Friday, March 20, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Douglass

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Yale University Press, 2001).


Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

There are many fascinating things about Douglass’s text and his technique, but I should like to focus on a few of the episodes in which Douglass sheds the decorum he was shackled with by his position in arguing with, and for, a white crowd. Douglass’s first attempt at autobiography was written as an argument, plain and simple. Closely held by the abolitionists, what we might call Douglass’s curbing of authenticity is also just smart rhetorical policy—one has to be very subtle and very smart in how one goes about exploding deeply held assumptions.

Perhaps the first example of a subtle rebuke to the white culture he seeks to rationally convince occurs on page 19:
“The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people. The same traits of character might be seen in Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, as are seen in the slaves of the political parties.”
This is no mere figuration—there were actually slaves, so using that figure is no slight thing. It is always easy, then as today, to take pot-shots at politicians. But abolitionism itself was something of a political movement and I can’t help but see here a slight rebuff to his own compatriots. Another prominent example, now far less subtle, was his explicit rebuke of the famed underground railroad at the head of Chapter 11, suggesting that it might as well be called the “upperground railroad.” (71) We, as children, still learn about the underground railroad and the good it performed (it even featured in the origination of the Bat Cave in the recent remakes of the Batman myth), but one can’t help but feel, given Douglass’s very sensible remarks about its publicity “enlightening the master,” that the fame the underground railroad still receives might be in part to white people trying to emphasize their own contribution.

Be that as it may, Douglass’s comments about religion are still by far the most shocking, even today. He’s right in every word, its obfuscation of morality and intensifying of the slaver’s cruelty appearing consistently throughout the latter half of the narrative, but the intensity and explicitness that occurs in the Appendix still surprises. (Enjoying these kinds of rhetorical provocations, I still remember with pleasure my first reading of Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, which, if memory serves, is even more scathing than the Appendix, and on more fronts.) Our reading is severally conditioned: first, Garrison prefaces by commenting, “The effect of a religion profession on the conduct of southern masters is vividly described….” (9) Here, impropriety might be thought circumscribed to the south. Second, the first appearance of religion ambiguously affects those of the south: Captain Auld became worse, but Mr. Cookman was a “good man” and Mr. Wilson tried to teach them to read. (44) Thirdly, and most importantly, the first generalizing comments Douglass makes about religion are introduced with “the religion of the south” (57) This is, in effect, a designed seduction. When we get to the Appendix, we are used to just glossing the comment about religion as “southern religion.” That way northerners won’t get their panties in a bunch. But that’s when Douglass hits us really hard. He introduces his real topic as “slaveholding religion,” (81) which we might naturally by this point gloss as “religion of the slaveholders,” and then go on to gloss “this land” as the South. Not so, it turns out. In a tremendous reversal, Douglass begins a paragraph about “professed Christians,” which we are still reading as only Southerners, though perhaps with a little growing apprehension, until we get to “They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. … while they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors.” (83) One can almost hear the bubble-breaking, and even I was so caught up that I scrawled, “Wait, is he talking about the North now?” Which he makes explicit a few lines later: “those bodies, north and south.”

Friday, March 13, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Fuller

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (University of Illinois Press, 1991).


Margaret Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843

Paul de Man once wrote one of his tidy little deconstructions on the impossibility of demarcating autobiography from fiction, arguing, roughly, that autobiography wants to efface its writtenness, but can never ultimately do that. Every time we go about theorizing what it is, the fact that it is written and full of tropes and poetic devices of our own invention always reasserts itself.

Thankfully, great writers have never much cared about the theorizing happening around them and have gone on writing whatever the hell it is they want to write without caring what it exactly is. Fuller’s example is a good one in this regard, being more self-conscious then most. Unlike Emerson’s exhortations, Thoreau and Fuller sought to set themselves in the narrative of life, carefully crafting sections of their lives for designs of their choosing, much as we craft our career arcs and much else. Indeed, Fuller announces the analogy between book and life so appropriate to the memoirist: “Since you are to share with me such foot-notes as may be made on the pages of my life….” (3) She occasionally makes gestures that recall us to this story’s writtenness throughout the book (e.g., “…if I had not been guilty of rhyme on the very last page” (36)). It’s interesting, though, that she says, “I had no guide-book, kept no diary…. What I got from the journey was the poetic impression of the country at large….” (42)

It’s this impression that’s interesting, though that she is a lesser Transcendentalist makes itself evident insofar as a few comments here and there invite interest, though without a powerful or original design behind them. If there is a design, it is one of harmony and balance, which Chapter two illustrates helpfully. At the top of page 18, Fuller speaks of “times of slower growth,” showing a nostalgia for times in which situations were entered, by woodcutter, shepherd or poet, and drawn from it “in some proportion, its moral and its meaning.” (18) “Proportion” is an important concept here, as she then goes on to describe, distastefully, the environment of “mushroom growth.” Without the “gentle proportions” of slow growing villages, this growth is disproportionate and “broken down.”

Fuller’s reaction to this is fascinating and reminds us of Emerson’s call for a true Americanness.
I have come prepared to see all this, to dislike it, but not with stupid narrowness to distrust or defame. On the contrary, while I will not be so obliging as to confound ugliness with beauty, discord with harmony, and laud and be contented with all I meet, when it conflicts with my best desires and tastes. I trust by reverent faith to woo the mighty meaning of the scene, perhaps to foresee the law by which a new order, a new poetry is to be evoked from this chaos…. (italics mine)
Two things should strike us: first, that Fuller is looking for the spirit of America, its new disruptiveness may strike us as simply heretical of tradition, but there just might be a “mighty meaning” behind it. But second, that Fuller is passive to this, unlike Whitman and Emerson who sought to weave America’s fate themselves (though, true, often with tropes of wooing).

Friday, March 06, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Whitman II

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to individual lines in the poem.

I should also note that Bloom is hiding behind my reading of Whitman (particularly the vocabulary deployed).


Whitman: “The Sleepers”

Whitman is constantly at pains to both create a poetic argument that overflows, so stark and radical that its pieces are vivid and unmistakable, and yet balances everything in its reach, which ultimately, if successful, is everything. This is ultimately what leads him to echo Emerson in “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (“Song,” v. 1324-26) Whitman creates these ebbing ratios, where his argument shifts concurrent to the stance his opposition will mount, by at various times blurring and then differentiating, engulfing and subsuming, and then urging to independent growth and life.

A good example of this is in “The Sleepers.” In the stanza at v. 132 Whitman mounts one of his blending exercises, listing a great series of opposites and antagonists. He begins, notably, with “The homeward bound and the outward bound” (v. 132). This is a grand signal, to those who point inwards, to themselves, and those who point outside of themselves, to others. And after his long list of
The antipodes, and every one between this and them in the dark,
I swear they are averaged now—one is no better than the other,
The night and sleep have liken’d them and restored them. (v. 141-3)
The darkness, the night, blend everything together—when you can’t see anything, how do you tell them apart? Whitman isn’t finished, though. His great transumptive move lies in the formula: “The myth of heaven indicates peace and night.” (v. 148)

“Myth” indicates a longstanding, though wrong, belief, “heaven” the typical, universal-type Godness, and the extraordinary move is that the fact that we have this myth, that indicates “peace and night.” The death of agonism, of our push and pull with each other, this peace promised by heaven eternal is bought with a relativistic averaging, with darkness, not the usual talk of God’s light. By Whitman’s reckoning, the very idea of heaven is what gives us the idea of night—by creating the illusion of an absolute, that is when we create the spectare of relativism.

Whitman: “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “Song of the Open Road”

It is difficult, once one gets going, to see anything in Whitman other than figure after figure designed to pull in and appropriate as much for himself as possible, something like a rolling back of time so that Whitman, rather than God, might name everything (the same goes for Emerson). “Song of the Open Road” is no different. It is difficult not to see in Whitman’s “old delicious burdens” (v. 12) Harold Bloom’s burdens of influence, those anxieties of past relations that not only cause the poet pain, but also enable his craft. Whitman calls them “delicious” because he has moved beyond fear of the past and instead sees them as his playthings, meals on which to gorge himself. Bloom’s revisionary ratio of apophrades, whereby the later poet attains such strength as to seem to write his precursors poems, is carried out in, “I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return” (v. 15)—Whitman takes in the past, only to make it seem as if he had put the past there in the first place.

The sway between the modern distinction of inward and outward, and the Greek distinction between essence and accident, characteristically make a significant appearance in Whitman’s poetic argument. On the first score, the “open road” appears as a figure embodying freedom and self-creation. Whitman, like Emerson, is constantly at us to create ourselves, not “old smooth prizes,” but “rough new prizes.” (v. 141) Entrenchments of various kinds are treated as the enemy to the high adventure of wandering. Line 145 offers an interesting one:
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly
settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an
irresistible call to depart,
What leaves us puzzled is that we are called by an irresistible call. Being called by a call doesn’t really tell us anything about where the call came from, and I surmise that the call was internal. Whitman doesn’t say that the road called us, but simply a call, isolated and unoriginated, like an echo without a source, thus rising up mysteriously within us. Later, however, we do get its source, formerly obscured—Whitman himself: “You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.” (v. 190)

The image of the house, or in the other poem’s case, the spider’s web, allows me to bridge to the essence/accident contrast. Whitman commonly uses the image of Nature, and standing naked to it, as a picture of desired unmediatedness. In “Only the kernel of every object nourishes,” (v. 88) he calls upon the Greek distinction in order to claim that words are tidied up and fashioned for us, and that these were accidents, “husks” (v. 89) to be stripped away. This may be a speculative leap, but I consider that to be hidden in this line: “Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and him?” It is difficult to tell whether Whitman is shifting to the verb “envelopes,” which he uses quite frequently, after the conjunction, or whether he’s using the noun. Say he meant the noun—where is the guy who will undo the packaging of our letters? Upon that derivation, we see the Platonist’s distrust of words, that how our alphabet is packaged, in words and sentences that mean certain things, is all contingent and a big accident. Whitman wants to start over again, get to the kernel, and name everything over again.