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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tennessee Williams: “The Rose Tattoo” (1950)

A man that’s wild is hard for a woman to hold, huh? But if he was tame—would the woman want to hold him? (Estelle, p. 662)

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In Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo we see yet another example of a strangely dysfunctional family that works to control or limit the options of younger members through the imposition of the values of the elders. As a comedy, the tale is light and ends with everyone ending up with the right person. In this case, the example is a Sicilian immigrant family in the Gulf Coast. Throughout the play it is largely isolated from the rest of the South, the contact from the outside coming in the form of a love interest to the young lady Rosa and a salesman who reminds us how closed off the South was to immigrants for much of the twentieth century. The plot mostly revolves around Rosa’s mother Serafina and her efforts to prevent the sailor, Jack, from courting her daughter. After the death of her husband, Serafina withdrawals more and more into her home and her work as a seamstress. This happens at the same time that Rose attempts to move away from those familial confines causing the central family drama.

Serafina is essentially incapable of thinking of a life without her husband. We cannot know the full reason why she became this way, but it is not hard to imagine similar people. She talks at length about the centrality of him in her life. It is presented in the context of an erotic discussion about monogamy.

When I think of men I think about my husband. My husband was a Sicilian. We had love together every night of the week, we never skipped one, from the night we was married till the night he was killed in his fruit truck on that road there! . . . I could up all the nights I held him all night in my arms, and I can tell you how many. Each night for twelve years. Four thousand—three hundred—and eighty. The number of nights I held him all night in my arms. (678–679)

Well, if truthful apparently monogamy works for her. Of course for the people that it works effortlessly for, the suggestion that others may feel the need to stray is unthinkable. The suggestion in the same conversation that her husband had an affair nearly drives her to madness. The traffic undercurrent of the incident is that you realize that Serafina is so fixated on the memory of her husband, she will not change. She is rooted in the past. This informs her interventions into her daughter’s love life with Jack. Jack is burdened with expectations since he is a sailor and presumed to be morally fallen.

Catholicism dwells in the background of The Rose Tattoo. Along with her widowhood, religion is the major restraint on Serafina’s moral independence. Her struggle is played out in a romance with Alvaro. In the end it works out well for everyone. Two new relationships are born and the past is overcome, at least temporarily. The tension of the play is still worth taking seriously despite it all ending quite nicely. Serafina spends most of the play in dreadful fear of the moral influence of the outside world. This protectionism has real consequences as Williams has shown in his more serious plays. She even strikes out at the Catholic schools, blaming them for what she saw as the moral decline of Rosa.

Today you give out the diplomas, today at the high school you give out the prizes, diplomas! You give to my daughter a set of books call the Digest of Knowledge! What does she know? How to be cheap already?—Of, yes, that is what to learn, how to be cheap and to cheat!—You know what they do at this high school? They ruin the girls there! They give the spring dance because the girls are man-crazy. (697)

It is, of course, our great joy when Serafina becomes man-crazy herself.

Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944)

I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent—why then, you’ll be free to go wherever you please, on land, on sea, whichever way the wind blows you! But until that time you’ve got to look out for your sister. I don’t say me because I’m old and don’t matter! I say for your sister because she’s young and dependent. (422)

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This is part of a short speech by Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I put it on there as an example of how the language of freedom is so easily a part of the lexicon of American literature. One could hardly say that the characters in the 1945 play are free. With the exception of the “gentleman caller,” Jim, none of the characters are able to break themselves free of their chains. Yet freedom remains the goal. This is part of the argument of this blog. The discourse on freedom is deep in the American mind, as evidenced by its literary heritage, despite—or perhaps because of—the authoritarian institutions, capitalism, family, and all the other shackles.

Williams produced a handful of plays during the war. I am skipping over, for now, the one-act plays collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (published in 1946) to look at the great run of plays he produced in the decade between The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This was period saw Williams rise in the theatrical world and the awarding of two Pulitzer Prizes (not that we should judge the works based on such standards).

I have never seen A Glass Menagerie, or any other Tennessee Williams plays, performed live. I suspect that it would be a very claustrophobic experience. Williams took great pains in the stage directions to create the setting for his “memory play.” There are only four characters. The setting is an apartment near an alley in St. Louis. Escaping even for a minute is presented as a victory. Amanda Wingfield is the mother and she lives entirely in the past, often repeating banal lessons about the way life if to her near captive children. At every moment she reinforces the idea that her children are incapable of moving beyond the home, despite demanding that of them. Laura, her daughter, is the owner of the titular glass menagerie, which occupies much of her time. She has a leg brace and this had led to her mother being overly protective of her. By the time of the play, Laura lacks any self-confidence and is completely dependent on her mother and brother. Williams writes about her that “Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” (394) Tom, the son, has a meaningless job but has greater ambitions. The needs of his mother and sister keep him at the apartment. He is the one most directly enslaved by the situation and the one most capable of rebellion. The final character is a breath of fresh air. Tom brings in Jim as a “gentleman caller” for his sister, although there is little hope that it will go anywhere. Jim is not a brilliant man but he is quickly able to diagnosis the situation in the apartment and knows enough to stay away.

The structure of play is suggested on the first page. “Part I. Preparation for a Gentleman Caller. Part II. The Gentleman calls.” This is more or less the end of Amanda’s dreams for her daughter. In Amanda’s mind, the only hope for her daughter is if some man saves her by marrying her. Amanda seems to live in a deluded past that recalls an endless train of suitors for her own hand. This reaches the level of a tall tale when we learn about one day with seventeen suitors. Tom wants to get out desperately. He often goes to movies just to escape the apartment and his queer mother and banal sister. Amanda assumes he is engages in all sorts of other activities, but Tom denies this. Eventually, he brings in Jim who politely gets to know Laura and leaves. It was not a serious date for Jim, although Amanda and Laura envisioned it as a central event in their life. All in all, it is quite horrible to watch unfold.

The date was more like a brief therapy session where Jim desperately encourages Laura to go out into the world and make something of herself on her own terms. “Why, man alive, Laura! Just look about you a little. What do you see? A world full of common people! All of ‘em born and all of ‘em going to die! Which of them has one-tenth of yoru good points! Or mine! Or anyone else’s, as far as that goes—Gosh! Everyone excels in some one thing. Some in many! All you’ve got to do is discover in what.” (454) There is a bit pomposity in this lecture (he looks in the mirror when he comments how some people excel in many things), but it is a lesson that a woman like Laura, who has been told all of her life that she is inadequate and needs the support of a man, needs desperately.

Tom is probably the only character who can escape. He has a job and some dreams of his own. He spends most of the play with one foot outside the door anyway. There seems to be to be little hope for Amanda or Laura. Amanda is too married to the past. She must live in the delusional house she created. Laura long lost any chance for emotional autonomy. The lesson of this play for our thinking about freedom is the devastating impact family can have. Oppression is much more likely to be something intimate. People like Bill Gates and Terry Guo may be worth billions and run little empires, but it is our immediate boss, the tedious middle manager who oppresses us day to day. To talk about the patriarchal marriage system seems besides the point in a play like The Glass Menagerie. The damage done to Laura was done by the ones closet to her. As long as living in freedom requires a free mind, the problem of the oppression of familial expectations will need to be addressed. I have no doubt that there are countless Lauras out there (and no small number of Toms). The people who create the chains around these victims need to be accountable.

Watch it for yourself.

James T. Farrell, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Studs’ Potential Chains

With their economic rise, the Negroes sought more satisfactory housing conditions. Besides, the black boys were happiest when engaged in the horizontals. That meant an increasing birth-rate amongst them, and another factor necessitating improved and more extensive domiciles. All these factors produced a pressure stronger than individual wills, and resulted in a minor racial migration of Negroes into the white residential districts of the south side. Blather couldn’t halt the process. Neither could violence and race riots. It was an inevitable outgrowth of social and economic forces. (457)

I open with this quote because, although it is told from the point of view of James. T. Farrell’s racist characters, it suggests the author’s politics. As much as the working class characters that populate his novels seem to deserve their fate, they were chained to specific institutional and economic realities. The escape route, tended to lead to disasters, but for some that may have been preferable to accepting the confines of these institutions.

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In my last post, I looked at some of the strategies of working class empowerment employed by Studs Lonigan and his friends in the James T. Farrell’s The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Lonigan’s commitment to whiteness and masculinity (as well as American jingoism) made it difficult for Lonigan to diagnosis the reasons for his personal immobility. We can add to this a whole host of personal failing. Even thought Studs was oblivious to the chains that bound him, the readers are not. The problem seems to be rooted in the culture of his upbringing and the options the working class communities of Chicago offered young men like Studs. He was given only three real options for community, social position, and respect outside of the streets and the pool-houses: the dialectic moralism of the Church, the banality of work, and family. I will call these “potential chains” because none of them trap Studs, but they remain ominous threats and the only sources for personal uplift offered by his community. It is easy to say that Studs should have suffered and accepted these options given to him, but this is hardly satisfying if we are after a truly free society.

We see many of the efforts of the Catholic church to hold onto Chicago’s young Catholics. Their efforts are not entirely without merit. Attempts to form clubs and hold dancers are authentic efforts to create community. The YMCA at one point attracts the men for health reasons, suggesting the Protestants were engaged in some of the same efforts. The problem was that it could not hold the men due to the strong moralism that all these actions involved. In a sense, it was a return to grade school for young men like Studs with the messages about the threat of hell, the need to live a godly life, and the generally authoritarian messages. Here is a sample of the rhetoric that I am sure rarely works on young men in their 20s.

For, my friends, your minds and your bodies are vessels of the Lord, given unto your keeping. They must not be abused. They are not tools for the indiscriminate enjoyment of what the world calls pleasure. There is one commandment which, above all, you must not violate. God says, clearly and without equivocation: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery!’ If you do, the torments of Hell await you for all eternity! (494–495)

Studs does not turn from the church at all. Instead he bears it with indifference while asserting his identity in public. Studs’ pursuit of personal freedom was real but misdirected. The promise of a banal life of guilt being offered by the Church was certainly not for him. Studs is provided an alternative. During a conversation with “an atheist,” who introduces Studs and some of his friends to the problem of evil, Studs is at least given the tools to think more critically about the church. This may have set him on a more liberatory path. Instead he remains committed to his Catholicism even though it seems to run contrary to his values. Studs and his friends rejecting out of hand the ideas of others by labelling them “atheists” or “reds” is a common motif in the book and serve as a reminder that a more creative person could have escaped some of these chain (at least at the level of perspective).

Alongside the institution of the church is the promise of work. Studs and his friends are often casually employed. It is not so much that work was hard to get. When the men needed work or set their task to finding work they tended to get it. But no one seems to particularly enjoy the choices they were given, so they mostly fall into and out of employment. It seem to me that voluntary precarious employment is a form of resistance to the work ethic and the type of life work offers. It is not the most radical or liberating of choices (especially when the burden of support falls on someone else), but it is a clear rejection of the work regimen. The Greek socialist, Christy, is the model for a more radical escape from work. Unfortunately, his approach is not so different from the priest. Christy takes to lecturing Studs and his pals about Debs, the war, and capitalism while taking singular pleasure in mocking Catholicism for hypocrisy. Clearly Christy does not know the first thing about organizing working people. His language is good for organizing the converted, but fails to convince others, especially those who evade work anyways.

Bolshevism is going to be justice for the workingman. He will no longer be a slave, work ten, twelve hours a day and have his children starved and underfed. He will have opportunities. Bolshevism will not allow greed, not allow capitalists to steal all the money to crush people, kill them in wars, to waste their toil on jewelry for silly women and silly wives. Russia is trying to make a decent world. America is trying to make a world for greed, capitalists, crooks, gangsters, criminals, and kill the working-man, make him a slave. (476)

Work, for these men, is still a burden they can avoid using it when the need to. Much like the church, it is an institution that has failed to trap them.

The final ominous threat to Studs is family. As this novel makes clear, it is quite unfortunate how young people escape one family only to be inevitably drawn into a new one. Some of his pals marry (which brings up the need for a steady job) and Studs begins to get a bit serious about courting a women he fell in love with as a child, Lucy. This is a disaster when he nearly rapes her after a rather awkward date, where he spends more time showing his contempt for other men than his affection for Lucy. Studs Lonigan’s own incompetence forestalls the shackles of marriage and we suspect that is what he wanted anyway.

So when the novel ends, we learn that however legitimate his evasion of the church, work, and family may have been, Studs is running out of time to chart an independent path for himself. This was not possible for him, because in the end, Studs was a conformist. Smart enough to reject some of the values and expectations of his parents, but not smart enough to think for himself. He had enough inspiration from contrarians, but he could never turn that into something authentic and original and adapted to his own needs and temperament.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Old Love” (1979)

As in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s other short story collections, Old Love is thematically diverse but largely confined to the experiences of the Jewish Disapora, being set either in pre-war Poland or in the United States. The most common character is someone like Singer, an aging scholar or writer who emigrated to the United States and enjoys rising fame. Singer himself was never a radical, although many of his themes touch on the struggle for locating human freedom within familial, institutional and cultural confines. In the introduction to Old Love he writes on what he sees as the major theme uniting this collection of stories.

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The love of the old and middle-aged is a theme that is recurring more and more in my work of fiction. Literature has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience. Furthermore, while many of the young believe that the world can be made better by sudden changes in social order and by bloody and exhausting revolutions, most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything by their own kind. The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and manifestations.

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Now, while I certainly agree with the first point and would submit that much suffering would be removed from the world if marriages entered into by people in their 20s expired after five years. The centrality of young people to romantic comedies is ridiculous beyond measure to anyone who actually gone through a dozen relations in as many years (especially the happily ever after parts). I do not think the logical conclusion of this is to reject youthful revolt, and his claim that revolt against the social order is always bloody and exhausting. I think Singer’s own evidence reveals a great number of older people in revolt against the central institution of their lives: family and marriage. Despite wanting to approach the theme of love among older people, we find it quite elusive and frustrated.

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Take for instance the first story in the collection, “One Night in Brazil.” The narrator visits an intellectual friend and finds his friend married an old acquaintance from Warsaw. She claims she has been possessed by a dybbuk. The husband goes off with a girlfriend. Lena, the woman, attempts to seduce the narrator but they are consumed by mosquitoes, return home full of bugs and blood. They wash it off in a grotesque scene just as the husband returns. We see in this story the themes of serial monogamy, the resultant alienation in marriage (seemingly made worse by the third or fourth attempt) and a strange pining for lost love. If this is an attempt at love among the old, the next story “Yochna and Schmelke” is about young people. Yochna is raised pious and arranged to marry Scmelk through her father. The story discusses the early feelings of Yochna during the marriage, especially the wedding night and its rituals. Contrary to tradition Scmelke left on the holy days with his father in law. The later returns, with the other assumed lost. She is abandoned and pregnant, because she cannot remarry if they do not find a body. Of course, this is not unlike marriages once they pass the honeymoon which quickly become corpses.

“The Psychic Journey” explores the banality of marriage, the attraction to novelty and the desire for companionship in late capitalist marriages that often keep couples separated. A psychic connection provides some hope for a more meaningful relationship. The narrator meets a woman interested in the occult while feeding birds. They begin a friendship based on mutual interests. It turns out she has been watching him and following his work and interests.  They take a trip together to Israel at the time the 1976 war breaks out. She abandons him. After the trip, he stops seeing Margaret and reunites with wife, Dora. He tells her he went to California, never mentioning the trip to Israel although Dora was in Tel Aviv at the time of their illicit trip. He later learns that Margaret has started psychic business in New York leading him to confess his trip with the strange woman.

Readers can easily come away from this collection with a feeling that married couples are required to scheme to keep sane, crafting elaborate images of each other or themselves just to keep the facade of the institution together. In “The Bus,” Singer uses the device of changing seats on a tour bus in Spain to allow the narrator to see two sides of each couple. Here is how one married couple talks about each other:

One good trait she did have—she could attact a man. Sexually, she was amazingly strong. I don’t believe myself that I am speaking of these things—in my circles, talk of sex is taboo. But why? Man thinks of it from cradle to grave. She has a powerful imagination, a perverse fantasy. I’ve had experiences with women and I know. She has said things to me that drove me to frenzy. She has more stories in her than Scheherazade. Our days were cursed, but the nights were wild. . .

Nothing is left me except my imagination. He drained my blood like a vampire. He isn’t sexually normal. He is a latent homosexual—not so latent—although when I tell him this he denies it vehemently. He only wants to be with men, and when we still shared a bedroom he spent whole nights questioning me about my relationships with other men. I had to invent affairs to satisfy him. Late, he threw these imaginary sins up to me and called me filthy names. (214–216)

Well, if Singer is after a description of love among middle-aged people, he may have succeeded in convincing me that as we get older our relationships get only more sociopathic and absurd. Maybe there is some wisdom in this. There are limits to how much any one of us can overturn our cultural and social baggage. This must explain the remarriage rates. Rationally, a marriage as a youthful mistake makes since, but remarriage must be insanity (more than once Since shows affairs to have the same banalities of regular relationships). But if for whatever reason staying is impossible and one finds themselves back into relationships, perhaps a bit of playful fatalism is the best we can hope for. But always beware that the strange sleeping next to you may burn your life’s work, decide to put a knife in your chest, or become possessed by the spirits of the dead. This is all to be expected.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “The Gilded Age” (1873): Assorted Thoughts

The major action in the second part of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age is about the failure of the Hawkins family attempt to sell their 75,000 acres of land in Tennessee to the U.S. government. Their scheme was to promote the establishment of a college of science and technology, which would have led to the purchase of the land for millions. Without getting into the details of this scheme, despite massive efforts of lobbying and bribing politicians, it fails catastrophically when taken to the floor of Congress for a vote. A second plot is about Laura Hawkins’ arrest for the murder of Colonel Selby, her lover who was pursuing a bigamist relationship with Laura. They actually married in the first half of the novel, but Selby quickly abandoned her before the marriage was reported.

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The impact of this relationship on Laura is quite significant. The authors connection it to the malevolent shift in her character. “Laura was ill for a long time, be she recovered she had that resolution in her that could conquer death almost. And with her health can back her beauty, and an added fascination, a something that might be mistaken for sadness. Is there a beauty in the knowledge of evil, a beauty that shines out in the face of a person whose inward life is transformed by some terrible experience? Is the pathos in the eyes of the Beatrice Cenci from her guilt or her innocence? Laura was not much changed. The lovely woman had a devil in her heart. That was all.” (140 – 141) There is an important message about the dysfunction of marriage that reminds me a bit of some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s depictions of marriage. If we look at Laura and Selby there is a basic conflict in their relationship as each is attempting to possess the other on their own terms. Too often we look at our relationships in this way, and this works into our culture. Women want men to themselves. Men will seek out to possess as many women as casually as possible. When Laura finds Selby in Washington with his “real” wife, she seeks to own him and when that fails she kills him. This murder and the trial that follows leads to much of the tension of the second half of the novel. If possession is at the heart of our relationships, then violence seems to be the inevitable result. On this, Twain and Warner and correct. Listen to Laura’s outrage (perhaps acceptable) but it is filled with the assumption of ownership, not unlike Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. “And you dare come here with her, here, and tell me of it, here and mock me with it! And you think I will have it, George? You think I will let you live with that woman? You think I am as powerless as that day I fell dead at your feet?” (281) Later the narrator asks: “Had she not a right to him?” In response to this dilemma, both turn toward plotting. It is all very unfortunate and ugly. It makes the nonmonogamists seem much more mature (of course because they are).

Twain and Warner spend lots of time cultivating the aura of Washington in the post-Civil War era, discussing the class divisions between the different political families, their social life, the networks that fueled corruption, and even how the environment tended to corrupt those who were not of Washington (Such as Washington Hawkins). “Renowned generals and admirals who had seemed but colossal myths when he was in the far west, went in and out before him or sat at the Senator’s table, solidified into palpable flesh and blood; famous statesmen crossed his path daily; that once rare and awe-inspiriting being, a Congressman, was become a common spectacle.” (181) Of course, after the Civil War, there were plenty of these awe-inspiring heroes. The authors seem to mourn how easily these people fell into the corruption of politics after the war ended.

We see several hints throughout The Gilded Age of the growing American empire. Many of the Western land schemes discussed in the book presuppose an imperial agenda, both in how the land was original secured and in the plans for development. At one point Colonel Sellers suggests overseas expansion in the context of the plan to annex Santo Domingo (a real but often forgotten effort at Reconstruction-era empire building). Sellers sold the plan as a way to gain Southern support for some of his other policies. Even the plan to build an industrial college on the Hawkins land is suggested as a part of the modernization of the South, bringing into the nation after the Civil War, establishing the South as a fundamental part of the U.S. empire. The former slaves are presented as semi-colonial subjects to be brought up under the tutelage of Washington. “We understand that a philanthropic plan is on foot in relation to the colored race that will, if successful, revolutionize the whole character of southern industry.” (287)

The novel ends with an acquitted Laura taking stock of her live and attempting to turn away from the evil woman that being jilted and working in Washington made her into. If there is a lesson here it is that the nation also could turn from that path (but perhaps only after coming to terms with itself through the equivalent of a trial). Her question for wealth from nothing, paralleled the quest of many others, but was shown to be vapid. “Her life has been a failure. That was plain, she said. No more of that. She would now look to the future in the face; she would mark her course upon the chart of life, and follow it; follow it without swerving, through rocks and shoals, through storm and calm, to a haven of rest and peace—or, shipwreck.” (432) It would have been a banal ending for Laura without the final ambiguity. Without the possibility of shipwreck, I do not think Laura would be completely happy. Do any of us really want a “haven of rest and peace.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835–1837)

“Votaries of the May-Pole merrily, all day long, have the woods echoes to your mirth. But be this your merriest hour, my hearts! Lo, here stand the Lord and Lady of the May, who I, a clerk of Ocford, and high priest of Merry Mount, am presently to join in holy matrimony.” (362)

In 1837, the first edition of Twice-Told Tales came out, collecting eighteen of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories. This appears to be a turning point in his life. He met his future wife in 1837 and gained the recognition of his classmate Henry W. Longfellow. Not long after, he began his work on children’s stories, which would continue throughout his life. I keep coming back to the story “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which seems to encompass so much of Hawthorne’s message. This may be lost if we focus too much on the “dark romanticism” and the sinister themes seen in “Young Goodman Brown” and other such stories. Like Philip K. Dick actually, Hawthorne fears the static and frozen world of the old, embracing the more creative, exuberant, and joyful perspective of children. From 1836 to 1837, his pace of writing slows a bit from the very impressive 1835. Partly this is due to his taking a job in Boston in a publishing company that quickly went bankrupt.

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The next ten stories I examined were “Sketches from Memory,” “The Wedding-Kneel,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Old Ticonderoga,” “A Visit to the Clerk of the Weather,” “Monsieur du Miroir,” “Mrs. Bullfrog,” “Sunday at Home,” and “The Man of Adamant.”

Some of these stories are centered on a marriage of some sorts and this is worth a few comments. “The Wedding-Knell” touches on something that I have examined a few times in this blog, the horror of the eternity implied in marriage. Of course, the time when people took such vows seriously is perhaps past, but the cultural assumptions are still there. The story is about the marriage of the dead, but is that not what married couples are in some ways. At least that is how they appear in popular fiction, especially romantic comedies. The story ends with the marriage, for what is to be said after that? It is the modern equivalent of “happily ever after.” In Hawthorne’s words: “‘Come, my bride!’ said those pale lips. ‘The hearse is ready. The sexton stands waiting for us at the door of the tomb. Let us be married; and then to our coffins!’” (357)

The symbolism of marriage is given a sharp edge in “The Minster’s Black Veil,” about a minister who takes to wearing a black veil in everyday life, horrifying the people around him, including his wife. With the black veil a funeral and a wedding are thematically united. “When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was the immediate effect on the guests, that a cloud seem to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles. . . .The bride’s cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridgegroom, and her death-like paleness caused a whisper, that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before, was come from her grave to be married.” (376)

It seems to me weddings are far too golly affairs. I much prefer the horrible imagery Hawthorne presents in these two stories. If more weddings were properly seen as funerals perhaps people would enter into marriages a bit more philosophically and perhaps the divorce rate would fall.
The theme from “Young Goodman Brown” of the relationship between the foundation of Puritan New England with dark rituals is in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Here the pagan rituals become a source of joy before being repressed. I found it much more fun as the ritual is not a witch’s Sabbath but more of a bacchanalia. Dionysius himself does not make an appearance but there is plenty of pagan celebration around the May-Pole, which united with Indian festivals. These are suppressed by the Puritan elders, specifically Governor Endicott. “As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gaiety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to it no more. But, as their flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest roses that had grown there, so, in the tie that united them, were intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys.” (370) What do you know, yet another wedding. How wonderful! Whither those early joys?

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It seems again and again in these stories, the joyful and free is so fragile and so quickly taken in by moral absolutism, which always seems to form a dark spot in the world. I do not really want to face Little Annie after she grows up, although we know her fate. “The Man of Adamant” tells of a man who seeks moral purity by fleeing into a cave with his Bible. In the end he becomes a corpse “embalmed” in the cave. Yet the spot remains a black hole for the community. “Yet, grown people avoid the spot, nor do children play there. Freidnship, and Love, and Piety, all human and celestial sympathies, should keep aloof from that hidden cave; for there still sits, and, unless an earthquake crumble down the roof upon his head, shall sit forever, the shape of Richard Digby, in the attitude of repelling the whole race of mortals—not from Heaven—but from the horrible loneliness of his dark, cold sepulcher.” (428)