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Posts Tagged ‘American Literature’

Law in Melville and Hawthorne

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Writing on July 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Law was a common trope in the writing of nineteenth century American authors.  The jurist Roscoe Pound referred to nineteenth century America as a “frontier society” that was struggling to define what law was.  Justice John Marshall was carving out the jurisdiction of the nation’s high court, even as Andrew Jackson challenged Marshall’s authority to do so.  (Jackson supposedly said, in regard to Worcester v. Georgia, that Marshall had made his decision, “now let him enforce it.”)  American jurisprudents were seeking to reconcile the contradictions between liberty and equality on the one hand—the ideals of the revolutionary generation—with the peculiar institution of slavery on the other.  The ethos of republicanism and the ideal of open discourse clashed with the legislative attempts among the Southern states to resurrect Roman code to validate slave laws, even as the judiciary, on all levels and in all states, attempted to incorporate British common law into a new setting with unique problems.  In short, law was in flux during the nineteenth century in America, and writers like Melville and Hawthorne picked up on this problem and gave it unique and sometimes troubling articulation in their literature.

The “facts” in Benito Cereno are strikingly similar to the facts in one of America’s most memorable cases: U.S. v. The Amistad, in which John Quincy Adams, among others, served as an attorney.  In both “cases,” slaves took over a slave ship, killed some of their white captives, and demanded that the remaining white shipmen return the boat to Africa.  Rather than doing that, however, the white shipmen steered a path toward America, where the unsuspecting crew of another ship, sensing something wrong, came to assist.  These fact patterns raise sensitive and disturbing questions about the law.  What is justice?  How should it be determined?  Which party is right, and what does it mean to be right or to have rights?  For that matter, what is the law to begin with?

In Benito Cereno, Cereno is the captain of the ship bearing slaves, and it is from Delano’s perspective that we learn, gradually, that a slave revolt has occurred and that Cereno is being held captive by Africans.  Delano is the captain of a different ship who has come aboard Cereno’s ship to assist Cereno’s apparently distressed crew.  The leader of the slave revolt, Babo, himself a slave, is always by Cereno’s side, thereby giving Delano the impression that Cereno has a loyal servant.  What Delano eventually discovers is that the slaves have spared the lives of only Cereno and a few other whites in order that these whites return the ship to Africa.

In Amistad as in Benito Cereno, the African slaves had been removed from their homeland, without their consent, and taken to a foreign land among alien peoples for the sole purpose of perpetual enslavement.  On the other hand, the white shipmen had, it could be argued, complied with the law of the sea in conducting these actions, and they were murdered by mutinying slaves.  The problem here is that neither side seems to represent an unquestionably moral or obviously right position.  Slavery is evil, but so is murder.  Melville, perhaps realizing the literary possibilities created by this tension, subjects this challenging set of circumstances to rigorous interrogation by way of a captivating narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

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BOOK REVIEW | Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Politics, Rhetoric, Western Civilization, Writing on November 1, 2011 at 9:26 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post originally appeared here at Prometheus Unbound: A Libertarian Review of Fiction and Literature.

Good things come to those who wait, the old adage goes, and the world has waited a century for Mark Twain’s autobiography, which, in Twain’s words, is a “complete and purposed jumble.”

This 760 page jumble is a good thing. And well worth the wait.

Twain, or Samuel L. Clemens, compiled this autobiography over the course of 35 years. The manuscript began in fits and starts. Twain, while establishing his legacy as a beloved humorist and man of letters, dashed off brief episodes here and there, assigning chapter numbers to some and simply shelving others. In 1906, he began making efforts to turn these cobbled-together passages into a coherent narrative. He met daily with a stenographer to dictate various reflections and then to compile them into a single, albeit muddled, document. The result was a 5,000 page, unedited stack of papers that, per Twain’s strict handwritten instructions, could not be published until 100 years after his death.

To say that we’ve waited a century to view this manuscript is only partially accurate because pieces of the manuscript appeared in 1924, 1940, and 1959. But this edition, handsomely bound by the University of California Press, and edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and others of the Mark Twain Project, is the first full, printed compilation of the autobiographical dictations and extracts. The editors, noting that “the goal of the present edition [is] to publish the complete text as nearly as possible in the way Mark Twain intended it to be published before his death,” explain that “no text of the Autobiography so far published is even remotely complete, much less completely authorial.” The contents of this much-awaited beast of a book, then, are virtually priceless; no doubt many of Twain’s previously unread or unconsidered passages will become part of the American literary canon.

Stark photographs of the manuscript drafts and of Twain and his subjects — including family members and residences — accompany this fragmentary work. The lively and at times comical prose is in keeping with the rambling style of this rambling man whom readers have come to know and appreciate for generations.  Read the rest of this entry »

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