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Learning Journal Week 3: Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwomans Narrative


The 2001 discovery of this early and extraordinary autobiography, heralded as perhaps the first work to ever be written by a black woman, brought a new life and look at the discourse surrounding early African-American literature and antebellum literature concerned with slavery in general. Ah, now, here we go again, grandiose, unsupported statements flaunting such wonderful terminology as discourse and antebellum, ohohohoho. Indeed, we have hit upon a subject matter that is quite capable of generating grand comparisons and very verbose discussion on every aspect of its short text. From my background, I feel most comfortable, and, more importantly, less likely to be questioned on tackling the religious side of things, but I won't stick to that. No, I shall libel, and slander, and generally blather around delicate subjects with all the grace and self-consciousness of a stuck, blind, and furious wolverine in a very small china shop.

Although recent work has further validated the general authenticity of the manuscript and author, we are still not certain of the exact dating of the writing of The Narrative. It has been placed to the mid 1850s to a later limit of 1861 and the Succession of the Confederacy. This delicate time, of Runaway Slave laws, abolitionists, Mexican-American War, and expansion, is perfect for the sourcing of an early (allegedly) independent slave narrative to come out of. But we have to ask what are the express reasons behind the writing of this book, especially as we have no evidence of its publication at the time.

It is not wholly critical of slavery as an institution, but instead rather more concerned with the individuals treatment of other human beings, both positive and negative, both black and white. This viewing of others as humans foremost, with their class following, is one of the reasons given for it to be written by a former slave.

Ah this is all nonsense. I am far more interested in the range of binaries shown in the work and their various subversions, the choices of which perhaps do inform as to the identity of the author, but are otherwise more generally subversive. The (almost) universally binary forms of Race, Sex, and Position (Class) are subverted in various ways in The Narrative, through different individuals and at different points during the work.

Race, firstly, at many times seen or described as a defining feature of individuals is subverted and made arbitrary through many different characters, not least Hannah herself, who is introduced and described as having some white ancestry. She seems to have been handed the more difficult hand compared to her first mistress, who bears black ancestry, but was raised in white society to marry a slave owner. The difficult position of mixed race characters, not wholly black nor wholly white, lends them an important outlook on the general situation.

This place on the outside of the binary again applies to Hannah herself within the binary form of Sex, in both meanings. In biological male and female terms, Hannah normally identifies as female, but in order to execute her final escape from servitude at the end of the book she must cut her hair and take on the appearance of a male. That she is able to do this again puts her on the edge of the binary form, and perhaps lends some notion to the idea that even in its unpublished state, the work has been edited by male eyes. Certainly in the twenty-first century, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has contributed a male editorial concern to the work.

In the concept of sexuality regarding heterosexuality and homosexuality, Hannah again lies on the edge of the binary. While at the end of the work we are told she is happily married to a minister, many other moments call into question her participation in the realm of human sexuality. It is the moment of her potential rape, the disruption of her previously maintained virginity that causes her to make her escape to the north, but to what extent is this the potential disruption of her heterosexual virginity alone? She is certainly close to her mistresses in ways acknowledged to be closer than others could ever achieve, although this is suggested to be an aspect of her being a slave rather than her being a woman, the suggestion still remains that perhaps Hannah's overly christian virginity is maintained in the work only in opposition to her possible homosexuality and in keeping with the altogether overwrought religious nature of the book.

Class and position are yet further binaries to be subverted throughout the book, but in two distinct ways. Continuing to discuss the position of Hannah herself, we first are able to see the basic southern dichotomy of slave and freed broken, as Hannah, far before she creates her own physical freedom, is part of a hierarchy within the slave half of the binary, and further within that. We first have the notions of a field slave in opposition to the house slave, both positions occupied by Hannah at various points. She rejects the field slaves as primitives, perhaps as a result of her being used to being a house slave, but then we must analyse her position within the house slaves, for Hannah is no cook or cleaner for the majority of the novel, but instead acts as a Lady's Maid, removed again from the rest of the house slaves by her closeness to her mistresses.

On the freed side of the equation, we are again offered another binary opposition, between slave owners and abolitionists. But then where does our antagonist, Mr Trappe, the lawyer lie. Described by slave owners as distinct from their number as a Slave Speculator rather than a trader or owner, Trappe is another character stuck in the liminal world that the narrative occupies.

So to religion... And here I must beg forgiveness, as I am working from a couple of remembered lectures five years ago for my main comparison, but is was something that during the seminar today suddenly came to me as a shot from the blue. For I feel that Hannah Crafts work can be directly compared to the sort of sensationalist and redemptionist works produced and proliferated by the El Shaddai movement of the modern Phillipines. Again, this is vaguely remembered from one or two lectures five years ago, and I may be misattributing. Their reworkings of Christian Doctrine to suit their modern cause is different though in that I cannot seem to remember any specific racial aspect to their narratives (although it must exist to some degree) but instead the binary they fight against is that of the corrupt power structure that they find themselves in. Where the salvation doctrine of a slave narrative is necessarily against a white power structure, in modern salvation doctrine is there a place for this racial aspect or should we simply be fighting against corrupt use of power without appreciation for race of the oppressors? Surely this can only work if there is no difference between the race of the oppressors and the suppressed, but then, even if there is a racial difference, perhaps it need only be considered as important if that difference is used as an inherent strut of the power structure, that is to say, that the oppressors use their racial difference as an excuse for remaining in power. Ancient cultures perhaps did not expect slaves to be different racially, but instead to have been the unfortunate victims of conquest. The conquest remains but the racial difference does not.

Ah, my coffee wears off, and I fear that I must apologise for the horrific generalisations made above... The guilt, the guilt! I feel that I have not given credit to the actual academic discussions raging over this book.


Learning Journal Week 2 – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables


Rushing in on the train, slightly late (though not as much as last week), rushing to finish as much of the novel as possible in that last hour before the lecture. The hour of travel. This week was no poor trauma of transport, instead my head weighed heavily with the excess of the night before and the MA English Department Reception, of which, but three Americans made an appearance, myself taking a baton of another who left early, and then staying until the free wine was gone and falling in with some of the Creative Writing lot at the Union bar, leaving, gracefully, before the place was fully converted to the drag and superheroed nightclub that the doorman explained as 'the usual wednesday'.

So, so, I technically finished the novel, by skipping the last two or three chapters from the end and reading the last one. Throughout Hawthorne has been an easier read than Walden, though I had to disagree with its being judgementally 'better' or 'worse', indeed these are different books with different traits, and I feel so ingrained in non-fiction that I am perhaps unique among the literature students in enjoying Walden's indefinite placement.

But this is about 7Gables, not Walden! I am thinking, of course, of the soon to be hastily written and back-dated learning journal entry for week 1 that will have no mention of its out of order placement.

So to 7Gables. I walked into a brief comparison with Walden regarding the Redemptive Power of Nature, apparently present in 7Gables, an aspect I can't quite agree with. 7Gables has its garden, which is an obviously purifying source, but at the same time we are presented with the degenerate and decaying Maule's Well in the centre of the thing. Yet in a book so heavily laden with metaphor we have to allow for those aspects of nature put into it by Hawthorne to account for something. We have at the one hand the old house, with its decrepit garden (being pruned... something for later) and then the idolised golden country lying in wait and promised to the Pyncheons by the Native Deed. But this analogy is fairly weak in nature, and I prefer to see the concept of the Pyncheon garden as its link to femininity in the novel, but particularly that of both Hepzibah and Phoebe Pyncheon.

At the start of the book we are told that the garden is untended, that it is falling into disrepair, and that the plants, left over from the omnipresent hand of Alice Pyncheon, are barely kept going by the elder hand of Uncle Venner. But when Phoebe arrives she enters the garden with the intention of transforming them, as she transforms the inside of the House, yet we discover that Holgrave has been tending her garden. This starts the ongoing series of metaphors concerning the women of the book. So Phoebe's garden is tended already by Holgrave, ohohoho, without falling to far towards base thoughts this could perhaps represent his influence beginning to work on her as a mesmerist before she even meets the daguerreotypist heir to the Maule wizardry and inherited feud against the Pyncheons.

Throughout 7Gables, women are as caged birds against the events of the book. Being caged is their primary trait. Hepzibah caged by the House itself. Pheobe, perhaps to be trapped by the same building, or to be trapped by Holgrave. Then we have Alice Pyncheon, who is again stuck within the walls of the Seven Gables, but more by the ancestral Maule, whose visible, yet not physical rape, leads to her death and haunting of Seven Gables. Another caged woman is present in the Organ Grinder's showbox, a woman who epitomises the novels outlook of women, as pure entities, but without agency of their own, lit only by their reaction to men, as the kissing figure is described by her effect and then non effect on her male partner. Further, we also have the emasculated Clifford Pyncheon, through his imprisonment left asexual.

For all of this, Hawthorne's concept of his book as a Romance rather than a novel, relies on its being seen as being unfaithful to our conventional notions of realism and thus almost entirely allegorical. But what then is its overriding moral? What is the message that we are supposed to take away from 7Gables?

My opinion is that the book is concerned with Greed and the Human Condition. Throughout all its other readings as a feminist text (with Phoebe being the ultimately redeeming notion and the male characters being corruptors), or of a proto-marxist text (with a spread of the wealth and a deconstruction of class boundaries), instead I feel that the moral which Hawthorne wishes to impart is that it is through pursuit of wealth that we are most corrupted, power and wealth, even the pursuit of these things leads to the downfall of the Pyncheons until we are left with the merest shadows left in Hepzibah, Clifford, and Pheobe. They are able to rediscover their ancestral wealth only by first abandoning it and discovering a wealth within themselves.

I find this most interesting as a contrast to (my concept of) the American Dream, that through hard work and a little luck, we might be able to achieve and fulfil our wishes. Perhaps this is a later version of the American Dream, or one to be dreamt by those who feel removed from America, or wish to go there, the migrants American Dream. I can reconcile this only through the notion that Hawthorne did not have this ideal as he was already descended from an american gentry, one for whom, perhaps, the concept was spoiled by having lost the power and wealth of their ancestors.

Defending my view of the book as an allegory of greed I point to a number of passages, one early on, another closer to the middle and then another from the conclusion of the book. First of all we have the arrival of Clifford, where he is made coffee to drink after getting out of prison and cries out "More, more! This is what I need! Give me more!" Perhaps in contrast then to Hepzibah, Clifford has already realised the essential and primal needs as more necessary than those higher airs clung to by his sister. The coffee then is this powerful representation of a core desire, not for grace and class, but for a basic sustenance, one that I am very well acquainted with.

Further on we have the Organ Grinder's Monkey. He dances and performs for money, and once it is given to him, he hands it to his master and returns to his performance. In his short appearance we are granted insight to the unsatisfying nature of money and wealth. No matter what funds were to be awarded to the little ape, he would continue in his masquerade, always in search of more. This section hold particular resonance with me, as I have been fortunate enough to see an actual organ grinder with monkey, wearing a little waistcoat and fez, this singular power above that of the other organ grinders (sans monkeys) was enough to facilitate my reaching deep into my pockets to donate to the monkey, his paw clasping around the coin. This monkey then too returned to his master, put the money into a hat, and then went back to soliciting passers by.

But further on, I feel that it is the fact that the Pyncheons and Holgrave are only rewarded with their wealth on their discovery of their love for each other that most suggests the moralistic corruption of greed.


Learning Journal Week 1 – Thoreau’s Walden


How can I start with Walden? The note that I wandered late into my seminar with was that it was The Federalist Papers written for the Individual rather than a Nation. And I can't really say that I came to much of a different opinion after consultation with the compatriots of my course. It presents as a theory or set of theories on moral conduct. Especially grounded, as is obvious with a notion of purity as granted by nature. This pastoral reading of Walden Pond as viewed through Thoreau's educated eyes lends to the grand narrative concept that we must discover ourselves through discovering our place within nature.

His acceptance of industrialisation, with the railroad that inevitably hurtles forth from Boston and into the wild, bringing with it all of the horrors of modernity, sends me back to my great American hero, Fitzgerald and his “fresh, green breast of the new world,” a notion of this great nature being slowly and surely removed by man's journey into alleged comfort.

Walden saw himself living out in wilderness as discovering himself, what it means to be man, what it means to be a scholar, and what it means to communicate and exist with each other and with nature. I think of my time in my wilderness, something I refer to as my Big Sur, out in those English heartlands of Essex. I was not removed from the comforts of modernity, beyond that of the internet (which I was able to get some access of should I hold my phone in a certain part of the house and be very patient) but had my isolation. Like Thoreau, I found myself enjoying the company I had, which was plentiful, more than the same company had I stayed in the city surrounded by people. I too did not live a hermit existence, walking as I did, every couple of days, the long miles through fields to nearby villages to buy small perishables. But in my wilderness I fought to control the nature that I was presented with, in my small garden, and in the wasp's nest in the gable.

I found myself sitting and enjoying the sun. Finding time to read and truly read those small number of texts that I was able to bring with me. Gazing at the clouds as they passed and made shapes in the sky. Taking time to cook my basic meals with care and responsibility. Overall I enjoyed that life, its simplicity and lack of rush that my city life is typified by. I found a little of this in Mexico, but in living in another's house I was unable to eat of that extra metaphysical notion that belies ownership and an Englishman's prerogative to live as a lord in his manor. In Mexico I lived as a guest in another manor, and was not in the wilderness, even when I stayed up in the mountains or had my solitary days by the beach. One day, one day in the future perhaps I will have my own land out there and discover my Walden, rediscover my Big Sur. Live simply and basically, according to the whims of the land and find that odd happiness that comes from removal from other people, especially that of the hustle and bustle of the city that I have grown up in, and feel stays part of me. But I can have my own city in that segregated section of nature that would be my domain.

This is in difference to Thoreau, who lays against the land and the pond as a passive partner in his relationship with nature. Unrecognisable in Walden is the basic threat of nature, in its harshness and extremes. Nature in Walden is only a threat to society. In the snows he is unaffected. I wonder what would occur in earthquakes, volcanoes or tidal waves. Perhaps Thoreau would still be unaffected. Would he see his cabin in ruins and simply build a new one a little down the road, again apart from society, without worry or concern. This rediscovered American Pioneer Spirit runs through, but one more related to those early explorers than the later expeditions peopled with those hoping to construct a new society, linked inherently with the old one.

Thoreau sees the links in his 1850s America with Britain of the same time, and that left behind before 1776, and America by the 1850s had apparently not distanced itself enough, it had spent those intervening years not being wholly revolutionary, at least, not as revolutionary as Thoreau wished.

But in the 1850s America was engaged in the Mexican War, its rather odd early experiment with empire building. Though it is not specifically given in Walden as a reason, his arrest for non-payment of poll taxes was excused by Thoreau as a protest against this conflict and against the federal government's intervention in the lives of not only its own citizens but those of another sovereign nation. Yet the poll tax went not to conscripting troops, nor towards their training or equipment, but instead it was local to the state and municipalities of Massachusetts and Concord itself. It went to primarily positive social projects.

So for Thoreau to reject this sort of socialistic aim leaves him open to abuse from Right Wing modernist readings to decry intervention of the government in the lives of its citizens. Yet Thoreau is sadly tainted by his hypocrisy. After his time in the wilderness he gives up the experiment and returns to society. His experiment in the whole is something only made possible by his relative wealth and unattached nature. He decries the Irish immigrant living his tenant existence, killing himself working but enjoying the simple luxuries that he would not have been able to enjoy back in Ireland, without realising that Thoreau's opinion must be coloured by his position in the society that he has chosen to abandon.