Mark Twain: “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger”: Labor and Automation

This final novel of Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, was left unpublished when he died and existed in a handful of radically different manuscript forms. The version collected by the Library of America is the most complete of the manuscripts and the only one with an ending, with the title No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. At its most overt philosophical moments, the novel is in line with Twain’s later writings on human nature: human beings are automata who receive their knowledge from the outside. At times the writing is even more nihilistic than this. Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world,—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no exitence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you! (984) As I have already address my feelings on this cynical approach to human nature and the meaning of life in my last post and elsewhere in this blog, I wanted to focus on an aspect of the manuscript that, as far as I can tell, has been neglected. The settings for No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger is in print shop in an Austrian castle, just a few decades after the inventing of printing.

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The characters are the various apprentices and journeymen of the print shop along with the master and his family. A deep conflict given at the beginning of the novel is between the mystical, superstitious vernacular culture of rural central Europe and the role of printing in promoting a culture of reason and progress. The members of the printer’s guild are not immune from these superstitions but are aware of the historical importance of their discipline, which they treat with appropriate reverence. The master is closer to a Renaissance figure than a backwoods laborer.

He was a scholar, and a dreamer or a thinker, and loved learning and study, and would have submerged his mind all the days and nights in his books and been pleasantly and peacefully unconscious of his surroundings, if God had been willing.

His wife also reflected a religious temperament but was very much materialistic, interested above all in making money. All members of the community believed strongly in the craft, which is why they were taken aback by the sudden rise of Number 44, New Series 864,962—the title’s “mysterious stranger.” It is his quick rise, made possible by clearly supernatural forces that led to one of the breakdown of this community of worker-scholars. When No. 44 was promoted from working for room and board to an apprentice, he was asked about his studies. The response of the other workers again reflects the importance of knowledge, languages, sciences, and philosophy to the guild. Their value and their pride rested on their knowledge. From their perspective, No. 44 was a scab. He became much more than that when the workers go on strike over No. 44’s rapid elevation in the guild. His presence is directly connected to the supernatural events taking place. The most dramatic is that during the strike, invisible workers and later duplicates of the guild workers complete the contract, much more efficiently than normal. The fate of the guild, being replaced by what is in essence machines and automata parallels the history of industrializing America, which is referenced several times through the novel as No. 44 has some sort of trans-temporal consciousness. As they are economically sidelined, they are also phased out of relevance to the novel. Twain writes on length at the replacement of human labor with the labor of the “invisibles,” and in the process described a post-industrial horror where human labor is unnecessary, absent, and discarded.

We were paralyzed; we couldn’t move a limb to get away, we couldn’t even cross ourselves, we were so nerveless. And we couldn’t look away, the spectacle of those familiar objects drifting about in the air unsupported, and doing their complex and beautiful work without visible help, was so terrifyingly fascinating that we had to look and keep on looking, we couldn’t help it. (866)

This situation is acceptable to the master who can have his contracts met, but works to slowly anger and alienate the skilled workers who stood at the heart of the guild. Another way to look at this is through the theme of a divided self, which Twain plays with throughout the novel. According to 44, everyone had a material and a dream self.

You know, of course, that you are not one person, but two. One is your Workaday-Self, and ‘tends to business, the other is your Dream-Self, and has no responsibilities, and cares only for romance and excursions and adventure. It sleeps when your other self is awake; when your other self sleeps, your Dream-Self has full control, and does as he pleases. It has far more imagination than has the Workaday-Self. (898)

This puts a more positive spin on the end of work that the guild members are facing. If we are truthful, 44 is correct. Work is boring, tedious, and damaging to our imagination. We should hope for (and struggle for) a time when our Workaday-Self can be abolished through technology. The Luddites were misguided in their struggle. While the new automated looms certainly were designed to expand the profits of their employers, by destroying them they destroyed the means to post-scarcity and the end of labor all together. This is the promising and uplifting message in this otherwise dark tale.

Twain in 1909, a year before his death.

Twain in 1909, a year before his death.

I am not quite done with Twain. More to come.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Blithedale Romance,” (1852)

“Thus the summer was passing away; a summer of toil, of interest, of something that was not pleasure, but which went deep into my heart, and there became a rich experienced. I found myself looking forward to years, if not to a lifetime, to be spent on the same system.” (745)

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Nathaniel Hawthorne tells us in the introduction The Blithedale Romance, the third in a series of later career works that solidified his place in American letters, that the utopian community that he lived in, Brook Farm, was indeed the model for Blithedale, the fictional Utopian socialist agrarian community where the novel is set. He says that he chose it because it is the setting that is “removed from the highway of normal travel” and would allow certain literary freedoms without “exposing them too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.” In short, he claimed not to be making a position on Utopianism, Brook Farm, or any creative efforts at radical reform of society. However, this work comes between his two works of retelling the Greek myths for American children (A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales). Given that context, it seems that creative alternatives were very much on his mind in these years. Having viciously deconstructed the legacy of history in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, this novel at least gave Hawthorne a setting to consider alternatives to the past and the crazy democratic capitalist environment of the 1840s and 1850s. We also know that Hawthorne was very influenced by his time at Brook Farm. He associated closely with Transcendentalists (some of whom are mentioned in The Blithedale Romance) and valued his time there, even if he believed that in the end he was better placed in the world as it is, not the world that might be. For that reason and because I have not touched intentional communities in quite a while, want to discuss the Blithedale as a vision of an alternative and its perils.

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Images of Brook Farm

Images of Brook Farm

The major criticisms of intentional communities come forth in various ways in this novel. One such criticism is that small communities will tend not toward consensus but toward petty factionalism. That this is true of non-intentional communities as well (see university departments) is beside the point. This is revealed through the continuous tension between the narrator Coverdale and the social reformer Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth sees Blithesdale as an experiment for the reform of prisoners. He symbolizes the typical exuberant reformism of the era but also the tendency of founders of intentional communities to project their values on the society they create. Coverdale is more neutral in terms of purpose and seems to enjoy the community for the pleasure and meaning it gives his own life. He lashes out at one point saying: “In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth, cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?” (750–751)

A second criticism of intentional communities is related. Since they are so small, they will create petty tyrants who have dictatorial power over the members of the community. Again, we need only look at many a workplace where a pathetic middle manager dominates colleagues to know that this is not simply a fault of Utopian experiments, but inherent in our institutions. At one point the founders sit together and think about a time, years in the future, when they will be looked at as mythical founders of the community, the stuff of legends. Zenobia, one of the leaders and another reformer, is a clear leader as is Hollingsworth. At various times they seem at risk of centralizing power and directing its development. In fact, we see quite little of the democratic institutions of consensus that we might expect in intentional communities. The discussions they do have tend to be theoretical and devoted to the works of Fourier. When May-Day becomes a festival day, Coverdale does not even know that was due to “Zenobia’s sole decree, or by the unanimous vote of our Community.” (682) This suggests that direct democracy and dictatorship coexisted in Blithedale.

Yet another criticism is that intentional communities, due to their isolation from their neighbors, tends to cultivate strange ideas and religious practices. Again, this explains the Puritans as much as it does the some new religious movement living in a community. Perhaps the clearest picture of this is the Veiled Lady occurrence, which emerges into a myth re-told by Zenobia. But it is also seen in the cultivation of distinctive Sabbath-day practices.

Hawthorne does interrogate the presumption of many Utopian socialists that hard labor could facilitate or at least co-exist alongside intellectual activity. Given the right social context, there is no reason why a hard working farmer could not write brilliant poetry. Hawthorne questions this idea. “The yeomen and the scholar—the yeoman and the man of finest moral culture, though not the man of sturdiest sense and integrity—are two distinct individuals, and can never be melted or welded into one substance.” (689) I am not sure I would put it quite this way. For me, it is simpler. A body bound by labor is simply not a good receptacle for an active and creative mind. Better to liberate us from work and allow all people to explore their innate creativity than to force it in at the end of the day. (We also notice that cramming one hour of band practice into a day of preparation for standardized tests will not, in a million years, produce musicians.)

But of these, the strongest criticism of intentional communities in the novel is that personalities seem to interfere with the stability and success of the community. Within this short novel, there is a surprising amount of fighting, often with quite bitter words, between community members.

There is much that is impressive about Blithedale, despite these difficulties. I think most important is that the characters actual come to know and understand each other quite well. Yes, it causes conflicts, but they are, as often as not, based on shared solidarity and not animus. Even if people came to Blithedale for different reasons, they shared a commitment to its success, if not all of its socialist presumptions.

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Blithedale does have a strong woman leader in the character of Zenobia at a time when women could not vote and married women could not own their own property. Historians have long known that social reform was a way that women established a place of power in patriarchal antebellum America. If Zenobia is akin to Margaret Fuller, it seems that the community itself was not capable of breaking down any of the gender barriers in itself, it just attracted brilliant and autonomous women. The narrator often takes pains to point out how Zenobia is atypical. Whether these communities were liberating for women is a question we can only begin to investigate here.

Finally, Hawthorne makes clear that Blithesdale was an economic success. Despite hardship, jealousy of neighboring farmers, and broad disbelief that they could be successful, Blithedale thrived.

So, intentional communities are a mixed bag, as are any other community. In any case, too much planning tends to lead us to think like states.

“I rather imagine that your appreciation falls short of Mr. Hollingswoth’s just claims. Blind enthusiasm, absorption in one idea, I grant, is generally ridiculous, and must be fatal to the respectability of an ordinary man.; it requires a very high and powerful character, to make it otherwise. But a great man—as, perhaps, you do not know—attains his normal condition only through the inspiration of oneo great idea. . . . There can be no truer test of the noble and heroic, in any individual, than the degree in which he possesses the faculty of distinguishing heroism from absurdity.” (777)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The House of the Seven Gables” (1851)

“Shall we never, never rid of this Past! It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment; and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times–to Death, if we give the matter the right word!” (509)

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Through my exploration of Nathaniel’s Hawthorne’s works over the past few weeks, I kept coming back to the question stated in the above quote from his The House of the Seven Gables. It is not only that the young tend to me more creative (at least until they are educated), more energetic, and seem to have a better conception of freedom than adults. More troubling is that our elders have created a world that is hard to free ourselves from. Perhaps it is inevitable that the elders attempt to pass on their values to their children through education, but they also more unknowingly create systems and institutions that bind us to their values, whether we agree or not. How could it be otherwise? Without being too hard on my parents and grandparents, it is hard not to accuse them of exasperating the ecological crisis to the point where repair and sustainability is unlikely and of codifying a system of exploitation that is now global in its reach. And it is unlikely that it will be that generation that either dismantles those systems or is left to pick up the pieces after it falls. That is the job of the youth. So why do so many of us feel that we owe our parents so much loyalty?

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

That quote is spoken by Holgrave, the photographer, who is actually the scion of the Maule family, who had their home (The House of the Seven Gables) taken in the aftermath of the murder of witches in Salem by the Pyncheons. The Pyncheons hold onto the home with their dying grasp, while the surviving Maule cannot let go of the past, hiding out in the house under a false name. Here is some of the rest of what he had to say. “A Dead Man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he died intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A Dean Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! We are sick of Dead Men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity, according to Dead Men’s forms and creeds! Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” (509)  Yes, what more do we owe these zombies.

Hawthorne’s main argument running through The House of the Seven Gables is the almost unbearable decrepitude of life for all the characters. Most of the characters are old and cannot help but live in the past. Hepzibah Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon and Clifford Pyncheon are all of the same old and barren generation. The Judge, the man responsible for putting Clifford in prison for thirty years, is searching for ancient land titles to provide wealth for the family, which is soon to die out anyway. Clifford, just out of jail, is so frozen that the loss of the one youthful element in the home, Phoebe, sends him into a catatonic state. You must read the novel to get a full feeling of the paralysis and banality of aging. However, it is not easy to recover from. For the Maule’s the past is so alive, they seem to truly maintain the witchcraft that their ancestor was killed for practicing. Whether it was real then or not, it became real in the resentful heirs to the Maule line. In one of the more horrifying episodes, we learn how witchcraft was used to literally enslave the body and mind of Alice Pyncheon, an act of an Maule eager for revenge.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne's day.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne’s day.

This was written and published one year after The Scarlet Letter and is thematically similar. Both deal with dead sins and their burden on the living. The House of the Seven Gables is vastly more disturbing to me. At least in The Scarlet Letter, there were signs of the youthful potential in Pearl’s disobedience and impertinence. In Phoebe we find someone who can and does escape the home but is still of the Pyncheon clan. In both novels, the solution to the burden of the past was simply letting go. For Hester Prynne it was the symbolic removal of the red “A” for the Pyncheon’s it only took moving out of the House of the Seven Gables and leaving the past dead.

Another important message of The House of the Seven Gables (and perhaps its only hopeful message) is that our individual clinging to the past may not necessarily result in social stagnation. The Pyncheon wealth was in land and social prestige, but was largely used up by the opening of the story. When we meet Hepzibah, she is opening a small shop near the home in order to make ends meet. This may symbolize the shift to a democratic, commercial economy. Judge Pyncheon’s obsessive over the old land deeds and his position is really of the old colonial ways. Interestingly, the Pyncheons escape from the judge on a modern train. Holgrave–full of resentments to be sure–was the most modern character in profession and social mobility. (Was this a legacy of his witch heritage?) “Thought now bu twenty-two years old . . . he had already been, first, a county-schoolmaster; next, a salesman in a country-store; and, either at the same time or afterwards, the political-editor of a country-newspapers. He has subsequently travelled New England and the middle states as a peddler, in the employment of a Connecticut manufactory of Cologne water and other essences. In an episodical way, he had studies and practiced dentistry.” (503-504) It actually goes on, with his adventures in a utopian community, his participation in mesmeism, and his travels to Europe. It is hard not to see him as a symbol for democratic America.

 

 

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 (1838)

All of the Nathaniel Hawthorne stories in this set were published in 1838, mostly in the Democratic Review, which became his major platform for the next seven years of his life. He is also still ten years from picking up the pen to write his second novel A Scarlett Letter. It is also only eight years since his first published stories. Perhaps not enough of us read these authors (or listen to musicians) chronologically. There is a perspective gained by following the artists mind as they play with themes and live their lives. I notice a couple turns in Hawthorne’s writing in this year. One is a growing social and political critique grounded in the world that he lived in. He is becoming a more contemporary writer and less focused on the deep history of New England. This led him to a couple of sketches of contemporary figures (compared to his early sketches of Puritans). Second, he began to take some time to appreciate the nature around him. I do not think he was ever destined to become a nature writer of the caliber of Thoreau, but he did take out some time to smell the roses, so to speak.

The stories are “Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure,” “Endicott and the Red Cross,” “Night Sketches,” “The Shaker Bridal,” “Foot-prints on the Sea-shore,” “Thomas Green Fessenden,” “Time’s Portaiture,” “Snow-Flakes,” “The Threefold Destiny,” and “Jonathan Cilley.” The first of the last of these will draw most of my attention today, but I will give a passing glance at a few others which seemed to me can teach us something useful for living free lives.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” works as an extended critique of an aspect of American capitalism build on speculation. There has long been a tension in American capitalism between the creation of real wealth through labor, reflected in the work ethic, the frontier spirit, the strong manufacturing base of the early twentieth century, and the union town. Doubtless, the American economy created an enormous amount of wealth, through various forms of exploitation, but it did create. At the same time, speculation and schemes ran throughout American history. These are the forces always desiring to create wealth as if by magic, and always at the expense of someone else. As the character Frank Sobotka pointed out in the second season of The Wire, the speculators won out.

They were always there. They bought up paper money cheap after the Revolution on hopes they would be redeemed for real currency. They bought land on the frontier for a dollar an acre and flipped it to settlers. And they constructed the den of trickery called Wall Street. Americans are good at creating riches from magic. This is the central tension in “Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure.” “This wealth, according to tradition, had been accumulated by a former Peter Goldthwaite, whose character seems to have borne a remarkable similitude to that of the Peter of our story. Like him, he was a wild projector, seeking to heap up gold by the bushel and the cart-load, instead of scraping it together, coin by coin. Like Peter the second, too, his projects had almost invariably failed, and, but for the magnificent success of the final one, would have left him with hardly a coat a pair of breeches to his gaunt and grizzled person. Reports were various, as to the nature of his fortunate speculation; one intimidating, that the ancient Peter had mad the gold by alchemy; another that he had conjured it out of people’s pocket’s by the black art; and a third, still more unaccountable, that the devil had given him free access to the old provincial treasury.” (525–526) Peter Goldthwaite searches for this treasure and finds much evidence that the fortune did not go beyond the paper. “Peter saw piles of yellow and musty account-books, in parchment covers, wherein creditors, long dead and buried, had written the names of dead and burned debtors, in ink now so faded, that their moss-grown tombstones were more legible.” (528)

How many people struggle to pay their debts, sacrificing life or family or happiness? How many of those people ponder the actual significance of their debts in the broader scheme of things. Like the debts recorded in these ancient ledgers, they are vapor. Unfortunately, they are used all too frequently to enslave the living. How many myths have such power as the myth that paying one’s debts is a moral absolute? (See David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, for more on this.)

As the story progresses, Peter destroys the home searching for the treasure. This story really should have been revived in the aftermath of 2008.
“Endicott and the Red Cross” revives an old theme of the tension between tyranny and liberty in Puritan New England. It is also the first appearance of the red “A” as a sign of public humiliation. “It was the policy of our ancestors to search out even the most secret sins, and expose them to shame, without fear or favor, in the broadest light of the noonday sun.” (544) Endicott may have been a deep moralist, but he was also strongly opposed to external tyranny. But is this not always a tension in intentional communities? Hawthorne would experience this first hand when he lived on Brook Farm a few years after these stories were written.

“Foot-prints on the Sea-shore” is the nature writing I referred to above. Hawthorne approaches the scene with a degree of philosophical distance, but as with “Little Annie’s Ramble” he is enjoying the simple act of walking through a location, in total freedom, allowing his imagination to do the work. No, he is not bound by the reality of the scene. Listen with me: “Here can I frame a story of two lovers, and make their shadows live before me, and be mirrored in the tranquil water, as they tread along the sand. Here, should I will it, I can summon up a single shade, and be myself her lover. Yes, dreamer,— but your lonely heart will be the colder for such fancies. Sometimes, too, the Past comes back, and finds me here, and in her train comes faces which were gladsome, when I knew them, yet seem not gladsome now. Would that my hiding place were lonelier, so that the Past might not find me! Get ye all gone, old friends, and let me listen to the murmur of the seas,—a melancholy voice, but less sad than yours. Of what mysteries is it telling? Of sunken ships, and whereabouts they lie? Of islands afar and undiscovered, whose tawny children are unconscious of other islands and of continents, and deem the stars of heaven their nearest neighbors.” (567–568) I think we found little Annie grown up, but not lacking some of her childish spirit.

“Time’s Portraiture” is a memorable discussion of how horrible the passage of life can be, how great the burden of the past can be, and how the birth of new children makes us think (wrongly) that time is forestalled. Hawthorne ends the tale with a suggestion that we let time die because he so often pulls us into the past rather than projecting us into the future. The horror of Time is that is roots us to dead things, dead moments, and dead eras.
“Jonathan Cilley” is a nice little sketch of a young politician (I suppose near Hawthorne’s age) who died in a duel. He did not express much interest in contemporary politics in his earlier works, but the 1830s began the era of democracy in the US and I suppose politics became more difficult to avoid. Hawthorne was drawn to his humility and his honesty. Ah, the honest politician does not exist in contemporary politics. After 150 years, we no longer believe this figure exists. Hawthorne was sincerely impressed by Jonathan Cilley. In Hawthorne’s obituary, a figure like Cilley simply could not survive the brutal party politics, as reflected in his death in a duel, brought on by a political challenge. I think is worthwhile to read this sketch simply to think on where we have gone politically since 1838. Maybe there is still hope for political pleasure and political authenticity. If not, we need to ask why we can no longer look at a political obituary like this one by Hawthorne without cynicism.

John Cilley

John Cilley

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835): Fear the Gerontocracy

“Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments. I wonder how mariners feel, when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean—that wide and nameless sepulchre.” (306, from “The Ambitious Guest”)

The ten stories I looked at for today all appeared in print first in 1835 and carry with them some common themes as might be expected from such an aggressive expression of creative energies. Actually, he published fifteen stories in that year, including stories I looked at yesterday. One strong common thread is Hawthorne’s ominous presentation of the old, the ancient, the static, and the traditional. When set next to a work such as “Little Alice’s Ramble” (a story I feel in love with yesterday), this contrast becomes much clearer. Can we say that Hawthorne was at roots a Promethean, optimistic when it came to the  youthful, like the American republic itself during his life, and dark only when looking at the decrepit?  I will try to show that, in 1835 at least, Hawthorne consistently presented the old with a degree of suspicion and fear. If he is right, let me say that I totally agree with him. The idea that we have something special to learn from elders (by virtue of age and experience alone) is one of the most dangerous views out there. All things being equal, I will trust the child for a host of reasons, not least of which is that they need to live in this world much longer than the ancient.

The stories for today were “The Gray Champion,” “My Visit to Niagara,” “Old News,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Ambitious Guest,” “A Rill from the Town-Pump,” “The White Old Maid,” “The Vision of the Fountain,” and “The Devil in Manuscript.”

Hawthorne has a gerontocracy to work against thanks to the historical memory of New England and its Puritan elite. They are never far from his pen and they are the most common symbol of destructive, useless, rigid, or just plain silly values. He wants to tell his readers that despite a revolution and a century of distance, the Puritan elders maintain control over the minds of the people of New England, and rarely for the better. This is expressed in several places, including “The Gray Champion.” This story is essentially about the long-standing political and moral power of Puritanism in New England, even during a period of dramatic change brought on by James II’s attempt to rein in the colonies and the later Glorious Revolution. During the tyrannical rule of Sir Edmund Andros, the people of New England were challenged to stand up for liberty against tyranny, but the spirit of fierce independence that brought the Puritans to New England was weakening. This spirit lives on in the “gray champion” who appeared—it seems—out of the mists of time. He condemns Andros and threatens him with the return of the gallows, before retreating back to the shadows. The end of the story meditates on the meaning of these events, suggesting that this same spirit lived on in other events particularly the American Revolution. “But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come; for he is the type of New-England’s hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the even of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New-England’s son’s will vindicate their ancestry.” (243) This is actually a fairly positive image of the Puritan spirit, at least the part of it that led thousands to flee England and attempt to establish a new society away from the shackles of the king and his church. The ominous part of this is the Gray Champion’s unending moral authority and his authoritarian personality, his ability to command the attention of all and his immediate willingness to combine independence with the domination of morality, enforced by the gallows. It is also a reminder of how fine the line can be between tradition and liberty.

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

“Old News” is a summary of the highlights of New England’s history, including the French and Indian War and the Revolution. He makes some wonderful observations, including the way in which the newspaper record the minutiae of the life of the elite. Whatever nostalgia Hawthorne feels over this bygone age, is tempered by the realization that these newspapers are records of a dead world. “Whether it be something in the literary execution, or the ancient print and paper, and the idea, that those same musty pages have been handled by people—once alive and bustling amid the scenes there recorded, yet now in their graves beyond the memory of men—so it is, that in those elder volumes, we seem to find the life of a past age preserved between the leaves, like a dry specimen of foliage.” (275) We are ashamed not to reflect on those glories but cannot escape the fact that they are dead and poor models for the living.

The horrific nature of the Puritan past is the major theme of the famous “Young Goodman Brown,” about a man who attends a Witch’s Sabbath, populated by many of the town elders, who learns about the deep connection between New England’s traditions and the works of the devil. The events take on a dream-like quality when the protagonist, Goodman Brown, escapes the proceedings (which involve his wife he thought he left behind), but nevertheless, the hypocrisy of the community is exposed. Goodman Brown’s guide into the forest provides this historical context. “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war.” (278)

In other stories, the ancient is just associated with oddness or a vapid stability. A character in “The Ambitious Guest” said: “Old folks have their notions as well as young ones. You’ve been wishing and planning; and letting your heads run on one thing and another, till you’ve set my mind a wandering too. Now what should an old woman wish for, when she can go but a step or two before she comes to her grave? Children, it will haunt me night and day, till I tell you.” (305) In “A Rill from the Town-Pump” it appears as a location in the town that is home to deep traditions and many ghosts. The story contains a warning against inherited sin and a celebration of alternatives freed from these traditions. “Until now, the phrensy of hereditary fever has raged in the human blood, transmitted from sire to son, and re-kindled, in every generation, by fresh draughts of liquid flame. When that inward fire shall be extinguished, the heat of passion cannot but grow cool, and war–the drunkenness of nations–perhaps will cease. At least, there will be no war of households. The husband and wife, drinking deep of peaceful joy–a calm bliss of temperate affections–shall pass hand in hand through life, and lie down, not reluctantly, at its protracted close. To them, the past will be no turmoil of mad dreams, nor the future an eternity of such moments as follow the delirium of the drunkard. Their dead faces shall express what their spirits were, and are to be, by a lingering smile of memory and hope.” (312)

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The stories go on like this. “White Old Maid” gives us a quasi-ghost story about a widow who wanders through the town stuck in her grief for years. While the woman grows old from grief, we witness decaying buildings and the dominance of death and woe, which can only from from a world dominated by the past.

Ah, how I much prefer Little Annie and her ramble.

 

 

 

A. J. Liebling, “The Jollity Building” (1962)

The Jollity Building by the journalist A. J. Liebling is a fascinating examination of New York City’s history from below, by looking at one community between Forty-second street and fifty-second street in Manhattan known as the Telephone Booth Indians, a population of hucksters (“in what my Marxian friends would call a state of pre-primary acquisition”). The emphasis on “telephone booth” comes from the necessity of each member to have access to public phones for their lives. “The Telephone Booth Indians are nomads who have no attained the stage of culture in which they carry their own shelter. Like the hermit crab, the Telephone Booth Indian, before beginning operations, must find a habitation abandoned by some other creature, and in his case this is always a telephone booth.” (412)

jollity

The Jollity Building really seems to read like a history from way, way below, or perhaps what we can call a history from the gutter. It almost required a journalist to tell this story. Historians, focused on documents and official narratives, would tend to miss people like the mobile Telephone Booth Indians. But they seem to us, through Leibling’s account, to be entirely necessary to a full understanding of how the city worked politically, economically, and socially.

The book is made up of four stories. The first is about Izzy Yereshevsky, from Jewish peasant blood, who owned a cigar store on Forty-ninth street. Now, while Izzy himself seems legitimate (even refusing to drink and working all day), he is surrounded by a large population of more marginal people who are absolutely dependent on the cigar store as a center of their lives. Izzy offers credit (by accepting bad checks), helps book bets, and provides a neighborhood center of sorts. “The I. & Y. is also a free employment agency for hat-check and cigarette girls who meet concessionaries there. On winter nights, too, a few bedraggled ladies without escort come in to warm their feet.” (418) Places like Izzy’s cigar shop are the most important institutions for the working poor of the city.

The next story called “Tummler” is about Hymie Katz, a more suspicious figure from the neighborhood. He runs horse race betting establishments, clubs, whiskey wholesaling and other businesses crucial to the area but unlike Izzy lacked some of the legitimacy, partially because he constantly changed what he was doing. One club he ran made $250,000 in fourteen months. His social life is no more stable. As an unmarried man, Hymie is free to focus on his entrepreneurial activities. His clubs suggest a sort of capitalism from below, they are even capitalized from the gutter, so to speak. “All Hymie needs to open a night club is an idea and a loan of fifty dollars.” (421)

The next story is a closer look at the “Jollity Building” itself and the Telephone Booth Indian schemers. “A Telephone Booth Indian on the hunt often tells a prospective investor to call him at a certain hour in the afternoon, giving the victim the number of the phone in one of the booths. The Indian implies, of course, that it is a private line. Then the Indian has to hang in the booth until the fellow calls. To hang, in Indian language, means to loiter.” (432) This scheme requires them to sit all day in the lobbies so they become a conspicuous part of the neighborhood life. Inside the building there is a rich cultural life as well, as many tenants teach singing or dancing lessons, while others promote entertainers. The “Jollity Building” is really a history of entrepreneurial capitalism from below.

The final part of this short book, called “Yea Verily” moves our gaze up a bit, but we still find ourselves in the realm of scheming. It is about “Colonel John R. Stingo” who wrote articles for the New York Enquirer. He is a con-artist on a slightly larger scale than the Telephone Booth Indians. Liebling wrote about him in another work (The Honest Rainmaker). We see in some of Liebling’s other works (most notably The Press) that he was suspicious of journalism, but in this work it is hard to know for sure if Liebling is not playing a con on us (I suspect all journalism is the same, despite its desire for objectivity). Liebling had a history of falsifying names in stories himself. Stingo wrote on horse racing. Bear in mind, all of these stories were written and published separately before coming together in The Jollity Building. I think he wanted us to see the Telephone Booth Indians and Stingo as playing similar games. However, it ends with a rather interesting perspective on the role of truth in journalism (or any writing). “So I think the story is essentially, or in its entails, true, which is what counts.” (552) In this, Liebling suggests that the journalism may often replace deeper truths with banal truths.

stingo

Another theme of the work is that the institutions that matter to the people are not the institutions that are typically deemed important. A building lobby, a cigar store, the pub, a night club, a gossip-laden newspaper all played important roles for the people Liebling looked at in this work, perhaps much more important roles than the police stations, schools, or government offices that tend to be the center of attention of newspaper writers.