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

In these latter years, since I have witnessed and participated in so many hard fights by Negros, through petitions, legal proceedings, and by political action, to secure high schools, I look back with almost unbelief at the simplicity, the assurance and ease with which I accomplished what I set out to do. Scarcely did the school board, to say nothing of the white people in general of Jacksonville, know it was being done. This is all there was to the plan in its beginnings: I first got the members of the class interested in the project; then I persuaded their parents to let them come back in the following year. (275)

In case you need it spelled out, that is a superb example of direct action by—in this case—a school principal. No law suits, no demonstrations, not direct confrontation to the power regimen. When James Weldon Johnson wanted to start a high school for black children, he just did it and dared the school board to stop him. How much of the struggle for racial equality was fought in just this way? Perhaps more than our standard textbook descriptions of the civil rights movement suggests.

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Along This Way is the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, written five or six years before his death. It is one of the most interesting and compelling autobiographies I had a chance to read. We learn that there was much in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man that was truth. He did learn Spanish from cigar rollers, went to school in Atlanta, had a familiarity with both Florida and New York City, participated in the black cultural life of the turn of the last century. All of this Johnson had in common with his protagonist. Also similar—but I guess this was someone everything in a racially-divided society came to terms with—was the education about racial hierarchy, taught at a young age.

The autobiography is in four parts. Part one focuses on Johnson’s upbringing, early education, intellectual growth, and life in college. Part two covers mostly the period where he was principal of Stanton School in Jacksonville, but this was also a period where he was intensely active in writing music and even operas along with his brother. For a period of years, this activity seemed to take up more of his time and energy than his full-time job as principal. (Parts three and four will be looked at in the next post).

Looking back on his life, Johnson was acutely aware of hierarchy and institutional rules. He experienced this in his family, but also in his education. His college created a very rigid disciplinary system suggesting an effort to control almost every aspect of his life. He recalled one moment when he stole away for a smoke, only to find out the next day the college’s surveillance system (whether it was a direct gaze or informers) revealed his crime to the authorities. Meetings with women were similarly regulated and controlled. We learned earlier in the story, however, that learning to smoke as an important part of his education as any other and was key to his social network in his teenage years. The big rules, however, were those of a racist society and Jim Crow.

We learn that before he was a formal activist for civil rights, he was challenging racism in his everyday life through evasion and sometimes direct confrontation. In one wonderful example, he challenged racial divisions in the train cars by pointing out that he could not stay in the “colored” car because some whites stayed there. (This seemed to be a common crossing of the color line.) He said that if he was to break the law, he would prefer to do it in first class. We learn about Homer Plessy or Rosa Parks, but I suspect incidents like this were actually part of the everyday life in the Jim Crow South. The point of all of this was that the lines were surprisingly fragile. It was because they were so fragile that force had to be so commonly applied. In another example we are presented with, Johnson was merely seen in public with a light-skinned woman and was nearly lynched. He reply to the police was, “The lady with me is white, but no legally so.” (316) His conclusion from this incident is important to reflect on, especially in an age where sexual possessiveness still inspires violence.

Through it all I discerned one clear and certain truth: in the core of the heart of the American race problem the sex factor is rooted; rooted so deeply that it is not always recognized when it shows at the surface. Other factors are obvious and are the ones we dare to deal with; but, regardless of how we deal with these, the race situation will continue to be acute as long as the sex factor persists. Taken alone, it furnished a sufficient mainspring for the rationalization of all the complexes of white racial superiority. It may be innate; I do not know. But I do know that it is strong and bitter; and that its strength and bitterness are magnified and intensified by the white man’s perception, more or less, of the Negro complex of sexual superiority.” (318)

This autobiography had a wonderful start. I expect the second half to deal more with Johnson’s life as an activist and writer. I look forward to thinking on his recollections.

By the way, if you have not hear it. This is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by Johnson and his brother Rosamond and sometimes called the “Negro National Hymn.”

Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer, Detective” (1896)

“You bet. Some day there’ll be a big reward offered for them—a thousand dollars, sure. That’s our money! Now we’ll trot in and see the folks. And mind you we don’t know anything about any murder, or any di’monds, or any thieves—don’t you forget that.” (768)

Surprisingly, the last of the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer, Detective—is not entirely superfluous. It is an extremely short novel (around 60 pages) covering Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s trip to the Phelps farm, sometime after the events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This was the location where they freed Jim. The plot centers on three brothers, the Dunlap. Jubiter Dunlap is Silas’ farm laborer. Jack Dunlap is a convict escaped from jail and stole some diamonds from his ex-partners. Brace Dunlap is a more established man in the community but no dear friend of Silas. Tom and Huck first get involved in this mess when they begin to aid Jack in evading his former partners. When Jubiter goes missing, Silas gets accused of murder and is put on trial.

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Indeed, Silas confesses to striking Jubiter. Perhaps this is to surprising in a slave society build on terror and violence. Of course, such violence only became a legal issue of import when a free man was harmed (women and slaves were not so protected by the law). “He [Silas] said Jubiter pestered him and aggravated him till he was so mad he just sort of lost his mind and grabbed up a stick and hit him over the head with all his might, and Jubiter dropped in his tracks. Then he was scared and sorry, and got down on his knees and lifted his head up, and begged him to speak and say he wasn’t dead.” (785) Jubiter only fled the scene, but it does show the true character of Silas and the nature of rural slave society in antebellum America.

The final chapter shows Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as detectives, trying to prove that Silas did not murder Jubiter. He did this before in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a witness, but he is closer to Silas’ lawyer in this novel, suggesting once again that Tom’s future is in the adult world of law, profit, and capital. I opened this post with a quote by Tom discussing the financial boon he could look forward too, if the duo played their cards right.

The resolution of the case is revealed by Tom at the trial. Jubiter came back to town, unable to talk and in disguise. The murdered man was Jake Dunlap, who was killed by his ex-partners for the diamonds, and his body was made up to look like Jubiter. Brace Dunlap used the murder as a way to get revenge on Silas for not allowing him to marry the young Phelps girl. In the end, Tom gets the reward for the missing diamonds and splits his financial windfall with Huck.

We see the return of several of the themes of the Tom Sawyer novels, such as the odious nature of the adult world, the violence implicit in the search for wealth and power, and the potential of vernacular understandings. Although Tom does seem to be growing up into his future role as a rich lawyer (or something akin to that), he still depended on Huck for solving the mystery and gained information through an understanding of the community from the perspective of the gutter. Lost in this (as in Tom Sawyer, Abroad) is the strong discourse on freedom that were in the earlier books in this series. Huck is important as a narrator and his is still humorous and fun to read, but he is more of a foil for Tom, giving him someone to talk to and at times correct. In both of these later Tom Sawyer novels, Huck makes few autonomous choices. This is in sharp contrast to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he confronted deep moral questions.

For me, the most tragic element of this novel is the growing gravitas of Tom Sawyer, seen in the final court scene. The child who tried to get out of going to school, fought neighbors, and played pirate is slowly dying. Any future novels in the series must be about Tom finding a career. As for Huck, by not following through on his wish to go West, he really does not have a place in the world. But there are signs in this novel and in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Huck is being slowly civilized. This is all very sad.

Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876): Growing Up

“’Who’s Robin Hood?’
‘Why he was one of the greatest men that was ever in England—and the best. He was a robber.’
“Cracky, I wisht I was. Who did he rob?’
‘Only sheriffs and bishops and rich people and kings, and such like. But he never bothered the poor. He loved ‘em. He always divided up with ‘em—perfectly square.’
‘Well, he must ‘a’ ben a brick.’
‘I bet you he was, Huck. Oh, he was the noblest man that ever was. They ain’t any such men now, I can tell you.’” (157)

That the main plot of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is about children pretending to be robbers and praising the accomplishments of robbers while also engaged in a real serious life and death battle with a real robber, totally odious in practice with none of the nobility imagined by children, is very significant. Tom and Huck can play robber, but when they encounter a real robber, they face him with maturity, courage, and nobility. This tells us that Mark Twain did not believe that the line between play and reality was that far. Play did not create a false vision of the world, even as it did allow for playful imagination. We can believe that Tom and Huck after meeting Injun Joe still believe that robbers could be heroic and noble Robin Hoods. In fact, we know this is true because Tom recommits himself to being a robber even after becoming rich (even if that is to scam Huck into staying with the Widow Douglas).

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The adult worlds and the creative constructions of young people are mostly separate through the first half of the novel, but they become increasingly intertwined and combined in the second half. One example of this is the introduction of the summer activities to St. Petersburg, which brings, momentarily, a childish spirit to the entire town. A black minstrel show, the Fourth of July celebrations, a circus, a phrenologist and a mesmerizer all came in turn and “left the village duller and drearier than ever” when they left. By and large, it is the children who are forced into adult responsibilities, fears, and troubles.

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The murder trial of Muff Potter was the first time in the novel when Tom Sawyer was given a truly adult responsibility. The burden was on him to defend Muff Potter’s innocence. Of course to do so meant witnessing against Injun Joe, who sat in the audience looking fearsome. Although this made him a town hero, he remained in perpetual fear of Injun Joe. “Injun Joe infested all his dreams, and always with doom in his eye. Hardly any temptation could persuade the body to stir abroad after night fall.” (148) While most of us, I hope, enter adulthood without such a traumatic experience, fear is a component of that transition for most. Fear of money, fear for safety, fears of eternal loneliness. These are all ways that we are brought into adult responsibilities of college, careers, marriage, and saving.

Despite this, Tom is able to defend his freedom in the face of the pressures of creeping adult responsibility and he embraces them with greater seriousness and stoicism. This is what makes his assurance to Huck at the end of the book that he remains committed to being a robber feel so tragic. If he does grow to be a robber, it might very well be as a land speculator…although we do not share such fears for Huck. We already see in Tom some attraction to wealth that seems to be lost on Huck, when he looked on Injun Joe’s “treasure.” “He never had supposed for a moment that so large a sum as a hundred dollars was to be found in actual money in any one’s possession. If his notions of hidden treasure had been analyzed, they would have been found to consist of a handful of real dimes and a bushel of vague, splendid, ungraspable dollars.” (165) We can appreciate this childish approach to money (especially when people today hoard wealth that is literally inconceivable). There is some end to Tom’s innocence when looking at the wealth. It is clear from later passages that he wanted that treasure.

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Both of the young boys get their chance to become local heroes, but again we find a different between the two. Huckleberry Finn’s heroism is anonymous as he informs on the actions on Injun Joe to the Welchman. Tom is more famous as he saves Becky from their (quite scary) adventure of being lost in a cave occupied by Injun Joe, at his final hideout. After his escape he did not tell about noticing Joe there, an oversight that had tragic consequences.

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Tom’s role in killing Injun Joe needs to be addressed as part of his more harsh entrance to adulthood. Huck will enter adulthood through a moral question. Tom’s entrance to adulthood is shaped by violence and the acquisition of wealth. For two weeks, Tom did not mention bumping into Injun Joe in the caves. During those two weeks, the people of St. Petersburg locked the cave shut to prevent other children from getting lost. Only then does he tell the adult that Joe was there. Twain’s description of Injun Joe’s is one of the most horrible descriptions I have ever read and it has stayed with me for years. It conveys not only the horror of his death but the isolate that helped create Injun Joe and the insignificance of a single human life in the context of time.

In the final scene, Tom tricks Huck into becoming civilized. He perhaps does not know that civilizing Huck would end what Tom and the others of the town so admired about Huck. Tom perhaps just wanted him around him as a friend. He uses the attraction of a robber gang to convince Huck to be adopted by the Widow Douglas. In a way the final dialog between the two is a battle between adulthood and childhood, civilization and freedom.

Huck commits to staying with the “widder,” but it is his earlier words that stay with us. “The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell—everything’s so awful reglar a bodyc an’t stand it. . . . I ain’t everybody, and I can’t stand it. It’s awful to be tied up so. And grub comes too easy—I don’t take no interest in vittles, that way. I got to ask, to go a-fishing; I got to ask, to go in a-swimming—dern’d if I hain’t go to go ask to do everything. Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort—I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out a while, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she woundn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks.” (212)

Welcome to the adult work Huckleberry Finn. I am glad you see it my way.

Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876): Living Like Tom Sawyer

“The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that they were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.” (63)

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is my candidate for the book that serves as a primer on freedom. It is not insignificant that it was published in 1876, when the United States was celebrating its centennial. He wrote these words at a time when Americans were that they were trying to tell the world of their success as a bastion of freedom. “Although my book it intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.” (Preface) It is almost as if he is challenging his readers to look elsewhere for models of freedom. It exists not in the political realm, but in social relations, such as those created by children as they imagine their world.

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The first half of the Tom Sawyer centers on the experiences of Tom in St. Petersburg as a boy living under the care of his Aunt. He gets in fights, completes chores around the house, goes to Sunday school, plays with Huckleberry Finn, had various adventures as pirates. The major plot point that occurs during this first half is that Tom and Huck witness Injun Joe’s murder of Dr. Robinson. This terrifies the boys and they spend some time hiding out on an island. Tom is able to turn even that into a game as he crashes his own funeral, but only after playing pirates. In the second half of the novel, the plot is more significant, as Tom and Huck manage to find Injun Joe’s treasure (the money he stole). Injun Joe dies in the cave that he fled to, but only after Tom’s harrowing escape from the same cave. I will assume most people know this basic outline and the details. I want to talk more about what we can learn from Tom Sawyer (and Huck as well) about freedom.

If the novel has an argument, it is that the adult world is corrupt, exploitive, controlling, and overall despicable, while children, engaging the world freely, are creative, cooperative, and basically good. Injun Joe, for all the racial interpretations we can give his character is basically a representative of the adult world. The solution to Injun Joe by other adults is to lock up the cave, essentially imprisoning their most conspicuous problems. But even when not so dramatic, we are given to see the rules and antics of the adults as ridiculous and certainly not conducive to a free environment.

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One thing that Tom Sawyer does that we should learn from is that he turned work into play. As readers of my blog already know, I am post-leftist in my attitude toward labor. The primary purpose of technology, in my view, is the abolition of work. Most work that is being done now should be covered to various forms of play. This is what Tom achieved in the white-washing scheme, but it is rather impure, which leads me to think that Tom would (unfortunately) grow up to be a boss or a lawyer or something. He tries to convince others to do his work for him, by suggesting to them that it is play. Is this not the approach of many managers (think of the antics of Michael Scott from The Office)? Still the philosophy behind this, when not used for exploitation is valuable. “If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would not have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that Ply consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (20)

Tom Sawyer is an example of infrapolitics at work, almost all of the time. He is in constant rebellion against authority and he has no shortage of strategies to manipulate the powerful toward his will, or simply finding pleasure in them. Whether it is evasion of school, methods of recalling Bible verses (and maybe getting a free Bible in the process), or finding ways to pleasurably hack the strange rituals and sentiments of adults, Tom Sawyer was an expert. Sometimes they very much reflect the weapons of the weak and take the form of foot dragging and open declarations of exhaustion and frustration. At times, his resistance was more open and courageous, such as his open confession: “I STOPPED TO TALK TO HUCKLEBERRY FINN.” (49) Combined, however, various forms of infrapolitics created the space within which Tom Sawyer was able to craft his world.

There is a moment in the early part of the book, where Tom Sawyer ponders the questions that all children get at one point in their life: What do you want to be when you grow up? He goes through several options, such as becoming an Indian, a soldier, or a clown before settling on his future as a pirate. One way to look at this is that Tom Sawyer is not being as creative as I am suggesting above. It seems he is copying the archetypes (heroic and villainous) that he had picked up from the adult world, through literature and stories. But I do not think it is that simple. Because we cannot deny the role of play in constructing the meaning of these professions for Tom and his friends. If on the one hand, Tom Sawyer was using play to train himself to be a pirate, learning sword fighting and how to ransom prisoners. On the other hand, Tom was also re-creating the meaning of being a pirate. Even when engaging with texts (Tom liked to complain that a certain response is not how it is done in the books), he is pushing the boundaries of these heroic ideals, as in the gang’s decision at the end to tradition of stealing. And for those who say that Tom could not have ever grown up to be a pirate, I need merely point out the long tradition of outlaws in the Wild West, which really came alive during the Great Depression.

Something should be said about Huckleberry Finn.  If we can imagine Tom Sawyer growing up to be a lawyer, it is because he is still within the realm of the civilized. He may grumble and chores or going to Sunday school, but he still shows up eventually—even if always in some mode of resistance. Huck Finn exists completely in the world created by himself and the other children. The consequences of this is one of the major tensions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The opening description is worth reading (and should be required on all naturalization examinations instead of a list of presidents). “Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance. Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim. . . Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anyone.” (45) It goes on, but you get the point. Please look up the entire description yourself. Bear in mind, this is the narrator’s (apparently adult) point of view, not that of Tom or (as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) Huck himself. That narrator is a nostalgic adult who looks back on his childhood as containing a lost freedom. Huck is important because he is the freest in this social space, exactly because he is the only figure that is totally de-institutionalized.

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In short, Huck is able to be establish himself as more free than Tom (in both image in reality) because he was able to free himself from the adult world entirely. At the end of the day (or the end of the adventure) Tom goes back to Aunt Polly. Huck goes back to the barrel.

One area where the freedom of the children of St. Petersburg is particularly strong is in culture. This is not uncontested, as the chapter dealing with Sunday school suggests. One child was even became an “idiot” after memorizing 3,000 useless Bible verses. Certainly there are efforts by the adults to control how the children view the world, but they also cannot keep form them the stories of pirates and robbers that so inspired their play. The children are also deep believers in superstition and tend to put value in odd places. Examples of this include the odd collection of valuables that Tom collected during his whitewashing scheme and Huck Finn’s belief that dead cats (one of which he owns) cures warts. As Twain explains in the brief preface, these were beliefs that were common “among children and slaves in the West.” He is hinting at not only a biracial culture, but also a strongly vernacular one.

Although this post is long enough, I really cannot move on until I say a few words about Injun Joe. Like Huck, Injun Joe is a notorious outsider. His physical strength, his racial otherness, and his use of violence make him a much more dangerous outsider. If we do not suspect that Huck will grow up into another Injun Joe, it is because of the later’s racial otherness and Huck’s good nature. As The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells us, the people of St. Petersburg were willing to invest great resources to “redeem” Huck. No such investment is given to the total outsider Injun Joe. I still want to read Injun Joe as a mirror image of Huck. The fact is, given “civilization” Huck cannot remain free. There is a dark cloud over our joyful appreciation of the children’s freedom. They must grow up. Even Huck must grow up. If he remains socially isolated he is really at risk of becoming a criminal outsider (not just a notorious one). Again, the sequel shows that he does not respect the social rules when he tries to free Jim—who he wrongfully believed was still a slave. We imagine he would be a good-hearted criminal. Twain paints Huck and essentially good and Injun Joe as essentially vile. However, who is to say the result of years of exclusion and built up resentment. At the very least, we can see that Injun Joe is a possible result of forced exclusion. Huck Finn (in his youth at least) is an example of exclusion by choice.
(I am ambivalent about this train of thought.  If anyone can help me, please comment below.)

The solution to this is to make growing up unnecessary. I think we can start by turning work into play, but this may be a job we need to leave to the young.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys” (1852): In Praise of Remixing

“It would be a great pity if a man of my learning (to say nothing of original fancy) could not find a new story, every day, year in and year out, for children such as you.” (“Tanglewood Porch: Introduction to ‘The Gorgan’s Head,’” 1166)

Perhaps too much children’s literature takes on a moral message. A great thing about A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys is that it is arranged as a dialogue with the listeners. The major arc of the book takes place in the Tanglewood academy, where one of the children, Eustace Bright, retells stories from Greek mythology to the students. After each tale is told, an interlude is include in which the other students speak their mind about the story, often reinterpreting the story in ways radically different from traditional readings. Over the course of a year, we hear of six such story sessions, including some “often-told” tales: Perseus and the Gorgon, King Midas and the golden touch, Pandora’s box, Heracles and the golden apples, the bottomless pitcher, and Bellerophon’s slaying of the Chimera. I would like to point out my initial reading of some of these tales and follow with the voices of the children who take their own message from it.

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The Gorgon’s Head
One thing I enjoyed about that new version of Clash of the Titans was how the emphasis was on the triumph of humanity over the scheming of the gods. In the story retold by Hawthorne—and I suppose this is the standard version because it is in the version of the Perseus tale I read to my daughter—the hero triumphs over the kings with the help of Hermes (called Quicksilver here). This version removes the battle with the Leviathan and Persesus winning of a bride and centers just on the slaying of Medusa and Perseus’ return to slay the king who sent him on the foolish quest. Here the gods are not the malevolent forces they appear in my memory of Greek mythology. The horrors comes from men. The children, however, were more interested in the Three Grey Woman who shared a single eye.

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The Golden Touch
The story of Midas sets up a broader discussion among the children over the meaning of the story. In Hawthorne’s retelling of the Midas story, Dionysus is replaced with a simple man (I suppose it still could be Dionysus). He also focuses much more on the relationship between Midas and his daughter, who is given a prominent place in this story. The children’s response is fascinating. One points out immediately that in the world she lives in most adults seem to have a “Leaden Touch” and “make everything dull and heavy that they lay their fingers on.” Another wants the ability to turn things from gold, back again in order to change the autumn leaves to green. Eustace seizes on this idea and invents an origin of the beautiful New England autumn. King Midas “gilded the leaves of the great volume of Nature.” (1210–1211)

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The Paradise of Children
Hawthorne very carefully constructs his retelling of the story of Pandora as both a fall from innocence and a fall from eternal childhood. “Then everybody was a child. They needed no fathers and mothers, to take care of the children; because there was no danger, nor trouble of any kind, and no clothes to be mended, and there was always plenty to eat and drink.” (1215) What I see coming through is that Hawthorne retold these stories for the ears of children. Too often the stories remain adult in content and perspective, but are merely simplified. In my memory of the story of Pandora’s Box, the stress is on the origin of adult problems. Hawthorne prefers to dwell on the world of blissful childhood. In the post story dialogue, one of the children thinks only about how she would have been punished for the act, apparently ignoring the sins Pandora unleashed. Another child, wondered if every evil was unleashed. Eustace confirmed this by providing an example of a very youthful dilemma, a snowstorm that stopped them from ice skating (he is telling this tale in winter). The child replies that that is not trouble at all, “but a pleasure.” (1230)

So, you get the idea of how Hawthorne constructed these re-tellings as a dialog with children and how the children pushed the interpretation of the stories, stealing them from the authority. Eustace discusses this in more detail at the close of his re-telling of the Heracles/golden apples/Atlas story. “And besides, the moment you but any warmth of heart, any passion or affection, any human or divine morality, into a classic mould, you make it quite another thing from what it was before. My own opinion is, that the Greeks, by taking possession of these legends, (which were the immemorial birthright of mankind,) and putting them into shapes of indestructible beauty, indeed, but could and heartless, have done all subsequent ages an incalculable injury.” (1255) There you have it, a brilliant argument for the creative power of remixing.

Children’s literature must leave children free to think about their world on their own terms. Any moral message will be from a bygone age (that of their parents and grandparents) and whatever their wisdom may have been, it will not necessarily be of use to the epoch that is emerging. And if it is, the next generation will get there on their own, without our help.

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If you allow me one final quote from this brilliant little book.
“For my part, I wish I had Pegasus here, at this moment. I would mount him, forthwith, and gallop about the country, within a circumference of a few miles, making literary calls on my brother-authors. Dr. Dewey would be within my reach, at the foot of Taconic. In Stockbridge, youder, is Mr. James, conspicuous to the world on his mountain-pile of history and romance. Longfellow, I believe, is not yet on the Ox-bow; else the winged horse would neigh at the sight of him. But, here in Lexos, I should find our most truthful novelist, who has made the scenery and life of Berkshire all her own. On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale,’ while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him from his study-window. Another bound of my flying steed would bring me to the door of Holmes, whom I mention last, because Pegasus would certainly unseat me, the next minute, and claim the poet as his rider.” (1301)

This literary heritage summarized here is ours to remix. And this is one of the goals of my project.

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: Stories (1832-1835), Triumph of the Vernacular

“She feels that impulse to go strolling away—that longing after the mystery of the great world—which many children feel, and which I felt in my childhood. Little Annie shall take a ramble with me.” (228, from “Little Annie’s Ramble”)

I am finding in Nathanial Hawthorne’s short stories a touching documentation of the endurance and power of the American vernacular. I will confess to being heavily influenced lately by James Scott’s newest book Two Cheers for Anarchism, which suggests that the anarchist tension of everyday life exists in the many vernacular processes at work in all social spaces (whether in traffic, the workplace, or in the actual functioning of a city). Take for instance, “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” first published in 1834. The story is about a traveling tobacco peddler, who makes his way through New England. This man, Dominicus Pike, plays a role in the area far beyond his selling of various grades of tobacco and seducing local farm girls. He was a reporter of sorts, “always itching to hear the news, and anxious to tell it again.” (188) When hearing the news about the murder of Mr. Migginbotham by “an Irishman and a nigger.” He begins to make a name for himself retelling the story in every town on his circuit. The story develops with each telling. This is the power of an oral culture. With stories written down, confirmed, and supported by evidence, they become reified and quickly stale. With rapid retellings it becomes possible to improve on the truth. This tension is worked out when the lawyers get involved and try to get Pike to write down his deposition. As it turns out, Higginbotham is not dead, a fact confirmed by lawyers and members of the Higginbotham family. The one telling the story to Pike was a conspirator hoping to commit the murder but was stopped by Pike’s fortunate arrival. Another benefit to having plenty of well-natured people wandering civilization seems to be that they work as a set of eyes that reaches places the state  cannot. Hawthorne does touch on the more insidious nature of vernacular myth-making, such as the real threats it posed to a black man, deemed by listeners to be the murderer. This aside, I want to touch on the joy created by Pike’s constant retelling of the tale. He did this not as an authority (as an author) but in a more popular format, laced with uncertainty. “He deemed it advisable, however, not to be too positive as to the date of the direful fact, and also to be uncertain whether it were perpetrated by an Irishman and a mulatto, or by the son of Erin along. Neither did he profess to relate it on his own authority, or that of any one person; but mentioned it as a report general diffused.” (192) This way, the tale could evolve on its own right.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

“The Gentle Boy” is a nice little story about a Puritan family taking in the surviving son of a persecuted Quaker family. They are conflicted between their desires to take in this wounded child, but their duty to the Puritan community which saw Quakers (even children) as unredeemable. Their solution—not unexpected—is to raise the child in a good Puritan fashion. Although this turns out to be easier vowed than achieved. When the boy’s mother returns to preach Quakerism and mostly against Puritan persecution, she initially attempts to take her son with her but changes her mind due to the potential of a good home, even if it is bought at the price of her religious values. Her sacrifice is total. When persecution ends due to royal order, it is too late. Interesting for us is how both the boys natural and adopted parents attempted a more practical and humane approach to the one offered by religious doctrine.

The Hawthorne stories for this post cover the period from 1832 and 1835, consisting of “The Gentle Boy,” “The Seven Vagabonds,” “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” “Sir William Pepperell,” “Passages from a Relinquished Work,” “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” “The Haunted Mind,” “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” “The Vilage Uncle,” and “Little Annie’s Ramble.” As you can see from some of the titles, the marginal, mobile person is prominent in these texts. At times, Hawthorne all but shouts at us to break free from our provincial, hometown perspective and venture out. Sometimes, that requires uncovering the truth behind the local history, so important to the New England setting for Hawthorne.

As “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” opens we meet a trio walking up a hill on the outskirts of town. It is “Gallows Hill,” a place of executions in an earlier era. “But the curious wanderer on the hill will perceive that all the grass, and everything that should nourish man or beast, has been destroyed by this vile and ineradicable weed [wood-wax]: its tufted roots make the soil their own, and permit nothing else to vegetate among them; so that a physical curse may be said to have blasted the spot, where guilt and phrenzy consummated the most execrable scene, that our history blushes to report.” While a horrifying place in many ways, deemed off limits by the society, the narrator urges its exploration. “[H]ow few come on pilgrimage to this famous hill; how many spend their lives almost at its base, and never once obey the summons of the shadowy past, as it beckons them to the summit.” (205–206) This place of horrible punishment and Puritan tyranny is confronted, imagined, and ultimately challenged by the boldness of the narrator and his two companions. The community’s silence and isolation of Gallows Hill allowed the suppression of this historical memory. The past may not be fully escapable but it can often be forgotten. This is another role of the vernacular in our communities. They hold onto memories that would more likely be forgotten by institutions and too often by communities (e.g. violent labor conflicts, lynching).

I started here with “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which I found breathtakingly beautiful in its celebration of the optimism, curiosity, and moral courage of children. (I cannot help but be reminded of Huck Finn in a story like this.) “Is not little Annie afraid. . . No; she does not even shrink closer to my side, but passes on with fearless courage. . . . Many, many have leaden feet, because their hearts are far heavier than lead.” (229) Ah the contrast here almost does not need commentary. During the ramble we learn that Annie is not bound by the burden of the written word but consumes literature for the pictures, which create new worlds in her imagination. The story is mostly a journey through Annie’s imagination and her creative reworking of the tales and folklore of her culture. Along with her is an older companion who appreciates her freedom and dwells on the comparative confinement and banality of the adult world. When we come to the community of the beasts, so important to the minds of children we find this lovely thesis on liberty, lost on so many of our leaders. “But they are choosing neither a king nor a Presidents; else we should hear a more horrible snarling! They have come from the deep woods, and the wild mountains, and the desert sands, and the polar snows, only to homage to my little Annie.” (232) Later, the related statement: “Are there any two living creatures who have so few sympathies that they cannot possibly be friends?” (232–233) If to make his point about the huge divide between the mind of the child and the adult world, the only animal that Annie dislikes is the monkey, because it looks just too human.

Ah, Hawthorne’s advice for us is well-taken. “When our infancy is almost forgotten, and our boyhood long departed, though it seems but as yesterday; when life settles darkly down upon us, and we doubt whether to call ourselves young any more; then it is good to steal away from the society of bearded men, and even of gentler women, and spend an hour or two with children.” (235)