Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture
Robert C. Allen

Who knew that someone could write so much about this topic and make it completely fascinating? Allen’s vast scope, writing style, and analytical ability make this book a joy to read, perhaps my favorite so far this semester. The title comes from William Dean Howells’s essay on burlesque, who described burlesque performers as “not like men” but at the same time “in most things as unlike women.” He said in fact that they were like “creatures of a kind of alien sex, parodying both. It was certainly a shocking thing to look at them with their horrible prettiness, their archness in which was no charm, their grace which put to shame” (qtd. in Allen 25).

One gets the sense from Howell’s commentary that he protests too loudly, and that kind of protest was a common theme of the day. Many reviewers and audience members had to frequent burlesque shows so that they could complain regularly of the immorality. That one theme of the book is present, but it isn’t belabored. Too many other important themes exist. Another interesting point Allen makes is about changing notions of beauty, certainly a part of Howells’s observation. One of the first illustrations in the book is a photograph of Lydia Thompson as Ixion. She’s no beauty from where I sit. Her features are coarse; she’s decidedly overweight (though thinner than me); her legs look like two baseball bats; and her nose could not have been pretty, even then. Allen takes the whole first chapter to tell the story of what might have been the first case of hype. The story that preceded Thompson to the U.S. was the world’s response to her “charismatic sexuality” (7): people literally went crazy. In small Russian towns, people hung her picture in the kitchen alongside the one of the Czar. In fact, in one Russian city, a captain of the dragoons committed suicide, saying his love for her drove him to it (7). So either it was spin to ignite the New York audience, or the European audience had different tastes. In any event, the New York press wasn’t so kind, saying she was “well proportioned…but by no means handsome” (8). New York critics preferred Ixion cast member, Pauline Markham, who they termed “the most beautifully formed woman who had ever appeared on the stage” and who is much prettier in her picture (9).

Anyway, the idea of burlesque humor can be seen at the beginning of this first chapter, where we see what must have appeared on the program of Lydia Thompson’s first season in America. It says: “DRAMATIS PERSONAE – MARS – commander-in-chief, as Ma’s usually are. THE NINE MUSES, including POLLY HYMNIA. Those Thessalians who would be these aliens if they weren’t natives; dreadful Democrats, members of several secret societies who demand the right of free speaking in a state of free-dumb” (1). And so on. What we can see from that brief example is that the pun is one of the most common forms of burlesque humor.

Moving right along, I said that Allen shows the changing forms of beauty as well as the changing ways the people handled sexuality at the time. We’ve just added to that the way humor was used. But Allen frames the way he considers burlesque in a much larger way. He explains, “we might say that burlesque is one of several nineteenth-century entertainment forms that is grounded in the aesthetics of transgression, inversion, and the grotesque” (26). Now, all these become significant because they relate specifically to the role of women, to the nature of power in society (which relates both to women and to race), and to issues related to disability. All those come in to play in this study of burlesque. Frankly, I did not expect to have a feminist reading of burlesque from a male author, and I wouldn’t have looked forward to it, had I known it, but this is one of the best feminist readings I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to say more about what I learned.

I should not have to stop and explain my excitement over the feminist reading, but I guess I want to. This summer in my “Leadership & the Glass Ceiling” Peer Day, we discussed Andrea L’s students, many of whom, she told us, say things in class like “I’m not a feminist, but…” Now, I certainly don’t mean to emulate Andrea’s students, but I do feel compelled to say just that. Is the famous joke about feminists true? (You know the one—“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “That’s not funny!”). I guess my apology or disclaimer is that I don’t want to be taken for a humorous woman with a bad haircut and sensible shoes. But that said it’s so easy to get a bit angrier after every tiny awakening to these feminists truths, more and more red-faced until I look like that one horrible, angry feminist at Goddard (who I won’t name), who one would want to avoid at lunch time because the conversation would be so tooth-gnashingly furious. As I write about Horrible Prettiness, I’m going to be telling you about a few disturbing truths.

Okay. Now that that’s out of my system, back to Allen. He uses Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s ideas to explain how to begin thinking about the burlesque: as a part of the low culture, and that isn’t just to marginalize it. If burlesque is a part of the low culture, say Stallybrass and White, then it is “reviled by and excluded from the dominant social order as debased, dirty, and unworthy,” but at the same time it is “the object of desire and/or fascination” (26). So, in other words, we love to hate it; it “elicits both repugnance and fascination” (26). Allen explains that the result is “a psychological dependence upon precisely those Others which are being rigorously opposed and excluded at the social level” and that is why “what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central” (26). I follow Allen’s point here: the events that transpire on the edges of the culture seem to be the real focus of the culture many times.

Allen realizes that if he intends to define burlesque in American culture, he must offer a working definition of culture. He says, “the study of culture is the study of how groups of people make sense of, find their place within, express their understandings of, and make pleasurable or displeasurable their relationships with the social worlds they inhabit” (30). So, Allen further explains that we should not study any of these events “in isolation,” or as though they meant the same to everyone who experienced them, but rather in the context in which they occurred to the ones who were there. “Pleasure is socially constrained, and [...] socially determined” (30). In other words, how and what one enjoys has much to do with one’s social position. But it’s important to keep in mind that culture has as much to do with the groups and groupings that exist as it does with the “contestations” (32).

These contestations bring up the issue of power, which will be quite pertinent to the later discussion of burlesque, believe it or not. In defining terms, Allen explains that it helps when we “think of power relations in terms of subordination’s more precise opposite, ordination, than the term with which it is more commonly paired (domination)” because “groups in a position to do so rarely exercise their power with the force and directness suggested by the term ‘domination.’ Rather, power is expressed through ordination: that is, by attempting to regulate through the arrangement of things in ranks and orders—what is high, what is low; what is us, what is them” (34). An example given is of ethnic jokes, which Allen says “work by reordinating the world, dividing it between an us and a them – a them that is always close to us – geographically or culturally – but is through the joke made ontologically different and inferior” (34). This concept of reordinating the world is particularly interesting when I see it related specifically to humor—humor is often related to interplay of power, so there’s a connection to my other work.

Anyway, the power of ordination is “bound by the limits of discourse.” Allen gives examples of things like editorials, sermons, and even jokes. But “insubordination is resistance contained by discourse: the temporary and circumscribed upsetting of another group’s symbolic ordering—grafitti, rude noises at the back of the classroom, the hiss, the boo” (35). Allen connects this kind of discourse to burlesque through Bakhtin’s work with “the carnivalesque.”

Sunday, November 28, 2004

No Mather How You Cut it, Bercovitch is a Bitch

Finally, finally, I finished Sacvan Bercovitch’s Puritan Origins of the American Self this morning. It is a book that I cannot promise I developed any deep understanding about. The only promise I can make is that I read whole sections without a stitch of comprehension. I know that another American studies writer (Gene Wise, I think) said that Bercovitch had been driven to write this originally as a dissertation and that he had been fortunate to have a committee and especially an advisor who had let him write it, regardless of the fact that much scholarship about Puritans had already been done. I thought of that during my many comprehension-deficit reveries as I read. What kind of a person is driven to write a book like this? Who honestly cares THAT much about this period of history?

I began to understand it in chunks. At one point near the end of chapter one, when I was just about to give up on understanding the book at all, I had an epiphany that made me go back suddenly and highlight sections because I finally understood what he was saying on “Puritanism and the Self” (about which more in a moment). Similarly, near the end, I suddenly understood that perhaps one of the main ideas of the book had more to do with historiography than with literature, and those are significant points. But still I can’t say that this book is one I’ll be citing quotations out of from memory.

Well, to begin with, Bercovitch himself says that his purpose is to “outline the process by which Puritan themes, tensions, and literary strategies were assimilated into American Romanticism,” a goal I think he lives up to, though as I said, I don’t know that he entirely sticks to literature as a form, which seems to be what he’s promising (x). Another confusing part for me is that he seems to be focusing on Cotton Mather’s biography of John Winthrop. I wondered for more than half the book, then, how Bercovitch was going to sustain a 200-page analysis of Mather’s short biography. I just didn’t understand what he was doing. I finally (embarrassingly late) understood that it was just exemplary of the points he was making. It did help incredibly that Mather’s biography was appended to the book. Though I have it in any number of American literature anthologies sitting around, I found it useful to be able to refer to it while I read. It would serve some of these other American studies texts to do the same.

Bercovitch argues about Mather’s biography that Mather compares “Winthrop to a wide range of exemplary figures, from the epic champion to the Reformation martyr,” transforming the various biographical norms “into a distinctive concept of the representative American saint” (2). Bercovitch notes that early criticism of Mather’s biography as “an exercise in filiopietism” was not correct because the portrait was not “entirely flattering” (2). Mather reveals that “the clergy had to rebuke Winthrop for excessive leniency, that he incurred grave financial debts, that many eminent persons disliked him, that his controversial policies brought him to an ‘ignominious hearing’ before a general assembly,” and that he experienced terrible self-doubt in his old age (2). So it was not a purely flattering biography; it contained valuable historical information.

However it also follows the form of biographies of medieval Saints’ lives. In fact, says Bercovitch, in his account Mather refers a number of times to Ambrose, who wrote of “the pattern of sainthood and secular authority” (6). He certainly could have influenced Mather.

Bercovitch brings up the idea of the Exemplum Fidei, which I translate to mean example of faith. At the time of the reformation, biographies were written as examples of people with faith to influence other believers or to influence others to believe, presumably. The Reformed biographies had specific characteristics that meant that their stories moved from the “individual to the universal” (8). In this kind of writing, there was a “mode of imitatio,” or imitation, “that emphasized the spirit rather than the letter of the deed.” So writing according to this pattern would emphasize “the miraculous pattern of Christ’s life unfolded in organic stages of spiritual growth” (9). These are some issues that would be considered in evaluating Mather’s biography.

Another issue to consider about the time of the Puritans I thought was interesting was the consideration of the individual. Bercovitch discusses the concept of the early production of mirrors. I have heard this before, and he brings up that “it had become fashionable to link the production of mirrors during the Renaissance with the growth of modern individualism,” which he says might be “true for the humanist Renaissance” (14). But Puritans like Richard Mather still believed that “the mirror radiated the divine image. They never sought their own reflection in it, as did Montaigne and his literary descendants [...] The Puritans felt that the less one sees oneself in that mirror, the better” (14).

Bercovitch also brings up the idea of the Auto-Machia, which has to do with the “Puritan psychology” that is concerned with the “contrast between personal responsibility and individualism” (17). According to Bercovitch, “the Puritan had to come to terms with himself,” (23) and in doing so spiritual biography was helpful as a “guide for living up to the demands of dogma (24). In a sense, the Old Testament itself “could be read as a collection of exemplary Lives, diverse enough in action, personality, and vocation to apply to any saint in age” (27).

When Mather writes of Winthrop, says Bercovitch, his artfulness lies in the fact that he can at the same time write of “the literal event, the scriptural parallel, and the christic referent” (33). So he functions on these three levels of telling the actual life story, making the reference to a biblical story, and then making the story an analog to Christ’s life. It truly is a complex and impressive achievement. Bercovitch says the process “illuminates the intricate threefold rhetorical pattern which unites all the narrative elements of the biography, the personal and biblical levels entwined in the christological” (33).

The next chapter is called “The Vision of History.” Here, Bercovitch enlarges on the idea that we see from reading colonial literature, that the Puritans believed that they were the chosen people, and they saw their plight and travails in the new world as analogous to the struggles of the Isrealites in the Old Testament. More specifically, they saw that “Every believer was a typus or figura Christi” (36). And New Testament lessons support this understanding. Bercovitch’s example is of St. Christopher, who as a martyr, “was not literary crucified” but he “carried the cross of Christ in his heart” (36). In other words, the New Testament gives examples of this figurative Biblical understanding, so it offers a precedent for us to understand these metaphoric religious writings. Bercovitch notices in this chapter, though, that once these metaphoric connections are made, the writers of the time no longer make historical connections to their past (i.e., the old world) or ostensibly to history—so this is another place in my American Studies reading where I see the origins of the American tendency to act as though we invented history here.

The next chapter is “The Elect Nation in New England.” Bercovitch brings up here the point where Mather argues that America is to be “a refuge for those whom God ‘means to save out of this generrall callamitie,’ as the ark had saved Noah from the flood, and as New Jerusalem would harbor the elect” (102). It’s a great example of the view of this new world as a chosen place.

Bercovitch makes a good point about what was happening at the time. The Europeans who had come to New England “had the failure of European Protestantism behind” them, they were “cut off from family and friends by ‘soe vast an Ocean,’” spiritually split with the Church of England, removed from the English culture. Bercovitch argues, “Granted that [their] true home was heaven, [they] still needed a federal identity” (103). So, “the New England Puritans gave America the status of visible sainthood,” which brought about “the link between New England and the American Way” and what Bercovitch called “the eschatological anthropomorphism of spiritual biography,” which resulted in the “American dream, manifest destiny, redeemer nation, and fundamentally, the American self as representative of universal birth” (108).

The next chapter, “From Hermeneutics to Symbolism” was by far the most difficult. It’s certainly not something we would pull off the shelf for pleasure reading. Here Bercovitch talks about the signification of the narrative of the new world, where the Old World was “a second Babylon” so that the New World could be considered the “universal spiritual Babylon” and the crossing of the ocean was to be like a baptism of sorts (113). There’s more in this chapter, but I found myself mostly drowning in it, utterly lost. Some of the points I did understand, though, felt a little repetitive, having to do with the idea of portraying the story of the colonies as the story of saints.

The final chapter is “The Myth of America.” I was interested to see how Bercovitch saw the difference in the way the Maryland and Virginia settlers wrote. He says “they personified the New World simultaneously as a nourishing mother and an undefiled virgin (a mixed metaphor that adds pungency to the later concept of the rape of the land)” (137). How Southern, I say. But also how appropriate, when one considered the landscape here. When Bercovitch quotes examples such as “Beauties of naked Nature,” he explains that while phrases liked that might have been seen in Elizabethan literature, they would have been “virtually unthinkable in colonial New England” since “the Puritans could be just as erotic in their imagery, but they conceived of the American paradise as the fulfillment of scripture prophecy. The Southern myth was essentially utopian” (137).

Ultimately, the Puritan sense of identity formed our “tradition of national biography” (148). Bercovitch cites Critic Daniel Boorstin’s opinion that American biography is “a cross between medieval Saints’ Lives and the Greek Legends of the Gods” (148). The idea behind this is that ever since the Revolutionary War, biographies of leaders have always been a part of a “progressing spiritual biography of America” (148). Bercovitch explains that in our biographies, the biographers’ concern with “moral character” is “Subordinated to ‘the ideal American,’ ‘the embodiment of the true spirit of the nation,’ the ‘epitome of American history,’” and so on (148). Bercovitch says this applies to biographies of all sorts, from folk heroes to political biographies. Ultimately, “they render the hero an ‘idealization of American motives,’” giving him or her “all that is most noble in the American character” (149).

Frankly, reading this chapter is enough to make one feel more than cynical about biographies. They seem little more than exercises in propaganda. Bercovitch explains, “the littera-historia serve above all to illuminate the ‘thing signified’” (150) and I am reminded of the truth about historiography, that history itself is a story that someone had to make certain decisions to tell. These ideas are important because the way we are told history as a story has a great deal to do with these myths, or what Bercovitch calls our “tradition of national biography.” He points out in his book that decisions that were made in the seventeenth century by a group of puritans inform the way we look at our sense of self now. The explanation and examples are often so arcane that I can’t connect to them, but a couple of times, I understood and saw a tiny glimpse. Bercovitch even admits that it might even have been an accident that the Puritan myth survived (184), but it is more likely it survived “by merit, because it was compelling enough in content and flexible enough in form to invite adaptation” (186). The story of the saints, the biblical stories, the way we view what is good and holy, affects the way we judge ourselves and judge others. It affects the way we view what happened in the past, and I imagine it will have something to do with what with think about things that happen in the future.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Cheap Amusements: Working Women and
Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York
Kathy Peiss’s book is a nice complement to Amusing the Million, about which I spoke a week or so ago. It deals in greater depth with the topic of amusement, obviously, because it deals with the whole city, and not just with a resort town, and though it supposedly deals only with women, in doing so, the book has to discuss issues of children and husbands and families as well. Actually, Peiss even spends some time talking about Coney Island as well. But while I enjoyed Amusing the Million, I find Cheap Amusements on the whole a far more educative text. It does a better job of communicating what life was like at the time.

Peiss describes the class perceptions of New Yorkers at the turn of the (twentieth) century. She says that they would generally have seen the “population as split into two classes, typified by the ostentatious mansions of Fifth Avenue,” which still exist today, “and the squalid tenement slums of Mulberry Bend,” which now probably cost proportionally as much as those Fifth Avenue mansions” (11).

To look more closely at those on the lower end of the class scale, Peiss considered studies of income at the time. Between 1903 and 1909, these families of between four and six earned about $800 annually or $15 weekly. The same problems of very high urban rents and food existed then as do today, so these families had little disposable income (12). As a result, all the family members worked, including unmarried daughters.

So, these working families had little time for leisure. One researcher said, “In the evening they sit in front of the house,” and the furthest distance they traveled was to “the woman’s parents, who live across the way” (13). Those families who earned $17 or more every week made “inexpensive excursions and theater trips” as well as “occasional treats” such as a visit to “the amusement resorts at Coney Island or Fort George once or twice a summer” (13). Peiss says “as late as the First World War, working-class families spent only 2.4 percent of their earnings on amusements” (13).

But the truly interesting part of this discussion is what names the chapter, “The Homosocial World of Working-Class Amusements.” Citing the 1913 study of researcher George Bevan, Peiss explains the division of socialization at the time. Peiss explains, the “husband comes home at night, has his dinner, and goes out with the ‘men,’ or sits at home to read his paper. Even when unemployed [...] men never stayed home but went to play cards at the union hall” (16). Apparently, marriages were meant to be loveless affairs organized for the purposes of procreation (and of having life-long live-in cleaning and childrearing services, no doubt). So the husbands and wives both not only sought enjoyment but also were expected to seek recreation and enjoyment outside the home—separately.

Generally, working men went to the saloons. Their culture of the saloon was so endemic that the saloons practically took over. Peiss says, “Over ten thousand saloons were in business throughout greater New York in 1900.” Not only that, but “In the 15th Assembly District, for example, an area bounded by 43rd Street, 53rd Street, Eighth Avenue, and the Hudson River, almost one-half of the ninety-two street corners were occupied by saloons, and sixty-six taprooms were scattered along the blocks” (17). Considering how many fewer people lived there at the time, those numbers are staggering!

A whole subculture developed around what happened inside those saloons. Peiss cites a vice investigator who describes the way the bartender’s behavior might have “rivaled a vaudeville turn.” The investigator describes the bartender as a “hot headed Irishman” who squirted seltzer water on a patron who was passed out at the bar. In retribution, the inebriated patron later filled his mouth with beer and sprayed it at the bartender in a demonstration of “low comedy,” but with no “ill feeling” (20).

Another element of that subculture was the custom of treating. Peiss explains that “A kind of obligation of honor was created which required the individual to continue drinking until everyone in the group he was part of had the opportunity to treat everyone else” (21). No surprise that bars and bartenders were behind the formation of these large cohort groups.

While all this fun was going on, the wives did not have so much fun. They were limited to “sitting on the steps of the tenement gossiping; some lean out of the window with a pillow to keep their elbows from being scraped by the stone sills; others take walks to the parks” (22). If these women wanted to have the kind of fun their husbands were having, they were limited by problems with “inadequate plumbing in the tenements, poor municipal sanitation, and the inability to afford simple labor-saving technology” (22). One woman interviewed recalled using “a coal fire to heat her irons,” handling “iron pots in cooking,” chopping “wood in the cellar,” baking “her own bread,” and bearing “thirteen babies” (22). Good God! How did she even have time to conceive thirteen babies?

So now, if there was any sort of recreation, the women were likely to have more work to do, such as preparing the food for the picnic or taking extra care that the children looked their most presentable for being shown off at the park. If the husband’s paycheck was to be used for leisure, it had to be after he used it for what he wanted. In other words, men would spend “the bulk of it on beer and liquor, tobacco, and movie and theater tickets” for themselves and then if anything was left over, the family could use it for things like food and clothing for the children and rent (23).

The next chapter, “Leisure and Labor,” deals with the origin of “Blue Monday,” the leisure time of employees who (as one employer said) took all day “Sunday for a gala day and not as a day of rest. They worked so hard having a good time [...] that they were ‘worn to a frazzle’ when Monday morning came” (34). Things became a little more economically stable here.

Between 1880 and 1920, unmarried women came to take over at least the women’s job market. Peiss says, “In 1900 four-fifths of the 343,000 wage-earning women in New York were single, and almost one-third were aged sixteen to twenty” (34). Whether these women worked to support themselves or their families, a majority of them worked. This is interesting because it was at this time that working “became an integral part of the transition from school to marriage” (35). The change in their work was a significant one, since in Victorian New York, working women mostly were “domestic servants, needlewomen, laundresses, and in other employments seemingly marginal to an industrial economy” (36). So, according to Peiss, even “as late as 1880, 40 percent of all New York working women were in domestic service” (36). Also, incidentally, women in domestic service had a much harder time going out at night and making their own choices in general about their leisure.

When women began to have jobs that supported the growing mercantile industry in New York, they had power in a way that they had not seen before. Peiss tells about saleswomen being able to use their sales skills both to increase revenues as well as to “manipulate managers, supervisors, and customers, enforcing work rules among the women to sell only so many goods each day and employing code words to warn co-workers of recalcitrant customers” (46). This demonstrates a kind of power that must have been impossible among domestic workers.

Similarly, Peiss describes cooperation among women bookbinders who “employed the notion of a ‘fair day’s work,’ controlling the output during each stint, while other factor hands orchestrated work stoppages and job actions over such issues as sexual harassment and pay cuts” (46). She also tells of waitresses who “worked out their resentment toward employers by pilfering pins and small objects, supplying themselves liberally with ice water and towels, and eating desserts ordered for imaginary customers” (46).

The “work cultures” of the women depended on where they worked as well as on their own cultural traditions. Women who were born in America tended to behave more like men at work “believing in self-education and uplift.” Peiss gives the example of a cigar factory where “female trade unionists would pay one of their members to read aloud while they worked: ‘First the newspaper is read, then some literary work’” (47). But also within a certain industry, the varying cultural and ethnic traditions might predict or give certain groups of women strength to behave a certain way or prevent them from behaving another way. For example, “Jewish waist-makers” were prepared to “organize and strike,” whereas “their more hesitant Italian workmates” were far less inclined to do so (47). Most important about all these phenomena was that the working women came to develop their own unique traditions, separate from those of their families and ethic groups. They mixed in social groups without regard for religion or ethnicity, which apparently did not happen otherwise (48).

When these women worked together, not only were they able to share their ethnic traditions, but also they were able to share “jokes, swearing, and sexual advice” (50). Peiss says they exchanged “obscenities and engaged in explicit discussion of lovers and husbands before work and during breaks,” behavior that was otherwise completely unusual (and unacceptable for women). Peiss explains that women could think about themselves in terms of sex and find out about sex. The ability to know and understand sex gave them power that they could not have known before. I never have thought about this so much before, but it seems more obvious than ever from this reading that forcing women to be “modest” about sex and not talk about it is a subtle way of maintaining their ignorance. I’m sure there has not been a vast world conspiracy to maintain feminine ignorance of sex, but the truth remains that if one is completely ignorant about sex and there’s a taboo against speaking of it or asking any questions, it’s easy to remain subjugated by it, to be raped and not complain, and to be held hostage by it. So what an amazingly powerful experience it was for these young women to work and on the sly to talk about what it meant to have sex. It happened that “this sexual knowledge gained in the workplace informed women’s relations with men in the world of leisure” (51).

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop anyone from paying them less than their male counterparts. Peiss reports that New York’s working women “typically earned below the ‘living wage,’ estimated by economists to be nine or ten dollars a week in 1910” (52). And work started early. While we have such a thing as an adolescence now, 100 years later, at the time, there wasn’t much of a teenage-dom in 1900, when people at that age had to work to support their families (56). Even so, these young people found time for socializing in a way that their parents never had. Social clubs began to be the rage, and dressing up became a point of pride. Peiss says that for “newly arrived immigrants, changing one’s clothes was the first step in securing a new status as an American” (63). Further, if one didn’t have a nice outfit to wear for going out, it was better to stay home than to wear something that was less than the best.

For women, fashionable outfits might have been “a chinchilla coat, a beaded wedding dress, a straw hat with a willow plume” (64). It was often more important to women to be “stunningly attired at the movies, balls, or entertainments” than it was to have serviceable clothes for work (65). Another popular culture trend at the time was “romance novels such as Woven on Fate’s Loom, in which wealthy heroes and long-suffering young heroines underwent the turns of fortune,” so much so that it became fashionable to “adopt storybook names that connoted wealth and romance, such as Henrietta Manners and Rose Fortune” (65).

Romance was difficult for these young working people, most of whom either lived in tenements with their families or in single-sex boarding houses that were chaperoned. As a result, “privacy could only be had in public,” so the young people could only have their privacy in “the streets, clubs, and halls in order to nurture intimate relationships” (72).

The freedom to date went along with cultural tensions in immigrant families, between the new world liberalism and the old world conservatism. The “emergent consumer culture” in response offered advice, for example, “about personal appearance” in “the working class dailies” such as “facial hair ‘makes a bad impression’’ to eliminate it, women should ‘go immediately to your druggist and for one dollar buy Wonderstone’” (72).

The biggest fad of all for single working women was dancing. Peiss says that in “the 1910s, over five hundred public dance halls opened their doors each evening throughout greater New York” (79). At the same time, a survey of girls showed that 90% knew how to dance.

Remarkably, most immigrant groups viewed these dances as safe and respectable places for their daughters. The one exception was Italians (91). Various groups collaborated in an organization called “the racket” to put on dances, where as many as eight hundred dancers would attend at a time (92). The popularity of dancing of course caused the number dancehalls to grow. By 1910, there were 195 dancehalls in New York, some of which could hold as many as 1200 people (93).

Though the dancehalls began as respectable to the working class families, eventually the middle class began to see tem as indecent, citing incidents where woman were dragged away into “white slavery,” incidents which can be corroborated, says Peiss (98).

So that not too much fun could be had, dance halls had chaperones who had to patrol and make sure not too much frottage was occurring. They allowed the waltz and the two-step, and they dictated proper positioning: “the waltz meant that ‘each dancer will be looking over the other’s right shoulder,’ not directly into each other’s eyes’” (101).

Another popular dance existed, called spieling, which was a parody of the waltz, but it was “a dance out of control, its centrifugal tendencies unchecked by proper dance training or internalized restraint. Instead the wild spinning of couples promoted a charged atmosphere of physical excitement” (101).

Tough dancing was the next fad; it “conventionalized” body contact. Peiss describes it like this: “couples stand very close together, the girl with her hands around the man’s neck, the man with both his arms around the girl or on her hips; their cheeks are pressed close together, their bodies touch each other” (102). Then the dancers shook their bodies in “boisterous animal imitations that ridiculed middle-class ideals of grace and refinement,” which “not only permitted physical contact” but also “celebrated it.” Tough dancing was a “suggestion of sexual intercourse” (102). Evidently this sort of dance was shocking to the public and the response was divided by class. More respectable dancehalls gave instructions like “Do not rag these dances” (103).

Interestingly, though, the dance craze did change the previously homosocial leisure patterns permanently since they did away with the need for “proper introductions” and began the “widespread practice of ‘picking up’ unknown women or men in amusement resorts or the streets [as] an accepted means of gaining companionship for an evening’s entertainment” (106). It was here that women began to drink and smoke (though smoking wasn’t entirely accepted as of 1910). “Game girls” played in “kissing rituals” as well (108).

The men, as mentioned before, had rituals of treating drinks. But women weren’t financially able to pay for others’ drinks. Peiss says instead they “offered sexual favors of varying degrees” (109). One reformer at the time pointed out that “working girls held themselves responsible for failing to finagle men’s invitations, believing that ‘it is not only her misfortune, but her fault; she should be more attractive’” (109). There didn’t seem to be much support or understanding for women perceived to be loose, nonetheless. But the women knew they had to put out. One researcher tells of a girl who couldn’t make a relationship last more than a few dates until a friend at work told her “Don’t yeh know there ain’t no feller goin’ t’spend coin on yeh for nothin’? Yeh gotta be a good Indian, Kid—we all gotta!” (112). It sounds like a rat’s nest; we talk about a double-message now, but how about a triple or a quadruple message that these women had to navigate?

Next Peiss has a whole chapter on the Coney Island Excursion. I won’t say too much about it so that I won’t repeat what I said on the Kasson book, but a few tidbits add to what Kasson said. For example, Peiss talks about the efforts Coney Island parks made to overcome the period when the resort had become a place of con games and criminals. Goerge Tilyou advertised to the middle classes specifically, and he warned his vaudeville performers specifically with a sign that said:

Performers playing in this house are requested not to use any Vulgarity or Slang in their act and to kindly omit the words Damn or Liar or any saying not fit for Ladies or children to hear … Our audiences are mostly ladies and children and what we want is only Polite Vaudeville. (129)

One interesting part of the warning message is the fact that the word “liar” is considered to be enough of a curse word that it was inadvisable to say it in front of women and children.

Peiss also describes exhibits of “baby incubators and re-enactments of naval battles and tenement fires” which “served the middle-class public’s interest in scientific advances and newspaper events” (131). I guess that the average person didn’t have television or even really radio, and movies were barely starting, so these exhibits were really thrilling.

My mention of movies is a good segue to the next chapter, “Cheap Theater and the Nickel Dumps.” At the beginning, Peiss describes a Vitagraph film, The Veiled Beauty, where a veiled woman is chased by “mashers” and ultimately saved by her suitor, who takes her to dinner, where, when she lifts her veil, he sees her “ugly and horrifying face.” It is fascinating to me to learn that “In 1907, when this movie was made, an audience composed primarily of working-class women and men would have laughed heartily at the masher’s misfortune and the young woman’s deception, delighting at this comic vignette of treating, heterosocial relations, and urban leisure” (139). These were themes of early silent movies.

Because of the emerging female working class, there began to be a female audience for movies and vaudeville. In fact, Peiss says, “much of the patronage for variety and vaudeville cam from tenement dwellers” and from “working class audiences” (143) and the women of these audiences tended to avoid other types of theater available to them because they tended to be associated with saloons and prostitutions (143).

Soon enough, though, “nickel madness” was a fad that “swept the city,” which meant that “nickelodeons” were built all over Manhattan and working class audiences could see movies regularly. Early movies were, according to Peiss, as crowded as tenements, with “aisles completely blocked by standing spectators,” and with such horrible smells that “attendants went through the room with an atomizer spraying perfumery on the crowd” (149). Also, though, they were casual enough, that mothers did not have to dress up, which meant that many mothers could finally leave the house, since they often had to sacrifice “their own wardrobes to ensure that their husbands and children were properly clothed” (150).

Various researchers have noted a connection between the plots of early films and the diverse audiences. Since so many wide varieties of people were watching these early films, filmmakers often showed “ordinary people and everyday street scenes” that a wide audience could relate to (154). Scholar Lewis Jacobs said, for example, that “before 1908, film comedies always featured ‘a common man or woman’ as the protagonist and sympathized with the poor against the wealthy because ‘the audience and filmmakers alike were of this class’” (154). Similarly, these early filmmakers tended to align themselves against “middleclass morality and manners” (157). So, says Peiss, “While the Victorian woman was idealized and celebrated in the famous films of D.W. Griffith, she received more ambiguous treatment in the mass of films cranked out for the working class audience” (157).

The last chapter in Peiss’s Cheap Amusements is “Reforming Women’s Recreation,” the premise of which is that during the Gilded Age, women in the higher social classes started to believe they needed to reform the way working class women socialized. They did so by forming social clubs and organizations like the Y.W.C.A. These clubs tended to have a membership of working women, but the roles of officers tended to be held by women of middle- and upper-classes, which ultimately caused resentment (168).

Ultimately, the leisure pursuits of working class women ended with marriage and children. They no longer had time for fun because they spent 100% of their effort and energy cooking, cleaning, and managing children. It must have been a rude awakening to experience a burst of freedom only to go into a life of slavery.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Puritan Origins of the American Self
Sacvan Bercovitch

I’m not nearly done with Bercovitch’s book, but I think I need to stop and consider his ideas for a bit before I continue reading; it’s a very difficult book. I read Paul Reuben’s website just now – not Pee Wee Herman, but an amazing English Professor at California State U, who has probably the most extensive website I have ever seen about American literature. A Google search in a quest for some study questions that might help me understand Bercovitch a little better took me to Reuben’s Calvinist acronym, TULIP, which I remember vaguely from Christian Reformed junior high.

Here’s what Reuben’s website says (verbatim):

1. Total Depravity - through Adam and Eve's fall, every person is born sinful - concept of Original Sin.
2. Unconditional Election - God "saves" those he wishes - only a few are selected for salvation - concept of predestination.
3. Limited Atonement - Jesus died for the chosen only, not for everyone.
4. Irresistible Grace - God's grace is freely given, it cannot be earned or denied. Grace is defined as the saving and transfiguring power of God.
5. Perseverance of the "saints" - those elected by God have full power to interpret the will of God, and to live uprightly. If anyone rejects grace after feeling its power in his life, he will be going against the will of God - something impossible in Puritanism.
[from: Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 1: Early American Literature to1700 - A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap1/1intro.html. (26 Nov. 2004). ]

So I think it will help to know this. First, each person is axiomatically born into sin. I must comment here that Eve here seems perfunctory, particularly if we think of her in the context of Lewis’s book—there isn’t any mention of an Eve in his world. But I digress. Anyway, to begin with the assumption that all of us are sinful is to begin with a view of humanity that makes an expectation for the worse.

The second on the TULIP list is another grim thought, and it’s one that doesn’t match well with the 20th century big-city God we’re sold: this one says that not everyone may be redeemed—just the ones that God predestined in the first place. Having attended a Calvinist school, I’m acquainted with this doctrine, and I remember my distaste for it even then. If it’s all mapped out for us, then what’s the point in making an effort to do well or improve one’s life now? If I’m banished to Hell for all eternity, why not make a party of it here on earth, in other words? This seemed like an awfully foolish doctrine to invent, to my mind. It almost guarantees anarchy on the part of 2/3 of the parishioners.

The principle of limited atonement goes along with that one before, and it is particularly disturbing to anyone who believes in another doctrine, the much more appealing promise in the book of John, 3:16, where it promises that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I took it always to mean that the “whosoever believeth in him” part meant anybody and not just the chosen ones.

The Calvinists got it right, though with the idea of irresistible grace, which is just that we don’t get to choose grace and we might not understand why it seems to be given or not given in certain cases. Dante deals with this so well in the Divine Comedy. We see characters in Purgatorio and Paradiso who might not have been expected to wind up there otherwise, but their winding up in a better place is the result of God’s immeasurable and probably incomprehensible grace. We can’t fathom it.

Finally, this idea of the “perseverance of the saints" means that God picks certain souls to interpret his will and live as exemplars; anyone who rejects the power to live like a saint, though, is “going against the will of God,” which is forbidden in Puritanism.

I thought these ideas were important to consider when I think about Bercovitch’s book because they would help me to think about the ideas behind Puritanism that remains in our modern society. If Bercovitch believes that American culture still exhibits characteristics of Puritanism today, then I have to be able to quantify just exactly what Puritanism would look like today.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Melville & The American Adam

Now, as promised, in the last installment about The American Adam, I’ll talk about “Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam.” I’ve said before that I’m no fan of Melville. I’ve learned already in my American studies reading that Melville was not a popular writer of his time—and the reasons why are obvious: his writing is HORRIBLE. It isn’t easy to read and many of his subjects are utterly unappealing to anyone other than White men with lots of time on their hands. But that said, I have to admit that learning more about him has made me more interested in his work. For example, knowing more about the diversity in Benito Cereno has made me more interested in knowing about it and reading it. And “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a work of genius that I’ve only learned to like since I managed people.

Lewis begins here by saying that American fiction’s idea of “the prince or king in the long tradition of classical drama” is “the Adamic hero” (128). But the “telling distinction is one of strategic distance: the distance at the outset between the hero and the world he must cope with” (128). So if the classical hero starts “at the center of the world,” on the other hand, “the American hero as Adam takes his start outside the world, remote or on the verges” (128) The American hero’s job is to learn about the world from “its power, its fashions, and its history” (128).

Another important point about the Adamic hero is that he is “an outsider.” This idea goes along with what Fiedler was saying. I think of Natty Bumppo or any of Hemingway’s protagonists. Really, Holden Caulfield fits that bill, or … just think … the man in the gray flannel suit…any of the people who come to mind. Lewis would add Huck Finn, Daisy Miller, and Jay Gatsby to my list. Anyway, Lewis says that this hero is “outside in a curiously staunch and artistically demanding manner” because he has to be “distinguished from the kind of outsider—the dispossessed, the superfluous, the alienated, the exiled—who began to enter European fiction in the nineteenth century” (128).

So what this type of hero reveals about America, says Lewis, is “a kind of resistance [...] to the painful process of growing up, something mirrored and perhaps buttressed by our writers, expressing itself in repeated efforts to revert to a lost childhood and a vanished Eden and issuing repeatedly in a series of outcries at the freshly discovered capacity of the world to injure” (129).

However, what of this perpetually “growing up” hero? Lewis says it “has been said that America is always coming of age; but it might be more fairly maintained that America has come of age in sections, here and there—whenever its implicit myth of the American Adam has been a defining part of the writer’s consciousness. When this has happened, the emergent mythology of the new world has been recognized and exploited as a stable resource” (129). Ultimately, the result is what Lewis calls “cultural maturity” (129). So perhaps America is become culturally mature?

Lewis goes on to discuss Melville’s works specifically, something I already mentioned I wasn’t going to enjoy. But he does make an observation about Billy Budd that captures even my flagging attention. He talks about how we (as readers) expect that our tragic characters will change, so when Billy Budd doesn’t change in the book, it begins to seem as though Melville has failed as a writer (151). But this failure, says Lewis, is where Melville’s real skill can be found because “the change effected in the story has to do with the reader” though we have to assume here that it’s the reader who cares “as representative of the onlooking world: with the perception forced on him of the indestructible and in some sense the absolute value of ‘the pristine virtues’” (162). So, we change because we see Billy’s innocence and realize their value more intensely in light of the events in the novel. It’s actually a very clever theme, if it is indeed what Melville meant. I’m not entirely convinced. It’s still impressive for Lewis to have thought of it. Again, though, I remind you, reader, that at the time of his writing, Melville wasn’t a popular author because he was as unreadable then as he is today. Hmmmm….

Anyway, Lewis moves on here to discuss Henry James’s novels, which he says reflect “the peculiar American rhythm of the Adamic experience: the birth of the innocent, the foray into the unknown world, the collision with that world, ‘the fortunate fall,’ the wisdom and the maturity which suffering produced” (153). I follow Lewis’s ideas here, but not later when he says that James’s fiction was “a series of expert violations of the Adamic idea,” which seems to imply, then, that his work was NOT reflective of the Adamic myth (155). So I’m a little lost.

Now the next chapter is where Lewis applies the idea of the Adamic myth to history and theology, and here I’m lost still further. Since I’m not an expert in either historiography or theology, not much Lewis said about either made a lick of sense to me.

The Epilogue is a little more interesting because here Lewis tries to relate his general ideas to the twentieth century. Lewis talks about the twentieth century phenomenon of Irony, saying that has become “fertile and alive” and “one of the modes of death,” a sort of “new hopelessness” (196). But as such, it is “paradoxically, as simple-minded as innocence; and it is opposed only by that parody of hope which consists in an appeal for ‘positive thinking’” (196).

So that’s it for The American Adam. I guess I found more to say about it than I originally thought I would. But I think I’ll find more to say about the next few books, which already are proving quite interesting.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The American Adam: Innocence Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century
R.W.B. Lewis

Yes, I know it’s a classic of American Studies. On its very cover is an endorsement from Malcolm Cowley calling it, “The first really original book on the classical period in American writing that has appeared in a long time.” Well, that may be, but we have to be able to plow through the damn thing to appreciate its originality, don’t we? Lewis’s ideas might be revolutionary, original, even genius, but I find his prose to work better than an Ambien at bedtime. I did read it, but I found that reading it, paying attention to the ideas, and staying awake at the same time required no small feat of attending behavior: pacing the floor, whispering the words aloud—and even then there was no guarantee that I was comprehending Lewis’s ideas.

I wonder if part of the problem is that there simply isn’t that much to the idea. It’s the “so what?” factor. Lewis begins with some quotations. D.H. Lawrence, for example, said, “That is the truth myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing off of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America.” That’s essentially the premise of his book. The premise might even be simpler than that. The idea is that Americans tend to divorce themselves from the idea of a history. The American myth of Adam refers to the sense of newness we seem to have, that we’re the first on earth. It’s an interesting thought, and if we apply it widely, it can explain some of the behavior that mystifies (and even angers) some other countries about us. We ignore the sense of ancient history that other cultures assume automatically. The obvious example at present lies in the Middle East, but a less exotic example would be Europe or even our close relations in England. While we may speak the same language, we do not share the sense of history our European cousins do, and for that we seem oafish, and often oddly optimistic. I’m speaking here far more broadly than Lewis meant it. He really is speaking more about the literature, though.

Lewis discusses the way a cultural identity develops, saying it is “not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through the emergence of its peculiar and distinctive dialogues” (2). So one of the dialogues we have has to do with Adam. Lewis defines “The American Myth,” which he calls “a collective affair,” that comes from many sources (4). It could be described as “history just beginning [...] the world [...] starting up again under fresh initiative” (5). The hero of this myth was “most easily identified with Adam before the Fall. Adam was the first, the archetypal, man. His moral position was prior to experience, and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent” (5).

Lewis goes on to discuss various examples of the ideas of Adam in works of American literature in his book, where in most parts he completely loses my interest. I did find various interesting points. For example, in the chapter, “The Case Against the Past,” Lewis discusses Thoreau, who says “everything associated with the past should be burned away” and that the “past should be cast off like dead skin” (21).

I found the chapter on “The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman” the most interesting, probably because I was reading Whitman at the time for class. Lewis calls Leaves of Grass “an exemplary celebration of novelty in America” and discusses the way in Whitman’s poetry, “innocence replaced sinfulness as the first attribute of the American character” (28). He describes Whitman in terms of “the new optimism” (30). This optimism meant that an American could be “acknowledged in his complete emancipation from the history of mankind” in what I mentioned before—making him free from any of the shackles of thousands of years of history before him (41). Thus, he was “a new Adam, miraculously free of family and race, untouched by those dismal conditions which prior tragedies and entanglements monotonously prepared for the [...] European” (41). So we can see here the roots of our disregard for European history, and in effect everyone else’s history.

Lewis speaks more specifically about elements of Leaves of Grass, observing that central to Whitman’s work are “the spirit of equality which animated the surviving catalogues of persons and things [...]; the groping after novel words to identify novel experiences; the lust for inventiveness which motivated what was for Whitman the great act, the creative act” (41). I keep discussing this idea of the new Adam as though it were a negative, and that really isn’t the way Lewis discusses it at all—nor should it be the way I take it. When one reads Whitman, it’s easy to see the infectiousness, the excitement of the idea of newness of the world. (Lewis does mention, though that Oliver Wendell Holmes said Whitman was too much for him (42) – and we can easily see why Whitman was controversial in his time.)

Whitman himself mentions Adam:

I, chanter of Adamic songs,
Through the new garden the West
The great cities calling. (qtd. in Lewis 43)

According to Lewis, Whitman wanted his ideas to be “unspoiled by memory” (45). Such was the excitement of being in a new world. And Lewis says that Whitman’s later disillusionment (in Democratic Vistas) was only when he was faced with the truth that his generation was accepting “the old and the foreign” rather than taking advantage of the “bright new highway he had mapped for it” (45).

Looking specifically at Whitman’s poems, we see the “first phase” of “Song of Myself” “was the identification of self, an act which proceeded by distinction and differentiation, separating the self from every element that in a traditional view might be supposed to be part of it: Whitman’s identity card had no space on it for the names of his ancestry” (46). He treated himself like a “member of a new species” (46).

Lewis explains that if “we want a profile of” the new Adam, “we could start with the adjectives Whitman supplies: amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary” (47). It was said that Whitman himself “was innocence personified” (48). In fact, many “of the greatest writers suggest, as Whitman does, a peculiar artistic innocence, a preadolescent wonder which permits such a poet to take in reproject whatever there is, shrinking from none of it” (48). But in Whitman, the innocence and moral innocence combined to form a new kind of person.

Whitman had one of two “dominant emotion[s],” says Lewis. “When it was not unmodified joy,” it was “simple, elemental loneliness” (49). Lewis compares these genuine and innocent emotions to the “vulgar version of the rugged individual who claims responsibility only for his own bank account” meaning, I presume, Thoreau (49). Lewis rhapsodizes so about Whitman that he believes Whitman’s “image of the evergreen ‘solitary in a wide, flat space…without a friend or lover near,’ introduced [...] the central theme of American literature [...] the theme of loneliness, dramatized [...] as the story of the hero in space” (49).

The Adamic sensibility of Whitman’s poetry, then, is that “the poet projects a world of order and meaning and identity into [...] chaos” and thus he “creates the world” (51). In the fifth section of “Song of Myself,” Lewis points out, Whitman shows his “mystical side” and (like Adam does in Genesis) names things. Lewis terms it this way, “Whitman populated and gave richness and shape to the universe by the gift of a million names” (52). By means of interpretation, Lewis says, “if section 5 of ‘Song of Myself’ means anything, it means this: a miraculous intercourse between ‘you my soul’ and ‘the other I am,’ with a world as its offspring” (52).

Lewis says that Whitman’s device is to bring together the incidental items of the world by connecting them arbitrarily, “forging the relations between them and the cluster already present, announcing at the end the accomplished whole and breathing all over it the magical command to be” (52). Another example is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where Whitman lists the waters of the flood, the “clouds of the west,” and says “I see/you also face to face,” listing the throngs off people, the boats and the people that have yet to come. Another important element Lewis notices is the way Whitman indicates the expansion in population by the “increasing length of the lines” (53). His exuberance makes it as though “the mystery of incarnation has been completed” (53).

Lewis’s next chapter is “The Fortunate Fall: The Elder James and Horace Bushnell.” Count this as the moment I check out of the book. In part, certainly, it’s because the only Henry James I’m familiar with is Henry James Fishman, my allergist (and he’s a genius, believe me). While the other Henry James could be every bit as genius, he doesn’t hold a candle to MINE.

Anyway, the title of the chapter indicates Lewis’s purpose. The idea of The Fall refers back to Adam, whose fall came from the whole apple and Eve thing. Now this Henry James (the philosopher) had a delightfully cynical take on the myth of Adam. He once said that “the first and highest service which Eve renders Adam is to throw him out of paradise (qtd. in Lewis 58). James thought the idea of “man as Adam in Paradise” was a bunch of “adolescent rubbish” (58). James, in fact, found this focus on Adam to be an “exclusive self-consciousness, egotism” that he classified as a “capital sin” (58). Adamism couldn’t possibly be true, said James, because if it were, man “would prove a mere dimpled nursling off the skies, without ever rising into the slightest Divine communion or fellowship, without ever realising a truly Divine manhood and dignity” (59).

The way James saw it, “Any one with half an eye [...] can see…that ‘Adam’s fall,’ as it is called, was not that stupid lapse from the divine favor which it has vulgarly been reputed to have been, but an actual rise to the normal human level” (60). So to undertake the fall is a good thing because to be human is healthy, in James’s view, anyway.

In the next section on “The Narrative Image,” Lewis deals with “The Fable of the Critics.” He begins the discussion with Emerson’s idea that “the man is only half himself, the other half is expression” (77). Here, Lewis describes “the task of the new Adam as poet,” which was to fulfill a tall order: “We want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers…We want a national epic that shall correspond with the size of the country. We want a national drama in which the scope shall be given to our gigantic ideas and to the unparalleled activity of our people….In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering through the prairies” (79).

Lewis also in this chapter brings in what writers were thinking at the time about “the dramatic value of the Adamic vision,” or in other words, whether American life was suitable material for art (82). Hopefully at the time I’m writing today, we’ve established what that it is, but apparently in the early nineteenth century, intellectuals were not so sure. One scholar, William Ellery Channing, for example, considered the “hypothetical reasons why the novel might not ever be born” here (82). Channing thought the American mind was lacking in “romantic associations” as well as “tragic sensibility” apparent in Europe where the novel works (83).

Much later, in the mid-twentieth century, Lionel Trilling argued “that the novel may be dead—not because of an excess of peace, good will, happiness, and innocence, but because the image of evil is so overpoweringly at work in our affairs that it has crowded every other image out of our vision” (83-84).

The next chapter is “The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird.” Lewis here says he’s “sketching the emergent fable urged by the critics on American writers” (90). In other words, he is applying this Adamic vision or myth to other American writers, here to one biggie, and two of lesser importance (at least to my mind). I don’t want to say too much about this chapter because it did not speak much to me—I’m not a big fan of Cooper’s, though I understand his importance as an American writer. The other two, I’m not that impressed with.

I am interested, though, in what Lewis says regarding American fiction in general. He says that at Cooper’s time, “the liveliest criticism [...] was persistently and even repetitiously hopeful” but “the best of our fiction has from the outset been neither exclusively hopeful nor exclusively nostalgic, because it has been both” (91). So that is an interesting point to make, particularly since it relates to American humor. The ideas of hope and nostalgia relate to idealism and idealism relates to incongruity—which is an element of humor. One of the most basic forms of American humor is the kind that surrounds the idealism about having a utopian place where society is supposed to be perfect and being faced with the imperfect (and often funny) truth. So I found that interesting.

Later, Lewis is talking specifically about Cooper’s character, Hawkeye, who is described at one point as “witnessing his own birth” (104). In a sense, says Lewis, he is experiencing “rebirth” as the “American Adam: accomplished appropriately in the forest on the edge of a lake, with no parents near at hand, no sponsors at the baptism; springing from nowhere, as Toqueville had said, standing alone in the presence of God and Nature” (104-105). This is important because nature factors in to the creation of the Adamic character, providing a Garden of Eden. Nature, as we will see in Leo Marx and Lawrence Buell, is critical in understanding American thought and American literature.

Now, the next chapter (6) is “The Return into Time: Hawthorne.” I’d like to say I understand it better than I do. I’m not a big Hawthorne fan. I haven’t even read all of Hawthorne, so that doesn’t help. But I have read enough so I understand the discussion of The Scarlet Letter and “The Artist of the Beautiful” (a great title) and “The Minister’s Black Veil” and so on. I just don’t fully understand him the way others do—and the way, obviously, Lewis does. I’ll say the same of chapter 7 on Melville in a minute.

However, Lewis does say something very interesting in the beginning of the chapter. He points out that Hawthorne’s character, Nathan Slaughter (in The Marble Faun, I gather) represented “a shift in setting, as the actual frontier scene pushed beyond the forests to the plains and the western mountains” (110). The change in place is interesting to me because of my interest in place, and I’m fascinated to note that Lewis observes that “The character of the hero changed in response to the new environment” (110). In part, Lewis attributes Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land for the credit, so I won’t go into details that I’ll just discuss later, but suffice it to say that it is interesting that Lewis mentions the change in heroes here related to the change in landscape.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Amusing the Million, Part Two.
Kasson discusses George C. Tilyou, the developer of Steeplechase Park. Kasson describes him as an archetypal American businessman. Tilyou went on his honeymoon to Chicago, where he “viewed the spectacle with more than romantic eyes” (57). He offered to buy the big Ferris wheel he saw there, thinking it would be perfect for his Coney Island amusement park. But, in Kasson’s words, when “he learned that it had already been sold, he responded like a true showman” and “ordered another wheel, half the size, hurried back to Coney […] and put up a sign boldly announcing, ‘On This Site Will Be Erected the World’s Largest Ferris Wheel’” (57). Sure enough, he got the Ferris Wheel and built up other rides around it.

Another of Tilyou’s ideas was to enclose his amusement park. Steeplechase Park was “ringed by the gravity-powered steeplechase race that gave the park its name” (58). The result was that the walls kept out thugs and other “unsavory elements who might deter his customers” but also it meant that he could monopolize their business (58). Tilyou was also smart enough not to reveal his secrets of successful business in interviews. He only would say “We Americans […] want to be either thrilled or amuse, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation” (58). However, as a result, we don’t know that much about his theories of success.

Tilyou also was smart about the kinds of games he included in his parks. He knew that people wanted a return to childhood and tried to find games that fit that feeling, so “Instead of games of competitive skill, which demanded self-control, Steeplechase emphasized games of theatricality and of vertigo, which encouraged participants to shed self-consciousness and surrender to a spirit of reckless, exuberant play” (59). Even more specifically, Tilyou’s theme park wanted its visitors to feel as though they were “participants in a human comedy” (60). TIlyou himself called it “Steeplechase—the Funny Place,” and he made as its logo “the huge grinning ‘Funny Face’” (60). So that his “patrons [had] the opportunity to play the fool,” Tilyou offered “stunts designed to catch people off guard” like “the Barrel of Fun, a huge, slowly revolving cylinder which frequently rolled patrons off their feet and brought strangers into sudden, intimate contact” (60). Another such device was the “Blowhole Theater,” where “concealed compressed-air jets sent hats flying and skirts shooting upward,” which must have been extremely shocking at the time (61). Many others existed that caused “Momentary disorientation, intimate exposure, physical contact with strangers, pratfalls, public humiliation—conditions that in other circumstances might have been excruciating—became ritually entertaining” (61).

The entertainment was impressive to the audience because they, themselves, were the performers. “Arriving as separate, isolated figures, they became actors in a vast, collective comedy. The flamboyantly expressive surroundings had the effect of garbing customers in costumes and eliciting their own theatricality. At various moments on rides they might briefly grab the spotlight and attract the attention of the multitudes; at other times they might [...] watch their fellow revelers (65).

Now, I find very interesting John Kasson’s description of Coney Island’s descent from “exotic architecture and peoples to exotic animals” (70). It happened that Coney Island marketers began to give their audiences “the thrill of witnessing at least the illusion of death and destruction” with several different shows (71). There was “The Fall of Pompeii” where showmen recreated “the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the death of 40,000 people” as well as Mount Pelee’s eruption and “the devastation of Martinique in 1902” (71). So our fascination with violence dates back at least to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (72).

It’s also worth noting that the rides that people enjoyed so much were “directly inspired by modes of transportation in use in industry and society at large” or were intended to parody them—even the roller coaster mimicked the motion of the train or the subway (74).

So by the time Coney Island became the big three amusement parks, it began to be the time of “a new mass culture” (87). Cultural critics looked to Coney Island as a way to study trends. Some scholars found the signs there of a healthy culture, saying that in contrast to the time of McKane, “the crowds appeared orderly and thoroughly decent.” One report said that American crowds were “the best natured, best dressed, best behaving and best smelling crowd in the word; not vulgar unless we mean by that [...] being obviously and audibly amused” (95).

Kasson’s book was a fascinating read. It was interesting to find out what people did for fun 100 years ago. It was also interesting to find out what caused Coney Island’s demise, or at least its shrinkage and diminishment in American lore: the rise of the moving picture. Amusement park owners had to fight the threat of boredom constantly, trying to change their attractions regularly to attract new guests (109). Tilyou even sold tickets to the ruins of his park when it burned (112). Ultimately, though, these parks were “less extraordinary” than the movies (112), so Americans found something better to do.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

from Amusing the Million by John Kasson (1978) Posted by Hello
Amusing the Million
Amusing the Million is John Kasson’s 1978 account of American leisure pursuits at Coney Island around 100 years ago. Margie and I thought about visiting on one recent trip to the big city and were told to be careful, that just the trip out there on public transportation wasn’t safe. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was a luxury resort. So to read of it was really fascinating, to think of what it once had been, “commanding two miles of beach on the southwestern end of Long Island” (3). By the time Kasson had written his book, though, almost 30 years ago, it was down to “an area sixteen blocks long and two wide,” living “largely on the borrowed capital of its past.” Kasson examines in his narrative what happened culturally that made this place rise to such stature and fall so quickly. The story he tells is very interesting, and the factors that caused the rapid gentrification and de-gentrification of the place play important roles in my areas of interest in popular culture.

The amusement parks in Coney Island began to be popular before the turn of the century. Kasson says they “flourished” before WWI. It was a critical time in our history, he says, because it was “when the nation came of age as an urban-industrial society and its citizens eagerly but painfully adjusted to the new terms of American life” (3). Effectively, that meant hard work, but also leisure time, money to spend (if only a little), and most importantly, cheap public transportation to get to public amusements like Coney Island.

One important factor that contributed to the rise of the amusement park was the end of Victorian values. Nineteenth century America, in many respects, says Kasson, was more Victorian than England. It was a time of “a self-conscious elite of critics, ministers, educators and reformers […] who took it as their mission to discipline, refine, and instruct” the people around them (4). So it goes without saying that these sensibilities set the tone for the “mass culture.”

Then, “technological innovations permitted widespread dissemination of inexpensive books, periodicals, engravings, lithographs, photographs, and other mass reproductions” which Kasson calls “the beginnings of the communications revolution” (5). But though there was a general Victorian tone, it did not reach every aspect of the culture. The working classes, particularly, were left out of this “genteel cultural reform” (5). The reformers message did not reach the “new immigrant groups,” either. Also ignored were the newly rich from industry.

The result was that at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, entertainers like P.T. Barnum began to venture “beyond the pale of middle-class respectability” (6). It didn’t take long afterwards for other cultural groups to join in the fun.

Many cultural crossovers occurred. Kasson cites the “ragtime and cakewalk in the 1890s,” which happened when “Afro-American music and dance emerged out of black communities and the demimonde to be commercialized and transformed for white urban audiences” (7). Just think of how that paved the way for so many other crossovers from the black to the white community (I’m going to read more and write more about this in the new book Hip). Other such crossovers were “prizefighting, earlier confined to gentlemen’s clubs or working-class saloons” as well as “competitive athletics” (7). Furthermore “a new wave of popular literature broke with the genteel code of delicacy, domesticity, and decorum” (7). Kassom gives examples like London’s 1903 book, Call of the Wild, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1914 book, Tarzan of the Apes (7).

However Kasson says that the “most striking expression of the changing character of American culture” was “the new amusement parks” that were built right around the same time, not just at Coney Island but in Boston, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco too (7). The interesting part of studying Coney Island’s history, says Kasson, is that doing so makes it not as much “an object of nostalgia” as “a harbinger of modernity” because it told more than just how we spent our leisure time; it foretold of “major changes in American manners and morals (8). Not only that, but what went on at Coney island “ultimately precipitated a debate that has continued up to our own time over the role and significance of popular amusement in a democracy” (9).

Kasson explains the importance of Coney Island by contrasting it with “two highly influential earlier models of urban recreation developed by genteel reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century, New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893” (11). Both these previous projects were oriented toward entertaining people, but they also had designs on instructing “their users in lessons of aesthetic taste and social responsibility,” a goal that was in keeping with that nineteenth century reformer’s sense of responsibility to the public (11).

Frederick Law Olmstead, the developer of Central Park, was concerned about the overcrowding of the city. He thought that being closer to nature was an important antidote to the pathology of “contact without fellowship, congregation without community,” which he saw in “urban mass society” (12).

Similarly, Daniel Burnham’s development of the Columbian Exposition (for 46 million dollars!) was “the third greatest event of American history” (after the Revolution and the Civil War) (17). Its intent was “to elevate the city by its example of monumental grandeur” (18). The exposition was a model of a neoclassical cityscape, and more than 21 million visitors came to see it (21). Henry Adams wrote of it, calling it “the first expression of American thought as a unity” and William Dean Howells called it “a foretaste of Heaven” (22).

Kasson goes on to describe some of the other amusements of the time, but none of them surpassed what he calls “the undisputed capital of amusement at the turn of the century, Coney Island” (28). Visitors began to come to the Coney Island House (hotel) in the early nineteenth century, traveling by “small side-wheel steamboat service linking the Island’s West End to New York” (29). At first, Coney Island drew wealthy vacationers because it was hard to get there. But by the 1860s, “Norton’s Point at the western end had become a haven for gamblers, confidence men, pickpockets, roughnecks, and prostitutes, who could ply their trades upon recreation seekers beyond the reach of New York and Brooklyn officials” (29). But then the investors came. More steamboat and railway lines came and the development moved towards West Brighton, Brighton Beach, and Manhatton Beach. Railroad and Real Estate developer, Austin Corbin built the New York & Manhattan Beach Railway in 1877 (30-31).
That was significant because transport to the beach became easier—one “could travel in an hour from midtown Manhattan directly to […] stylish new hotels” of four stories (31). And as soon as the competition started, developers catered not just to the upper classes but also to the multitudes (32).

So now the capacity of these places became enormous. The hotels and restaurants were “designed to accommodate guests by the thousands;” Kasson says, “the fact that their advertised capacities may be inflated merely confirms their orientation toward quantity” (33). So in 1879 the restaurant at The Sea Beach Palace said it could seat 15,000 at once and have 10,000 overnight hotel guests. The West Brighton said its restaurant could feed 8,000 in a day. The Ocean Pavilion promised it was the largest with hotel rooms for 20,000 guests and a ballroom for 3,000. According to Kasson, “Of an estimated 60,000 visitors to Coney Island on a warm Sunday in 1878, 50,000 spent their time and money at West Brighton” (33). The numbers here are stunning, particularly for more than 100 years ago. How did the infrastructure—the transportation system—handle it?

Kasson describes another hotel built in the shape of an elephant, which had spiral stairways in its legs and a shopping mall in its body alongside the guestrooms. He says, “a trip to the Elephant Hotel quickly became an essential part of the Coney Island visitor’s itinerary, and the phrase ‘seeing the elephant,’ often accompanied by a broad wink, became a euphemism for illicit pleasures” (33).

Now, as for what people did when they were at the beach, Kasson lists “innumerable saloons, variety shows, bands, shooting galleries, sideshows, catchpenny games, food vendors, crayon portraits, photographers, fortune tellers, as well as con men, whores, and thugs of old” (34). It’s not surprising that the games became corrupt and the place itself became known as “Sodom by the Sea” (34). A local politician, John Y. McKane, apparently was a corrupting influence and eventually went to prison.

Following McKane’s influence, a businessman George C. Tilyou developed Captain Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park, to try to “redeem Coney Island’s corrupt image” (34). He also developed Shoot the Chutes and Steeplechase Park, and then another developer bought Sea Lion Park and turned it into Luna Park (which was followed by the opening of a competitor, Dreamland (34). The important lesson in these resorts was that “vice does not pay as well as decency” (35).

Now, as I mentioned before, one of the contributing factors to the explosion of visitors to Coney Island was the ease of transportation. “The cheapest fare to the resort in the early 1890s had been forty cents, fifty for a steamer; but improvements in rapid transit beginning with the nickel trolley ride to Coney in 1895 forced these prices down and brought the excursion within the means of the great multitude” (37). When they build the bridges and tunnels, that made it take even less time to get there, which made it even more a possibility for lower classes (who had less leisure time) to get there.

The crowds were interesting at the time because they were so diverse. At the time, it was unusual for the classes to mix. Further, the style of dress was shockingly informal for the time. Kasson points out that when we see pictures now, the dress looks formal, but for the time, the dress was relaxed (38).

The diversity also reflected the immigrant population, which had grown dramatically around the turn of the century: “by over 400,000 in each of the last two decades of the nineteenth century” so that by “the turn of the century, immigrants constituted a majority of the adults both in Manhattan and in Brooklyn” (39). That is pretty astounding! But what’s more is that the numbers increased “by an additional 942,000 in the first decade of the twentieth century and roughly another 400,000 by 1920” (39). So all these immigrants went to Coney Island as well.

An interesting fact about Coney Island is that it was here that people began to collect and send postcards of their trip (40). That wasn’t the only newness about the place, though. People’s behavior changed. It was written at the time that “Coney Island has a code of conduct which is all her own” (41). The rules were “loose” and, as Kasson says, “it broke down the sense of rigidity that dominated so much of the life of American cities at the turn of the century and lessened personal restraints” (41). In part, some of the rule changes were scripted by the resorts themselves.

For example, “Various amusements contrived to lift women’s skirts and reveal their legs and underclothing, while numerous others provided opportunities for physical contact,” like the roller-coasters and other scary rides that would cause women to throw their arms around their dates (42-43). Men and women are shown embracing in pictures, a taboo at the time elsewhere. Kasson contrasts Coney Island photos of the time with pictures of the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, demonstrating the rigid, uptight postures and dress of the people in the city with the relaxed postures and dress of the people on Coney Island (43-44).

Kasson goes on to discuss more about the nature of the entertainment there. He talks about the “freaks of nature” as well as the “freaks of culture” (53). This is where we see the advertisement for Jolly Trixy and Princess Wee Wee, an advertisement that is at once hilarious and very sad (as sideshow ads often are) (52-53). I scanned in the ad to show the text and will try to post it here.

I love the part that says “Holy Smoke She’s Fat She’s Awful Fat” as well as “She’s So Fat that it Takes 7 Men to Hug Her.” That’s hilarious. But when you think of the poor woman who had to endure the jeers, it isn’t very funny at all.

More on this later, where Kasson speaks in greater detail about developer George Tilyou.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Love and Death in the American Novel, the end!
I’m still talking today about Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. We’re at the end now, though, (mercifully), and Fiedler is just finishing up his discussion of Mark Twain and Pudd’nhead Wilson. How did I ever finish school without reading this book? Fiedler points about Twain’s books in general, “only children are permitted to reject society and success; adults grow up into compromise and adjustment” (472). Fiedler goes on to state that “Wilson is, like is author, a man unsure of just when he is kidding himself, when the public; and his assumption of the role of humorist protects him against the day when he will be ready to change overnight from clownish Faust to eccentric detective” (473). Fiedler makes an even more overt comparison between Wilson and Twain, arguing that author and character “want to have it both ways at once: to insult the society” they live in “in the guise of tossing off ‘playful trifles,’ and to be hailed as a hero for discovering what no one really wants to know!” (473).

But Fiedler thinks that Pudd’nhead Wilson is the last Faustian character for quite some time in American literature, at least until Faulkner’s time. At least, he says, “on the middlebrow level, that mythic figure is officially excluded by an orthodoxy of cheerfulness and acceptance” (473). But “on the highbrow level” the Faustian character didn’t exist because “he is confused with the closely related archetype of the poete maudit” the likes of which might appear in Poe’s work. In this kind of character we might see “the Faustian potential, but most often their tragic possibilities are dissipated in posturing and self-pity” (474). The characters Fiedler is talking about take “their secret motto […] from Emerson—not ‘to be great is to be damned,’ but ‘to be great is to be misunderstood’” (472).

Now, of course, statements like this are the very ideas that caused a revolution in thinking about American studies. The new-fangled types, you see, want us to know Fiedler hasn’t any real right to pass judgment on certain books as either “middlebrow” or “highbrow,” and while I see the reasoning behind this new view, I also see the value of Fiedler’s point.

Fiedler says that books after World War I were, “morally incoherent, sentimental works,” like those by Sherwood Anderson. And after World War II, “the novelists, who succeeded in finding no new forms, revived once more the prototypes of twenty years before” (474) but they didn’t invent anything new; rather, they just continued many years of self-pity (475).

It took Faulkner to bring back the idea of the Faustian character. Fiedler calls Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! gothic novels (476). Fiedler thinks that even The Hamlet is a comic gothic novel and that Flem Snopes is a comic Faustian character. He says “When Flem Snopes makes his appearance […], he is wearing a celluloid collar and a patent-leather bow tie, carrying a straw satchel; he is, in short, a comic character. It is as if Faulkner had in mind Marx’s maxim about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as comedy” (479). That’s an interesting idea.

However we classify Faulkner’s novels, he certainly is responsible for a tremendous sense of place in his novels. Fiedler talks about the way Faulkner created a sense of Mississippi for the world as “the symbolic values attributed in the early years of the gothic to Italy. Against a background of miasmic swamps and sweating black skins, the Faulknerian syndrome of disease, death, defeat, mutilation, idiocy, and lust, continues to evoke in the stories of these writers a shudder once compelled only by the supernatural (481).

Faulkner’s sense of the grotesque is carried on in Katherine Anne Porter’s work as well as in that of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullters, and even Truman Capote (482). Fiedler remarks on a unique point of Faulkner’s style referring to it as a sensibility that is “quite frankly homosexual” and saying that “it appears to certain wealthy American women with cultural aspirations” (482). Fiedler claims, in fact that the writers who are most popular are those who come from the South—so much so that some non-Southerners pretend to be (482).

Another interesting contemporary issue that Fiedler notes is that some of our great writers (like Truman) have turned to journalism rather than literature. He mourns the loss, clearly. However, Fiedler does view the novels of Nathaneal West in a positive light. I did not know that West was S.J. Perelman’s brother-in-law, and I guess I’ll try not to think of nepotism. Fiedler brings all these ideas together because Perelman edited a magazine, Contact, where he experimented with surrealist humor—which started to be known as “black humor” (496). It turned into all kinds of “stereotypes from the lips of hip twelve-year-olds. ‘Hate cards’ and ashtrays adorned with ‘Nebbishes’ the surreal, Jewish sad sack of West reduced to the level of kitsch) spread now the self-contempt, the anti bourgeois virulence, the contempt for home, mother, birthdays, and Christmas, once the exclusive stock-in-trade of bohemians; and the ‘sick’ joke popularizes the nauseated giggle before violence which not so long ago belonged only to books like Miss Lonelyhearts. ‘Can Johnny come out to play, Mrs. Jones?’ ‘You know Johnny has no arms and legs!’ ‘We don’t want players. We need bases’” (497). So this evolution of Black Humor I know about, certainly in terms of its relationship to Perelman and to Lenny Bruce, who Fiedler mentions as well, along with Saul Bellow. The interesting connection for me is the tracing back to Nathaneal West, who I never read and didn’t know to be a kitsch humorist.

From here Fiedler goes on to catalogue several more American stories and novels that employ the gothic mode, mentioning, for example Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and calling it “a standard middlebrow anthology piece […] because it lacks […] intelligence and wit” (499). I think those are some harsh words about a much celebrated story. I’m not a huge fan of Jackson’s story, frankly, but I like it a helluva lot better than much of Hawthorne. So it’s easy to see how someone might get the impression that Fiedler has a bias toward white men from New England.

Also in terms of the gothic, Fiedler takes up some African American novels. He claims that “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man seems, as a novel written by a Negro [sic] about the Negro’s plight, superior to any of the passionate, incoherent books of Richard Wright […] because Ellison has bypassed all formulas of protest and self-pity and castoff the restrictions of mere realism” (500). In other words, I guess, an African American novel can never stoop to pity, or else it’s worthless. Fiedler thinks “James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain has a comparable freshness and directness, but it lacks finally the madness which gives to Invisible Man a special kind conviction” (500).
So Fiedler ends by reconnecting his ideas about the gothic in literature to Edgar Allan Poe. He talks about the idea of monsters in fiction, which are classified as “fantasy, which tends to blur into science fiction” (504). But science fiction is not quite the right term for a “ghost story,” because it “denies […] in its basic assumptions the belief upon which the ghost story properly depends: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth’” (504). So the detective novel—Poe’s invention—became “an extension of the gothic device” (504). Poe’s technique was to set the story “in a frame […] in which a narrator, more confused and terrified than the reader, watches the performance of a detective” (504). And ultimately—much like Twain—“Poe’s fictions represent a complex adjustment between his desire to mock his audience and to be accepted by it” (505).

So in the end, I take it, we are left with the kind of novel that is far from love and much closer to death than anything the Europeans wrote. And that's the end of Love & Death!

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Fiedler Chapter XIII.
“The Power of Blackness: Faustian Man and the Cult of Violence.”

Fiedler says here that Poe can never “transform the gothic into the tragic” because “he lacks that ultimate ‘power of blackness’” that comes from “its appeal to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin” (433)

American writing had always had that spiritual concern but here in the nineteenth century it went from the “bland cosmic optimism” of the writing that denied “cosmic depravity” (like Calvinism) and went to a “bloodless sort of asceticism” (434). This came together in Transcendentalism, which influenced prose and poetry in writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman as well as Hawthorne and Melville, who were called Transcendentalists in error (435).

Melville and Hawthorne believed that “it is the function of art not to console or sustain, much less to entertain, but to disturb by telling a truth which is always unwelcome” (436). In addition, these authors often used Faustian characters who had to “barter away” their souls (436).

Huck Finn is a Faust boy character. The novel about him is “essentially a book about a marginal American type, who only wants to stay alive; but who does not find this very easy to do, being assailed on the one side by forces of benevolence, which insist that he ask for more” (462). So his journey gives the author a chance to evaluate the whole culture: “religion, the social order, other men” (462). Interestingly, “Huck lives on a sub-moral level,” and his being removed, presumably, gives him room to make social commentary. But Huck isn’t really “a devil or even a savage.” He’s “only a semi-barbarian” because he grew up “on the edge of civilization” (463).

Morality for Huck is pointless. At times, he seems as though he wants to do the “right thing,” but most of the other times, he realizes that doing so is too hard. When, after many mistakes, he is disappointed, Huck muses, “what’s the use of you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? … So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever comes handiest at the time” (464).

The morals he applies to the issue of slavery are confused. He does steal Jim from slavery, but it is not for the reasons we might think. As Fiedler explains it, “it never enters his head for a moment that protecting Jim against recapture is anything but wrong; for he has no abolitionist ideas and questions the justice of slavery no more than did Aristotle” (464). With a comparison tot Aristotle, Fiedler makes it clear that Huck is in good company.

Huck is saving Jim for his own enjoyment. Fiedler points that out demonstrating that when Aunt Sally asks him about the steamboat accident, Huck says no one was killed except “a nigger,” which Fiedler says is “with no intended irony” (464). The author may intend there to be irony—in other words, Twain may intend for the audience to see the rueful irony behind Huck’s saving Jim, but not caring a think about abolition, but Huck isn’t intended to have any lofty ideas. This explanation actually works for O’Connor. I understood that always about her on some level, but I never could articulate it.

Anyway, Fiedler explains it this way, that Huck loves Jim “quite literally as he loves himself,” so when he is willing to go to hell for him, it is because Huck himself is willing to go to hell. He just doesn’t care (464).

So Huck becomes a Faustian character as “an uncommitted idler” or as evidentiary of fwhat one of the early reviewers of the book called “the ruffianism that is one result of the independence of Americans” (466).

Another of Twain’s Faustian “duplicitous device[s]” is that he makes the otherwise shiftless character of Huck also have a “virtuous heart” (466). Fiedler’s relates this to the idea of the noble savage in literature popularized by Cooper, about the Indians of course (466). So though he may seem like a child gone astray, he never truly delivers on being a bad kid. The only time he actually uses a gun is against his father, who actually has earned it—and even then, he only makes a threat. Fiedler says that instead of fighting, Huck “runs, hides, equivocates, dodges, and, when he can do nothing else, suffers.” In fact, says Fiedler, “he is actually timid to the point of burlesque” (466). His greatest problem, and an often used word, is “loneliness” (467).

Huck’s relationship with women is twisted. Fiedler says, “The world of mothers […] believes not only in Providence and cleanliness and affection, but in slavery, too. Yet it is the best of all conceivable worlds to Mark Twain” (468). So it seems as though he has to give up what he wants for his mother. But girls are also troubling to him. There is no such thing as bad girls to him; only the good ones exist, and to marry them “means an initiation into piety and conformity” (468).

Fiedler goes on here to talk about Pudd’nhead Wilson, who he says is also a Faustian character, but the comic nature of the character allows him to bring up social commentary without angering his audience (469). He then goes on to say that the terrible dichotomy here is that the author seems to want two things at once—to be able to “insult the society he lives in” but also to be able to live in the style he so richly deserves…it’s not easy.