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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

Francis Parkman, “The Conspiracy of Pontiac: Volume Two,” (1851)

“Along the Western frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, terror reigned supreme. The Indian scalping-parties were ranging everywhere, laying waste the settlements, destroying the harvests, and butchering men, women, and children, with ruthless fury.” (640)

Parkman wrote this of the Indians, galvanized by Pontiac, to resist white settlement into the West in 1763. He wrote it after two decades of violence aimed at Indian removal from the frontier. He wrote it at a time that the US army was completing its conquest of Mexico and setting the stage for the violent usurpation of Indian homes. In fact, a simple change of a few nouns and we can turn the above into an accurate description of formal US government policy in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Additionally, at the time of Pontiac’s rebellion the same could be said of white vigilante groups along the frontier.

Volume Two of Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac covers the suppression of the Indian uprising, the explosion of vigilant violence that touched on the Pennsylvania government itself, and the consequences of the failure for the Indians in the American West after the Seven Years War. The final point is the easiest to see, in part because it was implied by the reasons for the uprising itself. Pontiac saw clearly that the French withdrawal from Canada and the Great Lakes meant the eventual settlement of these areas by the English, but more importantly, the loss of the major diplomatic strategy that the Indians enjoyed, that of the “middle ground.” The fact that the British imposed limits on western settlement after the war (as a cost saving measure and to avoid wars like Pontiac’s from reoccurring) provided some breathing space for Indian autonomy and the possible resurrection of the “middle ground” when the American Revolution broke out.

The major point I would like to explore today has to do with the morality and violence of rebellion. The quote I opened with is about the Indian violence, but the war was closer to gang violence on both sides, with the Indian raiding parties juxtaposed to the Paxton Boys and other vigilante groups. Now just to be clear, I am not necessarily opposed to vigilantism, as long as it is not a cover for violence and theft. As a form of self-defense, it seems some form of vigilantism is required, especially in a revolutionary context. (Worker’s councils of strikers preventing scabs from entering a factory may be one example.) If vigilantism just becomes an extension of the arm of the state, by filling in for the state where it is weak, it is just another statist organization. That seems to be what was going on with the Paxton Boys.

Parkman presents the “Paxton Men” as a group of frustrated frontiersman unable to accept their loss of life and property and driven to violence by the inability of the Pennsylvanian government to protect them. He justified their violence in a way that actually justifies the desperate acts of Pontiac and his followers. Driven to the wall, people are capable of horrible things. “It is not easy for those living in the tranquility of polished life fully to conceive the depth and force of that unquenchable, indiscriminate hate, which Indian outrages can awaken in those who have suffered them. The chronicles of the American borders are filled with the deeds of men, who, having lost all by the merciless tomahawk, have lived for vengeance alone’ and such men will never cease to exist to long as a hostile tribe remains within striking distance of an American settlement.” (702) Again, a few changed nouns and we see that Parkman’s claim, if applied universally, will explain the Pontiac uprising itself. Parkman should know better, having live with various besieged Indian groups while investigating the Oregon trail. Readers in our time need only look back at centuries of vigilant racial violence and violence against labor unions to know the consequences of uncritical acceptance of the mob.

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Eventually, the Paxton vigilantes turned on the Quaker government, due to their apparent unwillingness to deal with the frontier attacks. As time went on, various vigilante groups fought amongst themselves. It seems that this is the great fear of the defenders of the state? How to respond to this? These vigilantes were certainly motivated by racism (not unlike in Bacon’s Rebellion), their violence was indiscriminate, we rightfully have little sympathy left for the occupying gangs of state-organized police. Untying this knot is the realization that what both Pontiac and the Paxton vigilantes wanted was a baseline of security of their life and homes. Perhaps there was a missed common ground here.

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

A real response, however, is that both Pontiac and the vigilantes were seeing like a state. This is clear in a later chapter when we learn that government fully embraced brutal policies toward the Indians in an effort to end Indian attacks. “So fierce and active were the war-parties on the borders, that the English governor of Pennsylvania had recourse to a measure which the frontier inhabitants had long demanded, and issued a proclamation, offering a high bounty for Indian scalps, whether of men or women; a barbarous expedient, fruitful of butcheries and murders, but incapable of producing any decisive result.” (762) Even if this is explained away as the pressure of the mob, the powers that the various colonial governments and the British state collected to smash Pontiac was impressive and not ever moderate. The problem, it seems, comes from seeing like a state and solving problems like a state would, whether we are state actors or not.

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Despite my hostility to much of Parkman’s prejudice and his narrative which suggested that anything that was in the way of the progress of Protestant, English civilization should be opposed for the betterment of the future, there is much that is attractive in this account and I am glad I read it. The chapter on the “Desolation of the Frontier” is particularly moving in its description of the lives of people on the frontier and the horrible situation they were put into, working, in effect as unwitting agents of empire.

William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs”, The Atlanta Campaign “War is Cruelty”

Continuing with my reading of William T. Sherman’s Memoirs, today I will focus on Sherman’s application of total war.  I have come to realize that we can understand the U.S. government’s mad pursuit of terrorism with relentless drone strikes or the aggressive effort to bring Edward Snowden to hell for exposing the crimes of the Obama administration by revisiting William T. Sherman.  In many ways, the Atlanta campaign, the forced removal of the citizens of Atlanta after its fall, and his subsequent “march to the sea” defines Sherman’s career.  He is both respected and hated for these acts.  Unfortunately, much of the hatred for Sherman seems to come from Southern apologists.  I want to suggest that we can look at Sherman not so much as a tyrant or lunatic but instead as someone who fully accepted the logic of the state and violence.  He epitomized Weber’s suggestion that the state is simply that which monopolizes violence and power.  Unable to accept alternatives to itself, it had to come down brutally on competitors.

shermanThe key dialog in this section of Sherman’s Memoirs are between Sherman, the Confederate General J. B. Hood commanding the remaining Confederate armies in the Atlanta area, and mayor of Atlanta James M. Calhoun.  As in other sections of his book, Sherman simply recreated the original documents, with very little commentary.  Sherman was unwilling to celebrate for too long his victory at Atlanta.  He immediately set his sights on how to exploit the victory to destroy the South’s ability to resist.  In a letter to Grant, he wrote “We ought to ask our country for the largest possible armies that can be raised, as so important a thing as the self-existence of a great nation should not be left to the fickle chances of war.” (587)  Later in the same paragraph when he insists that the ruthless plundering of the countryside of Georgia will ensure that his “army will not starve” he suggests the next step in the war should be the “utter destruction of Wilmington.” (588)  I am not sure the classic reading that Sherman was plunged into a sort of heart of darkness through his experiences in the war.  He was not saying much that was not the logical extension of ideas he already expressed in the early years of the war.

He first informed his superiors of his plans to vacate Atlanta and destroy much of its infrastructure (particularly government buildings) on September 20, 1864 when he reported on talks he had with General Hood.  He reports that “it is sufficient for my Government to know that the removal of the inhabitants has been made with liberality and fairness.”  But he also states the “real reasons” for the exodus.  These are (1) use of houses for military storage, (2) limit the need for a garrison, (3) “we have a right to it,” (4) to avoid feeding the poor, (5) pro-Confederate residents will cause trouble.  His target was clearly the white population.  (In a letter to Hood, he stated that slaves could stay or go their own way.)

The correspondence between the Confederate leaders and Sherman on this issue are wonderful for its brutal honesty.  The brutality of the removal, he reminded Hood, is nothing more than the necessary consequence of the war, which was pushed on the U.S. by the rebels.  For every wrong committed by Sherman, he could point out many other examples committed by both sides.  Indeed, he believed there was nothing unique about his policy toward the citizens of Atlanta.  Hood remains horrified, in part because he seems to truly see Sherman as an agent of a conquering government.  “You came into our country with your army, avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women, and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but to make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race.” (598)  In contrast to these vile words, Sherman was cold and logically (and seemingly largely indifferent to the role of race and slavery as a cause of the war).

The logic of war (brutality) and the logic of the state were connected in Sherman’s mind.  In response to the arguments about the legitimacy of successive, Sherman posited that the state is eternal and had an inescapable need to assert itself.  “You cannot qualify terms in harsher terms than I will.  War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. . . The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. . . . Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war.” (601)

The March to the Sea is simply an extension of Sherman’s logic.  In his orders to his troops, he stated that the purpose was “to strike a blow at our enemy that will have a material effect in producing what we all so much desire, his complete overthrow.” (651)  During the execution of the March to the Sea, Sherman was proud of how disciplined (how state-like, if you will) the destruction was.  The pillaging, foraging, burning, and destruction was all completed with the maintenance of military order.  From time to time, soldiers had to be innovative in their approaches and while “irregular” they were never performed without discipline.  This is one of the frightful elements of total war.

marchSherman is completely correct, in the same way that Mao was, that political power is an extension of the ability to maximize military power and supplant all other competing centers of power.  Sherman does not waste time justifying his actions with a “cause.”  The war he helped win did lead to a second American Revolution, the rewriting of the Constitution, and the end of the most vile institution in American history.  Sherman speaks little on this, outside of generally calling the United States a “great” country.  Patriotism and a national story is for the people on the bottom.  For those who wield power, the weapon is its own justification.  Had Sherman learned this while a farmer or worker, he may have become an anarchist.  But he was a soldier.

 

James Baldwin, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953): Religion and Freedom

Go Tell It on the Mountain parallels nicely with one of the major themes I teased out of Eudora Welty’s work, namely the relationship between individual freedom and our social institutions.  While Welty was primarily concerned with the family, family traditions, and nostalgia as a barrier to freedom, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, looks at African-American Christianity in much the same way.  While providing a source of identity, community, and values it creates an environment that is individually the cause of much torment, anxiety, and confinement.  At more than one moment, the protagonist’s father Gabriel threatens to “beat sin out of him.” (190)  Religion becomes a cover for his child abuse, for long-term resentment toward his son (who is not his biologically), and control over his son’s future career plans.  Gabriel is himself shaped and conflicted by his religious values, fathering a bastard child.  (We wonder at a few points if his religious obsession with the sin of sex makes that diversion from God’s path nearly inevitable.)  It is not, however, an entirely insidious part of the character’s lives.  Except for a few characters in open revolt against religion, we cannot imagine them outside of the guidance of the church, but the psychological (and physical) abuse and the long train of bad decisions makes us wonder if they would not be better off in revolt against these traditions.  Like America, these characters stand on the edge of freedom but choose to stand safely on the side of repression.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin's novels and some of his short stories.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin’s novels and some of his short stories.

John, the protagonist, has many parallels with James Baldwin’s own life.  Both grew up in New York, raised by men who were not their biological fathers.  Their stepfathers are preachers and both are expected to enter the church.  John and James also both grew up with a handful of half-brothers and half-sisters.  If Go Tell It on the Mountain can be trusted as autobiography, then these siblings provided potential alternatives from the expected life in the church.  Baldwin took advantage of these and evaded the religious life through writing, which he started doing at a very young age.  His biographical chronology reveals Baldwin to be quite precocious.  He started writing eleven or twelve, began sketching Go Tell It on the Mountain before the age of twenty.  He met Richard Wright when he was 20, gaining his encouragement (and connections), which helps his continued writing.  He also realized his homosexuality around this time.  Go Tell It on the Mountain was published before he was 30 years old.  This places his writing career at a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, but as a Northern writer he would have a different relationship to the questions the Civil Rights movement thrust on the nation.  His questions are urban, international, and economic.  And while he did participate in some of the actions of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, he would have a closer relationship with the more urban “Black Power” perspective, meeting Huey Newton and working on a film adaptation of Malcolm X’s autobiography.

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Go Tell It on the Mountain is divided into three parts, but it really comes together as five chapters.  The first part, “The Seventh Day,” sets up the spiritual life of fourteen-year-old John.  We also learn immediately of the alternative, represented by Roy – his half-brother.  The novel opens with sexual curiosity.  John is curious about the sexuality in the street life of Harlem, Roy’s experiments, and his parent’s sex life.  John’s physical attraction to Elisha (who is already “saved”) perhaps parallels Baldwins own sexuality.  John lives in fear and awe of his stepfather.  His mother constantly reinforces the idea that his stepfather is a holy man.  He is also plagued with the idea that he is surrounded in sin.  In a memorial passage, we are introduced to a woman in a film John watches.  Rather than enjoying the film, John dwells on the fate of this woman’s soul and the fate of women like her.  The film is also a spiritual test for John. Would he accept or reject the sinful world or embrace God.  “He could not claim, as African savages might be able to claim, that no one had brought him the gospel.  His father and mother and all the saints had taught him from his earliest childhood what was the will of God.  Either he arose from the theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment.” (38)  It is also in this first section of the novel that Roy is stabbed by some whites, again suggesting a powerful alternative for John, but it is also interpreted as a threat to his soul.  Unfortunately, most of us cannot see alternatives for what they are.

The second part is broken up into three chapters and open us up to the perspective of three of the most important people in John’s life: his aunt Florence, his stepfather Gabriel, and his mother Elizabeth.  It is presented as “the prayers of the saints,” for in John’s mind all three are saintly figures.  As we learn the details of these people’s lives we know that the narrative they presented to John was incomplete, convincing us that the religious life was not simply a free choice John made (which is how John often sees it, as when watching the sinful film) but chains, constructed through lies and half-truths.  The most dramatic of these lies is Gabriel’s illegitimate child.  Gabriel buys off the woman, Esther, using money stolen from his second wife, Elizabeth.  When the affair and the illegitimacy is exposed, Gabriel shows little remorse or concern.  Gabriel is able to harness all sorts of religious explanations for his actions, most notably the assumption that sin is the domain of the daughters of Eve.  Esther, a drinker and more attractive than his wife, brings him to sin.  Gabriel is able to twist his ending of the affair as a victory for the Lord.

Before looking at the final chapter of the novel, we cannot help but observe that like Gabriel and Elizabeth, Elisha wants John to find God and follow a religious path.  He is able to present these arguments to him without the near tyrannical authority of a step father (or a vengeful Lord seen through the eyes of a vengeful stepfather).  Rather than “beat the sin” out of John, Elisha presents a kinder, more forgiving Jesus.  “But when the Lord saves you He burns out all that old Adam, He gives you a new mind a new heart, and then you don’t find no pleasure in the world, you get all your joy in walking and talking with Jesus every day.” (52)  None of the “three saints” find much joy in the religious life.  What they find are tests, dramatic explosions of emotion, woe and pain.

The final section, “The Threshing-Floor” starts in a strange place.  John is engaged in alternatively a struggle with God and a struggle with his stepfather.  This intense experience turns out to be John’s conversion experience (afterward he is “saved”).  It is Elisha he sees when he comes out of this quasi-hallucinogenic experience.  Later in the evening, John is reassured by Elisha that he is saved, but his joy at this fact is not shared by his father, who remains resentful of his stepson.  This is a victory of sorts.  He in a sense is able to choose a variant of Christianity that is based more on love than on fear.  Does this place him as a spiritual equal as his father?  Perhaps even more than that.  It is doubtful that is transforms the power dynamic in that will likely leave John under the power of the physically (and as it turns out sexually) more daunting Gabriel.

What is key is that John feels liberated.  “He was free — whom the Son sets free is free indeed — he had only to stand fast in his liberty.  He was in battle no longer, this unfolding Lord’s day, with this avenue, these houses, the sleeping, staring, shouting people, but had entered into battle with Jacob’s angel, with the princes and the powers of the air.” (210)  In contrast to his perspective earlier in the novel where the religious path is a constant losing struggle.  At one point Gabriel condemns a parishioner for not attending church enough.  Gabriel was in perpetual conflict with his desires.

As an autobiography we can read this libertarian tension as continuing.  Baldwin would himself move from a religious career becoming a novelist, essayist, and activist.  I suspect John’s future is just as open, but it required first a liberation from the traditions and beliefs of the family.  In this we can be happily optimistic in contrast to Welty’s claustrophobic novels.  The family may be chains but they are not unbreakable.  John may benefit from the urban environment in ways Welty’s rural characters could not, but the important point is that John is able to shove off the monkey of family expectations (and physical or emotional tyranny) from his back.

 

Ambrose Bierce, “In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians) Part 1 (1892): Jeffersonian Democracy at War

The stories in In the Midst of Life were published individually in the 1880s and 1890s, when the United States was undergoing a re-imagining of the Civil War as a conflict between brothers, rather than the libretory revolution.  Of course, this shift in historical memory took place at the same time that racial boundaries hardened through disfranchisement and Jim Crow.  This moral distance from the issues of economic exploitation, racism, and slavery is striking in Ambrose Bierce.  We can perhaps forgive him because he is so strikingly modern in his interpreation of warfare.  The first half of In the Midst of Life is made up of 15 stories of the experiences of soldiers during the American Civil War.  None touch on the profound issues of the war.  Bierce is interested in the mundane, the ironic, and the banal happenings of military life.  That is not to say that these are not tragic events.  From the perspective of the grand military writers, these everyday hanging of spies, shooting at scouts, or the slow death of wounded soldiers are banal.  Bierce makes them the heart of his stories.  In this way, he foreshadows how war will be understood in the 20th century: indifferent and egalitarian. This is the dilemma of warfare in a democratic era.  If we are all equal before the law and before our creator, how do we prove our quality.  Our failures are a measure of something lacking in ourselves, not in an system of structured inequalities.  We want to believe that training, skill, gallantry, honor, or strength translated into martial victory.  In an era of democracy, we have only ourselves to blame for our failings, including our defeat on the battlefield.  The realities of war, however, are also democratizing.  A cannonball or bullet is just as likely to hit my neighbor as me.  His death, or mine own, is just as likely.  Warfare becomes brutish mathematics.  However, one need only watch a late 20th century war film to see examples of honor, valor, or skill winning out.  It is this tension that Bierce powerfully explores in In the Midst of Life.

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David Simon talked about Paths of Glory and made the interesting point that even books and films that try to be anti-war often tend to praise warriors and suggest their nobility.  This, he suggests, undermines the anti-war spirit.

There is some of this spirit in Bierce, but as he believes that the indiscriminate nature of the violence in the American Civil War was still running oddly against a people eager to show their valor whenever possible.  In “A Horseman in the Sky” a private for the Union Army meets his father on the opposing side as a Scout.  He kills his father, but not before taking in the beauty, actually the divinity, of the equestrian scene.  In “A Son of the Gods” a brave scout doomed to die, exhibits a suicidal bravado.  “He stands erect, motionless, holding his sabre in his right have straight above his head.  His face is toward us.  Now he lowers his hand to a level with his face and moves it outward, the blade of the sabre describing a downward curve.  It is a sign to us, to the world, to posterity.  It is a hero’s salute to death and history.” (32)  In “Killed at Resaca” we learn that women played no small role in encouraging this reckless valor.  In this story, one of the bravest and most reckless men in the unit dies.  With his death the narrator finds a letter from his girlfriend saying “I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.” (51)

Bierce puts us in the realm of total war and machine war, where killing is indiscriminate, executions are everyday events (In the famous “Occurance at the Owl Creek Bridge” the murdered Confederate sympathizer was entrapped.), and women and children experience war first hand.  The story “Chickamauga” gives us a deaf-mute child walking through the battlefield, finding his idealistic, boyhood concept of war shattered by finding a dead woman near the battle.  “There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman–the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood.  The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles–the work of a shell.” (25)  In the similarly themed “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, a young officer is horrified to find he is expected to shell guns located near his home.  After the “affair” he finds his wife and child dead in the basement.

Notice with me that none of the stories describe battles.  They only describe “occurrences,” “affairs, and “events.”  They are objectively extraordinary.  Men put in a position where they need to shoot their father or risk the lives of their children, men sent on one-way trips to “scout” the enemy lines and wounded men desperate for the means to kill themselves populate these stories.  In the context of mechanized and indifferent warfare, these occurrences are horrifyingly commonplace.

Bierce reminds us that war has no business being romanticized.  I might add that the barricade or the revolution is no less brutal and indiscriminate.  Where I want to part ways with Bierce is in his moral indifference.  Although war has become brutally egalitarian (at least before the age drones, when a technologically superior foe can murder his enemies without any risk of recompense – and still get medals for valor), struggle is not without purpose.  I wonder how former slaves who served in the war read accounts like Bierce’s.  I suspect they would have felt familiar with the natural equality modern war creates, but wondered why Bierce extended that equality to the divergent purposes of the two armies.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible.  In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible. In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

What has been our response to modern war?  No longer can our heroes be drawn at the human level.  In medieval romance, a knight could be presented heroically.  The longbow and musket put an end to that.  The general, hitherto, seen as running the battle like a god, has become a bureaucrat measuring death and destruction with mathematical precision.  Without these heroes we have created superheroes.  They are difficult to kill, reviving the possibility of valor.  Often they are deinstitutionalized as well.  Unfortunately, these models are perfectly useless for our really existing struggles.