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

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


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

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


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

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

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

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

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

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of James Madison” (Part One)

The government expected no other difficulties in the Southern country, and had no reason to fear them. If new perils suddenly arose, they were due less to England, Spain, or the United State than to the chance that gave energy and influence to Tecumthe. The Southern Indians were more docile and less warlike than the Indians of the Lakes. The Chicksaws and Choctaws, who occupied the whole extent of the country on the east back of the Mississippi from the Ohio to the Gulf, gave little trouble of anxiety, and even the great confederacy of Muskogees, or Creeks, who occupied the territory afterward called the State of Alabama and part of George, fell in some degree into a mode of life which seemed likely to make them tillers of the soil. (771)

In the final quarter of his history of the Jeffersonian Republicans during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Henry Adams breaks from tradition. Previously, he divided each term into two volumes, each covering a legislative session. In his coverage of the second term of Madison, however, he uses three volumes and spends most those three volumes on the first year and a half of that term, up until the Treaty of Ghent ends the War of 1812. He has little to say about the rest of Madison’s achievements (perhaps there were none) and instead centers on the changes to the nation since Jefferson took office.

My basic reading of Henry Adams history (see the previous six posts) has been a bit contrarian but largely supportive. He was writing a history of the United States in the world a century before it would become cool to do so. Indeed, it is now the newest way to be trendy enough to (with a little luck) land an academic post. My own book is in this tradition. Certainly, he is still too much in diplomatic history, but my placing much of the story in London, Paris, or Madrid, Adams was being quite forward thinking. While another great historian of the turn of the century, Frederick Jackson Turner, was looking to the frontier, Adams still saw the American story in an Atlantic context. Adams sees a general irony in the Jeffersonians. They came into office hoping to undo the Federalist project, but had more or less enshrined it by 1817, when Madison retired. Yes, the Federalists were defeated, but not because their ideas were destroyed. Instead, the Federalists were co-opted. This is a common enough occurrence in American politics that we need not dwell on it now. My contrarian reading has been that Adams missed a larger irony, and one much more destructive. What the Jeffersonians did not want to confess was that the United States was like Europe in imperial ambition. By doubling the size of the nation and then fighting what can only be looked at as a war of empire. Britain and the U.S. were fighting over who would dominate North America. In my last post I argued that the war, being fought with debt and by the working poor, should be eerily familiar to American readers. The U.S. made at least three invasions during the war with England. The first was in Canada, where the army announced their goal of spreading liberty. They also invaded the Northwest territories, finishing the job Harrison began in the war against Tecumseh. Third, they began the conquest of the southern tribes such as the Creek, beginning Jackson’s fatal work.

So, the War of 1812 was not the second war of independence, but the next in a series of wars for a North Americana empire. The first was the Revolutionary War, followed by the Whiskey Rebellion, followed by the Shawnee War. There is enough in the text to suggest Adams was aware of this, but was either too prejudice or too hesitant to point it out. Being written at a time when the United States was projecting its imperial power into the Pacific, we are right to question his oversight (others such as Mark Twain were not so blinkered.)

Well, the volume for today is devoted almost exclusively to 1813. To Adams’ credit, he spends much of this volume reporting on the violent and suppression of the Creeks during the war. Patriots often forget about Andrew Jackson’s activities prior to his 1814 victory in New Orleans. He was down there suppressing the Creek uprising against the United States. Apparently efforts at bringing the Creek into a grand coalition to oppose the expansion of the United States into the West had been going on for a while. Tecumseh had worked on it and left among the Creek many of his ideas, and more importantly likeminded leaders. The battle (or massacre) at Fort Mims was one of the great victories of the Creek in this uprising. Adams’ account of this is the first I have ever read, but it is a compelling read. The enslavement of all the blacks at Fort Mims by the Creek reminds us that one of the reasons the southern nations were seen by whites as more “civilized” is that they embraced agriculture and slavery.


So, we certainly have wars of conquest going on. Despite the claim made my Adams that the only territory gained during the war was of Mobile (the Spanish Fort Stoddert), we should not forget these internal conquests of Indians. Tecumseh, of course, died during the war in similar actions in the Northwest.

Surrender of the Creek

Surrender of the Creek

Adams continues to point out of Republican ideology led to the government to try to fight the war on the cheap, ensuring that the poorest Americans would do the fighting and dying. Much of what the government dealt with during the war was how to fund the army. Keeping costs down, “doing more with less,” is not a recent delusion. “Even if the whole bounty were added to the pay, and the soldier were to serve but twelve months, he would received only twenty dollars a month and his land-certificate. If he served his whole term of five years, he received little more than twelve dollars a month. The inducement was not great in such a community as the United States. The chances that such a measure would fill the ranks was small; yet the measure seemed extravagant to a party that had formerly pledged itself against mercenary armies.” (883) “Mercenary armies,” of course, is code for a professional, trained, and paid army.

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831)

The Confessions of Nat Turner cannot be easily separated from the legal proceedings that created it. Unlike the other slave narratives in the collection, Nat Turner’s was not produced by choice. Nat Turner’s anti-slavery work was done in action, not in the written word, but the popularity of The Confession may have had as much of an impact as the rebellion he organized and led.


Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of only a handful of full-blown slave rebellions in 19th century North American history, alongside the 1811 New Orleans uprising and two failed conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey). As any first year student of American history knows, Nat Turner’s revolt is significant because it convinced the South that slavery was an institution that could no longer be debated and in the last thirty-five years of slavery in the United States, the planting class defended its cruel system with all its legal, political, and intellectual power—leading eventually to a growing sectional divide and the Civil War, which led to the greatest American slave revolt with almost 200,000 armed escaped slaves invading and occupying the lands they once worked.

The document itself is simply Nat Turner’s confessions made in jail over the course of a few days of conversation with Thomas Gray. Soon after this talk he was executed. As the trial transcripts put it: “The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the house of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” (264–265) The confession is bracketed by these official documents, Grays comments, and information on the whites killed in the uprising and the fate of the captured blacks. Some of these were free before the rebellion and for all intents and purposes were free for the duration of their insurrection.

The conspiracy

The conspiracy

There is not that much in The Confessions of Nat Turner in way of autobiography, but what he focuses on is significant for what is tells us about the nature of power in antebellum Southern slavery. Nat Turner wanted the world to know how he taught himself to read and how he was given a mission by God. In this way, he established his intellectual and moral independence from his masters. Several years before the rebellion, he escaped and apparently could have stayed away, but he returned after a month in order to fulfill this mission. Thus, he also wanted to make clear to his accusers that he from that moment on a slave by choice.



Most of the confession is his description of the various murders he and his group were engaged in. The description of the rebels taking axes to the skulls of children are hard to read, but Nat Turner is brutally honest about the necessity for justice and the divine nature of his mission. To blunt, Nat Turner’s actions was no less shocking than what was done to slaves throughout the nation, everyday, for decades. It was less of a tactical mission than a martyrdom. He makes comparisons to Christ. “Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heaves that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work—and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.” (253) Success was not promised him and apparently it was not expected. His mission was to awaken and shock the conscience of the nation. The response by whites suggests he was successful.

We can also read The Confessions of Nat Turner as yet another example of the state suppression of libertarian movements. Examples of this abound, of course, but this one is particularly clear and well-documented, particularly in the courts refusal to consider the context, their rapid application of lethal justice, and the indiscriminate killing of many of the participants in the rebellion.

A. J. Liebling, “Normandy Revisited” (1958): War and Nostalgia

The film The Best Years of Our Lives famously explored the trauma of returning from war to a working class community that no longer understood you. The war gave a sense of meaning, a community, and a purpose that could not be recreated in one’s banal hometown. Marriages broke up and veterans took to drink. Others came back less than whole and found additional challenges. If A. J. Liebling’s Normandy Revisited is a guide, this was in some ways the experience of war correspondences. Perhaps this is why so many journalists move from war to war and never settle for working for a local newspaper, reporting on the fair.


Normandy Revisited has more in common with Liebling’s book on food Between Meals than some of the other war writings I have been looking at. He often looks back with nostalgia at the war and his exciting experiences covering the war (with a knowledge that such events will never come again), but much of this nostalgic musing is done at French cafes in Normandy. It is hard not to wonder whether this book was an excuse for Liebling to enjoy consumption and conversation in his second home of France. It is a work of leisurely tourism and thus cannot be fully separated from the privilege someone like Liebling enjoyed at the birth of American hegemony. While I do not find much useful in nostalgia (I prefer a Prometheanism) and when that nostalgia is for a war that one did not need to fight except in print it should trouble us, there is perhaps something to the human preference for action to banality. I suspect many leftists look at revolution (or the high point of the I.W.W. or a particularly inspirations strike) with a similar nostalgia.

What I find sad in the juxtaposition of his war memories with his experiences touring Normandy a decade after D-Day is the apparent loss of the leftist potentialities that formed a crucial part of the anti-fascist struggle. (See my earlier posts on Liebling for more on these.) Instead we are given Liebling’s participation in a culture of affluence. The following comes after a two page description of a meal.

This has developed from a merely culinary into a geographical digression, but I can never approach the memory of that meal without wanting to go into it. It has the same attraction for me as Costello’s saloon. I seldom encounter a pheasant nearly so good nowadays, and when I do, an hour d’oeuvre and possible a tripe is all I can manage at one meal besides the bird. (I am writing this on a lunch exclusively of turtle soup, as I am trying to take off weight.) (913)

Perhaps a more useful reading of Normandy Revisited is to set it next to Between Meals and take another look at the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure. In my post on Between Meals, I argued for a more sympathetic view of Liebling’s quest for pleasure as a reaction against a capitalist culture of scarcity and restraint. The reason more of us cannot consume epically is due to the even more grotesque consumption and accumulation by the ruling class. We should not confuse Liebling’s obesity and fondness for food with the obesity of the millionaires and billionaires. Perhaps my brief moral outrage has to do with his enjoyment of these pleasures on a graveyard of soldiers and radical dreams. I had forgotten that in the context of the Nazi occupation of France, merely keeping a harvest or enjoying a surplus was not allowed.


From the perspective of human freedom, perhaps it is also good that the wounds of war were so easily healed. Signs of war, of course, could not so easily forgotten. Some buildings were left in partial repair. Widows had to come to terms with dead husbands. Liebling’s report from the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc shows little evidence of the previous conflict, except the proprietor’s dead husband and the fact that the hotel had to be rebuilt. Instead of trauma we get:

When I came downstairs to await the Le Cornecs in the cafe that evening, the chromium-florescent bait had brought in two couples who sat up at the bar. The women’s tight, round little bottoms perched up on the bar stools like the tops of swizzle sticks. The V-backs of their motoring dresses started just above the caudal cleft, their hair was rose platinum, and their voices suggested they wore microphones in their garter belts. They and the men, who looked like comperes in a marseilais road show, were drinking Scotch, as everybody does in France now who does not wish to be taken for a tourist. (917)

One quickly notices in this book (if not in his earlier projects) that Liebling always saved one eye for the ladies and his books would have been much shorter had an editor removed these descriptions. I wonder how many of these women he discusses knows they have been so immortalized for sitting at a barstool, riding a bicycle or showing off their “French frame” (no time to look up page number for that reference but it is there).

Where does this obligation to feel nostalgia, grief, and trauma for a war come from? I am pondering a fictional visit to Normandy made by the titular character in Saving Private Ryan. For that character the war was a life of guilt and torment. The film-maker, and I suspect the nation as a whole, demands this emotion from its people. Considerable energy is spent in memorials, films, holidays, parades, and speeches. Lincoln passed over the suffering and sacrifice of soldiers in one line to get to the real significance of Gettysburg, the war as social revolution. In contrast, the cult of war memorials wants a nation who thinks opposition to the state is somehow opposition to the war dead. This is a profoundly reactionary sentiment and had no place in a projectural life and a politics of the future. We should let the dead be dead.

Tyranny of historical memory

Tyranny of historical memory

Liebling’s reports form his trip show that the Parisians did not remember the war with guilt. Perhaps it is an American obsession. Liebling does describe a charity event for veterans, but it was apparently not drown in tears, bad patriot music, and political leaders calling on our divine duty to the war dead.

As Liebling suggested in The Road Back to Paris, he could not really cover the war from cafes, but we should be fortunate that is may turn out to be a very good place to cover the aftermath of the war. So let me suggest: Down with nostalgia and guilt when it comes to the great wars of the past and our own lives. It has no place in the world we want to build.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part One, Ideologies and People at War

The circumstances of a man’s capture are more significant than this tone of voice in replying to the interrogating officers. It is to a prisoner’s interest to be cocky, after capture, for he is under the surveillance of his fellows and the governance of superiors whose Naziness is likely to be in proportion to their rank. The Geneva Convention was never drawn up to cover an ideological war; there is no inducement for the German prisoner who is democratic or just anti-war to let anyone know what is on his mind. Vanity also counts in the prisoner’s attitude. He likes to think of himself as a Teutonic heor even when he knows he has quit cold. (71)


A historical analysis of the failures of political anarchism in the twentieth century needs to come to terms with the central events of that century: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Second World War. The horrors of ideologies at war, backed by triumphant and largely unquestioned state power is troubling to ponder. One thing that is clear from my reading of A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris, a collection of Liebling’s war correspondence published while the war was incomplete, if not undecided, is that the ideological nature of the war was comparatively weak among the largely working class soldiers. As the prisoner of war camps in France show, it is actually quite difficult to get people to kill and die for the state. Even prisoners required constant surveillance by superiors in order to enforce their commitment to the Nazi cause.


The Road Back to Paris is divided into three parts (“The World Knocked Down,” “The World on One Knee,” and “The World Gets Up”). From these titles, the general narrative of the world parallels a general interpretation of the war as a catastrophe followed by a difficult and hard-won victory. What Liebling does not give us is a general military history of the conflict. His columns followed his life as a war correspondent, first in France and then after the fall of Paris in Britain and North Africa. He did cover D-Day and returned to Paris, but is documented in another collection of his war writings. As we recall from his other journalism, Liebling was very interested in how things worked at the vernacular level. His examinations of aspects of New York City are really at the gutter level and his findings about how cities actually work are striking. It is the same with his reading of the war, which he often covered from brothels, cafes, and prisoner of war camps.


In the first part of the book, Liebling encounters numerous people who were not very interested in fighting. German leadership aside, it did not seem that there was anyone who was particularly interested in another war. Liebling reported that the English seemed to have found a “new form of patriotism” based on the principle of fighting a war without war. Of course, that was from the rather subdued period between the conquest of Poland and the conquest of France. Now I do not find his to be a compelling case for pacifism, nor am I very interested in debating the moral necessity (or not) of the Allied war effort, merely to point out that it took a violent autocracy to convince its people to fight and even then it was not an easy sale as the prisoner of war camps suggested.

We can also see from Liebling’s account that if the Second World War was a war of ideologies, no one seemed very sure of the ideology on their side.

Remoteness from the war affected everybody, but there were at least two groups in our country that tried consciously to minimize our danger. They were precisely these that had worked to the same end in France—a strong faction of men of wealth and the Community party. The money people wanted to prove fascism more efficient than democracy, the Communists that democracy offered no protection against fascism. A military victory for the democracies would shatter the pretensions of both. (120)

True enough, but in Liebling’s mind, democracy was a hard sale during those dark years of 1940 and 1941. Something Liebling did not take up (at least as far as I have read) is how much the values of democracy and equality would be both pushed to the limit and betrayed over the course of the war. As far as he got in this direction was his desire for an early start to American involvement because of the needs of governmental “war powers.”

After the fall of France, Liebling returned to the United States for a while where he signed up for the draft (he was still in his thirties although over weight). After this he returned to war correspondence for the New Yorker by sailing to England on a rather perilous trek amid German submarine warfare. In London, Liebling reported on how the impact of the war on people’s lives. One striking passage is about a young woman who had to get herself drunk everytime German bombers hit the city, leading to a perpetual cycle of hangover and drunken binges.

While Liebling did not have many encounters with soldiers, he did start the book with some anecdotes about American soldiers in North Africa. These soldiers were incredibly creative. One invented a new way of making coffee he was sure could have made him rich. They created their own cultural life and did what they could to make their relatively small world (for wars are fought by people largely ignorant of the battlefield) livable. The common soldier is not so unlike any of us, being pulled by forces rather outside of our control (capital, urban planning, institutional imperatives). What is not on their mind was the slugfest of ideologies that supposedly drove the war.

If these ideologies are often missing from the perspectives and experiences of the soldiers and citizens fighting the war, they still had an impact, as a conversation with a  Polish member of the government in exile who saw anything less than the dismemberment and total destruction of Germany as treason. Liebling’s friend responded to this understandable—if destructive and irrational—hatred with: “It was so disgusting, so human, so deplorable.” (155)

Mark Twain: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885): Disgusting Adults and a Festivus Grievance

“Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was alive, and it didn’t seem right that there warn’t nobody to make some about her, now she was gone; so I tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but I couldn’t seem to make it go, somehow.” (727)

This comes from Huckleberry Finn’s thoughts after reading the poetry of Emmeline Grangerford, who died as a child. What we know about Grangerford adults—slaveholdes, murders, petty, jealous—we are somehow glad she did not grow up. Her poem, which Huck read, was about a boy who drown. Her poems were acts of selflessness, tributes. Why is it that solidarity and selflessness seems to come only from the children that Huck Finn encountered on his adventure?

Every time I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (this is maybe the four time and the second time this year), I am struck first and foremost by how utterly disgusting most of the white adults in the story are. As for blacks, we really only meet Jim and the slaves who give refuge to Jim, while Huck is taken in by the Grangerfords. If we want to be hard on Twain, we can accuse him of infantilizing Jim by not giving him the same vile characteristics as the other adults in the book. We have two plot lines in the novel. The first deals with Huck achieving his moral autonomy when committing to freeing Jim and learning to see him as more than a plaything. The second is the series of odd adults that Huck encounters, all with their own brand of odious personal defects, some of them personal, but a great many systemic and products of the civilization they lived in.


The first adult we meet is the Widow Douglas who quite selfishly took on the job of “sivilizing” Huck. If we trust Huck’s narration (and why wouldn’t we as hopefully good and moral people), the Widow Douglas sees like the state. She does not abuse Huck physically, but she does work hard to crush his freedom and creativity while regimenting his life. Her job is to prepare Huck for work, a criminal act of murder if there ever was one. Remember that Huck preferred living with his physically abusive father who periodically locked him in a room. (“it warn’t long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it, all but the cowhide part. It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study.” 647–648). When pap takes Huck back to his cabin, the Widow Douglas uses the power of the state to steal him back. Huck’s wishes are not consulted by either adult. Douglas’ sister, Miss Watson is Jim’s owner. We have no reason not to believe that Douglas does not sustain the paternalistic ideas toward blacks and children that ran through slave society. (See my second post on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for more on Huck’s attitude toward life with the Widow Douglas.)


Of course, even if Huck marginally preferred the physical brutality of pap to the moral and mental abuse of the Widow Douglas, pap is utterly disgusting. He is after the money Huck earned in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, steals the little that Huck has on hand to drink, beats Huck, and locks him in a room while he is gone. He is also thoroughly racist and resents any blacks with even a smidgen of education or status. In a two-page rant he dwells on a free black who could vote.

Let me add a Festivus grievance at this point. The Wikipedia entry for Huckleberry Finn (the character, not the novel) has a significant section on the impact of pap’s alcoholism on Huck. It is well sourced. I guess someone was going to write a silly psychological profile of Huck Finn especially, but I was surprised to find one that utterly missed the point that Huck is the freest and most moral character in the novel. Instead, these scholars have focused on how Huck was mentally, intellectually, and morally damaged by being raised by pap. I do not want to defend abusive drunk parents, but instead point out the stunning resilience of children in the face of the violence of the adult world. Below is the really stupid part, which suggests that some of Huck’s best qualities are a result of the violence he experienced at home.

“Huck is regarded as “vulgar” and “lawless” by Mark Twain. These characterizations of Huck coupled with his constant lying and his absurd schemes, such as faking his own death, are examples of Huck’s externalizing behavior. Pap’s alcoholism coupled with the absence of Huck’s mother ultimately attributes to Huck’s extreme externalizing behavior. Huck‘s experience of a lack of warmth and sensitivity from his mother was only exaggerated by her complete absence due to her death. Huck’s situation is more severe than many other COAs because he was entirely deprived of warmth and sensitivity from his mother Huck’s lying, stealing, and absolute disregard for the rules are also clear examples of his externalizing behavior. Huck ultimately fakes his own death and runs away from his village to escape his father as a result of how poor of a role model he sees his father to be.”

So as part of my Festivus airing of grievances I call for an end of psychological profiles of fictional characters using assumptions derived from our contemporary therapeutic culture. (This is the second time I posted this bit from Against the Logic of Submission, but people keep going to therapy.)

Huck fakes his own death to escape his bind. Either he must stay with his father or return to the Widow Douglas. This begins his rafting adventures on the Mississippi. He hides out on an island and meets up with Jim, who ran away from Miss Watson because of suggestions that she will sell Jim south. (Another odious adult for you.)


Along the way they encounter a series of groups, the first three of which are a gang of robber and murders stealing from a steamboat that ran aground, the feuding and violent Sheperdsons and Grangerfords, and the duo of confidence men the Duke and the King. Since Huck and Jim will spend most of the time with the Duke and the King, we can close with a study of their character. They are rather ridiculous, but no less so than the people they are able to con. We read with disbelief that their able to sustain their schemes as long as they do. Their first trick that we experience involves convincing Jim and Huck that they are heir to the Duke of Bridgewater and Louis XVII. I found this interesting because we have two con artists who take advantage of the democratic capitalism of the antebellum period, but also sustain a façade of inherited privilege. In any case, Huck sees through them right away, but does not mind playing along. They put on shows of bad Shakespeare and later a vulgar show called “The Royal Nonesuch.”

The Duke and the King practicing

The Duke and the King practicing

In their own words, they choose whatever will make them money. “Jour printer, by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theatre-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn at mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing-geography school for a change; sling a lecture, sometimes—oh, I do lots of things.” (744) Their first scam to make money after being with Huck and Jim is to put on a revival, ending with donations for a missionary venture to Asia. In a way, there is some play involved in the Duke and the King’s efforts (I think the professionalization of careers limits us too much), but in the end they are looking to take advantage of everyone they can. At one point they even sell Jim. While on the surface they appear as interesting playmates, they also turn out to be characteristic of the worst aspects of antebellum American civilization.

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck

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)


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.


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.


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.


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.

Herman Melville, “Billy Budd” (published 1924): Farewell Melville

The text of Billy Budd was found among Herman Melville’s personal papers after he died. It was not complete and would not published until 1924 and then only after editing. Thus we have both a “reading text,” which was prepared by editors by filling in various gaps, and a “literal text,” which was what Melville left us. The Library of America gives us only the “reading text.” It seems to me that this text, like so much of Melville’s work, is ultimately about power and the relationship between the individual and the organizations that they find themselves in. It is there in all the major works, beginning with Typee, when the narrator fled a whaling ship due to poor conditions. With Moby-Dick this theme reaches its climax with the authoritarian Ahab and the diverse Pequod. As Melville aged and began working on this work, returning to prose after years of only publishing poetry, he returned to this theme. He was no less cynical about the nature of power and its desire and ability to crush the individual.


This is maybe Melville’s leanest work in terms of not have anything that can be seen as excessive to the point. There are none of the long sidelooks at the nuances of sailing that plagued so many readers of his earlier works. It is also as if Melville was in a race against time to tell this tale and could only write down the most relevant material. The story begins with the impressment of Billy Budd into the British navy not long after the Great Mutiny forced the British to use this particularly vile form of conscription, during their wars with France after the French Revolution. After a while Billy Budd is approached by other impressed seamen for recruitment into a conspiracy of mutiny but he refuses. Eventually, the master at arms, Claggert, accuses Billy Budd of conspiring to mutiny. His stutter makes it difficult for him to defend himself so he strikes his accuser, accidently killing him. The captain, Vere, is conflicted. He knows that Billy Budd was innocent of the accusation, but he cannot allow a murder to go unpunished in the post-mutiny climate. Billy Budd is sentenced to death and executed. The final chapters look at Vere’s fate, shows how the news reports differed from the reality, and gives a hint of how the truth remained alive in the culture of the seamen.

The first act of the novella is an act of violence against liberty, as Billy Budd is conscripted from the aptly named merchant ship The Rights of Man. He is transferred to the Bellipotent. The dueling names suggest much: individual liberty against imperial authority. This was a phenomenon across the British Atlantic during wartime. Despite the pleas from the merchant ship master who testified to Billy Budd’s calming effect on his crew, the young “Handsome” sailor was brought into the Royal Navy. The power of the sailors battled with the power of the British state on different levels. Impressment was in part a response to the Great Mutiny, an earlier act of rebellion against British military discipline. In a sense, Billy Budd enters a military order already engaged in a Civil War. His good humor, trustfulness, and affability perhaps make him ill-suited for that position.

Here is a BBC presentation of the Britten opera based on Billy Budd.

Melville takes pains to describe the major characters in good terms, especially Billy Budd and Captain Vere. He is not interested in a polemic against the naval captain here. He is largely interested in the institution. It is the institutions (the sailor’s solidarity, the Navy, the British state) that drive the actors, not personal malevolence. Billy Budd is described as without “visible blemish . . . as with a lady.” (1362) His stutter is his only defect. Vere is practical, educated, fair-minded, and loyal, as well as an ally oof “peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” (1371)

What happened to Billy Budd was therefore the product of institutional forces. I was reminded while reading this of how much it thematically pairs with David Simon’s The Wire or Paths of Glory, which so influenced Simon. In all three of these works, good people make horrific decisions due to the logic of the institution rather than the logic of humanity. (Earlier in this blog I discussed some of these ideas.) Melville goes so far as to present the unlikely situation where Billy Budd is, if not happy with being impressed, affable enough to not face any difficulty in the transition to military life.

Billy Budd’s violence against Claggert, comes from his inability to speak, due to his stutter. It is important that after he kills Claggery, Billy Budd’s stutter goes away, suggesting that the institution has silenced Billy and that his act of resistance revived his voice, even if only in time for his execution. This is an important point, for this is the fate of most of the world’s working people, institutionally confined from speaking. In the workplace, we all have a stutter.

Vere was tormented by his decision, knowing that Claggery falsely accused Billy Budd of mutinous designs, but he was bound by the law and the new policies implemented in the Navy after the mutinies. His moral anxiety is authentic, but rather pointless since the logic of the institution will always win out. This is the dilemma of the middle-manager, who has to work closely with the people at the bottom but being responsible for the laws and regulations of the top. He could, of course, have opposed the law and suffered as a consequence but this would have been an unlikely heroism and is really only possible from someone like Captain Ahab or Jack London’s Wolf Larsen.

The news report on the execution is significant because here we see the media taking the position of the state, not of Billy Budd (of course), but also not of the Captain. Now this may be because Vere had to report to his superiors in a way that minimized the ambiguity of the case. However, it happened the public report has Budd killing Claggery with a knife, being a foreigner, and having a central role in a mutinous plot. It also mentions how all mutiny was suppressed on the ship. We do not believe this anymore than we should believe the rest of the report. To borrow again from David Simon, it is like a big drug bust or high profile arrest being sold to the people as a great victory in the War on Drugs, when in fact the street market for drugs remains unaffected.

“Dope on the table” scene from The Wire:

In the final section we see that however false the official memory of the event may be, the brotherhood of sailors maintained a different message.  And with this, the sailor’s eulogy to Billy Budd, this blog will say goodbye to Melville, the man who inspired it major themes.

“Everything is for a term venerated in navies. Any tangible object associated with some striking incident of the service is converted into a monument. The spar from which the foretopman was suspended was for some years kept trace of by the bluejackets. Their knowledge followed it from ship to dockyard and again from dockyard to ship, still pursuing it seven when at last reduced to a mere dockyard boom. To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross. Ignorant through they were of the secret facts of the tragedy, and no thinking, but that the penalty was somehow unavoidable inflicted from the naval point of view, for all that, the instinctively felt that Billy was a sort of man as incapable of mutiny as of willful murder. They recalled the fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within. This impression of him was doubtless deepened by the fact that he was gone, and in as measure mysteriously gone.” (1433-1434)

It is this deep memory that those who sustain authoritarian systems should most fear, for it is where we will find solidarity when those with wealth and gold demand of us mutual indifference.