderstood. While I do think we must blame them for most of the mess younger people were left with, we should not ignore the challenges that they overcame. They were left with a mess of their own to clean up. They were faced with the central challenges of the twentieth century: unrestricted capitalism and political tyranny. But they also left us a political and economic system that is in need of a massive recreation. Resolving these problems require that that generation step aside. They control the wealth (we can look at generational income and wealth inequality), they remain in charge of the political system, and in many ways they still control the terms of the debate. One major concern of mine, is that with life-extending technology and declining birth rates, the young of the world will be spending most of their time laboring to keep alive a wealthy and increasingly delusion class of elders. Yes, grandpa, maybe you are living too long.

Now, of course, the solution to this problem is not the repression of elders, but rather the empowerment of youth. And one of the largest hurdles to this is that disgusting idea of adolescence. I do not think it is wise to take physically and (but for public education and a mind-numbing culture) mentally adults and give them an arbitrary label as adolescence. I do not know much of the history of this, but I suspect it began either with industrialization or with public education. And now, unfortunately, adolescence is being extended by sending millions to collages, straddling them with unpayable debts, and forestalling the responsibilities of adulthood into the distant future. This was not a problem in Joan of Arc’s time, when you were either a child or an adult and that transition came with sexual and physical maturity. Joan of Arc was young, but an adult. She proved it in her actions, the sharpness of her rhetoric, her courage, and her ability to inspire others. In this way, she is a grander version of Huck Finn, who triumphed over the greatest moral question of his life, and of his age.

Onto the novel (historical fiction certainly, but heavily researched in archives). The first half covers Joan’s upbringing in Domremy to her emergence as a victorious general of the French armies at the battle of Orleans, where a major English position was maintained, including her rallying of the French king and the nobility and populace of France for the war effort. As for that history-making victory, Twain wrote: “No other girl in all of history has ever reached such a summit of glory as Joan of Arc reached that day. And do you think it turned her head, and that she sat up to enjoy that delicious music of homage and applause? No; another girl would have done that, but not this one. That was the greatest heart and the simplest that ever beat.” (742) As you can see, Twain believed that Joan of Arc was the most impressive person in human history. Often his praise comes off as exaggerated, but we have no reason to believe Twain was not authentic in his praise, even if we may not share his reading of the past.

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Twain started the novel with some discussion of the children of Domremy, the world that created Joan. These children were already cultivating a religious culture distinct from that of adults. Joan plays a role in connected the intellectual courage of children with the piety of mature religion. “All the children pleaded for the fairies, and said they were their good friends and dear to them and never did them any harm, but the priest would not listen, and said it was a sin and shame to have such friends.” (563) Joan’s first moment of courage came in her confrontation with the theology of the priest class. She remains an impressive person in local history, but it was the sight of a dead and mutilated man that spurs her to adulthood and action. “It was a bloody and dreadful sight. Hardly any of us young people had ever seen a man before who had lost his life by violence; so this cadaver had an awful fascination for us; we could not take our eyes from it. I mean, it has that sort of fascination for all of us but one. That one was Joan.” (589) She turns from the horror not to flee but to action, although she would first need to undergo a religious and then a political transformation.

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A significant role of Joan of Arc was in the conquest of cynicism and defeat. One could argue that she got this strength from religious delusion. Twain is less interested in the origin of the courage than in the amazing fact that such courage was possible in a young person. (Perhaps not so amazing for himself who eager gave his young characters this moral courage.)

No less significant for Twain is Joan’s triumph over narrow human expectations about the source of one’s value. She faced much ridicule early in her campaign. “Human nature is the same everywhere; it deifies success, it has nothing but scorn for defeat. The village considered that Joan had disgraced it with her grotesque performance and its ridiculous failure; so all the tongues were busy; insomuch that if the tongues had been teeth she would not have survived her persecutions.” (610) How often has such ridicule stopped people from speaking and creating?

I have not given much thought to Joan of Arc before reading this novel, but now I find her a useful model for the challenges of our day and an argument for the empowerment of youth, a group that needs to be much freer and take much more seriously for the role they can play in historical change.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)

“Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjected by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bridge I Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (293)

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The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel since his youthful Fanshawe, came after Hawthorne had been writing for over twenty years and only fourteen years before his death in 1864. Despite my training I had never read this novel before, even sitting on it for almost a year after the volume of Hawthorne’s novels came as part of my Library of American subscription. I suppose I was confident that it was well understood without me reading it and there was little I can contribute. Neither have I read any commentary on the novel, outside of the occasional mention. I only knew it was an important novel and somehow (as with folklore in general) knew its basic plot.

In the novel, Hester Prynne’s sin is extremely well-defined, clearly proven, and apparent to all in the community. Even without the infamous red letter on her clothing, she had a daughter obviously born out of wedlock. Of course, the authorities of the state—in this case the Puritan elite—had to follow the letter of the law. It is a well-defined crime, but in my reading of the novel I cannot find any explanation of why it was so odious. The narrator, although occasionally waffling on this point, clearly sees the crime of adultery as evil, the work of the devil, and an unredeemable sin. (Although he is of Hawthorne’s generation, he is more of old New England.) Of course, given the situation—a distant and decrepit husband with a young wife—it is rather hard to find fault in Hester’s actions. But my point is that Prynne, the minister Dimmesdale (Pearl’s biological father), the town, the narrator, Hawthorne, and readers from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century seem to take it for granted that there was a sin committed. The debate would then rest on the proper response, given the situation. I suggest we should not so quickly surrender this point. This is not simply an argument for free love, but the necessary anarchist orientation that requires all authority (moral, legal, political) to justify itself.

The enforcement mechanisms of this moral law are very well-developed and incredibly harsh. The scaffolds and the gallows are a constant threat throughout the novel. The coercive tools of a cynical state hardly seem the appropriate tool of a regime based on moral authority, but when of course, how else can the state enforce moral law. Look at the ridiculous convictions of Pussy Riot members in Russia as evidence that morality can still be a tool of state political control. The list of disciplinary measures applied or threatened in this novel is impressive, even by twentieth century standards, and must have seen downright draconian to Hawthorne’s contemporary readers. These institutions of control included jails, the gallows, public shaming, exclusion, economic and social isolation, family, and religious threats of eternal damnation. Even the governor became intensely interested in the transgression of Prynne. And, if we believe the narrator comes from the society of Puritan New England it seems these threats work most of the time. Prynne and Dimmesdale’s transgression is entirely unique in the world of the novel.

The novel begins with another institution of state power, one that emerged much later in New England history, but became central to Hawthorne’s life and the economic history of the region: the custom-house. It works to create the narrator of the story, who worked in a custom-house, like Hawthorne, and discovered the story of Hester Prynne buried in some documents. As I already suggested, unlike Hawthorne, this narrative has much more fully internalized the values of Puritan New England and is apparently not as detached from that tradition as Hawthorne himself was by the time he wrote the novel. What I want to suggest is that instead of reading this just as a story of sin, guilt, and alienation we should also read it as a story of power and in this way, the “Custom-House” chapter fits nicely. We see the locus of New England society move from the internal morality of its residents to their place in the emerging world system, but power remained central to its working.

Salem Custom House

Salem Custom House

The consequences of the enforcement of this constructed and pathetically useless morality are catastrophic. Image Hester Prynne’s situation absent the enforcement regimen. Pearl could have had a normal childhood, Hester could have remained of the community, her returning husband would not have needed to pose as someone else and work for seven years for revenge, and a whole lot of internal trauma could have been avoided. The conclusion we can draw is the root tension in the story is not the sin itself, which except for the arrival of Pearl, is largely a non-event, hardly worth anyone’s time to worry about. It is the naming of the sin that is the problem. We should spend less time doing such nonsense. As if to make this point, the narrator clarifies how easy it is to simple stop naming the sin. Hester could remove the “A” at any time, which she does as she develops a plan to leave New England with Dimmesdale.

The straight-forward way to look at Pearl is that she inherited the sin of her mother and father. She becomes obsessed at a young age with her mother’s red “A.” She is not controllable and shocks the Puritan elite because of her non-orthodox understanding of theology. Providing such information is one of Hester’s main responsibilities and doubts about this produce one of the major tensions, the attempt by the elite to take Pearl from her mother. Can we not also look at Pearl in a more optimistic way? Hester’s transgression carries onto her child. It is not sin that is passed on, but the spirit of rebellion, which lives onto the next generation. She survives the story to go to Europe, breaking free entirely of the institutions of power that so oppressed her mother and near ruined her own childhood.

That is enough on The Scarlet Letter. Others have done better than me (I spent a day when others have spent a career), but I hope this is not entirely useless for the commons. Let me end on a nice, politically-powerful quote.

“Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse.” (306)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1838–1843)

“Why, to tell you the truth, my good Mr. Wigglesworth, to be quite sincere with you, I care little or nothing about a stone for my own grave, and am somewhat inclined to skepticism as to the propriety of erecting monuments at all, over the dust that once was human. The weight of these heavy marbles, though unfelt by the dead corpse or the enfranchised soul, presses drearily upon the spirit of the survivor, and causes him to connect the idea of death with the dungeon-like imprisonment of the tomb, instead of with the freedom of the skies. Every gravestone that you ever made is the visible symbol of a mistaken system. Our thoughts should sour upward with the butterfly—not linger with the exuviae that confined him.” (“Chippings with a Chisel,” 624–625)

The pace of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings seems to have slowed down in the years 1839 to 1843, at least for the short stories which formed the core of his career up to this point. Four important things happen during these years, which will shape his future. First, he took a job as weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House. That just meant he took weight and inspected cargo as it came in. Those who have read A Scarlett Letter (not me yet, but I cannot help but peak), know he talks about the Salem port in some detail there. Like Melville, Hawthorne had to take a day job. He worked there for a couple years, but would go back into the business with a political appointment in the Salem Custom House in 1846. A second life-changing event was his engagement and later marriage (in 1842) to Sophia Peabody. Third, as if to prepare for his future children or simply as part of a mid-life crisis, he began to write children’s books, three of which are published in 1840 and 1841. The Library of America did not collect these, but the volume I am currently working on does have some of his tales for children, which were published late in his life. Finally, Hawthorne spent eight months at Brook Farm, a utopian socialist community, but leaves disillusioned by it. He will write a book on his experiences. In 1842 and 1843, he make a transition to his “Old Manse” period, centered on his years in Concord, connected to the transcendentalists. That is for the next post. For now, we find Hawthorne more busy with life than with writing.

Boston Custom House, Hawthorne's day job

Boston Custom House, Hawthorne’s day job

Sophia Peabody

Sophia Peabody

 

He did produce the following ten stories, excepting his children’s books: “Chippings with a Chisel,” “Legends of the Province House” (a four part narrative of a home’s deep connection to historical events), “The Sister Years,” “The Lily’s Quest,” “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” “The Old Apple-Dealer,” “The Antique Ring,” “The Hall of Fantasy,” and “The New Adam and Eve.” The major theme in these stories is again the tension between the old and the young, and Hawhtorne’s anxiety over giving the past too much power over our lives.

As for the major theme of “Chippings with a Chisel,” a magnificent work in my point of view, it is made clear for you in the quote opening this post, which was spoken by a man in dialogue with a tomb builder. At the very least the story forces us to think about the way our attitudes toward death and the memorializing of the dead shapes how we see life. I reckon we should take the same attitude with ruined relationships, failed ambitions, and discarded dreams. If we memorialize and dwell on them, we will tend to associate those beautiful things (mad passions, grand plans, and bold risk taking) with ultimate failure.

“The Lily’s Quest” gets at this tension by juxtaposing “two young lovers” (Adam and Lily) who want to build a summer-house “in the form of an antique Temple.” When they find the ideal spot, they are stopped by old Walter Gascoigne, who warns them that everyone who tried to build there has met with failure and disasters, adding, “Poor child, in one shape or another, every mortal has dreamed your dream.” (687) The lesson he gives is clear and could be applied to anything. The fact that most romances end in heartbreak and most dreams are dashed is, for many, reason enough not to risk those things. After building the Temple of Happiness at another site, Lily dies, leading the young man to transform the Temple of Happiness into a tomb. In doing so, Adam redefines the foundation of happiness as the grave. But unlike the traditional grave, which buries memories of happiness under a symbol of death, Adam builds instead the temple of his and Lily’s dream. This seems to defeat the pessimism of old Walter Gascoigne, who “stalked drearily away, because his gloom, symbolic of all earthly sorrow, might no longer abide there now that the darkest riddle of humanity was read.” (691)

“The Virtuoso’s Collection” is a delightful story about a American who enters a museum, “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” which contains am unbelievable list of relics from mythology and history. It seems there is almost nothing that this collectors has not obtained. The Big Bad Wolf (stuffed, of course), the shell that fell on Aeschylus’ head killing him, Excalibur, and much more. Much of the joy comes from seeing these items listed, but we are taken aback by the American observer, who although impressed, is nevertheless quickly bored by these things. Is this part of the American spirit of Hawthorne’s democratic age? A disgust with the old and fetishization of the new and original? If so, I will tend to be sympathetic to this fetish. It turns out that the collector is the Wandering Jew, but that in itself is less interesting than the continual indifference the American shows to the collection. At one point he stakes out his opposition to “earthly immortality” more directly. “Were man to live longer on the earth, the spiritual would die out of him. The spark of ethereal fire would be choked by the material, the sensual. There is a celestial something within us that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of Heaven to preserve it from decay and ruin. I will have none of this liquid. You do well to keep it in a sepulchral urn; for it would produce death, while bestowing the shadow of life.” (708) So, again, we have an image of death and sterility presented in the preservation of the old.

Well, there are other stories that cover some of the similar ground (“The Antique Ring” for one), but I will save it. I will start the next post with the masterful “The Birth-mark,” which due to my fondness for science fiction anthologies was the first Hawthorne story I ever read.

Concord's Old Manse

Concord’s Old Manse

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1837–1838)

“Patience, patience! You have been too long growing old. Surely, you might be content to grow young in half and hour! But the water is in your service.” (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 475)

Wow, the stories from this set are all lovely and full of a great deal of joy. In his stories from 1837 and 1838, Hawthorne is continuing his warning against what is old and static and praising the creative, young, and daring. In this attempt, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” must be seen as a central text, taking this one directly with the administering of the waters of the Fountain of Youth on a group of boring old people. For those that are not following, I am reading Hawthorne’s works chronologically, going through the stories ten at a time. Today’s stories are “David Swan,” “The Great Carbuncle,” Fancy’s Show Box,” “The Prophetic Pictures,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “A Bell’s Biography,” “A Journal of a Solitary Man,” “Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” “The Toll-Gatherer’s Day,” and “Sylph Etherege.” Here are some of my random thoughts.
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“David Swan” is a direct reminder of how much life is passing us by day by day. It is about a man sleeping through three life-changing events. The arrival of a rich man seeking an heir, a beautiful woman eager for a husband, and a gang of criminals. Had he woken up during any of the encounters he would have, respectively, won a large inheritance, gotten married, or been killed. How many of us sleep through events because of the danger of the robbers, forgetting the possibilities that our slumber also denies us.

In a similar vein, “The Great Carbuncle” warns against looking for meaning in symbols, ideologies, or precious items. The Great Carbuncle, the target of a quest by a group of people becomes simply an extension of their individual desires and perspectives. In this way, it loses its real function, while simultaneous reifying the perspectives of the various explorers searching for it. For an old experienced wanderer, the Great Carbuncle is valuable only as the question. He is the “Seeker.” For another, it is of scientific interests. For a third, it is a source of immense financial gain. For a poet is a source of inspiration. For an aristocrat, it is a potential symbol of his fame. For a married couple, the Great Carbuncle is a possible source of light for their humble home. Finally, for the “Cynic,” the Great Carbuncle cannot exist. He only seeks it to discredit the others who believe in the potential of beauty in the world. He wears glasses that corrupt his view of the world. It is the young couple who first gaze upon the glorious Great Carbuncle and when the show it to the Cynic without his glasses, he is blinded. They agree it is too much for their humble home and leave it for other seekers. Of course, the Great Carbuncle could symbolize anything we want it to. It could be the American Dream, anarchy, or the good life. Hawthorne’s point seems to be that it is reckless to invest too much in the search (the “Seeker” is killed in the attempt) and it is often fruitless to give it a singular meaning, but it does exist and should exist as a point of a projectral life. “Some few believe that this inestimable stone is blazing, as of old, and say that they have caught its radiance, like a flash of summer lightening, far down the valley of the Saco. And be it owned, that, many a mile from the Crystal Hills, I saw a wondrous light around their summits, and was lured, by the faith of poesy, to be the latest pilgrim of the GREAT CARBUNCLE.” (449)

 

“Dr. Hiedegger’s Experiment” is a strong and convincing tale about a bunch of old people who taste the water of the Fountain of Youth in order to relive their younger days and, they hope, approach it with more maturity—not making the same mistakes. This is a very adult way of pondering youthfulness. How often do we presume to be able to improve on our younger selves? It is the same arrogance that convinces us that we can teach children the right way to live, an arrogance institutionalized in universal public education. The Fountain of Youth (and I need to point out that I am not convinced it was much more potent than liquor, and maybe we should approach drunkenness as an elixir of agelessness. Acting in the same silliness their did the first time around (largely about jealously, failed courtship, and petty rivalries), we learn not that it is impossible to reform the youth, but that is an odious proposition. Here is part of Hawthorne’s description of the old’s transformation into youth. “Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. . . . But they were young: their burning passions proved them so. Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances.” (478) That Hawthorne sees this as a beneficial transformation, even if temporary, is suggested in how his characters end searching for the Foundation of Youth (a rather silly youthful quest in its own right).

I am trying to phase out more commentary on Hawthorne’s celebration of youth and disgust with the old and static, but I see it again and again in his work. Placing this theme into the historical context of a young nation attempting to find its own culture amid long standing English traditions (political, social, religious), Hawthorne is presenting a deeply important political critique as well as a path for life. So let me dwell on it a bit more. It is a good reminder.

“There is hardly a more difficult exercise of fancy, than, while gazing at a figure of melancholy age, to re-create its youth, and, without entirely obliterating the identity of form and features, to restore those graces which time as snatched away. Some old people, especially women, so ageworn and woful are they, seem never to have been young and gay.” (“Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” 501) Yes, growing old and leaving beyond childish things is murder. We should stop doing it so often. We have too much to learn from the young and even ourselves when we were young.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Fanshawe” (1828)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe was his first published work and notably self-published (he paid for the typesetting and printing costs). It seems Hawthorne was self-conscious about paying for his own publication. He did not put his name on it and when it did not sell, he burned his remaining copies, despite receiving some favorable reviews. In our day, self-publishing is booming whether through blogs and print on demand technology. The exploitative and thoroughly odious vanity presses will hopefully find themselves without much of a market soon. I saw a number cited (from a blog) suggesting that one half of the books published are now self-published. The article argued that self-publishing was filling in the gap left by conventional presses, as they became more conservative in recent years. The academic criticism of self-publishing is based on quality control, I suppose. Self-published works do not go through the editorial processes and peer review. That is, they do not go through the cultural gate keepers before coming to light. If we take a broader view of publication we quickly find that the gate keepers are not necessary and mostly play a role to either censor some voices, protect the interests of publishing companies, or unfairly raise the bar for younger writers. Anarchists have been self-publishing for a long time. Sure, there are a handful of anarchist presses that look “traditional,” editing, publishing and distributing books. AK Press is worker-owned, but I cannot speak to its editorial process (the Web site suggests an internal democratic review of submissions). I am thinking more of zines and homemade pamphlets and newsletters. As with blogs, quality will become the responsibility of the author and likely suffer (note the numerous typos in this quickly assembled blog of mine), but this is a small price to pay. If not for self-publishing we would not have Homer.

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Why did Hawthorne take this route in 1828. He wrote it in his early 20s, while at Bowdoin College. He had a strong ambition to be a writer. His early stories were rejected by publishers, leading to the burning of his manuscript of “Seven Tales of My Native Land.” Self-publication of  Fanshawe may have come out of frustration and impatience. I am struck by the psychological anxiety it caused him, almost as if he saw the work as inferior because he had to pay to publish for it. He would not attempt another novel until 1849, when he starts work on A Scarlett Letter, working only on short stories, children’s books, and editorial projects.

One of the first edition survivors.

One of the first edition survivors.

Fanshawe is set in a college like Bowdoin and surrounds the courtship activities of some young adults: the adopted daughter of the college president, Ellen Langton; a strong, confident student Edward Walcott; and the titular Fanshawe, who is in ill-health apparently because he does not get enough sun and reads too much. It actually have the makings of a teenage romantic comedy, where the nerdy introvert gets the girl from the crude jock. It moves away from this potential with the introduction of the “angler,” the first character not directly associated with the college. The angler kidnaps Ellen and Walcott, Fanshawe and the college president go on an adventure to recover her from the villain. The angler dies from an accident during the pursuit and Ellen is ready to choose her future husband. Fanshawe sacrifices his desire for Ellen saying: “We must part now and forever. Your life will be long and happy. Mine will be short, but not altogether wretched – shorter than if we had never met. When you hear that I am in my grave, do not imagine that you have hastened me thither.” (112) Soon enough he dies a “Hard Student and a Good Scholar.” Later, Ellen married Edward Walcott.

The novel does have some nice moments but I was troubled by a great deal of it. A poor, dying young scholar is simply too disgusting a figure to contemplate, especially since he does not seem to produce much except anxiety during his short life. (Schubert gave us 600 songs and had the good sense to die of syphilis). He does show some bravely in seeking out after Ellen, ahead of the better rider Edward, but he quickly falls behind. He is also integral to the climax in the final pursuit of the angler and the rescue of Ellen, but rather than transforming his life, he fatalistically accepts that he is ill and turns away from the woman he loves, in a rather cheap sacrifice. I got the sense, Fanshawe would not know what to do with a wife, after a life of solitude. Equally troubling for me was how Hawthorne made the villain the only outsider of the college, suggesting that the borders of the college lock in civilization. It is outside of those boundaries where the nefarious take place. Hawthorne matures on this point and in later works is more than eager to find the corruption within the boundaries of the civilization. Finally, Ellen is presented as fragile herself and is the target throughout the novel of the gaze of various men, including a kidnapper who tried to fraudulently get her to accept his marriage proposal. In the end, someone needs to end up with her and she chooses the suitor who is not dead. Brilliant!

Back to the stories next time. I will be breaking them up with novels at the appropriate points in Hawthorne’s career, but the next six posts will be about stories. The rest of his novels all appeared late in his career.