for Dan Bouchard
Walter Savage Landor: It has been my fortune to love, in general, those men most who have thought most differently from me, on subjects wherein others pardon no discordance. In my opinion, I have no more right to be angry with a man whose reason has followed up a process different from what mine has, and is satisfied with the result, than with one who was gone to Venice while I am at Florence, and who writes to me that he likes the place, and that, although he said once he should settle elsewhere, he shall reside in that city.
W. C. Fields: Get away from me you little bastard! For two cents — or even one — I’d kick in your teeth.
Once upon a time, everyone under the sun — and a few in the shadows — knew a certain great novel so well, its characters’ names served as figures of speech. One still does, the very figure of servitude. Here’s a dictionary definition for another; it attests quite well to the novel’s ubiquity a century after publication. The definition was written by Eric Partridge and comes from his Name into Word: Proper Names That Have Become Common Property (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949):
Simon Legree tends, in American writing, to mean, literally and figuratively, ‘a cruel, sinister, relentless slave-driver’. …
For those few who have not read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in the early 1850s and did much to precipitate the emancipation of the Negroes in North America, it is necessary to mention that Simon Legree hounded Uncle Tom and his fellow-slaves and came to a somewhat gruesomely sticky end.
And for those few who have not read the novel, Legree’s comeuppance is precipitated by a certain Gothic tomfoolery, performed by two of the slaves, who prey on Legree’s mind by playing ghost. Here’s the sticky end as Stowe gives it:
… finally, there came over his sleep a shadow, a horror, an apprehension of something dreadful hanging over him. It was his mother’s shroud, he thought; but Cassy had it, holding it up, and showing it to him. He heard a confused noise of screams and groanings; and, with it all, he knew he was asleep, and has struggled to wake himself. He was half awake. He was sure something was coming into his room. He knew the door was opening, but he could not stir hand or foot. At last he turned, with a start; the door was open and, he saw a hand putting out his light.
It was a cloudy, misty moonlight, and there he saw it! — something white, gliding in! He heard the still rustle of its ghostly garments. It stood still by his bed; — a cold hand touched his; a voice said, three times, in a low, fearful whisper, “Come! come! come!” And, while he lay sweating with terror, he knew not when or how, the thing was gone. He sprang out of bed, and pulled at the door. It was shut and locked, and the man fell down in a swoon.
After this, Legree became a harder drinker than ever before. He no longer drank cautiously, prudently, but imprudently and recklessly.
There were reports around the country, soon after, that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick-room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, “Come! come! come!”
I say “as Stowe gives it” because the dramatizations that flourished in the nineteenth century and after often altered the details. Legree is shot, for instance, in the most popular of the stage versions, that of George L. Aiken.
Oddly, Partridge has no entry at all for Tom or Uncle Tom, though this epithet has had much a longer shelf life than Legree. Go figure.
Working backward in time, from the near present to the 1830s, by a combination of free and accidental association, in order to think forward: less a method than a way of passing the time — history as bookshelf, browsing as historiography.
American Hybrid (2009)
For a short time after its publication there was a lot of controversy over American Hybrid, a Norton anthology that made the claim — I guess I should say makes; it’s still in print — that poetry is no longer a matter of warring factions; the best poets now pledge no allegiance, it said — says — but jump sides at will. Or would if there were sides (which there are) (are not).
Let those parenthetical equivocations stand in for a fairer representation of the anthology’s own, which are not so much contradictions as uncertainties. For the purpose of the anthology has never been clear to me. I mean its editorial purpose, since the work is the work, produced for reasons — conscious and unconscious — of the authors’ own, which may or may not correspond to the imagination of the editors. But what was that imagination? Did the editors intend to produce an historical account of the literary present, or an aesthetic theory, or a manifesto? By what criteria should I judge their labor? And how strictly should I judge?
My choice has been to take the anthology as something more personal and more effervescent than a history, theory, or assault: I see it instead as lending substance to a mood, and in this regard its success is much less qualified, as the substance is not a matter of accuracy, coherence, or influence, but richness and suggestion.
The stumbling block for me (not that anyone is asking) is the title, which was meant to draw luster, I suspect, from postcolonial theory, where hybrid has become something of a master trope for the aftereffects of colonial relationships (and by extension the more symmetrical forms of engagement that occur between groups, ideologies, etc., which is how American Hybrid uses it). Associated in particular with Homi K. Bhabha, the trope of hybridity highlights the generative possibilities of such relationships, conceptualizing “an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on … the ‘inter’ — the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.” That hybrid is a trope is often forgotten, however, though not by the editors and publishers of American Hybrid — witness the flag-waving butterfly on the cover, each of its wings coming from a different breed. A hybrid literally is the offspring of two different species, and it has, for much of its history, carried a negative association when applied to human beings (I think, for instance, of Ezra Pound’s Fascist propaganda, which refers sneeringly to “hybrids of the Anglo ghetto” ). Postcolonialism is explicitly a critique of racism, so its redemption of the word is at once polemical and contextualized. Neither is the case with American Hybrid, which is unfortunate since some of the controversy over the anthology was owing to its “whitewashing,” as Craig Santos Perez put it, of American poetry and hybridity as concept. In any case, hybrid is not a trope I particularly like, no doubt for personal reasons: I am one generation removed from the eugenic nightmare of Nazi Germany (about which my father, a survivor, has written at length).
I should distinguish, though, between two versions of the trope, each of which is adopted in the anthology. Innocuous to me is the metaphor of poem as hybrid, especially in the horticultural form David St. John adopts at the end of his brief introduction (the second of two; the other, much longer, is by his co-editor, Cole Swensen):
I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of all our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again.
There is a certain confusion here — the Adamic citation at the end hardly points away from the fantasy of purity; and the slippage from “poets” to “poetry” does suggest that the former are the stock from which the latter’s “exquisite hybridizations” are produced — but to speak of poetry as cultivation, evoking a “Garden” of verses, is to till the very idea of culture in its most venerable form.
The other version of the trope appears in Swensen’s introduction, and the genetic aspects are there highlighted. She speaks of “writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits,” and refers to her poets as “THE NEW (HY)BREED.” Like St. John, moreover, she ends on a reference ill-matched to her announced aims. In her case, the reference is a citation of Mallarmé, “to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe.” Impurity, I should think, would be a more appropriate goal in this context; and since the poetic legacies at issue for Swensen were earlier defined nationally (as French or English in origin), I find myself thinking about the purity of “the tribe,” which cannot be the last thought she wanted me to have.
I hasten to add that I see no malignant design in this troping. It is just something I do not care for, hence my sensitivity to it; and when the anthology appeared, it kept me from sharing in the mood.
I am not entirely sure why I am going into such detail about my response to the anthology (or rather, my reasons for not responding), except that I came across a modernist precedent for the anthology’s conceit, which in turn suggested another precedent from the nineteenth century, and I did not think I could talk about these precedents without sorting out my original feelings. Read the rest of this entry »
From Poems of Places, vol. 27, America: Middle States (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
[Fire Island, N.Y.]
I am tempted to call Fire Island the most haunted spot in American literature: two notable writers met their end there, one at sea, the other on land — and these were gruesome deaths as well. In 1850, Margaret Fuller drowned just offshore. Her body was never recovered, but others from the same ship — including that of her son, Nino — washed onto the beach where Frank O’Hara would be struck by a jeep in 1966.
O’Hara died young — he was 40 years old — and before the great majority of his writing had seen print. This surely added to the sense of emergency that attended his loss. According to O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, three of the poet’s friends — Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Larry Rivers — took possession of the manuscripts in fear that they would be destroyed or disappear.
Fuller, also 40, had published more extensively than O’Hara (three books and a great many uncollected essays), but in her case an important manuscript did disappear: her history of the Italian revolution, in which she participated as a director of one of Rome’s hospitals during the street fighting. The copy of her book that Fuller carried across the ocean sank, and no other copy ever came to light, despite the assiduous searching of her friends. From letters, and from Fuller’s dispatches for the New-York Tribune (the same newspaper for which Marx would later write), we have a good sense of what she witnessed. But what she learned after, and what she withheld, and what she made of it all in hindsight, these are gone for good.
The gruesome facts of O’Hara’s death were not set aside or forgotten in the grief over his loss. His death came in a hospital after 40 hours of intense pain, and O’Hara’s friends were witness to that suffering. Larry Rivers was especially graphic in his eulogy, evoking O’Hara’s mangled body for the assembled mourners: Read the rest of this entry »
The farmhouse, built by the poet’s great-great-grandfather in 1688, has been preserved by the affectionate solicitude of the Whittier Homestead Association. After the ravages of fire and of time it has been scrupulously restored. The old-fashioned garden, the lawn sloping to the brook, the very stepping-stones, the bee-hives, the bridle-post, the worn door-stone, the barn across the road, even the surrounding woods of pine and oak, are all, as nearly as may be, precisely what they were a hundred years ago.
— Bliss Perry, “John Greenleaf Whittier: A Sketch of His Life” (1907)
When you pass Haverhill, Mass., on I-495, there’s a sign that says something like Birthplace of John Greenleaf Whittier. Every time I drive that route I think to myself, “I really ought to stop and see what’s on offer.” This time I did, and I’m glad I did. “Snow-bound” (link) is one of my favorite poems. Every year, when the snow comes down, I reread it, ritually. And that’s the best thing I can say for winter! Also, Whittier was a mentor to Lucy Larcom, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately. Also, I love the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers visiting the poet, who heard their serenade with head bowed and tears rolling down. So I had to stop.
As it happens, the poem was written in June, so June was a good time to visit.[*] Gus Reusch, the curator, stood before the fireplace remembered in the poem, and told the story of Whittier’s life. After he was done, he gave a tour of the house, telling more stories about the artifacts. And after the tour, he took a picture of my wife and I sitting before the fireplace, in the chairs that belonged to Whittier’s mother and father.
It was a strange recompense. Just the day before, an old friend told me about seeing The Steins Collect at the Met, a show I never managed to see, to my regret. But tel me: Does the Met have Stein’s rocking chair? And if they do, would they let you sit in it? And if they did, would the curator take your picture? I’m pretty sure the answers to these questions are no, no, and no. Besides which, it wasn’t Stein looking down at me when I learned my ABCs. I’m old enough, God help me, to have had engravings of the Fireside Poets in my classroom.
It’s a paradox: time moves forward unceasingly and you can’t go backward; yet the past has attractions that you can visit. The Haverhill Homestead (link) is one of those attractions.
The best thing I learned at Haverhill was that Whittier kept a pet squirrel, Friday, who would take nuts from Whittier’s pocket, cracking them open on the poet’s shoulder. The two would go on walks together through Amesbury, which made Whittier a big hit with the kids.
When I got home, I googled “Whittier” and “squirrel,” just to make sure the story was genuine (I had the dreadful feeling, born of a lifetime’s gullibility, that my leg was being pulled). But it’s true! In fact, you can see the squirrel, stuffed, in the Whittier College archive, which collects Whittier memorabilia. A Quaker college, the school was named for the great Quaker poet, as was the California town where the college is located. I’ve long known that Richard Nixon, also a Quaker, was born in Whittier, but I never put two and two together.The sum in this case is not four but Friday.
By odd coincidence, Friday was featured in the Whittier Daily News exactly one week before my visit to Haverhill (link). The paper induced the president of the college, Sharon Herzberger, to pose with the creature, as the president cheerfully admits on her blog (link). There’s even a video:
These days, when I think of Whittier, California, my first association is not Richard Nixon but Thee Midniters, said to be the first Chicano rock band to have a hit in the U.S. They recorded on the Whittier label, and went to high school in that town, and had a hit in 1965 with the instrumental “Whittier Blvd.” My old roommate Oliver had one of their albums, which we listened to a lot.
Once again, I failed to put two and two together. Though Wikipedia and other sources report that the band was “Thee” rather than “The” Midniters to avoid confusion with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, I realize now that’s the Quaker thee.
You can hear the original “Whittier Blvd” on YouTube (link) — and you should! But here’s the band in 2011, great as ever. I’m going to guess for symmetry’s sake that they’re about the age Whittier was when he wrote “Snow-bound.”
* [Back to text] Or if not written in June, then assuming June as its vantage point on the past: “The birds are glad; the brier-rose fills / The air with sweetness; all the hills / Stretch green to June’s unclouded sky; / But still I wait with ear and eye / For something gone which should be nigh, / A loss in all familiar things, / In flower that blooms, and bird that sings.”
One of the projects I’ve been working on for the past few years, in spare moments, is a counterfactual edition of Emily Dickinson’s war poetry: an attempt to imagine what a book of Dickinson’s war poems might have looked like, had she allowed one to be published at the end of the Civil War. I’m not the first to use this approach; I cribbed it from Joanne Dobson, who produced “a hypothetical Table of Contents for a volume of Verses by Emily Dickinson” as part of her own Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence. Dobson’s Verses was comprised of fifty poems run together in a continuous sequence; it had an imagined publication date of 1864, the year five of Dickinson’s poems poems did appear in print, on ten different occasions, her most public year as a writer. The point of the exercise: to make vivid the fact that many of Dickinson’s unpublished poems would not have been out of place in the literary market of the time, as previous critics had imagined. The point of my exercise is a little different: to make vivid the particularity of Dickinson’s war poems by putting them in a form that makes comparison easier with other war poets of the time (those, anyhow, who published whole volumes on the subject). Read the rest of this entry »
From the Library of Congress copy of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s Poems (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), by way of the Internet Archive (link):
for “poles” read “polls”
for “bog-hut” read “log-hut”
for “smiles” read “smile”
for “Rhotruda” read “Rhotrude”
for “plaint” read “paint”
for “Let” read “Yet”
for “raftsmen” read “raftsman”
for “splashed” read “plashed”
for “give” read “gave”
for “earthly” read “earthy”